Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Obvious Child: The Other Taboo

June 18th, 2014 by Holly Grigg-Spall

cervical mucus

 The recently released rom-com ‘Obvious Child’ has been discussed far and wide for its mature, sensitive and funny approach to the topic of abortion and yet I have not seen one comment on the fact that this movie also makes mainstream (and yes, funny) the topic of cervical mucus.

In the opening scene stand-up comedian Donna (played by real-life comedian Jenny Slate) is performing on stage at her local open mic night. She wraps up with a joke about the state of her underwear and how, she describes, her underpants sometimes look like they have “crawled out of a tub of cream cheese.”

She claims that they often embarrass her by looking as such during sexual encounters, something she feels is not sexy.

Of course, by “cream cheese” I immediately assumed Donna meant cervical mucus. Unless she is supposed to have a vaginal infection – which seeing as it is not discussed amongst the other myriad bodily function-centric conversations in the movie, I doubt to be the case – then it’s clear she is detailing her experience of cervical mucus.

Later on that night, when Donna meets and goes home with a guy, has sex and then wakes up in bed with him the following morning, she sees that her underwear is laying next to the guy’s head on the pillow. Not only that, but this is one of those situations she finds embarrassing as the underwear is actually covered in the aforementioned “cream cheese” or cervical mucus. She cringes, retrieves the underwear and hastily puts it back on under the covers.

At this scene we can assume that the presence of visible cervical mucus indicates that the character is in fact fertile at this time during the movie. Even if we didn’t know this movie was about unplanned pregnancy, perhaps we would know now. Apparently Donna is not on hormonal birth control, and she’s not sure if, in their drunkenness, they used a condom properly. So, I speculate, if Donna had known she was fertile and that the “cream cheese” in her underwear was actually one of the handy signs of fertility her body provides, then she may have taken Plan B and not had to worry about an abortion. But, then, of course, we wouldn’t have had the rest of this movie. We would have had a very different movie – a movie someone should also make.

But it goes to show how some body literacy might go a long way in helping women make more informed choices. The abortion sets her back $500 and causes some emotional turmoil. A dose of Plan B is cheaper and easier to obtain, although not without some side effects. Maybe even, we can speculate, if Donna had known she was fertile she might have avoided PIV sex that night.

It’s great to see a movie approach the choice of abortion as though it really were, well, a choice. But isn’t it interesting that in doing so it shows how women can be hampered in their choices by a lack of body literacy?

We often see women in movies discussing their “fertile time” in regards to wanting to get pregnant – and so meeting their husbands to have sex at the optimum time in usually funny, crazy scenarios. Sometimes we have seen women taking their temperature or using ovulation tests and calendars to figure this out. However, I think this might be the first mention of cervical mucus in cinema.

I had the honor of seeing this movie with longtime abortion rights and women’s health activist Carol Downer and getting to discuss it with her after. Carol pioneered the self-help movement and self-examination, adding much to our collective knowledge of our bodies.  

This is what she had to say:

The M Word—In Multiplex

May 21st, 2014 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Saniya Lee Ghanoui and David Linton

Cross-posted from Public Books

Tanna Frederick, Eliza Roberts, and Frances Fisher in The M Word.

We don’t know where the coy linguistic practice of using-while-not-using so-called offensive words by appending the term “word” after its initial letter and preceded by “the”—as in “the N-word”; “the C-word”; “the F-word”; “the R-word”—came from. The practice functions in spoken and written speech the way the “bleep” does on television. Everyone presumably knows what the word in question is and says it silently to themselves whenever they hear or read the euphemism, but a quaint regard for a Victorian notion of what can be said in “polite company” allows the meaning of the expression to be put into play while not offending anyone. Furthermore, the construction is usually reserved for talking about the word rather than using it in its actual grammatical form. As such, it functions as a meta-phrasing, raising consciousness about the need to be sensitive to the potential that words have to hurt or defame their referents.

This year, Henry Jaglom, the Woody Allen of the West Coast, has cleverly appropriated the practice by applying it to another value-laden, emotionally charged topic: menopause. And while the word “menopause” itself is not as socially verboten as the four words alluded to above, the taboo phenomenon itself is, in some ways, just as culturally vexed and discomforting as the subjects of the other coded expressions.

