Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Literary Menses in “Transgressions” by Sarah Dunant

July 23rd, 2016 by David Linton

A review of literary history might lead one to conclude that menstruation was a generally uncommon phenomenon, especially if one’s reading history was drawn from the work of male authors. Despite all their graphic sexual depictions, the women of Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, and a host of others never had to deal with having a menstrual cycle. Understandably, this is not the case with many women novelists and a few males, and over the years this blog has taken up the challenge of exploring how menstrual life has appeared in fiction, for example in previous posts about the work of Ann Patchett, Haruki Murakami, and Margaret Atwood, to name a few.  And, we have also cited the work of Dana Medoro whose path-breaking work, Bleeding in America, delved into the menstrual themes of the few American authors who treated the topic with particular insight.

Now Kelly Renn has drawn to our attention another noteworthy perspective in Sarah Dunant’s 1997 novel, Transgressions.

Analysis by Kelly Renn:

TransgressionsIn the novel, Elizabeth, a very independent and successful woman, is alone after the break-up of her seven-year relationship. She is dealing with all the emotions that one goes through but she also begins to think that she’s losing her mind because weird things keep happening around her large, empty house. At first she thinks it’s her ex, then she thinks it’s a ghost, or her own madness. We find out that it is a stalker which sounds predictable, as though the plot is heading in a conventional direction, but it isn’t. The stalker hides in her house one night with the intention to rape her. Elizabeth wakes up to find him on her bed, waiting. Instead of being raped, she somewhat seduces him and allows him to have sex with her, and even though the entire time she is petrified and violated by the act, she feels that it is the only way to save her own life. Later that night after she has gone to bed and washed the sheets she wakes up to find blood. Her own. Here’s the way Dunant describes Elizabeth’s response:

Her fingers came out red and sticky. She pulled back the covers. There was blood everywhere, caught in her pubic hair, smeared over her thighs, and a fat stain of it soaking into the sheets.  The panic turned to jubilation. She was bleeding early, her body joining in the victory, sluicing out all final remains of him, even down to the lining of her womb. There would be no need for doctors or morning-after pills now. She was doing her own healing…. 

It made her think about how rarely periods featured in books. Could it be that ficitional women menstruate less often than real ones? Clarissa, Anna Karenina, Scarlett O’Hara–not a soiled sanitary pad among them. The few books in which she could remember the heroines bleeding were ones set in convent schools–studies in hothouse guilt where the only acceptable blood was the miraculous kind, transubstantiating from alcohol to plasma in the communion cups. 

And a few paragraphs later..

It wouldn’t have been the same for him, she thought. What would he have done if he had pulled his prick out of her only to find it bleeding? Would the fear of one kind of blood have led him to another? Hammers and nails. Rape and crucifixion-maybe Catholic girls have learned more about life than they realize. 

She slid her finger up inside herself, feeling the wad of compressed cotton and the moistness already gathering at its edge. She ran her finger down the glass, leaving a smear on the pane. “See that” she said, softly into the glass. “My blood’s stronger than your sperm.” 

It turns out that not only does the character have a surprisingly distanced and scholarly perspective on her own rape, but she is able to speculate on all manner of gender politics in the aftermath.  The scene raises some important questions. Why did she not report the assault to the police? Will she? Would the onset of one’s period in such a circumstance have any effect on the ability to gather DNA evidence? Unfortunately, none of these questions are addressed in the novel, but it points out the fact that women writers are likely to bring perspectives to such topics that are far removed from any that male authors would entertain.

Kelly M. Renn is a maternity rights activist and Labor Doula. She is also an Early Childhood Educator and outspoken supporter of women’s reproductive rights. Her website is KellyBellyBirth.com.

The Period in History: Two book reviews

May 24th, 2016 by David Linton

Menstruation in Early Modern England and Early Modern France

Menstruation in FranceObviously, menstruation has been around a long time, and while its biological purpose has been constant, its cultural significance and social construction have taken on innumerable meanings across time and space. Yet, probably due to skewed gender perspectives, taboos, and prejudices, the meanings of menses, what I think of as “the menstrual ecology,” has received relatively scant attention by historians of cultural practice. Recent efforts to redress that absence are found in two fascinating studies: Cathy McClive’s Menstruation and Procreation in Early Modern France (2015, Ashgate) and Sara Read’s Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England (2013, Palgrave).

