Guest Post by Jen Lewis
Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research
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.
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.
When I read Chris Bobel’s recent post about silent menstrual suffering, I was instantly drawn in. Although her experiences are independent of my own, this particular experience felt familiar, as though I was reading a story about my own life. I can close my eyes and instead picture myself in her place. I can hear my silence. I can feel my frustration mounting. It made me wonder why I, and many others, feel compelled to hide the menstrual suffering. After all, we rarely hesitate to utter complaints of a cold, a poor night’s sleep, a stomachache, a headache, an injury, a hangover.
I’m menstruating. I’m hurting. I’m late to a meeting. I’m not fully engaged in a conversation. I leave work a little early. I am not feeling at ease. I am exceptionally in tune with my emotional state. And people are noticing that something is off. Eager to make excuses, I open my mouth to displace the blame that has no doubt been cast upon my character. But reactions to my secret race through my head, so I choke down the words. I, like Chris, suffer in silence. Why?
This is a question I was asking myself for days after reading her piece. Why do I–why do we–remain silent?
Is it because of the jokes? The jokes about PMS, menstruation, emotional instability, and “that time of the month” that are so casually and readily fired off at the sound of a woman who speaks with confidence? Maybe I won’t be taken seriously if people know that I’m menstruating. Maybe the quality of my work will be questioned. Or maybe it will be my competence, intelligence, or character.
Is it because of the media and its portrayal of women as objects meant for pleasure and servitude? As something to be controlled by men? Would the mention of menstruation hinder this oh-so-carefully crafted image? Perhaps my menstruating status would get in the way of my objectification. Surely I wouldn’t want that.
Is it because of a society’s past filled with male dominance and female domestication? Where the only true power is male power? Is it the legacy of female obedience and male ownership? Of female weakness and male strength? Maybe I only want to speak out about my suffering simply because I am too weak to suck it up. Have I been conditioned to feel weak?
Is it because of our unattainable standards of beauty? The expectations of wrinkle free and blemish-free skin, a super-model body, and perfectly-shaped breasts? Perhaps I’m not beautiful enough or perfect enough when I am menstruating.
Is it living in a society that undervalues, and often trivializes, the accomplishments and experiences of women? Is my menstrual pain not familiar enough? Is it not painful enough? Is it not real enough to be worth mentioning?
Yes, maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why we give into the “silent suffering,” as Chris called it. As conscious and as critical as I am of our society’s flaws, I cannot fully escape the overwhelming force of the words, the images, the actions, and the inactions. We cannot escape them until we defeat them. I feel a great sadness for the younger generations of women. I feel as though I have failed them. If I, as an adult woman, fall victim to our social pitfalls, then what hope do they have? Where does that leave them? We must break the silence. Next time, I will not be silent.
Will you join me?
Don’t feel bad if you missed last week’s headline news about the deaths of 23 young women from their birth control. It was a top story for CBC news and a few other Canadian sources, but it was barely a blip on the radar of most U.S. news outlets. Yaz and Yasmin, two similar new-generation birth control pills from Bayer, are suspected in the recent deaths of these young Canadian women.
These are among the best selling oral contraceptives in the world, but this is not the first time Yaz and Yasmin have been suspected of causing death or adverse effects. Earlier this year, Bayer agreed to pay up to $24 million to settle claims from plaintiffs with gall bladder injuries caused by the drugs, and the company set aside $1 billion to settle claims from approximately 4,800 women who have suffered blood clots due to Yaz or Yasmin. As of February, 2013, approximately 10,000 lawsuits against Bayer are still pending in the U.S., and an additional 1,200 unfiled claims are pending. The company anticipates additional lawsuits—and additional settlements—regarding blood clot injuries, such as pulmonary embolisms or deep-vein thrombosis.
The history of the birth control pill and its social impact is well documented. First approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1960, it quickly became the world’s first “lifestyle drug,” and it has become the one of the most studied drugs in history. It is considered to be so safe that the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recently recommended that oral contraceptives be sold without a prescription.
