Given their first-hand awareness of the role it has played in their own lives, it is not surprising that women writers (and researchers) have included references to the menstrual cycle in their books. Even so, social taboos have probably tended to keep the subject from appearing as often as it might have otherwise and literary menstrual references have only come to the surface in the mid-twentieth century. The women appearing in the fiction of Bronte, Eliot, Alcott, du Maurier, and the other major women writers of the 19th century seem to be lacking a menstrual cycle regardless of how otherwise thoroughly detailed their lives were depicted.
Men too have been menstrual-averse. The cycle played no part though later male authors, notably William Faulkner, did include specific menstrual details if only to capture a male chart in the lives of the women in the novels of Hardy, Conrad, James, Dickens, Lawrence or Hawthorne, to name a representative few. Men seem to be “in avoidance,” if not “in denial” about the cycle’s presence. Even male writers such as Updike and Roth for all their frank depictions of sexual behavior have treated menstruation gingerly, in the case of Roth using it in two novels to express characters’ kinkiness.
The more permissive climate of the past 60 or 70 years not only saw the rise of a new generation of women writers, but a greater openness to the inclusion of menstrual material in their stories. Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Patchett, and Margaret Atwood, to name a few of the most noteworthy, have built entire scenes or even complete plot lines around menstrual tropes.
This is a subject rich in possibilities for a wide variety of investigations in literary studies, women’s and gender studies, communication and media, sociology, psychology, and even religious studies. With the exception of Dana Medoro’s path breaking book, The Bleeding of America, the subject is virtually untouched. Readers are urged to dig into this treasure trove of material.
So, the purpose of this blog post is to invite suggestions of literary sources that are fertile ground for cycle commentary. Help build the menstrual canon with mention of “sightings” that have come to your attention.
In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post originally appeared July 2, 2009.
As I’ve written elsewhere, entertainment media in the U.S. aren’t squeamish about showing us blood: gunshot wounds, horrific vehicle accidents, and surgical procedures can be seen in fictional narratives as well as nightly news. It’s only menstrual blood that must remain hidden.
Another reminder of this phenomenon can be seen in the brief internet buzz last month, when teen actress Dakota Fanning was photographed on a movie set with blood running down her bare legs. I read about this at Broadsheet, Salon.com’s blog about ladybusiness. Broadsheet’s take was uncertainty over whether the photos are real or from the film, and disgust with the
reactions from internet commenters at Livejournal:
Is the blood part of the movie’s plotline — in which Fanning plays rock chick Cherie Currie — or just a run-of-the-mill monthly mishap?
Probably the latter. But that hasn’t prevented the Internet from erupting in an astonished, OMG! WTF? reaction, summed up best by the Livejournal poster who offered a pithy “Ew. Blood.”
[Click on photos to embiggen]
Of even greater interest is the comments at Broadsheet. Although I read Broadsheet every day, I usually skip the comments. (To borrow a term from Kate Harding, I find I can rarely spare the Sanity Watchers points). The overwhelming consensus of Broadsheet commenters was that OF COURSE it’s fake blood from the movie being filmed, because if it were a real period, no one would stand there looking so blasé while someone else cleaned her up. Apparently, if it were REAL blood, young Ms. Fanning would have run from the set to the nearest ladies room to plug it up, and not stood still for so many photographs, much less allow someone else to handle WetWipes duty.
Telling, no? It’s only OK for us to see this menstrual blood because it’s FAKE.
Guest Post by Jenny Lapekas
I’ve noticed for quite some time now that on social media sites, along with news articles that allow readers to comment, users attack menstrual artwork, claiming it’s disgusting and meaningless, and certainly not feminist. No surprise there. What catches my attention the most, however, is when people draw a correlation between menstrual blood and feces. Sure, both substances exit our body as it cleanses itself, but our first blood—menarche—alerts us to a new, sophisticated process taking place within us. Art ventures whose medium is the message, such as Vanessa Tiegs’ “Menstrala” or Jen Lewis’s “Beauty in Blood” seek to materialize woman’s experience with blood and to suggest that it can in fact be positive.
