Has anyone noticed that "vagina," the trisyllabic word for a vagina, has been popping up everywhere recently? You can hardly turn on the TV or go to the movies without running into like a hundred "vaginas," a fact that is sometimes praised as evidence of gender equality, and other times derided as yet another crass, uncreative way of objectifying women. One thing is for sure, though — the vagina craze is sweeping comedy scripts everywhere and will continue to supplant its more squeamish euphemisms for female genitalia until it achieves some more definite parity with "penis," becoming so commonplace that screen and television writers will start using phrases like "genitalia bonanza" when they want to elicit a cheap laugh at the expense of reproductive organs.
The Los Angeles Times' Rebecca Keegan writes about the rise of "vagina" in pop culture ever since the 1996 premiere of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, a play predicated on the idea that talking about, looking at, or touching vaginas is somehow culturally taboo. Ensler said at the time that everybody wanted her to change the title, but the whole idea that vaginas would be speaking for themselves was sort of the whole point of her play. Skeptics assured her,
'You're never gonna get this play done.' The whole idea was that you made a political and artistic choice to go see a play called 'The Vagina Monologues.' I used to say 'vagina' was more dangerous than Scud missiles or plutonium. You couldn't put 'vagina' on the front page of a newspaper.
Keegan finds evidence of mainstreamed vaginas in sitcoms, movies, and on magazine covers, noting that in 2010, Cosmopolitan, a publication purporting to offer sex and relationship advice to women, printed the word "vagina" on its cover for the first time in 45 years. The magazine had previously relied, like so many other media outlets, on cloying stand-ins like "vajayjay," which sounds like a subspecies of blue jay that smokes weed and listens to surf rock, or "hoo-hah," an onomatopoeic word people use when they burn themselves on a cookie sheet. Even Oprah shied away from "vagina," until she was set straight by assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and psychiatry at Northwestern University, Laura Berman.
Berman explains that the ascendence of the word "vagina" is a purely a generational phenomenon. That is, women raised in an era when frank sexual discussion wasn't taboo — women who grew up reading Our Bodies, Ourselves — are assuming positions of cultural influence. These women have no problem frankly discussing the realities of being a woman in what Keegan calls "unexpurgated language," which is part of the reason why, according to the conservative group Parents Television Council, the word "vagina" was used eight times more often in TV comedies and dramas last fall than it was nearly a decade ago. "Penis," was, ahem, up too, rolling of the tongues of fictional TV characters four times as often as it did back in the more innocent early 00s.
We have shows like Lena Dunham's Girls, 2 Broke Girls, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Grey's Anatomy to thank for the growing ubiquity of "vagina," as well as celebrities like Bill Maher and the significantly more charming Jason Segal, who Keegan hilariously identifies as an actor who "has uttered ‘vagina' in multiple romantic comedies." Segal thinks that "vagina" just naturally lends itself to humor, explaining, "It's just an inherently funny word," because "it's three syllables and takes a while to say."
If the sound "vagina" makes rattling out of our mouths were the only thing that made it funny, "banana" would be funny too. Maybe "banana" is a bad example because of how hilarious it is to say, but the point is that "vagina" still comes with a giggle and blush quotient that comedic writers, no matter how well-intentioned, exploit for laughs. "Vagina" isn't inherently anything other than a collection of abstract symbols that are supposed to reference a real thing that exists in the world, and while that isn't to say that we all can't share a hearty laugh over the cruel practical joke that is human sexuality, "vagina," like any other word, only has as much power as our culture imbues it with. According to Ensler, contemporary culture runs the risk of overusing it, of "cheapening it" to the point that a certain "frivolity" gets associated with it, which is the point where "vagina, rather than being some looming, unspeakable word, becomes a go-to punchline for a bunch of stupid jokes."