- We wrote about Arunachalam Muruganantham’s story back in December, 2011, but he’s in the news again, in much more detail at BBC News, as Menstrual Man, the film about his invention, has been released. (If the trailer is not visible at right, click through to watch.)
- Cosmopolitan tested re-usable products – and liked them!
- Canadian magazine Herizons reviews current controversies around the pill.
- Johnson & Johnson improperly destroyed files about some vaginal-mesh implants and may have to let juries weighing lawsuits over the devices hear evidence about the destruction.
- Flibanserin, the so-called female Viagra, is again under review at the FDA, and again facing controversy.
- The March 1, 2014 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives features a review article about vaginal exposure to chemicals.
- David Linton reports that the Sunday, March 2, New York Times included an op-ed piece by Lara Vapnyar titled “Soviet-Era Sex Ed” about the nearly complete absence of sex ed in the old USSR and what happened after its fall. David says, “It seems that there was even period perestroika: ‘. . . the tiny kiosks by the subway stops were flooded with . . . cosmetics, tampons, chocolates, liquor. . . most of that previously inaccessible. . .’ “
David Linton and Saniya Lee Ghanoui
Since its publication in 1974, Steven King’s story of a young girl whose telekinetic powers are activated by a humiliating menstrual experience has fascinated readers, movie goers, and theater audiences ever since. Now, with the release of a new film (recently out on DVD) treatment of the story by the director Kimberly Peirce (director of another film with powerful menstrual moments, Boys Don’t Cry) the saga is on the popular radar once again. This is at least the seventh rendering the novel has received, beginning with Brian De Palma’s film in 1976 followed by a 1988 Broadway musical, a sequel (The Rage: Carrie 2) in 1999, a made-for-TV version in 2002, an off-Broadway revival in 2012 (previously reviewed on re:Cycling), and, along the way at least two camp parodies in which Carrie is played by a male actor in drag. What makes the story so enduring? Or, in show-biz language, what gives it such strong legs?
There’s something about the mysterious nature of menstruation that compels both awe and fear, particularly in men and others who have internalized the prevailing menstrual phobias. Steven King has claimed that the inspiration for the story occurred while he was working as a janitor’s assistant in a high school and, while they were cleaning the girls’ locker room, asked what the dispenser machine on the wall was for. The man replied, “They’re pussy plugs.” Thus, the girls chant at the panicked Carrie while they pelt her with tampons and pads from a broken machine, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”
In DePalma’s Carrie this “plug it up” scene is a catalyst for Carrie’s telekinetic powers, but that is where the direct menstrual references end. Not so in Peirce’s version. What is most striking about this latest remake is the way Peirce uses technology and social media to further publicize the menstrual horror that Carrie experiences. Chris, the antagonist, uses her smartphone to film Carrie cowering on the shower floor as the girls scream “plug it up.” The clip is later uploaded to YouTube and becomes central to the way the director stages the horrendous prom scene in which Carrie is drenched in pig blood. Peirce frames Carrie between two large projection screens onstage. As Carrie accepts her crown, and the pig blood falls on her, the YouTube clip from the shower appears on the screens having been programmed by Chris as part of her plot to humiliate her.
Why is this so important? In DePalma’s version menstruation is shown only as the facilitator for Carrie’s first use of her powers. In Peirce’s version it is shown not only in the opening shower scene, but in the climactic prom scene where the wrath of Carrie’s powers is truly leashed. Here, Carrie’s first period is meant to serve as a point of embarrassment for her in front of the entire student body, thanks to Chris’s YouTube video. Those who exposed Carrie’s menstrual embarrassment in such a viral way are punished for their actions.
The new version is the first by a woman director, though in a New York Times article she says she had conversations with De Palma about his vision of the story. It remains to be seen if future directors will find new ways to get even more mileage out of this endlessly fascinating story of menstrual mystery.
Taboos against menstrual sex are probably rooted in an inchoate understanding that there is less likelihood of conception during menstruation. If procreation and tribal survival are the goals, then delaying sexual congress until ovulation makes sense, especially if the men and women involved are going to be reliably available to one another continuously. But, what if the window of sexual availability is open for a limited amount of time; what if it could close at any moment—permanently?
This is the situation facing men and women during war time mobilization. Soldiers are given brief furloughs following basic training before new assignments or prior to being deployed to a war zone. Such leaves are fraught with anxiety and questions: How long will the man be gone? Will he be wounded? Will he come back alive? The emotional stress of the moment is profound.
There is no way to know if couples in ancient cultures set aside menstrual prohibitions when faced with forced separations. Were love, sexual desire, and fear of loss stronger motivators than taboos and social conditioning? However, there is evidence that in mid-20th Century war times in the USA women were subtly encouraged to set aside any reluctance to engage in sex during their periods. In fact, doing so was framed as a patriotic duty, along with being a reliable worker in the defense plants. The evidence resides in a series of print ads widely distributed in popular magazines shortly after World War II began.
