Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Your Moment of (Menstrual) Zen

September 9th, 2014 by David Linton

Every night Jon Stewart closes his DAILY SHOW with the sentence, “And now, your moment of Zen,” which is usually followed by a clip of some cable news program in which people say dopey or inane remarks. The purpose is to remind viewers of just how much stupidity is out there and the target is commonly self-inflated pundits on the FOX or CNN system.

Tuesday night, September 2, the clip consisted of a young woman reporting on a new line of underwear while holding up a pair of panties and saying, “Our underwear is actually functional; it’s fantastic for moms, and believe it or not it’s actually great for that time of the month. I bet you didn’t expect that.” A reaction shot includes a stuffy looking man who seems to hesitantly accept the fact that, since the show is about the “modern man” that means they’ll have to learn to tolerate “period talk” on TV news and consumer programs.

Is this a peculiar form of progress or just another adolescent period joke? Should we enjoy our moment of mockery of those up-tight men who are so-not-hip, unlike us Comedy Central fans?  Or is the real joke on Jon Stewart and his producers for thinking that someone else making a casual period reference is something to poke fun at?

(Note: to watch the brief menstrual moment you will probably have to wade through an ad and a plug for the show itself.)

Making Room for Menstrual Shame

January 20th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

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.

Photo credit: Stuart Miles
FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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:

My eyelashes are stumpy, thus, my eyes are ugly. 

My teeth are yellow. Yellow teeth are gross. Why bother to dress nice when my teeth are so unsightly? 

My skin is flawed and if I fix it, I will have more friends and a happier life. 

My deodorant is embarrassing me. I might have my disgusting animal smell under control but white powder under my arms can make me the laughing stock of the nightclub. 

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.

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?).

I’ve got Aunt Irma visiting

August 7th, 2013 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

The IT Crowd is a British sitcom that centers on three IT workers and their daily misadventures. Maurice Moss, an intelligent but geeky technician who is quite socially awkward; his friend, Roy, who goes to lengths to avoid working; and Jen, the “Relationship Manager,” serve as the core team of the IT Department.

In the last episode of season one, titled “Aunt Irma Visits,” Jen explains to the men that she is on her period. I enjoyed the list of euphemisms she rattles off in an attempt to describe what’s happening, including “its high tide,” “closed for maintenance,” and “fallen to the communists,” with Moss noting that the communists do, indeed, “have some strong arguments.” It finally takes Roy shouting “first scene in Carrie” as a means of elucidation before Moss catches on. The men subsequently begin to experience sympathy premenstrual syndrome (I’ll leave the discussion regarding the validity of “sympathy PMS” for another post). Moss, in an attempt to get a variety of opinions on the idea, sends out an email to everyone—signed by both Moss and Roy—in his address book asking, “Do we have PMT [premenstrual tension]?” He also includes a list of symptoms the guys have: headachy, weight gain, irritability, anxiety, and breast tenderness. Moss remarks that the last symptom is particular to him. In an hour, after learning of Moss’s and Roy’s problems, the staff create a mocking website depicting the men as women (the website—www.ladyproblems.com—doesn’t actually exist, for better or worse). Roy and Moss decide to try to calm Jen down in hopes that doing so will also calm their own symptoms, and the three have a Girls Night Out.

The show is overtheatrical and this episode is no exception. There is the standard play on PMS stereotypes, most notably the way Jen turns into a she-devil when bothered or irritated by the men. But the humor comes from each character’s specific traits and how they react as IT people to their sympathy PMS. There is a funny bit about how IT men all across the world are suffering from PMS at the same moment, thanks to Moss’s well-distributed email. Furthermore, it is the melodramatic nature of the show that allows the storyline to work. The plausibility of this show is nonexistent, and thus the plausibility of the PMS plot is intentionally frivolous. That’s the point.