Jaglom’s decision to name his new film (his 19th feature) The M Word cleverly appropriates the semantic maneuver to several ends. He invites the audience to think about the function of the hyphenation gambit in all its manifestations while at the same time bringing menopause out of its closet for some close scrutiny.

The plot device Jaglom utilizes for this purpose is the “film-within-a-film” construction employed in The Truman ShowThe Artist, and Boogie Nights. Here, as in those films, the nature of the medium itself and the way it shapes the behavior of individuals becomes both metaphor and content. In The M Word, a character named Moxie (Tanna Frederick) sets out to make a documentary television series—inspired by her menopausal mother and two aunts—that involves interviewing a variety of women (and one man) about their experiences and views on menopause for a TV documentary called “The M Word,” which is also the title of the (non-documentary) film we, in turn, are watching in the theater. (The film is actually about perimenopause but, as is common in every-day speech, uses the word “menopause” instead. To avoid further confusion and at the risk of perpetuating this mislabeling, we will use the term of the filmmaker’s choice as well.)

Moxie is an actor on a children’s television show at the fictional KZAM network in Los Angeles, where the staff seem to have one thing in common: most of them are menopausal women. The appropriately named Moxie pitches her idea for “The M Word” at a crucial time—her station is bleeding money and a New York–based “suit,” Charlie Moon (Michael Imperioli), is flown in to assess the situation (someone is embezzling funds from the station) and make any necessary employee cuts. And this is where the title’s second meaning comes into play: money. The parallel between the menopausal women and the “menopausal” television station is obvious: both are on their last legs and losing to younger and fresher women/programming. The discussions about money are handled in the same delicate way as menopause; it is something no one wants to talk about but everyone knows what is happening. Moxie, however, brings both M-words out of the closet.

The documentary includes many zany exchanges, as when Moxie asks her mother “What are you feeling right now?” and her mother (Frances Fisher), experiencing a hot flash, fans herself with a head of romaine lettuce and responds, “I’m feeling quite wet.” But it is this type of pep that serves Moxie well when she organizes an impromptu sit-in to save her colleagues’ jobs immediately after Charlie fires a good portion of the staff.

Are There Limits to Empathy?

March 17th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

Readers—I need your help!

Next month, I will participate in a friendly debate at the Museum of Modern Art about Sputniko!’s provocative piece “Menstrutation Machine.” We’ve written about Menstruation Machine on re:Cycling before. In short, the metal device is equipped with a blood-dispensing system and electrodes that stimulate the lower abdomen, thus replicating the pain and bleeding of a five-day menstrual period.

Here’s the video that the artist created to simulate what it was like for one fictional boy (Takashi) when he wore the device while socializing with a friend in the streets of Tokyo.

The debate is part of a series Design and Violence-an “ongoing online curatorial experiment that explores the manifestations of violence in contemporary society by pairing critical thinkers with examples of challenging design work.”

The exact debate resolution is still being worked out, but it will revolve around this question of EMPATHY.

That is, what is the potential of “Menstruation Machine,” specifically, or any other object, to engender empathy in another?

Need more examples? Think Empathy Belly (thanks to sister blogger Chris Hitchcock who conjured that connection).

But we can extend the concept to ANY experience designed to expressly help an individual see inside someone else’s reality. Think “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes”, the International Men’s March to Stop Rape, Sexual Assault & Gender Violence, “a playful opportunity for men to raise awareness in their community about the serious causes, effects and remediations to men’s sexualized violence against women”; The Blind Café; or the TV show 30 Days, “An unscripted, documentary-style program where an individual is inserted into a lifestyle that is completely different from his or her upbringing, beliefs, religion or profession for 30 days.”

So, dear readers, I am hungry for you to share your thoughts as I prepare for the debate.

What do YOU think?

Can design help us be more empathic?

Can a non-menstruator ever really know what it is like to menstruate?

Can a temporary simulated experience, like this or any other, build a bridge?

Are there limits to what we can know of another’s lived experience, even if we can, for a short while, FEEL the pain?

