Girls suspended over 'Vagina Monologues'
Published Tuesday, March 6, 2007 10:13PM EST
A public high school has suspended three students who disobeyed officials by saying the word "vagina" during a reading from a well-known feminist play.
The honor students, Megan Reback, Elan Stahl and Hannah Levinson, included the word during their reading of "The Vagina Monologues" because, "It wasn't crude and it wasn't inappropriate and it was very real and very pure," Reback said.
Their defiant stand is being applauded by the play's author, who said Tuesday that the school should be celebrating, rather than punishing, the three juniors.
"Don't we want our children to resist authority when it's not appropriate and wise?" said Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues."
The excerpt from "Monologues" was read Friday night, among various readings at an event sponsored by the literary magazine at John Jay High School in Cross River, a New York City suburb. Among the other readings was a student's original work and the football coach quoting Shakespeare.
The girls took turns reading the excerpt until they came to the word, then said it together.
"My short skirt is a liberation flag in the women's army," they read. "I declare these streets, any streets, my vagina's country."
The play, presented as various women's thoughts about sexual subjects, has become a phenomenon since Ensler first performed it off-Broadway where it had a lengthy run. All-star readings are common, and on "V-Day" each year -- usually Feb. 14_ it is often performed by volunteers and college students to battle violence against women.
The suspension outraged some parents, who circulated an e-mail calling the punishment a "blatant attempt at censorship."
But Principal Richard Leprine said Tuesday that the girls were punished because they disobeyed orders, not because of what they said.
The event was open to the community, including children, and the word was not appropriate, Leprine said in a statement. He said the girls had been told when they auditioned that they could not use the word.
Reback said Tuesday that no one in the audience was younger than high school age. "What did we do that was so wrong?" she asked. "We were insubordinate, but the reason we were insubordinate was that we talked about our body."
The school "recognizes and respects student freedom of expression," Leprine said. "That right, however, is not unfettered."
"When a student is told by faculty members not to present specified material because of the composition of the audience and they agree to do so, it is expected that the commitment will be honored and the directive will be followed," he said. "When a student chooses not to follow the directive, consequences follow."
Bob Lichtenfeld, superintendent of the Katonah-Lewisboro school district, which includes John Jay, said that had the teens, who are in their third year of high school, wanted to perform the play, they would probably not have met opposition.
"As long as the intended audience knows what to expect, we don't have a problem with it."
Ensler said the girls were right for "standing up for art and against censorship."
"The school's position is absurd, a throwback to the Dark Ages," she said. "So what, if children were to hear the word? Would that be terrible? We're not talking about plutonium here, or acid rain, a word that destroys lives. It's a body part!"
She said she called the girls to support them because "the school put them in an impossible position."
The girls said they had the support of their parents. "To me, they were reciting literature in an educational forum and they did it with grace and dignity," said Dana Stahl, Elan Stahl's mother.
The girls will all serve one-day, in-school suspensions, beginning Wednesday.
"Monologue" performances occasionally provoke controversy.
Conservative Catholics criticized the University of Notre Dame's decision to allow a performance on campus last April. This year, student planners could not get an academic sponsor. And in 2005, the Ugandan government banned a benefit performance of the play to raise money for war-affected African women.