This perhaps also illustrates a larger difference in American and British humor, or at least slightly different humorous approaches to menstruation. The episode is full of irony; my favorite is when Jen, as a she-devil, talks about ordinary activities such as using a different hair conditioner or trying to keep slim. I’m sure there are many out there who find this episode to be another jaded interpretation of menstruation, but I don’t. The fact that the emphasis is not on the perceived negative stereotypes of menstruation, but rather on how a certain group of men react to having PMS takes away the insulting references about menstruation (and places them on IT men—if there any IT men out there offended by this episode I’m here to listen to your grievances).

Note: This episode is available on Hulu Plus in its entirety, but you can also find it on Vimeo or in separate clips on YouTube.

Don’t Go In The Russian Ocean

June 20th, 2013 by David Linton

If an argument still needs to be made that cultural attitudes toward the menstrual cycle vary tremendously from place to place, despite the biological universality of the phenomenon, perhaps the clearest source of proof lies in variations in advertising practices. For instance, consider a recent TV ad from Russia. (WARNING: Viewing of the ad might not be suitable for all audiences due to its depiction of extreme violence.)

The ad employs several of the oldest tropes in menstrual product marketing and then mixes in a piece of menstrual folk lore (an old husbands’ tale?) with a new spin. Two women, one dark haired in a black swimsuit and one a blond in a white suit, are seen in conventionally glamorous poses as they enter the sea to the strains of a romantic Hollywood orchestral sound track for a refreshing dip at a beautiful beach. They begin to swim, about 50 yards apart from each other. Suddenly, a huge shark surfaces under the woman in the black suit, taking her in its jaws as she screams. Parts of her body fall off before the shark hits the water with her in its mouth and disappears. Meanwhile, the woman in white calmly stays in the same place untroubled by any fear as the product name and tag line appears on the right side of the screen above her: “Tampax: Now Leak-proof.” The words are also spoken aloud by a male voice-over.

Now we see the references to swimming and wearing white as little ironic commentaries on the clichés of menstrual product advertising and learn that those matters are trivial compared to the real worry menstruating women must deal with: attracting sharks! (Perhaps there will be a sequel featuring bears.) Unfortunately, though the woman in black had taken a necessary precaution in her choice of swimsuit color, she made the mistake of choosing an inferior menstrual product that made her vulnerable to shark attraction. Apparently the shark myth is trans-cultural.

The ad takes an additional shot at destabilizing menstrual protocols by employing a tough-sounding male announcer to do the tag line, a role customarily reserved for women.

From an American perspective the first thought is that this never could have been used in a campaign in the U.S. However, it is hard to pin down just why. Like the famous “Beaver” ad from Australia, this piece, despite its tongue-in-cheek mockery, is too blatant. By comparison, American ads, particularly for conventional pads and tampons, nearly always have a coy tone, a wink and a nudge, that suggests that, despite our self-celebrated frankness and claims of liberation from shame and embarrassment, we still harbor lots of deep-seated, good old fashioned prudery.

The real question is, will an ad like this sell the product? Surely shark phobia is not so wide spread in Russia, a country with few shark-infested waters, that women will opt for this additional selling point. No, this ad is typical of the post-modern approach that sets out to shock or entertain the viewer rather than tout the merits of the product. The desired response is to create so much buzz that viewers will say to friends or to companions ignoring the screen, “Hey, did you see that Tampax ad where the shark eats the woman?” Advertisers these days are increasingly in the business of meme creation.

And in a country that has enthusiastically embraced the shark-attack aspects of consumer capitalism, this ad just might be a fitting metaphor.

This brings us to the dark side of the ad. Its violence against women is appalling. Sure, it’s meant to be quirky and transgressive and to mock some of the worn out images that have dominated menstrual product advertising for decades, but while doing so it offers up an image of a woman being torn apart followed by a macho male voice implying that if the stupid victim had only had the good sense to buy the product that he was advocating this unfortunate fate would not have befallen her. Will women never learn?

(Thanks to Karina Billini for alerting me to his one.)

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.