Menstruation-in-EnglandTaken together, these two volumes offer insights into the often surprising ways both French and English societies strove to make sense of this seemingly gender exclusive phenomenon. Among the many enlightening insights the authors offer is McClive’s challenge to what she calls “the myth of menstrual misogyny,” the idea that menstruation has always been viewed negatively, a notion she convincingly refutes. And Read’s examination of the role New Testament Biblical scripture played in shaping menstrual attitudes provides one answer as to why Christian beliefs surrounding the period diverged from those prevailing in the other two Abrahamic faiths.

Though both books are published by academic presses and, unfortunately, are unlikely to find wide readerships in the general public, they are well written and accessible to any curious reader. And in case contemporary scholars and activists are prone to think they are the first to grapple with the multifaceted meanings and prejudices that comprise the menstrual milieu, McClive and Read provide historical perspectives that are both useful and enlightening.

A more detailed review of each book can be found in the Society for Menstrual Research journal Women’s Reproductive Health:

Review of Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England

Review of Menstruation and Procreation in Early Modern France

David Linton is an Emeritus Professor at Marymount Manhattan College. He is also Editor of the SMCR Newsletter and a member of the re: Cycling editorial board. His research focus is on media representations of the menstrual cycle as well as how women and men relate to one another around the presence of menstruation.

Women comics taking on menstruation

May 12th, 2016 by David Linton

It used to be that menstrual humor amounted to men making crass remarks about PMS and the world of stand up comedy was dominated by male performers. Well, not any more.

In the last few years there seems to have been an explosion of young women comics doing stand-up and TV comedy.  Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Nicki Glazer, and a host of others have followed pioneers such as  Margaret Cho, Whoopi Goldberg, Sarah Silverman, Lisa Lampanelli and an even earlier generation’s Joan Rivers and Rusty Warren, whose theme song, Knockers Up, became a forbidden ditty for the post-war generation of comedy transgressors. And at the age of 86, Rusty holds a special place in the arcane world of cabaret comedy acts. This brief list comes nowhere near capturing the richness and diversity of the comedy scene where women crack the jokes and make their audiences gasp at their audacity.

Today’s women comics revel in coming up with the most shocking ways of alluding to their own bodies and their sexual relations. For instance, a recent skit on Inside Amy Schumer had her telling several female friends about a new product that would eliminate all taste from a woman’s pussy, the word of choice when mentioning the female genitalia. To demonstrate the effectiveness of the product she puts her hand inside her pants then offers her fingers to a friend to taste. And what better topic to include when one is striving for ever more ways to shock the audience with dirty words and forbidden subjects than the menstrual cycle. There may be no subject that has more layers of taboo and “ickiness” than menstrual blood. Whoopi Goldberg worked this material some years ago in her Broadway special that was aired on HBO when she did a long piece describing her entire menstrual history from her first Kotex belt to her entry into menopause. Similarly, Margaret Cho developed a riff that was surely influenced by Gloria Steinem’s famous If Men Could Menstruate essay that described how she imagined men would behave if they had a menstrual cycle.

In this episode of Broad City, the girls are forced to improvise when Abbi gets her period on a plane and doesn't have access to a tampon.

In this episode of Broad City, the girls are forced to improvise when Abbi gets her period on a plane and doesn’t have access to a tampon.

The new spate of sit-com styled TV shows that appear on the Comedy Central cable system and elsewhere have been giving the period a full airing. One of the most amusing in recent months was an episode of Broad City in which the two lead characters and creators of the show, Llana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, are aboard an El-Al flight to Israel when one of them gets her period and has no menstrual product with her, which leads to an escalating series of jokes and crises. The episode, titled Jews on a Plane, covers a full range of period predicaments. It’s well worth a look for many reasons. 

David Linton is an Emeritus Professor at Marymount Manhattan College. He is also Editor of the SMCR Newsletter and a member of the re: Cycling editorial board. His research focus is on media representations of the menstrual cycle as well as how women and men relate to one another around the presence of menstruation.

