Thursday, July 12, 2012

The horror of the blob

I read this article today, and it really rang true to me. It also brought back a memory. I was late to viewing the film "Carrie", in fact I think I only saw it about 5 or 6 years ago, although naturally I was incredibly aware of all the pop-culture references that had since permeated society, so it was kind of like I had seen it anyway. I was watching it with my then partner, and that infamous shower scene* at the beginning of the scene led to a rather absurd conversation along the lines of:

Him: It must be horrible having to go through that
Me: Go through what? I've never gone through that...**

This then extended into about a 5 minute discussion on why I felt that the scene rather inaccurately depicted menstruation. I explained that sure, it could be a traumatic experience for those who experienced menarche without knowing what the hell was going on, but that level of panic, that amount of blood, and that amount of cruelty shown by others (don't get me wrong, teenage girls can be cruel, but really?) was all rather over the top (OTT). It just seemed rather inaccurate to me on a number of counts, but to this day I am actually not terribly convinced that said ex believed me when I was saying all this.

But then I found the entire scene rather OTT. On watching it again, it actually seems incredibly ridiculous. First you've got the soft-focus camera panning around the girl's change room where people are at various stages of undress and giggling like hyenas. Of course, the ones who are the most naked (note: they have pubic hair, unlike in Game of Thrones) are the ones frolicking the most and whipping others with their towels. Then the camera zooms over to Carrie, who, lithe little thing that she is, spends a good couple of seconds kneading her breasts, and holding her innocent little face up towards the stream of steamy water as she soaps up. The whole thing plays like some soft porn, schoolboy fantasy scene until HORROR STRIKES. Yep, the big bad period starts running all down Carrie's legs, all over her hand, and she starts screaming. Naturally, because periods turn girls evil or something, the formerly frolicky classmates decide they're going to hurl a heap of pads and tampons at Carrie whilst jeering, until the clearly deaf teacher steps in. Honestly, does it get any more cliché than "sexy time" being ruined by periods?

I am glad that I was well in my 20s before I saw that one, and that being a child of the 80s, I had received most of my insight into menarche from Judy Blume. Although Judy romanticised the event somewhat by having people bake cakes to celebrate it, or having girls excited that they were "becoming women", at least she portrayed it as a rather normal event that shouldn't be feared, and most definitely should not end up with mass murder. I really feel for those young girls who saw "Carrie" before reading Judy. What must they have thought?

In the article, Dr Rosewarne states "The regularity, normalcy and uneventfulness of real life menstruation is rarely portrayed on screen. Instead, it's treated as traumatic, embarrassing, distressing, offensive, comedic or thoroughly catastrophic". I reckon she's on to something, and in my opinion these views have a fair bit to do with who's directing the show (still mainly men), and who the intended audience is. There are many things that our bodies do regularly (sleep, eat, hell even go to the loo) that are regularly portrayed on the television. Although at times, these events may be shown as comedic/embarrassing/traumatic etc, by no means are they portrayed in these ways a majority of the time. Because menstruation is a women-specific function, and because it seems to be understood socially as an affliction, rather than a mere function, it continues to be portrayed in ways that have little to do with the reality.

If you watch TV and if you took the examples as given, you would swear that every time a woman gets near the time of the month, she becomes an absolute raving lunatic who makes life unbearable for everyone around her. I remember an episode of "Roseanne", a show generally celebrated for being a feminist sitcom, where Dan was basically ducking and covering due to the onset of Roseanne's "PMS"*** on the same day as his birthday. Roseanne, of course, is being incredibly random and moody, and Dan is listening to his little inner man voice on what he should and shouldn't be saying and telling the kids to "save themselves". I am certain that there are women out there who do suffer mood swings and irritability (which could actually also be from the pill, not that you're told that) around their period. Hell, there are probably some women who pretend to have PMS so they can get a bit of peace. But despite the fact that it most certainly is not a universal experience, if you took your tips from TV, you would swear it is.

Menstruation continually seems to be portrayed in ways that reinforce the subordination of women. If it weakens a woman by making her insane, embarrassed, in agony and so forth, it "proves" her inability to be as physically and mentally stable as a man. Sure, periods can weaken a woman, and can be agonising, but again, this is not the continual experience for one woman between menarche and menopause, let alone all 3.5 billion or so of us. I think the only time I have seen such symptoms being used in a slightly positive light was in the original Buffy movie, where her cramps warned that vampires were in the vicinity, although considering it was a "warning" of impending doom, I do have to wonder...

And the ads! Let's not forget the ads! Disposable sanitary protection is allowed to be advertised, but usually only if clear or blue liquids are used to show the absorbency of the product. Because blood is wrong. It's unhygienic and irksome, and the fact that it's the exact same stuff that would have been amazing enough to nurture another life if pregnancy had occurred in that cycle is completely irrelevant. In my time I have heard some utterly ridiculous ideas revolving around menstrual blood, but if you ask me, that irksomeness was perpetuated initially to make women feel ashamed of their bodies. It was sold as a monthly reminder by some that women are on the planet to nurture life, and that if they are not nurturing life, then they are failing in their duty and their body is ridding itself of that which had been wasted. As preposterous as this sounds, it's the only reason I can think that something nurturing and life-giving has become to be understood as revolting...