Early German Menstrual TV Advertising

February 26th, 2013 by David Linton

It is axiomatic that advertising commonly reflects and reinforces social values. At other times, by introducing new products or new perspectives on existing products, advertising serves as an agent of social change. Nowhere are these two phenomena more evident than in ads for menstrual products.

On one hand, when ads tell consumers that a particular device will guarantee secrecy or the avoidance of embarrassment, they perpetuate the shame factor that is deeply embedded in the social construction of menstruation. But on the other hand, when ads promise greater freedom of movement and social engagement, they make a contribution to undermining the notion that the period is a physically and socially debilitating event.

It is especially interesting to observe these processes at work in the context of varied social and historical settings. Though the menstrual cycle is a biological universal, its cultural significance is as mutable as any other human condition. For instance, consider the attached TV ad for Tampax, which is the first ad for a menstrual product to appear on German television.

Before we even know what the product is we learn that it has to do with some sort of perfection. Against a black screen the following words appear:

Stets Makellos. . . (Always Impeccable)
Freiheit in Sauberkeit (Freedom via Cleanliness)

Three brief vignettes follow set in countries that only a decade before were mortal enemies and are now depicted as role models for modern women. In the U.S. we see that modern women work in an office and that there’s a peculiar new word that has something to do with relieving work pressure: “Tampax.” Next, we visit a jazz club in Paris where sophisticated women also share the secret magical word that seems to make it possible for them to hang out in nightclubs. It’s some kind of password or incantation. Then we hit the beach in Italy, which was at the time this ad was created in the mid-1950s, was becoming a favorite destination for German tourists. Again the magic word, “Tampax,” has something to do with the fact that these attractive young women in their two-piece bathing suits can frolic in the surf.

Finally, we are told, “And now also in Germany,” accompanied by an image of a damaged Brandenburg Gate and two other German landmarks, and we get to see the product and find out what it is. By now the product is nearly a magic wand which, when waved while whispering the secret word “Tampax,” can result in an easier work day, fun evenings of dancing, and worry-free days at the beach. But while those are the characteristics of American, French, and Italian women’s lives due to Tampax, German women, if they adopt this “world brand, with applicator,” are promised “perfection of female hygiene.” And to drive the point home, a stern looking woman dressed in what looks like a nurse’s uniform, assures the women gathered around her and watching at home on television that if they use Tampax to manage their periods they will be, “Safe and Clean.”

There are many striking things about this ad, not the least of which is the stereotypical view of German concern for cleanliness which, in this case, takes precedence over the hedonism of those French and Italian women — although American women are depicted as hard workers (note the way the office worker assaults her typewriter). And note the specific reference to the fact that Tampax uses an applicator. The chief competition for Tampax in Germany was the o.b. tampon which was invented in 1947 and does not use an applicator. At the time the marketers of Tampax believed that German women would respond to the same appeal to fastidiousness that American women exhibited in their desire to avoid touching themselves too intimately. However, o.b. did become the German tampon of choice, far outselling the American competitor. Though the woman at the end of the ad is costumed like a nurse, the appeal to hygiene and hospital sterility did not tip the scale in favor of Tampax.

About thirty years later a reversal of this tampon competition occurred when the owners of the o.b. brand tried to take on the American market by promoting the superiority of using a tampon without an applicator. That campaign also failed, though its story reveals more nuances regarding the ever-evolving role of menstrual perspectives across cultures. A future post will delve into that chapter of menstrual history.

A Quiet Celebration of the Horny Menstruator

December 28th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Lauren Rosewarne

Courtney Cox shocked America in 1985 when she became the first person to say “period” on TV. Period, at least, in the context of menstruation and not punctuation.

 


Tampax, 1985-style

 

Flash forward a couple of decades and this year the same daring word (along with a couple of other doozies) ruffled a few feathers in a Carefree ad. At least it did initially. The furore quickly dissipated and the ad now runs regularly, uneventfully, in Australia. We’ve seemingly learnt how to cope without the conniptions.

