MENSTRUATION MATTERS

USA Today reports Serena Williams deal with P&G

USA Today reports Serena Williams deal with P&G

10) She is upset and wants someone to know

9) Something about estrogen levels

8 ) She is about to start her period

7) Matter over mind…her body has taken over

6) I don’t know, but she will feel better in a week or less

5) Hormones

4) Women do that about every 28 days

3) Time for tampons

2)We gave up trying to figure that out a long time ago, but it will pass

1) PMS, of course.

I know I am not the only one exasperated with the easy dismissal of women’s anger as little more than PMS.

Sometimes (and I’d venture, MUCH of the time), an angry woman IS simply, well, an angry woman.

But WE (culturally-speaking), tend to immediately link women’s anger with PMS. This is lazy and effectively trivializes and silences women. While I don’t dispute that hormonal fluctuations can and often do explain the TIMING and/or SEVERITY of a woman’s emotional expression, I argue that is it important, no IMPERATIVE, that we resist the temptation to immediately attribute a woman’s rage to the biological.

On 12 September 2009, Serena Williams verbally abused a line judge during the US Open. In the following days, the blogosphere hosted a hungry feast on the event. Racists had their usual deplorable field day; biological determinists joined in for the fun. Bloggers (many of them devoted fans) breezily attributed Serena’s outburst (and sure, it WAS a doozy), to PMS. One blogger referred to the incident as “Serena’s PMS Moment.”

“It was a total PMS moment…. completely unexplainable…

Another blogger wrote,

“Serena has already told the world that she has very difficult periods, in particular, menstrual migraines. And where there are menstrual migraines, PMS poisoning can’t be too far away.”

One more sample:

“She had a bad day on court, but to me, it just sounds like classic PMS emotional roller-coastering.

Then on 21 September 2009, Procter & Gamble’s announced that Serena Williams will headline a series of their “Outsmart Mother Nature” ads (print and video). Williams, says, P&G, was chosen because she “represents the energy, independence and strength of women they want to celebrate.” (And P&G supports her apology for her outburst.)

See the ad here. (Great fodder for another post, another time.)

Even though this deal was in works months (longer?) before the US Open and thus, unrelated to Serena’s “PMS Moment,” the press, like USA Today, still implicitly makes the link.

Take a good look at this story.  Notice the juxtaposition of a very angry (and very powerful) Serena Williams underneath the brand name TAMPAX. No cognitive dissonance there, right? Even funny, as in, ‘that’s rich….now Ms PMS is the spokesperson for a MENSTRUAL product. Good one, Tampax!”

Yesterday, I entered PMS + Serena Williams + US Open into google and I got 45, 000 hits. The feast continues.

Maybe Serena was PMSing that fateful day. Maybe not. I am not in a position to evaluate what motivated her to come unhinged. But neither are the legions of others who think they’ve got it all figured out, or worse, code anger as PMS, reducing a woman’s emotional expression to a “PMS moment.”

I realize that often, people use PMS to (generously?) excuse a woman’s anger (as in ‘she didn’t mean it, she was just hormonal’). But that’s no better, really. Anger should be neither erased nor excused. Anger is powerful stuff. Anger is energy. Anger is information.

Again, let me be clear: I am not dismissing the reality of hormonally-enhanced emotional expression. Just yesterday, I had two mini meltdowns of my own (tellingly, days before my period will start). But I’ve learned to pay attention to WHAT I am upset about, even if the HOW and WHEN of my expression can be tied to a particular phase in my menstrual cycle. My anger isn’t merely the consequence of my body’s mysterious workings. My anger, at times, is the product of a complex interplay between the biological and the emotional. But in any case, my anger is real and it shouldn’t be explained away.

I agree with Christiane Northrup who asserts that in a culture that discourages women from productively expressing their anger, the big A goes underground and often gets expressed as manipulation. Thus, it is no surprise that women rage when they are premenstrual. The hormonal fluctuations, in a sense, may push us to express ourselves, literally, in spite of ourselves. If ‘nice ladies’ don’t act pissed, then the logic of “the devil (in the body) made me do it” lets us off the hook.  The problem with this thinking is when we get angry, we are not taken seriously.

I don’t want to be let off the hook. I want to be (and should be) accountable for my anger (just as Serena Williams should be accountable for hers). Wasn’t John McEnroe accountable for his ridiculous outbursts on the court during his heyday?

Accountability–I advocate for more of that, including  being more accountable to the women in our lives.

Psychologist Jane Ussher and author of Managing the Monstrous Feminine: Regulating the Reproductive Body (Routledge, 2006) has found, though her in-depth interviews with British and Australian women, that women’s premenstrual anger is often connected to the normative expectations placed on women, namely to be selflessly nurturing of others (often at the expense of practicing self care). Many women are exhausted by responding to everyone’s needs but their own and often, they harbor a lot of repressed rage about this. When women eventually let loose, they are pathologized.  Women aren’t (really) mad in this formulation, they are sick.

Guess what follows? Treatment with psychotropic meds–that is, ‘scripts instead of getting to the root of what makes us mad.  Fix the faulty body (never mind the faulty social expectations).

When Serena Williams acted out, the search for explanations landed us, far too quickly, at the site of her body. Analysis done.

How long before the makers of Sarafem ( an antidepressant prescribed for women with severe PMS ) reach out to Serena as THEIR spokesperson? (I am being just a little facetious here). As long as we blame women’s bodies for their behavior–including and perhaps, especially their “bad” behavior, we aren’t listening to women. Rather, we are perpetuating the view of women as unstable beings ruled by their bodies and in desperate need of fixing.

We can do better than that.

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