Women.com: Why do you think you've become so impassioned by vaginas as opposed to, say, breasts? Or giving birth? Or other women-only experiences?
Ensler: I was drawn to vaginas because of my own personal history, because of sexuality, because women's empowerment is deeply connected to their sexuality. And, I'm obsessed with women being violated and raped, and with incest. All of these things are deeply connected to our vaginas.
Women.com: What prompted your obsession?
Ensler: I think growing up in a violent society is a big part of it. I lived in a very brutal household, so all that deeply shaped this.
Women.com: You interviewed over 200 women of all ages, ethnicities and sexual orientations about their vaginas. How did these conversations begin?
Ensler: I first started with friends, and they would say, 'You should really talk to so-and-so.' It was like this great vagina trail I got sucked into. [Laughs]
Women.com: You say that at first women were reluctant to talk, but once they got going, you couldn't stop them. Why the enthusiasm?
Ensler: Because no one's ever given them the opportunity to talk. Any time we open the door to a place where we have a lot of feelings or thoughts or stories, we react enthusiastically. The story of your vagina is the story of your life, and women want to talk about their lives.
Women.com: You spoke with women who think their vaginas are ugly, a danger zone, a slave to irritable thong underwear. Why are so many women waging war with their vaginas?
Ensler: I don't think women are waging war with their vaginas. A patriarchal culture is waging war on vaginas. You wouldn't come up with something like thong underwear if you started with a great love and appreciation of your vagina.
Women.com: What's your advice to mothers who are raising daughters?
Ensler: I would tell them to love their daughters' vaginas, and to really encourage that love. If they see their daughter masturbating, never make her feel dirty or bad. And I would encourage mothers to encourage their daughters to talk about their sexuality, to be proud of their sexuality, to draw pictures of it, paint images, write poems, erect monuments.
Women.com: Who has inspired you as performer?
Ensler: Tina Turner. I love Tina Turner. She's a woman who fully inhabits her vagina, and when I see her, I see that it's possible.
Women.com: Do you have a favorite monologue to perform?
Ensler: No, I love all the women. But I do love doing the angry vagina woman [a rant of injustices against the vagina, such as douches, tampons and "cold ducklips" at the OB-GYN's]. I can get a lot of anger out.
Women.com: Is one more challenging than the others?
Ensler: The Bosnia piece [a monologue based on interviews with young women victims of the Bosnia rape camps in the early 1990s] is very hard to do, because it's so painful.
Women.com: What's your response to criticism of your work, for instance, that the "Coochi Snorcher" monologue, where a 14-year-old girl is willingly seduced by an older woman, glorifies pedophilia?
Ensler: Look, the piece is controversial. It's not politically correct. And I assume people are going to have responses to it. I interviewed women, and I told their stories. I didn't make them up. People are going to have problems with people's stories.
Women.com: Have you always talked so openly about topics that are traditionally considered taboo?
Ensler: I've always been a little extreme. I've always had a very deep hunger to talk about what was going on, because no one where I grew up ever wanted to talk about what was going on, and it made me feel insane.
Women.com: You end the play with the only monologue that's your own -- witnessing the birth of your granddaughter. Your very last words are: "I was in the room. I remember." What, specifically, are you referring to?
Ensler: Well, I was in the room when my granddaughter was born, so I remember that. But also, I was in the room when I was born. It's kind of multilayered. And I think it's also the bigger, global room of women, like being in this room of women and seeing the power and beauty and gorgeousness of vaginas.
Women.com: What keeps you going night after night of performing?
Ensler: Thinking that it's working to stop violence against women.
Women.com: You founded V-Day in 1998 as a movement to stop violence against women. Has it had the impact you hoped for?
Ensler: I had no idea The Vagina Monologues and V-Day would become what they've become. It's a vagina miracle. [Laughs] It's way beyond any dream I had. And it has completely changed my life.
Women.com: How so?
