Ensler, Chicago, and the Issue of Symbolism in Feminist Art

3 min read

Jules Bourbeau ’25

A&E Editor

Of the various symbols used to represent feminism and womanhood, from the triangle to the Venus sign, the vagina stands out as likely the most controversial. The use of genitals as a political symbol began roughly during the second wave of feminism, when sexuality and reproductive rights emerged as a major issue of feminist concern, and, therefore, frequented feminist art of the period. However, it continues to pop up, with the most famous contemporary example being the pink knitted “pussy hat.” I argue that it is time to move past this imagery based on physical sex. I do not deny that recent attacks on reproductive rights intend to target women, even if they do affect trans men and assigned-female-at-birth nonbinary people as a collateral, and that, ultimately, what imagery does or does not represent the movement does not stand as the most pressing issue, it is still worth interrogating in order to build a more inclusive feminism. I intend to use the work of two feminist artists, Eve Ensler and Judy Chicago, to illuminate the problems with yonic symbolism.

Ensler’s famous 1998 play, The Vagina Monologues, aims to present the vagina as a symbol of female empowerment through a collection of monologues all centered on the titular body part. Undeniably, the need to destigmatize conversations around “female” genitalia existed in 1998, as it does today, but must it be accomplished through the tying of womanhood to a particular physical embodiment? It is not the reproductive organs that give meaning to the term ‘woman,’ but women’s constructed status as “Other” in relation to men. Ensler defended herself, stating in an interview, “In the play, I never defined a woman as a person with a vagina.” While her statement is true on a technicality, the play features no monologues delivered by someone who is not a woman. Truthfully, Ensler’s statement reads as a retroactive correction attempting to make up for bioessentialism that was, albeit, understandable for the time, reductive nonetheless.

We turn to visual art next, specifically Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, a monumental sculpture featuring a table set for a “last supper” of iconic women. The most relevant element of the table settings is the plates, one for each woman, all with a vulva depicted on them, in varying degrees of abstraction. Each plate serves as a portrait not of the women’s faces, but of their genitals. What story do these plates tell about each of the women? Of all their accomplishments, deeds, and works, their vulvas should not be among the most iconic representations of their lives. Especially given the range of time periods and cultures that Chicago draws from, each of the thirty-nine figures would doubtlessly have experienced womanhood in a variety of manifestations. Chicago chooses to portray an eternal, biological femininity, thus blocking off the possibility of exploring the shifting nature of the female experience. Vaginas, vulvas, uteri, and ovaries are only flesh and blood. They do not imbue women with any sort of metaphysical qualities, and, most importantly, do not imbue womanhood at all.

I intend not to recreate sexist restrictions on how and when women speak about their own bodies, but as someone who was assigned-female-at-birth, I wish only to bring under questioning the implications of genital-based symbolism. Furthermore, we might question whether the use of semiotics in political organizing is worthwhile at all. The discussion remains ongoing.

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