Heavy media menstrual flow

February 16th, 2016 by David Linton

It seems we’ve reached a tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell would put it, or perhaps a paradigm shift, as Thomas Kuhn might say, in the level of acceptance of menstrual cycle references in mainstream media. As re:Cycling demonstrated recently in the time line of coverage of the de-tax the period campaign that is ongoing around the world, there is an abundance of material on this topic alone.

Now, to add to the accumulation, consider another four references within a few days of each other in two major publications, The New York Times and New York magazine.

Jan. 25-Feb. 7, 2016, Rebecca Traister, New York Magazine, Smirking in the Boys’ Room

In an interview-based article about her new show, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, the soon-to-be-late-night host casually mentioned that the stress of putting together the show had made her stop getting her period, “I guess I’m doing a good job of pushing the terror onto my innards.” This was in the context of the fact that she will be the first female host of a late-night comedy show.

Feb.8, 2016, Editorial, The New York Times, p. A-24, End the Tampon Tax

The editorial page of the most august newspaper in the U.S. took a position on the taxation debate under the headline “End the Tampon Tax.” The piece reviewed the history of the campaign with emphasis on the efforts of two members of the California State Assembly and cited President Obama’s support.  It then went on to endorse efforts in New York City to provide free tampons and pads in the schools and closed with the statement, “Getting rid of taxes on these products is an important first step toward making them affordable for all.”

Thinx_2016-02-15Feb. 8-21, 2016, Noreen Malone, New York Magazine, p.70, Panty Raid

The magazine gave six full pages of coverage to the controversy surrounding the advertising campaign for Think period underwear, including a full page picture of the company’s head, Miki Agrawal, modeling a pair of her Thinx Hi-Waist items.  The fuss surrounding the ads concerned whether it was acceptable to the advertising guidelines of the transportation agency to include mention of the period in ads carried on the trains and in the stations.  The restrictive response of the authorities was a boon to the company, as the lengthy coverage here and elsewhere in the New York media environment demonstrated.

Feb. 14 2016, Sharon Mesmer, The New York Times-Sunday Review, p.10, All Praise the Women of Menopause

The Sunday Times receives broader distribution and attention than the daily issues and is read widely read around the world, so it is noteworthy that nearly half a page was given to Sharon Mesmer’s essay. The piece takes a playful look at the fact that there are plenty of special rituals and ways of celebrating when girls begin to menstruate but nothing for women when they transition to becoming non-menstruators. Mesmer suggests some celebratory actions that might be taken, and though they are exaggerated and humorous, she makes an important point about how menopause is still a closeted phenomenon.

Clearly, we are likely to see more and more menstrual stories in the coming months.  And with all the attention being given to the fact that women are increasingly visible in the political area, it’s likely to be a mixed batch.

David Linton is an Emeritus Professor at Marymount Manhattan College. He is also Editor of the SMCR Newsletter and a member of the re: Cycling editorial board. His research focus is on media representations of the menstrual cycle as well as how women and men relate to one another around the presence of menstruation.

MENSTRUAL MISCHIEF: South Park Meets Judy Blume

December 31st, 2015 by David Linton

Note: Inspiration for the following observation came from research and writing done by a former student of mine, Bob Newman, whose thorough analysis of the menstrual elements in adult TV cartoons is the source of the critique.

It is likely, at least for women who grew up from 1970 onward, that the most widely known menstrual reference in popular culture is Judy Blume’s path breaking 1970 kid-lit novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. (For men and the general public the most widely known is probably the 1974 novel by Stephen King, Carrie, and its several film adaptations.)

southParkMore recently, the venue in which menstrual details appear most frequently is surely the long-running TV series, South Park. As befits a program whose very raison d’être is the evisceration of social taboos, received wisdom, cant, and established beliefs (not to mention a random selection of celebrities and customs), menstruation has repeatedly come in for its share of attention. So it is no surprise that Trey Parker, one of the series’ creators, would write a script that brings together the well known Judy Blume novel with menstrual taboos and ignorance in the Season 3, Episode 16 show titled Are you there God? It’s me, Jesus.

