Eve Ensler’s The Good Body

Question: What is the worst thing that can happen to an artist?
Answer: Celebrity Status.

If you don’t believe me, just go watch Eve Ensler’s new play, The Good Body. You’ll be treated to the fairly grotesque spectacle of a woman trying, and failing, to crawl out of her own artistic vagina.

Ensler, as everyone in the English speaking world knows by now, is the author of The Vagina Monologues, a hard-hitting and brilliant gem of a play about vaginas and the women that go with them. With its compelling and focussed exploration of an issue (and a part of the body) that no one ever talks about, The Vagina Monologues is one long, blustering statement of woman power, that has achieved that holiest of cultural epithets – Cult Status.

But where The Vagina Monologues is forceful and outspoken, The Good Body is predictable and trite (you can almost tell from the names, can’t you?). The truth is that even The Vagina Monologues isn’t a particularly well-written play – it succeeds by being constantly surprising, almost shocking, combining a witty risqueness with some deeply emotional content. Ensler’s writing is often shrill and a little forced, like the writing of someone trying too hard to impress, but the sheer impact of The Vagina Monologues means that you don’t notice this.

You do notice it in The Good Body. The Good Body is a play where Ensler tries to take on the issue of physical beauty, of the tortures women will endure in order to fit some conventional standard of good looks. This is a valid issue (though Ensler seems to assume that the only people who care about losing weight are women trying to look more beautiful; that men might want / need to look good, or that people might actually want to lose weight in order to be healthy, seems not to have occured to her) but it’s hardly uncharted territory. The Good Body is little more than a marginally clever amalgam of all the standard jokes / rants / discussions about the need to conform to some socially defined image of beauty, strung together by the whinings of a woman who (sadly) can no longer see beyond her own neuroses. The big message of the play (just to give you a sense of how banal it is) is that women don’t need to conform to some stereotypical image, that they must celebrate their own bodies and enjoy being who they are. For people who call themselves feminists, Ensler and her fans must be the last people on the planet to realise this.

And it’s not just the content of the play that seems formulaic. Ensler has clearly decided that the monologue form works for her, so that once again, the ‘play’ (if one can call a collection of haphazardly thrown together scenes that) consists of monologues by a dozen women from all across the world strung together by Ensler’s narration. Ensler (who performs the play herself) does a creditable job of reproducing the speech patterns of women from different parts of the world, but the very fact that she has to resort to so cheap a trick to keep her audience’s interest, tells you how little she has to say. Even where Ensler tries to be serious and touching the sentiment rings false, almost put on. It’s the sort of cheap ‘feminism’ one finds in low-brow chick flicks.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some wonderfully sharp and eminently quotable one-liners here [1]. It’s just that that’s all there is to the play – it’s just a lot of clever observations strung together, as though someone had decided to read out some of the better posts from their blog. The Good Body is entertaining enough – in a slap-dash, preppy sort of way – but it’s a play that says nothing new. When Vagina Monologues came out and made Ensler famous, one wondered how she was ever going to top it. Now we know she isn’t going to.

Notes:

[1] There are some glimpses of the old Ensler here, mostly in the parts where she manages to step out of herself and make ironic points about the ridiculousness of her own situation – one relates to the last few scenes because they express what one has been feeling all along, that this is a play about a silly American woman who should grow up and realise that there are bigger problems in the world than having the perfect stomach.

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