Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Portnoy’s (Menstrual) Complaint

January 1st, 2013 by David Linton

One way of telling how comfortable a man is with the biological facts of women’s lives is how he responds to calls for him to go shopping for menstrual products or to have physical contact with a woman’s menses.

Depictions of this challenge have occasionally been a subject of humor on TV shows such as in the episode of King of the Hill titled “Aisle # 8″ in which the bumbling Hank Hill has to enter the fearful menstrual aisle of a supermarket or, for contrast, in an episode of Californication when the father of a daughter who has just had her first period heroically fends off other customers to get her the last package of pads on the shelf.

An early literary description of a menstrual product shopping moment, one that was deeply traumatic for the character, is in Philip Roth’s 1967 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. Set in a psychoanalyst’s office during a single rambling session, Alex Portnoy relates a terrifying incident from his childhood when, at the age of eleven, his mother sent him out to buy a box of Kotex:

“It was years later that she called from the bathroom, Run to the drugstore! bring a box of Kotex! immediately! And the panic in her voice. Did I run! And then at home again, breathlessly handed the box to the white fingers that extended themselves at me through a narrow crack in the bathroom door. . . Though her menstrual troubles eventually had to be resolved by surgery, it is difficult nevertheless to forgive her for having sent me on that mission of mercy. Better she should have bled herself out on our cold bathroom floor, better that than to have sent an eleven-year-old boy in hot pursuit of sanitary napkins!” (43-44)

Whew! Now there’s a Freudian field day, and from a time when Freudian technique was in full fashion. More than 30 years later, in The Dying Animal (2001 ), another Roth character seems to have made some progress, at least on the surface. Perhaps his analysis has succeeded. A senior professor, the 62-year-old David Kepesh, plays out an erotic fantasy with a 24-year-old graduate student, Consuela Castillo. Kepesh, a serial womanizer who considers himself an erotic master, is stunned when she tells him that a former boyfriend liked to watch her take out her tampon, realizing that he has never done anything like that. His sexual competitiveness requires that he immediately enact the same scene. However, the act throws him into a state of Portnoy-like humiliation:

“Then came the night that Consuela pulled out her tampon and stood there in my bathroom, with one knee dipping toward the other and, like Mantegna’ Saint Sebastian, bleeding in a trickle down her thighs while I watched. Was it thrilling? Was I delighted? Was I mesmerized? Sure, but again I felt like a boy. I had set out to demand the most from her, and when she shamelessly obliged, I wound up again intimidating myself. There seemed nothing to be done – if I wished not to be humbled completely by her exotic matter-of-factness – except to fall to my knees to lick her clean. Which she allowed to happen without comment. Making me into a still smaller boy.” (71-72)

Though there are more scenes in this book and others by Roth that employ menstrual details to capture character and advance plots, these two embody deep-seated male confusion and anxiety about how to deal with menstrual encounters. The candor Roth exhibits, as is often the case with his writing, is admirable for its openness to exploring taboos, but one also wishes he was able to provide more nuanced treatments of women’s experiences as well. Perhaps we should turn to Joyce Carol Oates in search of such treatments. Perhaps in a future post.

Literary Menstruphobia, Part I

September 1st, 2011 by David Linton

The taboos against menstrual sex are ancient and deep-seated.  Despite the well established fact that sexual intercourse during the period is not medically counter-indicated nor somehow debilitating to women and, furthermore, that some women find the experience more pleasurable than the non-menstrual variety, the prejudice lingers on.  What’s more intriguing is the ways and places that menstrual sexual phobias are made manifest.

According to several literary and cinematic biographies, two of the most revered figures in the English language critical and literary cannon may have been so traumatized by menstrual encounters on their honeymoons that they swore off sex for evermore.