Readers familiar with the famous novel will recall that, among the many pubescent concerns they have, the girls in the book are anxious to the point of competitiveness about getting their periods, the crucially important indication that they are becoming women. They gossip and even fib about who “got it” first, and important story elements concern their school viewing of a menstrual education film and shopping for menstrual products. With this in mind, the South Park episode offers what might be seen as a raunchy version of Gloria Steinem’s essay, If Men Could Menstruate. It starts off this way (script slightly edited for length):

CARTMAN: You guys!  You guys!  Guess what?

KYLE: What, fatass!?

CARTMAN: I’ve become a man! I started puberty, you guys!

STAN: No you didn’t!

CARTMAN: Yes! I really did.

STAN: How do you know?

CARTMAN: Well, because yesterday I got my period.

KYLE: You got your what?

CARTMAN: My period, you guys.  You see, there comes a time in every child’s life when they grow up and nature takes its course by having you bleed out your ass for a few days every month.

STN: You’re making that up! (women enter from behind Eric) Miss Aliton, what’s it mean to get a period?

MISS ALITON: Well boys, ah-I don’t think I can tell you.  Ah-

STAN: Please, it’s important.

MISS ALITON: It’s when puberty hits and you bleed, you know, down there.

KYLE: Holy shit, dude! Cartman’s right!

CARTMAN: Well guys, I’m afraid I won’t be able to hang out with you on New Year’s Eve.  I have to hang out with the older crowd because now, I’m ma-ture.  I got my period, and you guys didn’t.  I got my period, and you guys didn’t.

STAN: Dude, Cartman can’t hit puberty before us.

KYLE: Well, maybe we’ll get ours soon, too.  I’m gonna go and see if I’m bleeding out my ass.

It turns out that the reason for Eric Cartman’s condition is a stomach virus that causes rectal bleeding; however, all of the boys are so envious of Cartman’s new status as a pubescent young man that the rest of the episode is spent charting their anxiety at not also having blood coming from the ass and trying to find out what a period is and how to deal with it.  One of the boys, Kyle, even lies about bleeding so he can have the status that it bestows.  And the “Margaret” of the show becomes Stan who goes about his days asking adults to explain to him what “getting your period” means, only to be met with confusing or evasive answers.   The adult who is usually the most helpful in explaining the mysteries of adulthood to them, Chef, sings a song about the period but it is of no help in dealing with Stan’s fear of being left behind his menstruating friends.

Again echoing a scene in Are You There God?, the boys go shopping for menstrual products only to become even more confused when faced with the plethora of products that line the shelves of the store. Kenny, the boy who gets killed in every episode, tries to follow the directions for tampon use and inserts it in his anus, causing him to eventually explode as he fills up with feces.

Finally, Stan becomes so frustrated in trying to get an explanation of what the period is and why he has not yet gotten one himself that he prays to Jesus for an answer. But Jesus, being a man after all, is of no help either. Finally, God intervenes and answers Stan’s questions as well as telling him that Cartman really has a virus and Kyle is faking.

The program accomplishes several of its satiric intentions by creating a parody of Judy Blume’s novel and at the same time laying out the various ways the menstrual cycle continues to be a taboo topic that children have a natural curiosity about but that adults turn into a dark mystery, particularly for boys. I wonder how the designers of health education curricula and lesson plans would feel about showing this piece in tandem with the usual corporate sponsored “Becoming A Woman” videos that are the major source of sex education in most schools.

Menstrual Pop Music: Singing the period blues

December 28th, 2015 by David Linton

Since re:Cycling launched in 2009, we’ve posted often about how film, TV, advertising and literary productions reference menstruation. However, one popular mass medium seems to have generally avoided addressing the cultural and personal presence of the menstrual cycle: popular music. But, there are a few exceptions worthy of note.