Anyway, if there is one thing this rant is about, it's this: TV is a filthy liar and should not be trusted when it comes to representations of the female reproductive cycle. Through its utter ridiculing of a perfectly natural occurrence for women, it perpetuates myths of female instability, vulnerability and weakness. If you have a young daughter and wish her to have a more balanced idea of what she's in for when she hits menarche, push your TV off a cliff, and buy her a Judy Blume book.  

*Please note, this is a crappy, overdubbed version. But it was the only one that I could find that showed the entire scene due to copyright
** Please also note, I don't remember the conversation word-for-word because firstly, it was a long time ago, and secondly, I've probably repressed... 
*** I couldn't find part 1


  1. Ha I saw that article today too. I remember watching Carrie years ago and thinking that scene equally horrifying and OTT. I mean there is a bit more solidarity amongst us than that. So many times I've been given a tampon in the loo by a stranger. It is one of those biological functions that have been demonised by men, like hysteria and the wandering womb. So many normal functions we are taught to be ashamed of and over-regulate. We're afraid of any strange smells or leakages.

    I remember reading Judy Blume and laughing a bit at how the first menses was treated, then when it happened to me my mum rang all the aunties lol. To me this hate/fear of women's bodily processes seems so rooted in 'original sin'.

    I think the lack of realistic portrayals of menstruation in TV/films is a reflection of the homogeneity of writers/producers. Same with lack of PoC representation etc. Until more women and more WoC are given mainstream opportunities to show their work, our representations will be framed by the white male gaze.

  2. Couldn't agree more! But ... you didn't even mention YOUR periods! Feeling comfortable talking about menstruation should just be a matter of course. Like you said - it's a perfectly normal function of the female body. As for Judy Blume ... when my daughter had her first period I wanted to throw a small party and bring the women in her life together to celebrate her transition to womanhood. She told me to get a life. LOL!

  3. TV is a filthy, beautiful liar. Quite right. I tell you what, I am so pleased that you wrote about Carrie. I've been thinking about this since it first came out and I snuck in and saw it at the Drive In. I didn't have my period at that stage, and where other people were traumatised by the final scenes, not me, not me. It was all about the period.

    I had a hysterectomy four months ago and I, for the first time don't feel like taking to people with an axe and I'm not bleeding every ten minutes. The crazy and most disturbing thing about it (cos frankly mostly it's been ridiculous levels of bliss) is that I really don't remember it... it's like I never had a period... ever. I might as well be a bloke who has no clue. And the concept even - in a strange way - seems foreign to me. And, no... my mind is pretty solid, I think it's that the ritual and regularity of it and then not has thrown me a bit. So I am going to be really controversial and say I wonder if blokes actually think they are missing out on something. Well, they are!
    A ritual that is about inhabiting a fertile body... it was a nice thing... I'm glad I had that time with that bit of my body (and equally glad it's been expelled). But you talking about the Roseanne thing reminded me of something that happened to me three weeks ago. I got moody. I should explain that I had what is called a total hysterectomy, so no fallopian tubes, uterus or cervix anymore, but I still have ovaries (no I don't really know how they are attached, but they are)... so I haven't gone through menopause and I still ovulate, I just don't menstruate. But I don't have any normal indications that it's happening, cos my normal indications was always bloating and bleeding, and you don't get either of those post-hysterectomy.

    Well... three weeks ago, I couldn't stop cleaning the bloody house. So I knew that I was ovulating. And it reminded me how nice rituals can be... and blokes don't have a bodily ritual that operates in that way. A blood ritual even.

    Thanks for writing about this. Bloody interesting (see what I did there? Go away, Sandy).

  4. Gloria Steinem writes on

    "So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event:

    Men would brag about how long and how much.

    Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.

    To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps.

    Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of such commercial brands as Paul Newman Tampons, Muhammad Ali's Rope-a-Dope Pads, John Wayne Maxi Pads, and Joe Namath Jock Shields- "For Those Light Bachelor Days."

  5. You do realise you are speaking about all the SCARIEST topics to men!!! First you put the words 'black', 'feminist' & 'rant' into one little URL, and now menstration! You'll have 'em banging down your door!!!

  6. Apologies to all of you for the delay in response!

    Sarah, completely agree with everything you wrote, and particularly the part about solidarity. That's my experience as well, and I wish they would show more of that stuff on TV. Hell, even that was in Judy Blume!

    Mandy, you are quite right: I did not post about my own experiences. Or rather I did, but in an oblique way. To own my own experiences, I offer the following: I have experienced pretty much everything! I have had pain, I have had heaviness, I have had irregularity, and so forth. The only thing I have never experienced naturally is moodiness. When I took the pill, I was all over the place, and I flatly refuse to take it now because of that and many other reasons. Also since I lost a fallopian tube, everything changed. Still sometimes get pain, but everything got lighter. I think that was my point though: I have never had any type of universal experience around my own cycle in 20+ years, so the likelihood that the entire female population would as TV suggests is so incredibly slim!

    Sandy, re: the being in tune thing, I often think that it is also a non-verbal form of communication that women experience as well, hence why they sometimes sync. I remember this happening to me when I was living with my younger sister. I synced in with her rather than the other way around, and I put it down to the fact that she is 11 years younger and therefore hormonally stronger and more fertile. I was pretty fascinated actually!

    Katya, that has got to be one of my favourite pieces. So very very scarily true!

    Teine, too right! I actually hope a few blokes read this. I know a couple have (although they are not writing...) and one of them even shared it on! So one bloke wasn't scared. Guess I will just have to try harder with that one ;)