Ms. March—Menstruation Pin-Up (Video)

March 14th, 2014 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jen Lewis

Beauty in Blood Presents
Untitled #1
Cycle: March 2014
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Director of Photography: Rob Lewis

Untitled #1 is currently part of the “Period Pieces” Art Show curated by SMCR member Josefin Persdotter. This exhibition opened on March 1st and is on display all month long at the Urban Artroom in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Untitled #1.mov from Robert Lewis on Vimeo.

The Enduring Menstrual Mystique of Carrie

March 6th, 2014 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

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.

The Devil Made Her Menstruate

January 15th, 2014 by David Linton

In 1967, the same year as the previously discussed Diary of a Mad Housewife, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby was published and eventually climbed to Number Seven on the Best Seller list for that year. It then went on to become a successful feature film in 1968 directed by Roman Polanski and featuring John Cassavetes, Mia Farrow, and Ruth Gordon who received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Reading the book today through the lens of an SMCR perspective it is surprising to note how references to the menstrual cycle play an important role, and not simply because it is about getting pregnant and suspending ovulation for a while.

As in Diary of a Mad Housewife, the use of the negative menstrual euphemism, “the curse,” dominates the narrative. But in this case it takes on extra layers of meaning. In fact, it harkens back to the origins of the term with its association to the notion that menstrual and childbirth discomforts are God’s punishment for Eve’s bad behavior in Eden. The fact that the story is about Rosemary becoming Satan’s clueless handmaiden destined to conceive and bear his son, is a parody of the Christian story, including having the birth of the son of Satan take place on June 25, the opposite time of Christ’s birth.

The first indication, though it does not become clear until later, of a connection between menstruation and Satanic presence is embedded in a scene concerning the suicide of Theresa, the young homeless woman who the Devil’s disciples, Roman and Minnie Castevet, had taken in with the intention of making her the Devil’s breeder. She had jumped from a high floor to her death and by way of speculating as to the reason, Roman Castevet tells the police, “I knew this would happen . . . She got deeply depressed every three weeks or so.” It later becomes clear that she killed herself to escape the fate they had planned for her.

As the story proceeds, Rosemary’s monitoring of her cycle becomes an ongoing plot element. She deeply wants to become pregnant and dislikes contraceptives, in part a result of her Catholic upbringing, but also because “the pills gave her headaches” and “rubber gadgets were repulsive.” As a result Guy, her husband, “studied the calendar and avoided the ‘dangerous days.’” However, she sometimes manages to have sex with him, contrary to his wishes, on days of likely ovulation and is “disappointed and forlorn” when her period arrives.

Eventually, when the time is right, the members of the next door coven, which has by now recruited Guy into their cell by the evil manipulation of his acting career into successful roles (another actor who got a part Guy was up for is struck blind), arrange to drug her and perform a ritual in which she is impregnated by the Devil. Shortly, Guy, who witnessed the coupling and claims to be responsible for the scratches and pain she incurred from the Devil’s claws, notes that her period is late, a result of the carefully planned Satanic rape.

From then on the story concentrates on Rosemary’s painful pregnancy, the birth, her discovery of the nature of her child – his yellow eyes and sharp claws – and acceptance of her role as mother of a demon baby as maternal instincts kick in and replace her original repulsion.

The final effect is a nuanced recapitulation of an ancient set of fears and deep seated misogyny, that women are the agents of the Devil, that they are the source of evil in the world, and that menstrual pain is inextricably linked to their complicity with Satan’s wishes.

More striking though is the remarkable parallel between the two husbands in these novels which were published the same year and which both went to become Hollywood hits soon after. Possessed by narcissism and ambition, both men treat their wives as means of advancing their careers while the menstrual cycle becomes a trope to represent weakness and vulnerability.

Diary of a Mad Menstrual Metaphor

January 8th, 2014 by David Linton

In 1967 a new novel, Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman, struck a chord with Boomer Generation women, the post-war era’s cohort who were already the subject of Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique and who are characterized today in TV’s Mad Men. The novel became a best seller and shortly received a successful film treatment in 1970 with a script by Eleanor Perry and directed by her husband Frank Perry. Carrie Snodgress was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the title role, and Richard Benjamin, as her obnoxious husband, also received rave reviews. The novel is still in print having been reissued in 2005 with an introduction by Maggie Estep who was only four years old when the novel was first published.