It’s not surprising that nearly all of the musical menstrual references located so far are songs by or performed by women. Consider the following four examples:

puddledive_largeThe earliest sighting so far is by the founder of Righeous Babe Records, a leading feminist artist, Ani DiFranco, on her 1993 CD titled PUDDLE DIVE. The track’s title, Blood in the Boardroom, gives a good idea of what’s in store. The lyrics  depict a scene that thousands of women in corporate settings may have experienced, or at least dreaded the possibility of having to deal with. The character in the song is the sole woman at a meeting with a room full of male executives. She unexpectedly gets her period, leaving a stain on the boardroom chair as she leaves the meeting in search of a tampon. The only woman in sight is a secretary in whom she confides in a moment of menstrual bonding. Though the secretary expresses sympathy for the “hassle” she’s dealing with, the singer sees the stain she has left on the chair as a symbol of her women’s power:

it ain’t no hassle, no, it ain’t no mess
right now it’s the only power
that I possess
these businessmen got the money
they got the instruments of death
But I can make life
I can make breath

 

A year later (1995), an aspiring young singer named Monica released MISS THANG, a CD with a track titled Don’t Take it Personal (just one of dem days.) In keeping with the tone of the rest of the album, the song has an adolescent longing, even whiny, quality, and the producers clearly thought that this cut had potential for getting air and club play as they included two different mixes of it. Though the lyrics do not make a specific reference to the singer’s cycle, the implication of the words carry the notion that she is having an uncomfortable period and that the boy who she is feeling testy towards should just wait it out until it’s no longer “one of dem days.”

Another young woman who had already achieved a good deal of attention and success in her career, Mary J Blige, released NO MORE DRAMA in 2002 containing a track simply named PMS. She introduces the song by directly addressing the women who might be listening stating, “I wanna talk to the ladies tonight/About situation I’m pretty sure y’all be able to relate to.” However, the song then quickly takes a turn and actually is addressed to men:

So don’t even look at me
See I don’t wanna hear your problem
Cause I’m having some of my own
I know it was not your fault
That I’m feelin down
I just wanna be left alone

The lyrics proceed with a virtual catalog of menstrual-related problems and discomforts backed up by a chorus of women who intone “PMS, PMS, PMS” in a dirge like incantation. At the end the singer returns to addressing the women listeners with a disheartening lament:

if you understand, understand where I’m comin from
Sing along, PMS
This is the worst part of everything
The worst part of being a woman is PMS
Give me a break, give me a break

The song takes a thoroughly negative, even catastrophic, view of the impact of having a menstrual cycle and the style of the delivery matches its depressing darkness. In contrast, a few years later country music star Dolly Parton produced an examination of the same subject in PMS Blues, which is widely available on a number of internet sites reflecting the fact that she commonly includes it in her performances at various venues. And though the gist of the song is similarly negative about the dire impact of PMS, there’s a tough amusement in the delivery and style of the approach that makes audiences cheer Parton both for having the temerity to openly perform a piece about the menstrual cycle as well as for displaying the strength and moxie to live through it and come out as spunky and tough as her persona suggests.

But, for contrast, consider a few lines by the Hip-Hop star, Eminem, the only male I’ve yet found to mention anything menstrual. In 2002, the same year that Mary J Blige’s PMS was released, Eminem released one of his most important CDs, THE EMINEM SHOW which includes a cut titled Without Me. The song is in the common category of male boasting about one’s own power and brilliance, in this case along the lines that the entire world of Rap music has been suffering due to his absence as he has had to deal with some legal problems. The frequent refrain is “It feels so empty without me.” The passing menstrual detail suggests profound male ignorance about the actual process of the menstrual cycle, though it is an attempt to use a reference to women’s reproduction in a way that grants it creative power.

Are menopause stereotypes still selling?

December 26th, 2015 by David Linton

The holiday season brings plenty of opportunities to celebrate as well as to reflect on our lives, our society, and the state of the world. So, here’s an opportunity to reflect on the state of the menstrual ecology, a look back at a post from three years ago, published on Aug. 6, 2012. This piece was about a book that, as the copyright page states, was “Published by Hallmark Books, a division of Hallmark Cards, Inc.” The publication date was 2008 and it was also credited to a company called Celestial Arts which still lists it in their catalog. However, it does not currently appear in the Hallmark online catalog and it is impossible to tell if any Hallmark stores still carry it. Which brings up some interesting questions. Has Hallmark dropped the product and, if so, why? Have they become more period and menopause positive – or at least less negative?  What prompted the publication of such a negative view of women in the first place? In any event, even the publication history of a trivial item such as this can yield insights into much larger issues and attitudes. That’s what makes studying the social construction of the menstrual cycle such a constantly fascinating topic.