 


“That bit of discharge” ad, 2012

 

I daresay it’s the ingratiating of the Carefree ad – with its references to the bits of ladyhood ironically considered least feminine – into our landscape that’s paved the way for another revolutionary down-there-business ad going undetected. Undetected and surprisingly, unwhinged about.

 


Libra “Bootcamp” ad, 2012

 

The new Libra ad dares use the P-word again – sure, itself a euphemism but a) “menstruation” is probably too many syllables for a short ad and b) I’d still rather hear period than any other sanitised circumlocution.

The truly startling bit about the ad however, is the way female sexuality is presented.

For most of last year I was living and breathing menstruation while writing a book on it. My focus was on media presentations and sex n’ blood got treated to a whole chapter.

While there are signs that our culture has become more menstrually mature – we’ve evidently learnt not to dial 000 when discharge is mentioned on TV for example – some menstrual taboos remain. Menstrual sex is a biggie.

On one hand thinking of the menstruator as sexy seems outlandish in the context of film and television. A couple of wonderful Californication scenes aside, periods on screen invariably and inevitably disrupt sex lives and give women – and men – an excuse to restrict it to spoonin’.

On the other hand, feminine hygiene ads are in fact full of attractive ladies peddling products to help menstruators stay sexy all month long. In advertising, the idea of the bleeding woman as outwardly desirable is effortlessly detected.

A much more shocking – and far more insteresting – construct however, is the idea of the menstruator herself feeling sexy. By sexy here, I’m not referring to the way others see her – to her objectification – rather, to her being in touch with her own horniness at a time when women often feel – biologically or because society has coerced it – dirty and out-of-action.


“It’s like a crime scene in my pants” – No Strings Attached (2011)

 

The Libra ad involves a woman who, while initially reluctant because of her period, eventually joins her friend to perve on male boot campers.

Lecherous ladies in advertising are nothing new of course; Diet Coke has long been flogged with some mildly hideous Sex and the City-style male sexualisation:


Diet Coke, 90s style

 


Diet Coke, 00s style

 

My concept of feminism doesn’t deem women panting over men as something inherently progressive. It’s not the ogling in the Libra ad however, that interests me. Rather, it’s the act of ogling for the purposes of arousal while the woman has her period.

I can’t help but be charmed by TV offering us a horny menstruator.

While a niche genre, menstrual-themed porn – here, I refer to the indie material, rather than, say, the buckets-o’-blood-fetish stuff – hints to the idea that some women are, shock horror, actually randier during their periods. Mainstream pop culture and vanilla porn however, routinely give the idea a wide berth. As in No Strings Attached (2011), menstruation is apparently a time when a bloke is just not gonna get a look in.

Just as I’m delighted when I see a woman on TV who deviates from the young/thin/white archetype that pop culture so adores, equally happy am I to see an example of female sexuality presented as a little more complex – and a tad more messier – than what’s normally on offer.

A small win, but I’ll take it.

Republished with permission from The Conversation

Where have all the menstruators gone?

July 18th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Lauren Rosewarne, University of Melbourne

Exploring missing menstruation on screen

Periods are depicted far more often on screen than I could have ever imagined; perhaps the biggest surprise I got from spending a year researching the topic.

Less surprising however, was that most presentations depict menstruation as the messy, embarrassing, sex-interrupting, mood-swing-inducing week-long hell ride that women have grown to expect from Hollywood.

While 200 scenes were many more than I expected, given that nearly all women will menstruate monthly for some thirty-odd years, 200 scenes actually isn’t all that many.

While most of Periods in Pop Culture focuses on what those scenes themselves reveal about society’s fraught relationship with periods, one chapter in fact explores the why so few portrayals. Given how very common and normal it is, why is the topic so frequently eschewed?

I proposed a handful of reasons including Hollywood’s aversion to telling female stories, narrative distraction, and the show don’t tell nature of the screen. In this post I offer  two other explanations: menstruation as a non-event and political correctness.