There is a time travel quality to reading the novel today, or perhaps it’s like visiting some remote, foreign culture. So much of it is dated to the point of obscurity: pop culture references are lost; jargon and slang are quaint; fashions are out; brand names no longer exist. Most striking of all are the iron-clad gender rules the characters live by. The Husband, Jonathan, is a condescending, arrogant, inconsiderate bore. The Wife, Teena, is a shrinking, obedient, victimized mouse who timidly scurries about until a hot sexual affair with another self-centered cad and the collapse of her husband’s job and ambitions finally suggest, at the novel’s end, that maybe there’s hope to be found in the ruins of their miserable lives. Today’s readers are unlikely to feel much sympathy for her passive acceptance of her plight.

In the midst of this otherwise overwrought and curious artifact from a pre-Second Wave, pre-consciousness, pre-Steinem, pre-SMCR age, there can be found several glimpses into the menstrual values of the times. Through the lens of literary products such as this we can sometimes gain perspectives on both past and present. In this way Diary of a Mad Housewife enters the literary menstrual canon.

Considering the way any mention of menstruation was assiduously avoided at the time, the period references are surprisingly frank. And of more significance, the story avoids any cheap, clichéd attempts to connect Tina’s “madness” with any sort of hormonal fluctuation.

Within the first ten pages, having identified the fact that she’s feeling unhinged, paranoid, and depressed, Teena speculates that perhaps she’s suffering from “a Pre-Menopausal Agitation,” brought on by having recently turned thirty-six, the same age as Marilyn Monroe when she presumably committed suicide – “Thirty-sixitis.”  Her husband is urging her to pay a visit to her old psychiatrist, the peculiarly named “Dr. Popkin.”

The rest of the narrative, in the form of a secret diary that she is keeping, details Teena’s trials and tribulations with her children, party caterers, friends, house keepers, lover, husband, and assorted others, including a social acquaintance who ducks a dinner engagement with a crafty menstrual evasion (“I seem to have these perfectly beastly curse cramps.”) that turns out to have been a lie.

Teena’s menstrual values are also detailed in a description of difficulties scheduling trysts with her obnoxious lover, George. At one point, juggling party chores, parenting, domestic duties, hairdresser and dental appointments, she tells him, “I can see you early in the week. It has to be early because I’m due to get the curse about the middle of the week.”  George responds, “I don’t mind that,” and Teena answers, “I do.”

The “no menstrual sex” rule reflects the menstrual ethos of the times as well as serving as a means of illustrating the limits of the character’s freedom from sexual inhibitions despite the lustiness of her sexual performances with George – and they are “performances,” for her acts of defiance and at least a momentary flaunting of convention.

Eventually, the story moves toward climax with an ancient, reliable plot device: a late period. Once again relying on the derogatory slang expression, Teena writes in her diary, “the curse is now five days overdue.”

In Honor of (a Sampling of) our Brave Menstrual Champions!

November 26th, 2013 by Chris Bobel

The recent death of writer Doris Lessing led me to revisit her work a bit. *

Author of more than 50 books as well as an opera, Lessing was brave. She spanned genres, refused to tow a singular ideological line and used her Nobel Prize moment to remind us that privilege shapes greatness as much, even more perhaps, than talent.  And Lessing wrote about menstruation when few others dared.

In her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, protagonist Anna Wulf journals on the first day of her period—chronicling every thought and feeling her menses produced for her. In the passage below, Wulf’s disgust with her body is hardly a menstrual-positive standpoint (and isn’t something off with her cycle if she detects such an offensive smell?). But there is an honesty, here. A broken silence. Lessing brought to the fore the reality of the fraught and conflicted menstruating body in the early 1960s, and that was a bold move.

I stuff my vagina with the tampon of cotton wool … I roll tampons into my handbag, concealing them under a handkerchief … The fact that I am having my period is no more than an entrance into an emotional state, recurring regularly, that is of no particular importance … A man said he would be revolted by the description of a woman defecating. I resented this … but he right … For instance, when Molly said to me … I‘ve got the curse; I have instantly to suppress distaste, even though we are both women; and I begin to be conscious of the possibility of bad smells … and I begin to worry: Am I smelling? It is the only smell that I know of that I dislike. … But the faintly dubious, essentially stale smell of menstrual blood, I hate. And resent. It is a smell that I feel as strange even to me, an imposition from outside. Not from me. Yet for two days I have to deal with this thing from outside—a bad smell, emanating from me. … So I shut the thoughts of my period out of my mind; making, however, a mental note that as soon as I get to the office I must go to the washroom to make sure there is no smell (pp. 339-340).

