Guest Post by Jaime Hough
Tyra Banks wrote a young adult fantsy novel. And it’s a NYT bestseller. The book, titled Modelland, is about the journey of one awkward-looking girl who is whisked away to a magical boarding school which trains girls to become supermodels with superpowers, known as Intoxibellas. It’s kind of like Harry Potter, if Harry Potter revolved around modeling and was a battle between conventional and unconventional beauty rather than good and evil.
But I’m probably making it sound bad and it’s not, really. Modelland is the story of Tookie de la Crème,1 a girl unnoticed by her classmates and mostly ignored by her family, whose life is turned upside down when she is recruited for Modelland. The reader follows Tookie to and through her first year at Modelland as she, along dozens of other girls, trains for the chance to become one of seven Intoxibellas, supermodels with superpowers, in her graduating class. At Modelland Tookie makes her first real friends while becoming embroiled in a mystery involving the school’s headmistress, known as the BellaDonna, and the world’s mysteriously missing foremost supermodel, Ci~L.2
I read Modelland because I was curious and because I have long been fascinated by the public persona of Tyra Banks. What can I say? We all have our guilty pleasures. Most of Modelland is, for the most part, what you would expect, especially if you’re familiar with Tyra’s moneymaker, America’s Next Top Model. However, I was completely surprised by the fact that Banks chose to use menstruation as a key plot device to develop Tookie’s character. Below are excerpts from the book dealing with menstruation and my brief analysis of how these menstrual moments [MMs] function in the novel and could potentially function for the intended reader.
MM1: Not Yet A Woman
Menstrual Moment One comes near the beginning of the book when Tookie has just come home from her day at school and the readers are being introduced to her dysfunctional family. In particular, we’ve just met Tookie’s younger, dumb blonde little sister, Myrracle.
“Don’t laugh at me!” Myrracle said, frustrated. “I’m on my periodical right now! It makes me forgetful!”
“It’s period, not periodical!” Tookie growled.
Myrracle smirked. “How do you know? You haven’t even gotten yours yet!”
Tookie turned away, her face flooded with heat. Myrracle never resisted the urge to reminder her that she had gotten her period already, even though she was two years younger.3
In Menstrual Moment Two Tookie has just spent her first night at Modelland and is about to start her first day of classes. We follow her as she prepares for class.
Disoriented, Tookie stumbled into the large, sterile-looking community bathroom. As she did, a dull pain shot through her legs, hips, and stomach. She doubled over, feeling as though she was about to vomit. Perfect, she though. I’m sick on the first day of school. . .All at once , every single girl in the bathroom doubled over in pain, gripping her stomach and back just as Tookie had. . .Tookie shut her eyes, wincing again with another pain. “Piper, my back and tummy are killing me!” she whispered.
Piper shrugged. “Join the club, Tookie. Every new Bella started menstruating at the exact same time this morning.”
“You’ve never heard of menstrual synchrony, or the dormitory effect?” Piper asked. “Menstrual synchrony is a theory that suggest that the menstruation cycles of women who cohabitate-think army barracks, female penitentiaries, convents, and university dormitories—synchronize over time. It usually takes months for the alignment to occur but her at Modelland, it seems to have happened in twenty-four hours.”
“But I’ve never gotten my period before this,” Tookie whispered.
“Well, Tookie, looks like you’re a woman now,” Piper said.
Tookie was about to protest—there was no way she was any more womanly today than she had been the day before—but all of a sudden, she felt that perhaps something in her had changed. Those abdominal pains made so much sense, after all. And that certainly made them more bearable—for once, she felt normal, like everyone else.4
MM3: Menopause, Modelland Style.
Menstrual Moment Three comes shortly after MM2 when, after the first class, a statue of the school’s headmistress (who is seen in person only once a year) tells the girls that they will no longer have periods.
The BellaDonna continued. “This cycle you had this morning will be the last period you will ever have . . . for the rest of your lives!”
There was silence. Turned heads. Questioning looks.
“We want no excuses for you missing class or shoots or shows, so Modelland is ridding you of the pain and suffering of your menstrual cycles and cramps forever,” the BellaDonna masthead explained. “You will each have the ability to procreate as you reach adulthood but no more periods. Period.”
The Guru beamed at them. “Isn’t that grandissimo?”