As one of the millions of girls who got an (albeit long outdated) menstrual education from Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?, I learnt that some girls apparently eagerly await their first period kinda like Christmas. I wasn’t like Margaret. I didn’t pine for it, and when I got it I didn’t look down at my underpants and throw my head back in delight like Debbie (Nell Schofield) in the Australian film Puberty Blues (1981): for me it was a non-event.

The non-event nature of menstruation appears a central explanation for its absence.

In an episode of sitcom The Golden Girls (1985–1992), Sophia (Estelle Getty) reflected on her periods: “I got it, no one told me. I didn’t get it, no one told me. I figured, this is life, and went back to my meatballs.” In this scene, Sophia reflects that many women don’t see any overwhelmingly need to talk about menstruation or complain about it or even to honor it, but that it is simply something that needs to be gotten on with.

Aside from those times when pregnancy is feared or desired, there are few occasions when menstruation is experienced as particularly memorable or gets bestowed with any great significance. I think this fact significantly underpins its absence on screen.

Thinking of menstruation as somehow naturally insignificant or uninteresting however, would be premature. In the film To Sir With Love (1967), there is a scene where teacher Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) reprimanded girls who he believed burnt a menstrual product in his classroom: “A decent woman keeps things private. Only a filthy slut would have done this!”  Here, Thackeray refers to the most important rule of menstruation: concealment. On screen, if audiences see menstruation or if a character identifies as bleeding, she has neglected her most important gender burden. By infrequently portraying menstruation, the secrecy imperative is upheld. When women downplay the significant of their periods, when they believe their periods are uninteresting, internalized sexism is highlighted.

Another explanation for missing menstruation is so-called political correctness; that avoiding it reflects the contemporary dictums of liberal feminism: shunning topics which play up differences between men and women.

Given that menstruation is so common and that so many taboos exist surround it, it might be assumed that including it in narratives would be a feminist act. The flipside of this however, is that doing so might do gender equality a disservice; that presenting it reminds audiences of biological inequalities between men and women.

In a scene from the series Californication (2007-), Hank (David Duchovny) is about to have sex with his daughter’s teacher Mrs. Patterson (Justine Bateman). As they undress, Mrs. Patterson says, “Just so you know, I’m on my period.” Mrs. Patterson didn’t – and likely in our culture couldn’t – automatically assume that Hank would be fine and thus gave him an exit strategy. By mentioning menstruation in a sex scene, it existed as a glaring biological power imbalance; that an opportunity was offered for Hank to reject her on the basis of her biology.

By excluding menstruation, a female character can be interpreted as having the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with her male counterpart; that she can be as sexually aggressive as she likes and not have to query whether her partner is bothered by her period. In turn, she doesn’t get limited by her biology.

Predictably, there are some serious limitations to this argument. On screen and off, women’s biology is ever present. Eliminating reference to menstruation certainly doesn’t make female characters any less female; in fact, disproportionate inclusion of, and focus on women who are stereotypically feminine demonstrates that biological differences between men are women continue to be crucially important on screen.

Over 200 scenes of menstruation did indeed surprise me, although admittedly it’s quite a bit sad that it did. Given how common menstruation is, given that the good majority of women cope each month without drama, fanfare or hijinks, one might expect that more presentations – notably more normal presentations – would redden our screens.

 

Dr Lauren Rosewarne is a political scientist based at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of four books; her newest, Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television, will soon be published by Lexington Books.

Politics and Sex Education Make Strange Bedfellows

June 6th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Lisa Leger

Yesterday (June 4) on MSNBC-TV, my girl Rachel Maddow interviewed New York Times columnist Gail Collins, author of the new book, As Texas Goes. The book criticizes the state’s politics and morality laws and their impact on the rest of the country. Now, I’m all for slagging the state of Texas for its abstinence-only sex ed policy, and I look forward to reading Collins’ book (which Maddow called “the funniest political book of the year”). However, my problem started when Maddow read a quote that seems to mock a piece of sexual health information that is actually correct.