But all hormonal contraceptives–the pill, the patch, the shot and the vaginal ring–carry a risk of blood clots. For most users, this is a minor concern, affecting approximately six of every 10,000 pill users. For users of new-generation pills—that is, pills containing drospirenone, the fourth-generation synthetic progesterone found in Yaz, Yasmin, Ocella and several other brands—the risk jumps to ten of every 10,000 users, although Bayer maintains that their own clinical studies find the risk comparable to older pills. Note, however, that the risk in most of these studies is compared either to other hormonal contraceptives or to pregnancy, not to using effective non-hormonal contraception. As if women’s only choices were to be pregnant or be on the pill.
And it is this matter of women’s choices that brings me to my main point: Why we have we seen so little media attention to the safety profile of Yaz/Yasmin (and hormonal contraceptives more generally)? This isn’t about just a few unlucky Canadian women: Four women in Finland have died, more than 50 U.S. users of Yaz and Yasmin died in just a few years and France reports 20 deaths per year due to birth control pills between 2001 and 2011, with 14 attributed to the new-generation contraceptives. This is a major consumer safety concern, and a women’s health issue.
In an earlier time, this might have led to Congressional investigations, such as the Nelson Pill Hearings, which resulted in FDA-mandated Patient Package Inserts (PPIs)—the printed information about risks, ingredients and side effects included in pill packets, first required for oral contraceptives and then for all prescription drugs. It is hard to imagine today’s Congress calling for such an investigation. Among many other social changes since 1970, drug manufacturers in the U.S. hold more influence over both legislators and consumers, now spending nearly twice as much on promotion as they do on research and development.
A parallel can be found in the health crisis triggered by an outbreak of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) linked to tampon use in 1980. TSS is a potentially fatal infection caused by bacterial toxin Staphylococcus Aureus. A new brand of superabsorbent tampon was linked with 813 cases of TSS, including 38 deaths, that year. By 1983, the number of menstrual-related cases reported to the CDC climbed past 2,200, and manufacturer Proctor & Gamble had “voluntarily” pulled the product from the market before the FDA forced them to do so. The intense media coverage, public concern and outcry from feminist activists pushed the FDA to reclassify tampons as a Class II medical device, an upgrade which meant tampons would require more specific regulation and possibly after-market surveillance. They were much slower to mandate absorbency standards, but eventually did so under court order. These actions resulted in a documented decrease in menstrual-related TSS, although it is important to note that it has not disappeared.
Today, more than 30 years later, young women are again dying from something purported to help them, something that affects mostly women. Thousands more are experiencing life-threatening, health-destroying side-effects, such as blindness, depression and pulmonary embolism. Canada’s professional association of OB-GYNs defended the drug, suggesting that perhaps the recent deaths could be attributed to non-contraceptive reasons for which it was prescribed, such as PCOS or diabetes, both of which are associated with higher risks of blood clots. But there is little evidence of public concern, outside of Yaz/Yasmin user message boards. Even feminist outlets aren’t always covering these issues as vigorously as we might hope.
Yet the birth control pill in general has never been more politicized in the U.S.: In the last year or so, we’ve seen headlines and public debates about insurance coverage of the pill, access to emergency contraception and so-called personhood bills which have been introduced in legislatures in at least eight states. Feminist activists and health care advocates have been working tirelessly to protect access to the pill along with other forms of birth control, as well as the right to end an unintended pregnancy—and feminist journalists have been writing about these activities.
In the urgency of responding defensively to these political attacks—and we must respond—feminists cannot ignore corporate threats. Just as preserving contraceptive and abortion access is critical to women’s health and well-being, so is protecting contraceptive safety.
Cross-posted from Ms. magazine blog.
It turns out that phthalates – chemicals found in cosmetics, hairspray, packaged food, household cleaners, and other common plastic items – are causing early menopause. At least according to one new study that is getting a lot of hype in the past week or two. A team of researchers from Washington University in St. Louis, MO, studied phthalate levels in blood and urine for over 5,000 women, and those women with the highest levels of pthalates apparently went into menopause an average of at least two years before others.