In 1994 a British biopic named “Tom & Viv” offered up the sad story – we might call it an anti-romance – of the poet T.S. Eliot and his wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood (played by Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson) who eloped in 1915.  According to the IMDB summary, the film depicts how “her longstanding gynecological and emotional problems disrupt their planned honeymoon.”  In fact, what the scene shows is that Eliot is so appalled by his wife’s menstrual condition – the sheets are awash in the results of her heavy flow – that he nearly goes into shock.  His repulsion is so great that he has to leave her for a walk on the beach where he wades fully clothed in the waves to cleanse himself.

The entire film consists of little more that a series of scenes in which Viv causes one embarrassing emotional fracas after another in desperate attempts to gain the affection of her increasingly alienated, cold and aloof husband.  There is little doubt that hormonal imbalances are the cause of her instability as early in the film a close mother-daughter conversation conveys the fact that she is perpetually on the brink of yet another menstrual misstep.

Eventually, Eliot has his wife committed to a mental institution where she spends the rest of her life, even after she enters menopause and, we are told and shown, she has become calm and serene.

The YouTube clip that is posted from the film does not include the crucial honeymoon bloody sheets scene but, at over eleven minutes in length, it does display quite a few of the scenes demonstrating Viv’s hormonal flare ups.  Though the film might deserve a subtitle like “Beware the Menstrual Monster,” it does give Miranda Richardson an opportunity to chew up every piece of available scenery.

KOTEX: The Antidepressant of the Ancients

March 3rd, 2011 by David Linton

BH0260-medIn the late 1920s, at the peak of the Flapper Era, a series of Kotex ads made extravagant use of images of attractive young women in couture outfits in sophisticated settings. The most intriguing and subtle ad in the series was published in 1929. It shows two slender young women lounging on the deck of an ocean liner dressed for the evening’s shipboard festivities. The way we know that they are aboard a liner is the presence of a life preserver attached to the railing beside them. The name of the ship is printed in large letters upon the device. They are aboard The Nepenthe.

This is an extraordinary detail, perhaps penned by an English major turned copy writer who remembered fondly Edgar Allen Poe’s well known and often taught “The Raven.” Poe’s poem, the tale of a grief stricken man unable to overcome the loss of his dead lover, pleads with the stolid, unflinching raven for “surcease of sorrow,” some balm or drug to slake his misery, such as the mythic potion alluded to in Homer’s Odyssey and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen: the mysterious elixir, nepenthe, the drug that banishes sorrow by making the user forget his woes, the antidepressant of the ancients. The narrator implores the raven,

“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee–by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite–respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

The young women in the ad have set sail on the good ship Kotex Nepenthe, the miracle conveyance that will carry them away from conscious need to worry or grieve over the burden of their menstruating bodies.

What does it mean to board the Kotex Nepenthe? What port is being left behind? Where have the women set sail for? The ad copy provides three answers. First, as the headline and the first sentence of the text assert, one can advance one’s class: “Why 9 out of 10 smart women instinctively prefer this new sanitary protection,” states the headline, and the copy adds, “It is easy to see why the use of Kotex has become a habit among women who set the standard of good taste.” Furthermore, as one “smart matron,” puts it, “Now I wouldn’t go back to the old way. This is so much more civilized-how did we ever get along without it?” By implication, women who continue to use old rags are of a primitive nature. And note the use of the phrase “Kotex has become a habit,” an apt coinage for a drug-use metaphor.

Second, as the photo illustration and the copy confirm, a Kotex user can feel young and glamorous: “For such women have young ideas, young minds.”

Third, and most significant, Kotex can help one hide the olfactory and visible signs of one’s very gender: the scent of menses and the sight of a pad beneath one’s dress: “ROUNDED, TAPERED CORNERS – make for inconspicuous protection,” and “DEODORIZES. . . safely, thoroughly, by a patented process.” [caps in original]

The ad embodies the major theme that runs through nearly a century of advertising, that one can pass through the decades of one’s menstrual life as one who does not menstruate. The difference is that rather than using a drug metaphor to claim you can make the period disappear, now, thanks to the pharmaceutical industry, we’ve got the real thing.

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.