The statement in question is “if the woman is dry, the sperm will die” , followed by the interpretation that it is some sort of colonial-era notion relating to the woman’s enjoyment or collusion in the sex act. Of course, the quote refers to fertile mucus and not lubrication or ejaculate, as the rather garbled interpretation seemed to imply. It’s a shame that a piece of perfectly useful information about fertility is confused with some arcane puritanism to make the [valid] point that abstinence-only sex ed is backward. I’m also disheartened [and vindicated] to see my assertion that mucus is either left out of sex education or inadequately taught being demonstrated once again.

In this story, though, my concern is not for the un-informed teens I champion in the blog linked here — but for the many adults who worked with Collins on her book and with Maddow on her show who let that reference get by them. Are we to assume that none of them ever learned to chart their cycles? Could there be no one on either staff trying to get pregnant? How can not a single one of the likely dozens of professional writers, fact checkers, and other staff members not have noticed that the reference they chose to hold up to ridicule is actually valid information about sperm survival in mucus?

A “Strange Bedfellows moment” for me as a Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) teacher is when what we teach is lumped in with what abstinence-only courses teach.  Another example would be finding oneself in favor or opposed to something like hormone pills for entirely different reasons.  As a Justisse Method teacher for 20 years, I’ve watched how charting is portrayed as some sort of Vatican roulette and how mucus is hidden away even more than menstrual blood is. I wince when I see perfectly good educational opportunities go by the wayside like that. How do the biological facts of fertility (sperm need mucus to survive) become invalidated simply by being taught from an authoritarian religious perspective?  I usually see the humor in a strange bedfellows moment, but hearing an evangelical Texan being mocked for teaching kids some mystical version of what I teach — this one stings a bit.

Lisa Leger is a member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research and a Justisse Fertility Awareness teacher on Vancouver Island.

 

Tina Fey’s Menstrual Musings

January 31st, 2012 by David Linton

Tina Fey, true to her reputation for being feisty and transgressive, tells two amusing menstrual tales in her recent bestselling book, Bossypants.

 

The first is, appropriately for a “tell all” memoire, about her menarche.  The story, familiar to thousands of other women, relates how her mother gave her a “first period” kit from the Modess company that contained two pamphlets, “Growing Up and Liking it” and “How Shall I Tell My Daughter,” and pretty much left her on her own.  Fey’s humor derives largely from exaggeration and in this case she compares the Modess box stashed in her closet to a Freddy Krueger nightmare figure lurking in the dark: “Modessssss is coming for you.”

 

She goes on to describe the moment of the period’s arrival when she was ten years old and performing in a choral concert.  She claims that her surprise was not so much that she got her period but that the fluid wasn’t blue as she’d been lead to expect from TV ads.

 

The second, and more interesting, story is about how as a writer for the long-running TV series, Saturday Night Live, she managed to get the Kotex Classic sketch on the air.  Fey refers to it as “my proudest moment as one of the head writers of SNL.”  (The anecdote was also published in the March 14, 2011 New Yorker.)  The ad parody has become an SNL classic in itself and an indispensible inclusion in any discussion of the history of menstrual references on television.

 

The Kotex sketch is a send-up of the trend at the time for nostalgia sales pitches such as the Coke Classis campaign.  Written by Paula Pell, it features women proudly flaunting their Kotex belts and bulging sanitary napkins, even in a swimming pool and while wearing low cut, tight evening wear.  A man in the ad comments approvingly, “Them  girls are Old School!”

 

Fey describes how the men at the studio who had to approve the scripts balked at selecting it.  Their resistance was eventually overcome once the women explained the exact nature of the unfamiliar menstrual technology and how it was worn.  As Fey puts it, “They didn’t know what a maxi pad belt was.  It was the moment I realized that there was no ‘institutional sexism’ at that place.  Sometimes they just literally didn’t know what we were talking about.”

 

Beyond the fascinating behind-the –scenes access that Tina Fey’s book provides to the working of an influential TV show – and lots of other settings as well – she has also offered a glimpse of the menstrual social gap, the chasm of ignorance that separates women and men when it comes to understanding even the most rudimentary details of menstrual management.  In this case she was able to educate the men and succeed in producing a memorable – and perhaps even liberating! – piece of TV comedy.