Ensler: I've been an activist my whole life, and I was active for a lot of different issues. But four years ago, I made a commitment to devote the rest of my life to ending violence towards women. And that has shifted everything. Now everything's lined up. There's right order, right relationship. There's clarity. So, of course, that's impacted everything in my life because I'm not all over the place.
Women.com: So the show has also changed you?
Ensler: Doing this piece obviously has completely changed my relationship with my vagina. I feel, for example, that I'm inside my vagina for the first time in my life.
Women.com: Inside your vagina?
Ensler: I'm in my life. I'm in my seat. I'm in my core. I'm in my power. I don't feel apologetic about anything anymore. I don't feel ambivalent about things anymore. I feel a determination I've never felt before in my life. And the possibility of really, really impacting and changing things -- that, in fact, we could create a world where women could live safely and freely without being abused or raped. Talking about vaginas all the time has really given me that confidence and strength.
Women.com: Do you think all women's power is rooted in their sexuality?
Women.com: Have you had any criticism from feminists for singling out this one aspect?
Ensler: When people say singling out this one aspect, I always laugh. There are some women who say, "Well, what about the brain?" Look, I'm not anti-intellectual. I'm not saying women don't need to think. But I am saying that you can think all you want to and have all the great ideas and theories, but nothing changes. I completely lived in my head for years and years and nothing changed. It was only when I began to live in my vagina that the world really changed.
Women.com: In the past four years that you've been performing, have you noticed a change in women taking back their vaginas?
Ensler: Oh absolutely. One of the reasons I do this is that every night women leave that theater changed. I've had so many women come up to me after the show and say, "I am so happy to have a vagina. I did not feel this way when I came into the theater." And look at how often the word "vagina" is used now. And how easily it's used. I think things have changed a lot.
Women.com: Dozens of celebrities, from Winona Ryder to Whoopi Goldberg to Cate Blanchett, have performed your monologues around the world. Do celebrities come to you or do you seek them out?
Ensler: Both. For the V-Day performances, I ask people to do pieces. On February 10, we're doing an event in Madison Square Garden, and 60 women have signed up. We had to choose the actresses in a very fair way. The women who had been there from the very beginning of V-Day got first picks, then I drew all the rest out of a hat.
Women.com: Is it strange to see someone else perform your work?
Ensler: It's fantastic. I'm primarily a writer, so I'm thrilled that these women want to do this. Right now the show's running in five cities. I have this feeling that every time I go out onstage, that we're all out there together.
Women.com: Female sexuality is both glorified and objectified in Hollywood. What are your thoughts on the media's handling of female sexuality?
Ensler: I don't think Hollywood has yet to deal with female sexuality. It's a male-driven, male-filtered, male-based system.
Women.com: Regarding HBO's filming The Vagina Monologues, do you think the viewer will experience your performance differently seeing it on TV as opposed to in a live theater?
Ensler: It's always different on TV. I think it'll be really interesting. I think a lot of people will get to see it who wouldn't otherwise. In terms of V-Day, it'll be a great tool for spreading the word.
Women.com: You have a new play coming out, Necessary Targets. What's that about?
Ensler: It's the story of two women, a human rights worker and a therapist, who go to Bosnia during the war to work with the group of women who will supposedly help the [victims] in rape camps. So you hear the stories of the women in the camps. It's a hard play to get produced, because it's political, and it's about Bosnian refugees, and in this commercial world we're living in...it's an interesting conundrum.
Women.com: You have another book and play coming out as well -- The Good Body.
Ensler: I traveled around the world, interviewing women from 14 different countries. The monologues are based on how women shape and reshape, hide, vary, mutilate and transform their bodies in order to fit into their particular cultures. One of the things I'm really looking at in every culture is how women define this process, the underlying drive of their desire to be "good," whether it's removing their hair in Turkey or having their vaginas tightened.
Women.com: Do you ever get tired of talking about vaginas?
Ensler: No. [Laughs] They're always mysterious.
Copyright Women.com 2000
Julia Bourland is the Sex & Romance producer at Women.com and author of "The Go-Girl Guide: Surviving Your 20s with Savvy, Soul, and Style."