This study is definitely making news. British news sources are reporting on this study as much as U.S. news sources. Women’s reactions to online news stories about this study are mixed. Women hearing about this study are quick to comment online, saying either (1) how quickly they’ll be running out to buy more makeup (to launch themselves into menopause) or (2) discontinuing their use of makeup (to ward against the effects of pthalates). What I find interesting is how divided women are about whether early menopause is good. Reactions to reports on this study definitely show attitudinal differences among women in that women do not think uniformly about menopause or about the importance of using cosmetics. Women are not thinking uniformly about how damaging phthalates are to our bodies either.
Of course, by all news reports of this study, phthalates also cause cancer, diabetes, and even feminization of boys (really?), so even if you think early menopause is a good thing you might want to hold off on consuming more phthalates.
What this study (and people’s belief in the study) also reiterates is the fact that our bodies are affected by what we eat, use, and do, as well as what we come into contact with, where we live, etc. Some of the articles reporting on this study focus in on the natural, healthy choices we can make when picking beauty products, household cleaners, prepared food, and other common household items. Who knew there was vegan makeup, for instance? This is all worth a second thought. Sure, we might all want to be done with menstruation sooner than later but phthalate-induced menopause should probably not be our goal.
In an effort to continue positive conversations about menopause, this blog entry is about Poise’s new “2nd talk” campaign. I was watching TV the other night and an advertisement for Poise’s menstrual pad came on. For once, I was actually happy to see a TV ad on menopause. The ad featured a video of a woman talking about how confusing menopausal symptoms are and what menopausal symptoms can be like, and how women need to talk about them. Menopause talk, then, is the “2nd talk” to which Poise ads are referring. Poise has developed an entire collection of “unscripted” stories from women experiences perimenopause, and it is well worth watching them. Visit the website! The premise is that while we do talk about menstruation (apparently the “1st talk”), we do not talk about menopause and we should. We should share, and we should inform, and this will make women feel better at menopause. Poise is trying to fill the gap by creating a forum for “2nd talk” on their website and in TV ads.
What a wonderful idea. Research has already shown that talking and sharing makes menopause (and any other reproductive health experience for that matter) better, and I’ve blogged about this before. We could debate Poise’s stance that the “1st talk” (menstrual talk) actually happens, but I think we do need to praise the writers of this ad campaign for prioritizing “2nd talk.” It reminds me somewhat of the Dove campaign on what women like about their bodies and while we can find plenty of ways to critique the writers of these campaigns, we can’t deny that they are moving in the right direction.
I hope we see more of this Poise ad campaign! Perhaps we ourselves can also all try to encourage “1st talk” and “2nd talk.” Lately it seems like a lot of the entries on re:Cycling are about opening doors for talking and sharing, and Poise may not be that far behind us.
A special issue of the scholarly journal Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal has just been published, featuring several pieces about menstruation, media representation, and the ways we talk about it. You can see the table of contents here, as well as purchase individual articles (or the whole collection, for $146.17). Several of these papers were presented at the 2009 meeting of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, and the special issue also includes several new poems, visual work, and book reviews.
This morning, ladymag The Stir posted an article titled, “5 Weird Things Our Menstrual Cycles Make Us Do”. Over the weekend, science site Live Science featured an article about the recent surge in ovulation-related research (with the unfortunate title, “Booty Call: How to Spot a Fertile Woman”). As a quick perusal of re:Cycling archives will reveal, these are only the most recent mass media reports of research on how ovulation and female hormones purportedly determine women’s behavior. Recent research has linked hormones and/or ovulation to women’s preferences for masculine faces, why there are so few women sushi chefs, fluctuating cholesterol levels, chocolate cravings, and competitive bidding in online auctions.
I find myself increasingly weary of such stories, especially when they’re uncritically accepted and advanced. I’m not so naïve as to argue that there aren’t any biological differences between women and men,* but in isolation, hormones explain very little about human behavior. Ovulation is part of a complex endocrine system, which is part of an even more complex body, which exists in a social world with complicated, byzantine, ever-evolving norms, rules, and consequences for our choices. Why are overly simple explanations so popular? Is the current embrace of biological determinism a marker of a new backlash?
*I will argue, however, that most of those differences aren’t as important as they’ve been made out to be.