Let’s look at some YouTube (the cruelest place on the web) comments found on Tiegs’ “Menstrala” videos:
crckthsfkcr: “it just like the ‘artist’ who filled jars with his shit and sold them as a piece of art”
eliwoood1 shares: “i threw up”
fat apollo writes: “Oh gross. I will never understand you art people. You could use baby shit, call it art, and it’s acceptable.”
Trolling has obviously become an online phenomenon and can be a very irritating problem for many of us. It seems we’ve forgotten what our mothers told us as children: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” The types of trolls that seem to appear when content related to menstrual artwork is published online aim to be dismissive and condescending in their remarks and tone. A user who claims they vomited at the sight of menstrual artwork is no doubt invoking the compelling theme of body horror, particularly what menstrual artists seek to destroy. Username “fat Apollo” points to the idea that using menstrual blood to create art is not “acceptable.” Menstrual etiquette dictates that our bleeding should remain unseen, so by these unspoken standards, blood’s visibility and even glorification are enough to give some people a heart attack. Because menstruation is frequently seen as an unruly process, many find blood’s placement within a controlled medium to be puzzling, and thus offensive.
What to do about trolls then? Nothing. Eyes and ears must be open for education to take place. Too often I’ve encountered circular dialogue that leads nowhere between trolls and those who are being attacked for what they’ve posted, what they believe, or what they hold dear in this world. It seems that the web accommodates ignorance as much as it opens new and exciting doors for its users. What better platform to anonymously claim ignorance and then resist the push for self-education? Even with all the information available online, it’s futile to conduct research when we simply leave no room in our minds to digest the material and ideas we find there.
Yes, both menstrual blood and feces are forms of waste. However, not only is menstruation unique to women, but it’s evidence of our own mortality, where we come from, and the bittersweet reality that we’ll decay and die to make way for new life. Isn’t there something terribly poetic about that? Because menstrual blood can be seen as the body’s failed attempt to procreate, this blood is highly symbolic, especially for women trying (some desperately) to conceive; for this particular group of menstruators, the arrival of blood can mark heartache and depression—as opposed to the many women who sigh with relief during that magical moment in the bathroom that can make even the most committed atheists thank God in heaven for that bloody stain in their panties.
Menstrual blood, then, carries with it multitudes of stories, what ifs, and the humble knowledge that it is the same blood that pumps through all of our veins, nourishes the body, and enables us to carry on each day. The act of appropriating it as a means of aesthetic expression is not only subversive and wildly feminist but helps to broaden viewers’ understanding of the menstrual cycle and the interplay between beauty and biology.
Aside from the obvious problems the Internet age ushers in, such as trolls who use the web to either become entirely different people or to be who they really are, different forms of art have always been attacked, and will continue to be as long as artists are creating and sharing them with the world. If someone poops in a jar and calls it art, I’d ask them to explain their ideas to me before I’d dismiss them entirely. What constitutes art? It’s all subjective, of course, but I would encourage those who are confused or horrified by menstrual artwork to examine their own bodies and their feelings toward their skin, their hair, their genitalia, etc.
Saniya Lee Ghanoui and David Linton
Cross-posted from Public Books
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 Show, The 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.
By this time a romance has developed between Moxie and Charlie that pits menopause against money with—spoiler alert—both coming out victorious in the end. The film also includes a good deal of commentary on PMS, as the menopausal women interviewed in the documentary reflect on their experiences as younger women. (These interview shots are humorously intercut with a scene of a debilitated Moxie struggling with her cramps.) Making the comparison between the painful menstrual cramps they used to have and the effects of menopause they are currently experiencing, the film presents the women as now free to enjoy their lives as older women and to face menopause as a rebirth.
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.