Menopause Isn’t for Dummies

September 23rd, 2011 by Elizabeth Kissling

Roseanne’s Nuts was one of the delights of summer 2011, especially for those of us who have missed the comedic talents of Roseanne Barr. If you don’t watch television (or are outside the US), Roseanne’s Nuts is Roseanne Barr’s return to episodic television, this time in the form of a reality show set on the star’s 40-acre macadamia nut farm in Hawaii. When her eponymous sitcom ended in 1997, she made a couple of attempts at talk show hosting, then left L.A. and the limelight to raise her youngest son and macadamias in Hawaii. He’s now a teenager, and the nuts are ready to harvest.

An ongoing thread of the show is Roseanne’s plan to harvest and distribute her nuts as a low-cost protein source for impoverished people. Each episode also has its own self-contained, seemingly unscripted plotline. Unlike many of today’s popular reality shows, however, there are no manipulated showdowns or drunken feuds. Much of the time, Roseanne and her family seem like everyone else’s family — if only the rest of us could live off sitcom residuals and were followed around by a camera crew. There is laughter and teasing, and some conflict underpinned with genuine affection, but everything isn’t always tidily resolved in 22 minutes.

In the Episode #15 (original air date September 10), 58-year-old Roseanne copes with continuing symptoms of menopause. It’s handled so honestly (for the most part) that I’m going to overlook the fact that the episode was titled “Menopause for Dummies”.* The episode opens with Johnny Argent, Roseanne’s manpanion**, sharing a list of menopause symptoms he has found on the internet. Roseanne acknowledges having them all, except for tingling in her extremities, and decides to visit her friend, Dr. Allen, and to investigate whether she should receive hormone treatments. (The full episode can be watched online at Lifetime.com until Oct. 11; preview a short clip at right.)

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Roseanne visits Dr. Allen — on camera, of course — this is a reality show — and explains her concerns. He asks about her libido and her sex life, and she replies, “It’s like an old person’s”. She responds forthrightly to his suggestion that dryness may be the cause of her ‘feminine itching’: “that’s all dried up like a sonofabitch”. Dr. Allen wants to measure Roseanne’s hormone levels with a 24-hour urine test, as he believes that will provide more precise information than any blood test. Roseanne is horrified by his description of her contribution to the procedure (“You pee in a bucket for 24 hours”), but even more horrified by his other recommendation: she needs to exercise.

Roseanne tells the camera — the proxy for us, the audience at home — that she doesn’t know if she’ll go on hormones or not. Her women friends recommend red wine, saying it’s bad for menopause (“because it makes you sweat”) but good for the libido. Her eldest son Jake is delighted to hear that his mom is considering hormones, telling the camera, “After eight years of being batshit crazy, I think she’s finally ready. I’m so happy — once she gets hormones, my life’s gonna be a lot easier.”

Some of my SMCR colleagues who study menopause may cringe at these scenes, but I think they’re representative of the kind of communication many women experience around menopause; that is, well-meaning, if ill-informed, advice from friends and family. It feels like the kinds of conversations lots of us have in our own living rooms and front porches. It is this feeling of unscripted authenticity that draws viewers to Roseanne’s Nuts. I also note the special irony of menopause; after 20 or 30 years of our hormones being blamed for erratic and irritable behavior, we’re now advised to consume hormones to rein in our erratic and irritable “batshit crazy” behavior.

This sense of authenticity and realism continues in the scenes where Roseanne works out with the trainer recommended by Dr. Allen. The trainer eases Roseanne into aerobic activity, but Roseanne is reluctant and uncomfortable, especially when the trainer starts to show enthusiasm and high-fives Roseanne. She tells the trainer, “I hate the fact that I’m supposed to act like I like it. That’s not gonna work for me. I don’t like it. I can’t lie through it.”

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