Is the V-bomb the new F-bomb?
And if so, can we declare a moratorium?
In the new comedy “21 Jump Street,” opening Friday, leading men Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill deliver four jokes featuring the word “vagina.” But they’re running a close second to Jennifer Westfeldt, Adam Scott and their co-stars in “Friends With Kids,” an uneven, fitfully funny romantic comedy in which the word is uttered no fewer than five times, a fusillade that grows more grating with every gynecologically themed zinger. By the time Scott’s character invokes Kegel exercises, a simple, clinically precise word has migrated from taboo to refreshing frankness to cliche to pseudo-enlightened insult.
“Friends With Kids” and “21 Jump Street” are just the latest examples of a lamentable trend that has made women’s most private part a favorite go-to gag. And in a cosmic collision that could only happen during an election year, the trend has had its analog in partisan politics, where women’s reproductive systems have provided fodder for Congress, presidential candidates and even “Doonesbury,” which this week satirizes a Texas law requiring women to undergo vaginal ultrasounds before receiving abortions.
In movies, the phenomenon has gained most of its momentum in a nexus formed by Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up”) and Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. By the time Anna Faris delivered lines such as “He recognized my vagina!” in the execrable sex comedy “What’s Your Number?” last year, jokes that were clearly meant to send viewers into gales of you-go-girl laughter instead inspired groans of weary recognition.
Lately, V-bomb escalation has been most pronounced on television, where the sitcoms “2 Broke Girls” and “Whitney” tirelessly try to wring humor from one of the least intrinsically humorous parts of the human anatomy. The proliferation will continue this spring on HBO, with the debut of Lena Dunham’s new series, “Girls” (think “Sex and the City” with a “Portlandia” vibe). Show No. 2 is called “Vagina Panic.”
It bears noting that “Girls” is produced by Apatow, whose cheerfully candid brand of sexual humor has both empowered and challenged female writers to deploy female biology with the same in-your-face aggression as the guys. Whether thanks to the Apatow Effect, more female TV and film writers, or a less uptight culture at large, it’s hard to believe that, just six years ago, “Grey’s Anatomy” producer Shonda Rhimes made ABC standards and practices executives so nervous about the word that she substituted the far more playful “va-jay-jay.”
If that nickname now sounds downright quaint, it feels like studying ancient history to recall the star-studded performance of Eve Ensler’s groundbreaking play “The Vagina Monologues” at Madison Square Garden in 2001. Surely, Ensler would applaud how acceptable the straightforward anatomical term for her subject has become. Certainly it’s far more desirable than giggly euphemisms or the sort of hateful epithets that recently led Fox News Channel commentator Greta Van Susteren to call out stand-up comedian Louis C.K. But the once Great Unmentionable that Ensler sought to demystify has now become either a hackneyed punch line or the female version of posturing, macho humor that feminists used to dismiss as “phallic.”
It took a revolution waged by Ensler, Rhimes and their successors to prove that the anatomical term for the canal leading to the uterus isn’t a dirty word. Now the battle lies in reminding hack writers that it isn’t automatically funny, either. What’s more, just as it seems that women have gained control of their own biological terminology, pushback has begun — not in the fictional confines of prime time or the multiplex, but in real life.
While vaginas are the stuff of one-liners and laugh tracks in Hollywood, they’ve been taken far more seriously by politicians and pundits this election season. A proposed Virginia law introduced the term “transvaginal probe” to the public lexicon. Men as obscure as Foster Friess (a Rick Santorum financial backer) and as famous as Rush Limbaugh have suggested how women should properly conduct their reproductive lives. Now “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau has entered the fray by satirically equating Texas-mandated ultrasounds to rape. Forget “The Vagina Monologues”: Now the only show in town is the Vagina Demagogues.
In entertainment, the use of the word may have started as a subversive expression of women’s empowerment, but the jokes are beginning to feel forced, lazy and opportunistic. And this year’s toxically punitive political discourse lays bare just how tenuous — and deeply threatening — that empowerment is. With the vagina now the acceptable rhetorical purview of Texas legislators and Jonah Hill, it seems to have become alarmingly co-opted, either in the name of patriarchy or cheap laughs.
This isn’t a plea to ban the V-bomb — who wants to live in a world where Tina Fey doesn’t have it in her armamentarium? But perhaps the time has come for strategic arms limitation talks. By way of inspiration, consider: The supporting cast of “Friends With Kids” also happened to star in the most critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated and financially successful woman-powered movie of 2011. That raunchy, funny, unapologetically feminist comedy was called “Bridesmaids,” and it didn’t drop the V-bomb once.