An entire campaign for Kotex products was built around the idea that women should be socially, romantically, and, by implication, sexually available to men home on leave from military service regardless of the status of their menstrual cycle. The most blatant example is an ad that appeared in Woman’s Home Companion and other women’s magazines in 1942 with the provocative heading, “You’re the fun in his furlough.” At the bottom of the ad we see two women working at a defense plant, a job that is made to seem doubly exhausting if the working woman has her period. Her problem is that her boyfriend is home on leave this night and she is thinking she just can’t go on a date. But it’s Kotex to the rescue. She can avoid being “a deserter” (at least it stops short of suggesting she’d be a traitor) if she’d only use the right menstrual product.
The sexual imagery in the ad is remarkably bold as she flaunts the labial folds of her gown and his penis/saber rises to her. The messages of the ad are quite clear: 1) this glamorous woman is menstruating and wearing a Kotex pad; 2) her boyfriend soldier is on leave for a short time; 3) both parties are sexually aroused; 4) they will engage in sexual intercourse this night despite the fact that she is menstruating; 5) the woman has a patriotic duty not to let her period get in the way of his sexual desire.
It is not surprising to think that sex would trump custom and tradition in circumstances such as the one depicted here. What is of greater interest is whether or not once the taboo had been defied in response to the threat of loss in the context of war the participants felt less inclined to return to the traditional ways once peace and stability had been reestablished. That challenging piece of research is yet to be undertaken.
- “A for effort, sperm”: The Guy’s Guide to Birth Control, from Bedsider (video at right).
- More patronizing advice from a dude: 5 Things Your Girlfriend’s Tampon Box Won’t Tell You.
- Chicagoans, please tell us all about Period Piece — the musical comedy that tells the story of Tammy DuPont, a hard-nosed business-woman, who travels through space and time with the assistance of a magical sanitary napkin belt to find appreciation for her body. Showing Fridays at The Playground Theater, 3209 N. Halsted, February 21-March 21.
- British doctors have been advised to warn patients they are almost twice as likely to develop blood clots with newer birth control pills such as Yasmin, Femodene, and Marvelon compared with older products.
- According to a recent online survey of 1,000 women ages 18 to 40 from across the U.S., half of the respondents incorrectly believed that having sex more than once per day would increase their chances of getting pregnant. The study, published in the journal Fertility & Sterility, found many other misconceptions about conception.
- Internet vaginacologist Dr. Jen Gunter explains why you really can’t kickstart your period.
- Erika Moen reviews the internal condom, also known as the female condom, in comic form for Bitch magazine.
- A Journal of Ethnopharmacology review of plants used traditionally for women’s healthcare in Southeast Asia finds “a basis” for their use, and asserts “these species can be used as the starting point in the discovery of new drugs”.
- Did you know that five years ago, the lovely and talented Madeleine of Lunapads made a DIY video to teach you how to make your own cloth pads? As she explained at the time, it’s not how to make Lunapads, but, “The videos and pattern download were created in response to two needs: first, as a possible option for those who can’t afford Lunapads, or to support those who prefer to make things themselves, just because. Second is to offer it as an instructional tool for women in Africa to make pads for themselves and/or as commercial products, as well as for crafters in this neck of the woods who want to make pads to contribute as donations to Pads4Girls“.
According to a recent piece in The Times, a reputable English newspaper, symptoms are demeaning AND feminine. More specifically, the article reports on the prostate cancer experiences of Sir Michael Parkinson, or “Parky,” a famous British talkshow host. Parkinson reveals his harrowing experience of getting prostate cancer treatment and its “grueling” side-effects. While the treatments worked, they apparently produced menopause-like symptoms (hot flushes and weight gain) that reminded him of “how women feel when they are going through menopause.” Parkinson is quoted directly as saying, “In a sense you become a woman. I’m getting fitted for a bra next week!” The reporter goes on to say “he’s joking but he’s also deadly serious.” The “menopausal” symptoms that Parkinson had during his prostate cancer treatments are also described as “demeaning” in the same paragraph.