Lessing is not alone among the brave who dare to Speak a Menstrual Language. In honor of Thanksgiving in the US, I offer this shout out to a short list of  the courageous who inspire. Thank you menstrual champions.

Rachel Horn, of Sustainable Cycles, who cycled coast to coast this summer, promoting menstrual literacy and menstrual cup awareness.

Holly Grigg-Spall, who has put herself on the line with her new book Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. Grigg-Spall has been challenged, sometimes pretty nastily, for suggesting that one can use a feminist reproductive justice lens to be critical of the pill.

And how about radical feminist pioneer of queer cinema, Barbara Hammer. Her 1974 expeimental film Menses playfully interprets, though a group of women enacting their own individual fantasies, what menstruation means to them. 1974!

Menarchists Jaqueline J. Gonzalez and Stephanie Robinson, who founded the Menstrual Activist Research Collective (M.A.R.C) in 2011, and just released their line of menstrual gear (http://www.etsy.com/shop/menarchists) at cost so you can help them spread the good word, or as they put, leave your MARC! We bleed. It is okay. We bleed. 

Then there’s Arunachalam Muruganantham, the self described “school dropout” (and now the subject of a new documentary) who developed a table top machine that rural Indian women can use to produce and sell low cost single use menstrual pads. He wants to make life easier for Indian women (and he is not interested in getting rich). Yes, there are sustainability issues, here, but there’s also a widening of options for women.

Used with Permission

Every teenager who, on the way to the school toilet, ever dared to walk down the hall with femcare-product-of-choice in open view. 

Every menstruator who hangs cloth pads on the clothesline with the rest of the laundry.

It Is Gross, but Why Is It Gross? Adventures in Grossland

October 28th, 2013 by Chris Bobel

For me, that’s always the question.

Gross is a decision. It is a judgment based on a set of values derived from a particular perspective. And because of this slipperiness, some things are more widely deemed GROSS that some other things.

Readers of this blog are well aware that bleeding lady parts often end up in Grossland. And they end up there more often than other body parts doing their body part thing. So why is this?

It’s been a busy few weeks in Grossland— dizzying days upon days of seeing the obvious contradictions embedded in what we, as a culture, deem gross and what we see as just- bodies- being- natural-bodies. Sometimes these bodily functions are FUNNY and other times only mildly yucky, but still okay to talk about.And sometimes, in the case of menstruating bodies, we are socialized to keep the whole thing quiet and hidden.

My most recent trip to Grossland began with the uproar over the newly-released (and nearly sold out) American Apparel masturbation-period-vulva T shirt flap. The flap just barely died down when Kristen Schaal’s brilliant satire (on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart) delivered a bit on the proliferation of sexy Halloween costumes for women. In it, Schaal suggested that women “take it to the next level … get everyone thinking about sex (by) dressing up as the place where sex happens!” (and in walks a 6 foot high vulva! With Stewart-as-straight-man remarking “I don’t know if we can show that….” )I love what she did there, but the piece is not ONLY funny for its feminist take down of the hypersexualization of women’s bodies. The costume is outrageous because it  is gross, right? “Sexy Vagina” (vulva, of course, more accurately, but this is not the time for anatomical correctness)  is funny because who-in-their-right-mind-would dress-up-like-that?  That’s disgusting. Welcome to Grossland.

Petra Collins, the 20-year-old artist commissioned to produce the t-shirt image for no-friend-to-women retailer American Apparel gets this (even if her check was written by a corporate entity who could care less about the social message she has in mind). Collins speaks compellingly about the objectification and containment of women’s bodies that her work endeavors to challenge. And she reports that the controversy swirling around a line drawing of a hand stroking a menstruating (and hairy!!!) vulva was “awesome” because

“it totally proves my point…. that we’re so shocked and appalled at something that’s such a natural state—and its funny that out of all the images everywhere, all of the sexually violent images, or disgustingly derogatory images, this is something that’s so, so shocking apparently.”

