I am not a goddess and my body is not a temple. When it comes to my vagina, I want facts, knowledge and pleasure, not magic, divinity and mystery. Bella Heesom veers between the two approaches in her a sex-ed show with a mouthful of a title, Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself.
Sara Alexander is wearing a papier mache headdress shaped like a clitoris. Bella Heesom wears one shaped like a brain. Both have red fairy lights running through them that light up when they get excited. Performing as Clit and Brain, with dashes of Heesom as a young girl – we assume, her younger self – fancying a boy at school, they talk through the pressure to be sexy but not slutty and most importantly not frigid. They joke and dance and feign orgasm. They tell us to name our desires. They get naked, and one has a smooth body like you see in magazines, and one has stretch marks that I don’t think I’ve seen onstage before. They do that kind of dancing where they collapse their bodies over each other and writhe around. They say we should celebrate our vulvas. They briefly and vaguely mention lesbianism once. “I’ve got fucking hench pubes,” one says. They make it feel as though they think saying pubes is radical.
A few really funny – and almost wise – moments peep through, largely thanks to Alexander’s comic timing. She shivers with delight as she maps out the different parts of the vulva. She slumps slug-like over a rock after orgasm. Sitting naked on a swing, she shrugs off Heesom’s bodily concerns like they’re no big deal. It’s in these moments where vulvas are entirely neutral, fleshy slabs with a particular skill-set, just bits of our body like a leg or a nose, where the play feels most refreshing.
But it treats us like children. There are a couple of good lines (“They say it smells like fish” / “Don’t they eat fish?”) but largely the dialogue is staid and pantomimic. It reiterates the same point threefold, skating surface level with ideas like female masturbation and genitals being gross. They debate the topics childishly, with no clear through-line or conclusion. Each segment is chopped up by a clumsy slideshow and their slumpy dancing, as if they’re trying to make it artsy so that we won’t notice the lack of depth in their conversation.
And then they very sincerely start talking about divine female energy. Alexander leads us in a naked (her, not us) guided meditation and tells a story of an ancient goddess. She embodies the goddess and connects the idea of femininity with a divine pulsating energy. We should feel her power within ourselves. We should rejoice, like her, at our vulvas. Our vaginas are magic and we should treasure them.
I slump back in my seat and wait for the comedy to come back.
In the same week as the show, I go to UCL for an open lecture about the past, present and future of sex education. It’s led by Professor Peter Aggleton, an expert in sexual health and education. Quietly and speedily, he traces the history of mainstream sex ed in the UK. He looks at the challenges facing it through the last century, examines the lack of research today and suggests what more needs to be done in the next few years. He is measured, funny and engaging. He talks about mapping the progression of sex ed by its omissions. We can tell how slowly we’re moving, he says, by what isn’t being examined.
Like the show, the lecture has space for questions and comments afterwards. Aggleton is insightful, thoughtful and actively invites challenges to his statements. There is one point on the slides that keeps coming up: gender. The most important subject we lack research on right now, he says, is undoubtedly the diversification and growth of our understanding of gender.
In the post-show discussion, Heesom hands out little cards and invites us to write thoughts, questions and “things the show made you feel”. Everyone’s on cushions. We have free cocktails. There’s a slumber-party vibe. It doesn’t feel like criticism is welcomed. We hand them all back. She reads out ones that say: warm, powerful, angry, like a goddess. There is one card in the centre. In large, thick, capital letters, it stands out: CISGENDER PRIVILEGE. Heesom doesn’t read it out.
Of course it’s important to talk about sex, body confidence and healthy relationships on stage, and to normalise the language of the female anatomy. But good intentions do not automatically make good theatre. While Her Wondrous Vulva capitalises on the cultural moment, it adds little to the conversation.
There is so much more we need to be talking about now, topics for which theatre’s immediacy, liveness and audience participation can be useful. So much that is crucial for our children, teenagers and young adults to understand. So many things that we didn’t know much about or that didn’t exist twenty, ten – even five! – years ago that need to be addressed. Heesom’s show doesn’t go far enough to tackle them; she’s too busy clapping at herself in the mirror.
Someone suggested this should go into schools. I think our kids deserve better.
At the end of his lecture, Aggleton pulls up a final slide: There is much more to be done.
Rejoicing at Her Wondrous Vulva is on at Ovalhouse till 25th May. More info here.