Parkinson is a major public figure in the UK, with significant media influence. I’m certain that this article was read by many as a result, and it makes me wonder about the far-reaching impact of the negative characterizations made about both women and bodily symptoms in this article. When I read this article, I find the equation of symptoms and femininity problematic, for lots of health conditions that produce bodily changes and sensations are not only experienced by women. Experiencing a hot flush or hot flash, while often attributed to menopause, is not menopause-specific all of the time. You can have hot flushes from exercising hard, from the flu, from medications that treat a range of diseases, or when you’re embarrassed. You can have weight gain at midlife (or any time of life for that matter) for a variety of reasons unrelated to menopause. Both the equation of women with symptoms and the definitions of symptoms as negative and “demeaning” show exactly how little progress we have made in eradicating gendered ideologies that harm us. Women are equated with their bodies and seen as lesser than men because of this equation. Men are supposed to be able to rise above their bodily functions, signs, and symptoms and live the life of the mind. Thus, when men experience a symptom they must rid themselves of it because, oh, the horror, they might be “like women” if they have to pay attention to their bodies at all. Research studies show quite often that women are ignored by doctors when they report a long list of symptoms and are not given the treatments they need to ease those symptoms as much as men are, because doctors learn to assume that women are just overreacting. Symptoms are not real if reported by women, studies suggest. Yet, when men experience symptoms and report them they are treated for them more often, especially when they report things such as pain. I interviewed a woman once who told me that “symptoms are always negative” and I wonder if that is partially because of the equation of symptoms with femininity and women’s bodies.
I am certain that it was difficult for Parkinson to undergo treatments for his prostate cancer. I also know that hot flushes and weight gain are never comfortable for people, especially when they seem uncontrollable. BUT, when we go on to support the characterization of symptoms as “what women feel” and then in the next breath say that those symptoms are “demeaning,” we head right into reifying gender ideologies that harm every single one of us. Men should be able to notice changes in their bodies without feeling “feminine.” We should recognize bodily symptoms as part of both health and illness that everyone experiences. And women should not have to be defined only by the fact that they go through certain reproductive transitions that include symptoms. I know Parkinson is perhaps from a generation that might still be holding tightly to gender ideologies that do not make much sense for the contemporary world, but I hold the reporter responsible for some of the characterizations made in this article, too. It is 2014, and aren’t we supposed to be more progressive than this? Because you experience a hot flush you should be fitted for a bra? In the YouTube video that appears along with this post, Parkinson himself admits “men are silly about their health.” I’ll say. But comments reported in the recent Times article go way past being silly.
This fall, our family TV indulgence was Master Chef Junior. My 10 year old, a master of scrambled eggs, pancakes and experimental smoothies, was into it, her enthusiasm contagious. So once a week, we sat on the couch– Mom, Dad, and Kid—and watched a dwindling number of freakishly talented miniature chefs slice, dice and sauté their way into our hearts.
I enjoyed this respite and low-output family time, but, there was a price.
The commercials. Oh! Damn those commercials. Because we watched the show online (we don’t have TV), the commercial breaks typically repeated a small set of ads. Over and over again.
In a single episode, we screened some combination of ads for these products a dozen times. According to my crude math, by the time the Master Chef Junior (Alexander, in case you are a fan) was handed his trophy, we watched around 100 different glossy messages that pointed out just how inadequate we are, or would be, soon enough.
I began calling our ritual of watching Master Chef Junior “Self-Consciousness Hour.”
Here is a short list of what’s wrong with me:
Obviously these messages unnerved me (I am not immune to feeling inadequate in spite of my fierce feminism, let’s be honest).
But I really worried about was my daughter. I watched her watch those commercials, her brain processing how she measured up to the standards.
Of course we offered our own critical voice overs at every turn (e.g., You know, human teeth naturally yellow with age. Teeth are not supposed to be pearly white.). We mocked the commercials, trying to expose their absurdity. We initiated more serious discussions of the industry and its nefarious methods, and she engaged these critiques, to some degree. We did what we could (excepting refusing to watch the show, which we could have done, I know). But in spite of our efforts, we doubted our power to counter the power of marketing to manufacture “problems” and sweep in with “lifesaving solutions” all in one (minty fresh) breath.
When all was said and done, between lessons on how to perfectly boil an egg or debone a chicken, my impressionable kid was fed heaping spoonfuls of body shame.
And here’s the menstrual link.
This body shame is the context for her menstrual experiences-to-be. The menstrual taboo, the Grandmother of Body Shame, will slink into her life soon enough, directing her to hide, deny, and likely, detest a natural (and healthy body process). And thanks to noisy, flashy persistent messages like these, the door is swung open, the lights on, and the pillows fluffed. Come on in, Menstrual Shame! We have been waiting for You! Puleeeze…make yourself at home! Have you met ‘Fat Shame’ sitting here with a throw pillow in her lap?
I know it is impossible to censor everything my kid sees, hears, reads. I have some experience with this. She is our 3rd kid; we’ve been down this road before and we’ve learned. We tried to do somethings differently this time. Namely, we send her to a crunchy school with an explicit low tech policy (which we observe, on good days). But then the other day, I overheard one of her classmates look down at her feet and exclaim, with horror: “Ewww…My feet look fat in these shoes!” I remind you; she is 10.
Recognizing the ubiquitousness of media messages, our aim is to teach our kid to responsibly consume what surrounds her. If we equip her with good media literacy skills, she can see commercials through a critical lens. And maybe when her friend complains her feet are fat, she will not take the bait. This is the best we can do, I think.