And appalled we are! One commenter on a TIME article about the t shirt controversy remarked: I….would equate her imagery with a straining rectum expelling a painful, post-digestion steak dinner.” And there it is. We can’t seem to have a menstrual moment without someone rushing in to equate menstruation with defecation. Liz Kissling has taken it on. Breanne Fahs has, too, more recently, but we still haven’t gained much traction in showing that

1) menstruating and pooping are not the same thing, and even if they were,

2) menstruating IS  more shamed than pooping

Menstruation is gross (throw in masturbation and pubes to make it really beyond the pale) because we say it is. And those that hasten  to compare uterine-lining shining with expelling feces are missing the fact that while the processes do overlap in some ways, we are NOT, culturally speaking, as hellbent on silencing the poop (or the farts and certainly not the piss) as we are the menses.  and why is that? Perhaps it it matters who is doing the business.  I assert that it ain’t no coincidence that  bleeding LADY parts are the Grossest of Them All.

To wit, I submit the following:

A colleague put the new film Movie 43, a blend of edgy and puerile vignettes acted by a star studded ensemble cast, on my radar. The film includes the segment: “Middleschool Date” (written by Elizabeth Shapiro. Elizabeth: If you are out there, will you be my friend?).

That’s a Mangina: Or, Why the Masculine Menarche Film Narrative Matters

September 19th, 2013 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jenny Lapekas

Screenshot from Superbad

Many menstrual enthusiasts have become so invested in the menarcheal stories of adolescent girls, we can easily miss some intriguing film scenes that depict males’ experiences with blood as they make a difficult transition in their lives. While semen is often cinematically constructed as funny, menstrual blood remains offensive onscreen. The most well-known of these is, of course, in Greg Mottola’s raunchy cult classic Superbad (2007).

Seth (Jonah Hill) is struggling with his imminent separation from his best friend as the pair prepare to venture into college next fall. At a house party, a fellow partygoer asks Seth, “Were you dancing with some chick in there?” When Seth confirms this and slowly realizes the truth surrounding the red stain on his pant leg, he begins to tremble and dramatically dry-heave and says, “Oh fuck. Oh my god. Oh shit. I’m gonna fucking throw up. Some one ‘perioded’ on my fucking leg?! What the fuck do I do? This is so disgusting!” As amused partygoers begin to circle him, viewers even hear, “That’s a fucking ‘mangina,’ man!” Seth, then, is effectively feminized by his peers who assert their privileged positions as non-menstruators. The event attracts attention and draws a crowd, and the scene is intended to be one of comical emasculation. What’s interesting is also the fact that agency is attributed to the gyrating girl, as she “periods” on Seth, and he then feels victimized by the crime.

A female bystander asks Seth if he needs a tampon and pulls one from her purse; this targeting also contributes to Seth’s emasculation, along with his “mangina.” Seth’s female status effectively negates her own, and she is temporarily unburdened from the restrictions of menstrual etiquette. Simultaneously, however, this scene depicts menstruation as a sort of weakness, a queerness, and a mark of inferiority. It is also noteworthy that the edited television version of this film omits the closeup shot of the red stain on Seth’s pants, while blood induced by violence flows gratuitously on numerous cable channels. Seth’s public menarche also illustrates his inner turmoil as he copes with the trauma of his best friend “abandoning” him to attend a different college.

In a way, Seth becomes a product surrogate as the scene concludes with a large bloodstain on his pants. Because viewers fail to see blood even in menstrual product commercials on television, it’s especially alarming for some viewers to encounter a woman menstruating onto a man’s pants and leaving a conspicuous mark—Seth’s scarlet letter as it were, rather than hers. Seth bears the shameful mark of menstruation, and he chooses to segregate himself from others, as they flock to him with their camera phones. In this scenario, while Seth represents the otherness of menstruation, onlookers are drawn to him rather than repelled. Because menstruators are queer, these hidden bleeders are conditioned to linger on the periphery, never admitting what is truly taking place within their bodies. In this particular film scene, Seth is queered and then chided for publicly exposing his queerness. His inability to hide the large, red stain exemplifies his sense of powerlessness in a subculture of young adults who have already suffered and forgotten this necessary pain. This stripping of adolescent masculinity is akin to the pregnancy scare narrative as the rejection of motherhood, and thus femininity.

