When Eve Ensler opened her play "The Vagina Monologues" off-Broadway in 1996, people who called the box office to order tickets were afraid to name it. Motorists complained about highway billboards advertising it. Some newscasters wouldn't utter the title of the show.
"Everybody told me to change the title," Ensler said. "'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."
To paraphrase the old Virginia Slims commercials, you've come a long way, vajayjay.
Unmentionable for so long, referred to with euphemisms including "down there" and "hoo-ha," the anatomically correct "vagina" has gone mainstream. It's now become not just acceptable in many circles but fashionable. It's being used as a punch line on sitcoms and in movies. It's appeared on magazine covers. It's become a political shorthand in an election year laden withwomen's healthand reproductive issues. It even has its own memoir — "Vagina: A New Biography" by Naomi Wolf — due in September.
Many women see the recent ubiquity of the term as more progress toward equality with men, but not everyone is welcoming the vagina vanguard. Some see the sudden omnipresence of female anatomy as a sign of a coarsening culture, a lack of creativity, or just a new way to objectify women. Lady Gaga drew protests in Asia this spring after performing in front of a giant prop of a birthing mother and telling audiences to "think of this arena as a vagina where you will be reborn." The Catholic League is boycotting"The Daily Show" because of a recent skit in which a manger was shown between a naked woman's legs, linking the "war on women" with the "war on Christmas."
Why is ladybusiness booming? In part, it's because women raised in an era of sexual frankness are at a point in their lives where they're in positions of authority and cultural influence, according to Laura Berman, assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.
"This is generational. The women raised by the 'Our Bodies, Ourselves' women are definitely much more empowered and comfortable with their bodies," said Berman, citing the influence of a feminist health and sexuality book first published in 1971 that covered topics like pregnancy and menopause in unexpurgated language.
A March study by the conservative watchdog group the Parents Television Council found that the word "vagina" was used eight times as often in TV comedies, dramas and reality shows last fall as it had been a decade ago, citing series like CBS' "2 Broke Girls" and ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" — both programs with female creators — as those that invoke the word most frequently. The twentysomething HBO comedy "Girls," created by 26-year-old Lena Dunham, drops a vagina reference in nearly every episode, including a recent one titled "Vagina Panic." (Guy parts are also, ahem, on the rise: "Penis" was used nearly four times as often, the PTC study found.)
"Fifty percent of the people in this country have vaginas," said "Grey's Anatomy" executive producer Shonda Rhimes, 42, whose medical drama is widely credited with popularizing one of the decade's most fashionable euphemisms for vagina, "vajayjay," to work around nervous ABC executives. "The idea that we're afraid to talk about them or call them by their proper name feels really silly to me.... It's great that some progress is being made and it's not such an issue anymore."
Berman, who appeared regularly on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," said she pushed Winfrey to start saying "vagina" in sex and health discussions on her program in 2008. "I did a mini-intervention with Oprah to get her to stop calling it a 'vajayjay,'" Berman said. "She saw it as an affectionate term. It still implies to women listening to you that it is something embarrassing to say."
Winfrey isn't the only cultural arbiter whose vocabulary has been evolving. In 2010, after 45 years of dispensing sex and relationship advice to women, Cosmopolitan magazine printed the word "vagina" on its cover.
Previously, the magazine's editors had deployed such terms as "down there" and "hoo-ha" in their attention-grabbing cover lines, but they decided to make the leap after noticing young women used "vagina" when speaking to one another on social media sites. Executive editor Nicole Beland said she felt Cosmopolitan's readers were ready for a little realism. Since then, editors have put the word on their cover two more times, including the February headline, "Um, Vagina, Are You OK Down There?"
"'Vagina' feels like one of those words that has just gotten over the hump from taboo to OK," Beland said. "It's just how women talk now. It might still shock a couple of people, but not so much that you regret saying it. When a word reaches that phase of being a little risque and mostly accepted, it becomes very fun to drop it in conversation."
It's not only women dropping the v-word with greater frequency. There are four "vaginas," a "vag" and a "vajayjay" in the new PG-13 pregnancy comedy "What to Expect When You're Expecting,"but perhaps the most memorable usage in the movie is uttered by a stroller-pushing father of four played by Chris Rock. "You know, I never used to use that word for that part of the body, but trust me, once a baby comes out of it, it's a vagina."
"It's just an inherently funny word," said actor Jason Segel, who has uttered "vagina" in multiple romantic comedies. "The fact that it's three syllables and it takes a while to say."
"Vagina" is also showing up in serious political commentary, as both traditional news outlets and satirical ones like "The Daily Show,""The Colbert Report"and"Saturday Night Live"have reported stories onwomen's healthissues such as state-sanctioned transvaginal ultrasounds and the federal birth control mandate in healthcare coverage.
A video posted on the comedy website Funny or Die this month uses "vagina" as a punch line for a critique of Republican stances on women's healthissues. The video, which also aired on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher," begins like a cloying political ad targeting female voters: "I don't want government in my banks," says a perky blond in a blue hoodie (actress Judy Greer). "I don't want government in my classrooms," seconds a smiling mom in her kitchen (Andrea Savage). "Where do I want government?" asks another woman (Kate Beckinsale) beside her SUV. "In my vagina."
Using vaginas in art and politics is hardly new — archaeologists just announced that they have discovered depictions of some in 37,000-year-old cave paintings in France. But there's no doubt that the word and the body part are having an unprecedented cultural moment. Some even say its 15 minutes are nearly up.
The term has been in such regular usage on TV that"Two and a Half Men"co-creator Lee Aronsohn told a reporter at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference this spring, "We're approaching peak vagina on television, the point of labia saturation."
"America is a very immature country when it comes to pee-pees and wee-wees," added Maher. "Vagina, I think we've run it into the ground this year."
Lauren Miller, 30, costar and co-writer of the film "For a Good Time, Call …," a romantic comedy due in August about a young Manhattan woman who takes a job answering phone sex calls to pay the rent, said she and her co-writer, Katie Anne Naylon, actually decided to cut down the number of vagina references in their script. "When you say the word 'vagina,' you expect that it will get a reaction 'cause it's not like saying 'elbow,'" Miller said. "It had sort of become a punch line too many times. It was almost like we were having too much fun with it."
According to the playwright Ensler, the contemporary, comedic uses of "vagina" can signal a society advancing — or devolving.
"There's always something interesting when liberation begins to happen," Ensler said. "There's a frivolity that gets associated with it. It can cheapen things. It depends who's using it and why. We are making progress, but I think you don't ever make progress without push back."
Times staff writers Amy Kaufman and Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.