Censored theater ad stirs debate in Ashland
By Christa Lawler / Duluth News Tribune
The word “vagina” in the title of a StageNorth theater production that opens this week is mostly obscured beneath five X’s — at least in the advertisement that ran in Monday’s Ashland Daily Press.
It’s a doctored version of the title of the popular Eve Ensler play “The Vagina Monologues,” which runs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and includes a 2 p.m. performance on Sunday at the theater in Washburn.
“The Vagina Monologues” is a staged-reading style show based on interviews with hundreds of women who contributed personal experiences of sexuality, both good and bad.
Theater staff members say they didn’t expect a problem when they added the show to the season.
“I’ve been living in an ignorance bubble,” said director Kristen Sandstrom. “I thought we were all comfortable talking about our vaginas. I guess we’re not.”
The play, which premiered in 1996, has had its share of controversy. It has been banned in China, Uganda and Malaysia.
It regularly hits stages around Valentine’s Day as a fundraiser for organizations that bring awareness to violence against women. In 2004, the News Tribune reported that the Cardinal Newman Society was protesting the annual event, called “V-Day,” and took credit for stopping 16 of 45 performances of “The Vagina Monologues” at Catholic colleges that year.
The feminist website Jezebel, owned by Gawker Media, posted a story about the censored ad on Monday afternoon and included the commentary: “Note the word ‘vagina’ is repeatedly X-ed out, because we live in a world where the anatomically correct word for female genitalia is dirty.”
In the theater’s advertising arrangement with the newspaper, the Daily Press advertising department pulls content about performances off the StageNorth website, creates an ad and sends a PDF of it to the theater for approval.
On Friday, StageNorth received an email from the advertising department saying the ad could not run in its current version. It was modified to include X’s over the word “vagina” and 90 percent of the show’s description had been removed, according to Scott Burshill, the theater’s managing director.
David Thornberry, regional operations director of American Consolidated Media in Wisconsin, said the newspaper did not want to offend elderly readers or children. A health article referencing vaginal issues would include the word vagina, he said, but a similarly named play using the male counterpart would also get X’s.
“It depends on the tone and the setting,” he said. “The ad isn’t censored, just the tone. We’re still a family newspaper.”
A portion of the original ad used direct, but not vulgar, language to describe the sexual and physical subject matter of play’s monologues. After editing by the newspaper, the theater resubmitted that language to say: “These monologues, derived from interviews with many women, reference subjects pertaining to women’s bodies, different experiences both good and traumatic, self image and empowerment.”
Sandstrom said she wanted to pull the advertisement from the print publication; Burchill wanted to go ahead with new wording and the X’s.
“Given the option of no ad or the option of a censor, we decided to go with the censor,” Burchill said. He has been with the theater for the past seven years and doesn’t remember a situation like this in the past.
Sandstrom said she likes theater that gets people talking. Still, she didn’t expect the chatter to come from X’s on the advertisement.
“The thing I thought was that it might catch people off guard at the production itself,” she said. “I really didn’t think we were going to offend anybody.
This last-minute edit won’t change the theater’s relationship with the newspaper, according to Burchill.
“I don’t know what about this version of the ad is better in their world,” he said. “I feel lucky to live in a small community that still has a daily newspaper. That’s one of the reasons we still advertise with them.”
Meanwhile, the situation has been good for getting word out about the show. The re-made advertisement, complete with X’s, has been shared on Facebook more than 70 times.