HALLMARK – When you care enough to send the very . . . ??

Hallmark greeting cards and related trinkets have long exemplified wholesome, up-tempo, Norman Rockwell-styled sentimentality, often packaged in clichéd verses and trite images of puppies, kittens, flowers, babies, sunsets and other references guaranteed to elicit a smile, a tear, or a warm glow. However, as rude humor has spread its influence, expressed most vividly and viciously in celebrity roasts and the Comedy Central show, Tosh .0, Hallmark was not to be left behind. A visit to the racks of cards, books, and novelties at your local card shop reveals a wide variety of snarky items offering cheap shots at a wide variety of groups, hobbies, and practices.

Menopause001Among them are several items that attempt to poke fun at what are thought to be characteristics of women in some stage of the menstrual cycle, notably PMS or menopause. Setting aside the fact that the items perpetuate the common misuse of the term  menopause when what is meant is perimenopause, consider a small book presently on sale titled, Not Guilty by Reason of Menopause.

HallmarkIt is comprised of more than 50 pages, organized in double-page spreads, each of which offers a completion to the phrase, “You might be menopausal if. . .”

A few examples will suffice:

“. . . you think about the ‘til death do us part line in your wedding vows a little too often.”

“. . . you tell all your children they’re not your favorite.”

“. . . when your husband proposes a romantic vacation, you suggest ice fishing.”

Collectively, it amounts to an anthology of mean-spirited nastiness with little redeeming humor. Women are depicted as crazy, stupid, vicious, obese, and every other negative stereotype imaginable.

And with each insult women are expected to smile sweetly at being the butt of a bad joke. Of course, to express outrage or even mild annoyance with these sorts of put-downs is to risk of being accused of lacking a sense of humor or, worse yet, of being “politically correct,” the favored dismissive term of those who demand that their repugnant values are somehow benign or lacking in impact or intent.

We’ve come a long way from the days of 1910 when Hallmark was founded and especially from 1944 when the company adopted the slogan that is still theirs today, “When you care enough to send the very best.” In this case one might ask, “The very best of what?”

David Linton is an Emeritus Professor at Marymount Manhattan College. He is also Editor of the SMCR Newsletter and a member of the re: Cycling editorial board. His research focus is on media representations of the menstrual cycle as well as how women and men relate to one another around the presence of menstruation.

Donald Trump wasn’t the first to get in trouble over menstrual talk

December 10th, 2015 by David Linton

Much has been made of Donald Trump’s snarky remark about how the journalist Megan Kelly spoke to him at the Republican candidates’ debate on Aug. 6, 2015. And the news is dominated by stories about how social media are reshaping every aspect of our lives, not to mention the proliferation of web sites of various kinds that explore various aspects of the menstrual cycle and promote new and well-established products.

Nearly five years ago re:Cycling reported the story of how media hacking and news coverage converged in such a way as to besmirch the reputation of one of the most highly placed members of the British Monarchy–Charles, Prince of Wales–by disclosing a casual reference he made to a menstrual product. As we explore menstrual media references this month, it seems worthwhile to take another look at this story, originally published on this blog on Aug. 29, 2011:

Menstruation, Prince Charles and The Biggest Hacking Scandal

charles_tamponIn light of the recent scandals over the phone and email hacking practices of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper editors and reporters it is surprising that there has been so little mention of the fact that the most scandalous, damaging and far reaching hacking story associated with Murdoch centered on menstruation.  The only thorough review of the links between the current story and the earlier one appears in a detailed piece in The Sun-Herald from Sydney, Australia, July 31, 2011.

I have previously written about the incident here and elsewhere, but in light of the current coverage it deserves a fresh look.

In brief: in 1989, a time before either cell phones or email were commonly available (hard to believe there was such a time!), a phone hacker recorded a phone sex exchange between Prince Charles and his then-lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles in which erotic mention was made of tampons.  Three years later the full transcript of the conversation was published in an Australian women’s magazine, New Idea, and a world-wide scandal ensued.

Now, nearly 20 years after the story broke, it is about to come back into play as further investigations proceed into the illegal hacking activities of the Murdoch media empire.  Perhaps we will finally learn how much was paid for a menstrual story that humiliated the Royal Family, who the hackers were, and who authorized its purchase and publication.