Whether this obscure subplot arrives as the tragic result of grinding gone wrong or men sticking tampons up their noses—as in Channing Tatum’s character, Duke, in Andy Flickman’s 2006 comedy She’s the Man—cinematic depictions of “the curse” destroy its status as taboo and serve as a paradigm shift, in this case, of masculinity its cultural relationship with the menstrual cycle.

It Had to Be Done

April 19th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

Menstruation appears far more frequently film and television than you might think — Lauren Rosewarne recently identified more than 200 scenes in her study, Periods in Pop Culture. Other scholars, including David Linton, Chris Bobel, and me, have also written frequently about how menstruation is represented in media and pop culture. Certain themes recur, such ideas about fear, illness, shame, secrecy, and premenstrual craziness, to name just a few.

But this scene from the independent film Rid of Me is one-of-a-kind. A woman sees her husband’s new girlfriend in the grocery, and after a moment of icy stares, she quietly slips her hand into her jeans and then wipes it on her romantic rival’s face, leaving a wide streak of menstrual blood. No words are exchanged, and when the other woman discovers what is on her face, she runs screaming from the store.

[Spoilers ahead]

Rid of Me is described on its website and on Netflix as a ‘black comedy’, which seems to mean comedy which doesn’t make you laugh. It’s the story of Meris, a socially awkward young woman who moves to with her husband to his suburban Portland hometown, where he is soon reunited with his high school girlfriend. He leaves Meris for his ex, and alone in an unfamiliar place, she makes friends in the local punk scene.

When Meris is baffled at being terminated from employment at the candy shop a few days after the menstrual scene shown above, her officious co-worker Dawn tells her that it’s because of the disgusting thing she did: not only the assault, but “touching your own menses”. But the menstrual assault gives her street cred in her new community. When her BFF Trudy asks why she did it, Meris sighs and says, “It had to be done”.

But did it? While the new punked-out Meris is more confident, the use of her menstrual blood doesn’t read as an empowering act in the way of riot grrrls throwing used tampons on stage. This seems meant to embarrass or punish a sexual rival, a reinforcement of menstruation as a stigma.

I’d love to hear what re:Cycling readers think.

House of (Menopausal) Cards

March 26th, 2013 by David Linton

(Spoiler alert: if you haven’t finished or intend to watch the show discussed here, you might wait to read this post until later.)

The premises of the much-discussed new series House of Cards hosted on Netflix, are that no one in the world of politics can be trusted, that alliances are fragile, and that disaster looms at every moment. Beneath the surface of beautiful buildings, attractive people, glamorous receptions, and rousing rhetoric lie depths of deception and betrayal.

At the heart of the intrigue are the central power couple, US Congressman Frank Underwood and his wife, Claire, who heads a non-profit NGO dedicated to providing clean water to impoverished African villages. They appear to be well matched and unified in their ambitions for both personal power and their pet projects while expressing benign neglect toward each other’s outside sexual pursuits.

All is well in the Underwood cacoon until perimenopause makes its destabilizing entrance. There’s a concept that’s sometimes referred to as “Chekhof’s Gun” that goes something like this, “If you show a shotgun on the wall in an early scene, someone better use it before the play is over.” Well, the menstrual shotgun first appears in an early episode when Claire is seen standing before an open refrigerator door and she’s not looking for a quart of milk. Frank notices, says little, and the moment passes. Four or five episodes later Claire makes a deal to accomplish one of her goals, knowing it will undercut a grand scheme he is working on. When he learns of the betrayal, he employs the deadly menstrual shotgun, “Is it the hot flashes?” Whereupon she throws him out of her office and departs for New York to be with a long-time lover.

But this is only the first season of what promises to be an ongoing saga, so following yet another political crisis, she returns to Washington. But something has changed. She has been having dreams about saving a child who is being choked by vines and, in a final scene, visits an ob/gyn to discuss having a baby, despite the fact that she has had three prior abortions. Perimenopause has suddenly altered her perspective. As viewers have already learned that her husband hates children, the set up for next season’s drama is well established.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.