Almost everyone cheered, although Chaste looked strangely forlorn and confused, clamping her mouth shut and biting her bottom lip nervously. And Tookie felt another kind of cramp in her stomach . . . one of loss and regret. I finally reached womanhood, she thought. I finally got something that Myrracle has teased me about so much. And now it’s gone.”5
None of the ideas presented in the text about menstruation are new, but they are interesting. First and foremost, it’s interesting that Banks chose to include menstruation at all, let alone make it so integral to Tookie’s character development. Because Tookie’s thoughts and feelings about menstruation revolve around ideas of belonging and normalcy her journey from menarche to Modelland-menopause works within the narrative as a journey from not belonging anywhere to belonging in Modelland.
In MM1 Tookie’s lack of menstruation indicates to the reader that even amongst her family Tookie is second place. All the attention goes to the younger Myrracle who has already joined the ranks of “women” through her “periodical.”
In MM2 Tookie receives her period to the Modelland’s souped-up menstrual synchrony. A run down of the basics of menstrual synchrony may seem a little odd (it practically gave me whiplash when I first read the novel) but this moment between Tookie and her friend Piper serves as Tookie’s initiation into womanhood, complete with a trite “You’re a woman now.” However, not only is this Tookie’s menarchal moment, she also learns something about socio-biological theories of menstruation. We often presume that this type of moment and type of knowledge is shared between mothers and daughters at home. However, it is clear from MM1, and other portions of the book dealing with Tookie’s family, that this type of moment is not available for her at home or at her previous school. The fact that this longed-for initiation into womanhood takes place between Tookie and Piper at Modelland subtly cues the reader that Modelland is Tookie’s new home and her friends are her new family.
This theme of community based around menstruation is carried into MM3 when the BellaDonna magically eliminates all future periods for the freshmen class. While Tookie is unsure how she feels about her new “normalcy” being taken away this moment actually establishes a different type of community between the students at Modelland. They are no longer healthy, menstruating young women. Now they are possible future models. The implications of the last two sentence are terrifying and I wonder if Banks, who advocates for being comfortable in one’s own skin throughout the rest of the novel fully realizes what she did in that passage.
For all the work menstruation does in Tookie’s character development in the early part of the novel, it certainly gets a bad rap. Menstruation is associated first with forgetfulness, then with pain akin to sickness, and finally as a bad excuse for unacceptable behavior, such as being tardy. In addition, the cheering of the young girls who have just been told they will never again have a period suggests that, for most girls, the period was an unwelcome part of their lives; at the least it was a nuisance, at the most it was a painful burden.
Of course, none of this is new or particularly original. Menstruation is often viewed as burdensome, involving pain and negative side effects such as forgetfulness or mood swings. Banks is simply recycling common menstrual tropes of U.S. popular culture. Tookie’s ambivalence about menstruation mirrors the ambivalence many women feel in relation to their periods. A girl or woman who does not menstruate is lacking, and somehow diminished. However, that which bestows womanhood, menstruation, is also that which diminishes the abilities and personhood of the woman by making her forgetful, late, or weakened by pain. This is the condition of the feminine in a patriarchy; that which makes us female defines us by diminishing us and few things are considered more feminine than menstruation.
For my part, I remain ambivalent about my relationship to Modelland, especially its menstrual moments. Part of me is simply grateful that Banks brought menstruation to the table. This is, believe it or not, a New York Times best-selling novel. Thousands of girls are reading this and I sincerely hope it is causing them to think about their own relationship to their periods and perhaps have discussions about menstruation they may not have had otherwise. However, part of me is frustrated by Banks’ clumsy handling of menstruation. One notable example is the utter lack of discussion of how the models-in-training deal with their periods. Do they use tampons? Diva cups? Pads? This error seems especially glaring in light of the fact that there is a discussion, sentences earlier, of what toiletries are magically provided for the girls all of whom have been whisked away to Modelland without time to pack. More importantly, why do the figures of authority in Modelland repudiate any use value or worth to menstruation aside from its role in the reproductive cycle?
What do you think of Banks’ incorporation of menstruation in Modelland? How does it stack up against other young adult novels that portray menarche and menstrual issues? Leave a note in the comments section!
- This is, honestly, the character’s given name.
- Also the character’s given name.
- Tyra Banks, Modelland (New York: Delacorte Press, 2011), Kindle edition, 701.
- Tyra Banks, Modelland (New York: Delacorte Press, 2011), Kindle edition, 2872-2881, 2901-2116.
- Tyra Banks, Modelland (New York: Delacorte Press, 2011), Kindle edition, 3055-3067.
Jaime Hough recently completed an MA in communication with a graduate minor in Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has been a member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research since 2009.