And, from a Menstrual Studies point of view, its longevity reflects the deep fascination that the menstrual cycle continues to hold for the general public.

David Linton is an Emeritus Professor at Marymount Manhattan College. He is also Editor of the SMCR Newsletter and a member of the re: Cycling editorial board. His research focus is on media representations of the menstrual cycle as well as how women and men relate to one another around the presence of menstruation.

Mediated Menstruation: The period in books, TV, film, comedy, etc.

December 3rd, 2015 by David Linton

Perhaps one of the most useful barometers of the social status of the menstrual cycle is the frequency and nature of its representation in public media. In the 1950s the three major TV network forbade the airing of ads for menstrual products, or “catamenial devices,” as they were called, before 9 a.m. or after 3 p.m. in order to protect children and men from exposure to these unpleasant objects. In the ensuing decades as the ubiquitous blue liquid was sopped up by quilted pads and puffy tampons, a few daring programs included menstrual elements as plot devices or elements of humor, most notably episodes of All in the Family in which Edith enters perimenopause and another in which Gloria misses a period prompting a pregnancy scare.

My own research has taken me from Prince Charles’ menstrual media mishap and the period’s presence in various Carrie incarnations  through a wide variety of literary, cinematic, and televised incidents and all the way back to biblical stories that included menstrual elements.

Presently, though far from frequent, the period now makes regular appearances in TV series and feature films. From being employed as “the menopause defense” in a murder trial on Law and Order to palace intrigue and marital plot in Game of Thrones to adolescent disgust in Superbad to a challenge to one’s masculinity in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed to family drama on nearly every sit-com that has a young girl character, the menstrual cycle has steadily gained acceptance as a subject worthy of inclusion on tube and screen.

That is not to say that all of the period appearances are enlightened or lacking in previous eras’ negative slant. This month’s explorations of menstrual media will strive to examine the full range. This is not a new topic for the SMCR blog as over the past five years we have often posted many commentaries on this very subject. In fact, because we consider this topic so important, and because we believe that some of those earlier posts deserve more exposure, this month’s posts will include several of those items, among them Laura Wershler’s three-part examination of how menstruation underscores the plot of Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder.

So let us begin with a look at what, at one time, would have been the most unlikely setting for frank–even rude and racy–period references: the animated cartoon. Once a genre exclusively designated for children’s entertainment, animated films and TV series have become popular venues for adult viewing, echoing the rise of the graphic novel in print media. Shows like King of the Hill, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and, most path-breaking of all, South Park, are designed for adult consumption, mostly young male viewers. All four of these series (and their less successful genre companions) focus mainly on male characters and their struggles with authority, identity, and a general bewilderment in the face of a perfidious world. All of them are comedies, so when menstrual elements are introduced they are played for laughs, though the laughter is often nervous and insecure.

Family Guy Raggidy Ann DollConsider one small example that a former student of mine, Robert Newman, discovered. In a 2007 episode of Family Guy, the baby Stevie Griffin is playing with his “On the Raggedy Ann” doll.  Here’s the exchange:

STEWIE: Oh look, an On-The-Raggedy Ann doll. (pulls the string)

DOLL: It’s water weight you bastard! (he pulls the string again)

DOLL: Get off me, I’m not your whore! (he pulls the string again)

DOLL: (crying) I’m sorry, I’m just so sad.

STEWIE: Well, I guess I can still play with it three weeks out of the month.

This simple scene both sends up the PMS stereotype and legitimizes the notion of its existence. Yet at the same time it puts the period into play as a topic for satire, drama, and commentary.

This month’s posts will try to give exposure to the full range of period presence in popular media. However, it will be far from encyclopedic in its coverage as topical research in popular media is notoriously difficult and invariably omits items worthy of inclusion. So, readers are invited, urged in fact, to send it their own sightings of the period’s presence you have encountered.

Taking the Period Public: Weekend Links @re_Cycling_SMCR

October 31st, 2015 by David Linton
It seems that woman have had to hide their periods forever, as this image from the ancient Biblical story of Rachel and her father, Laban, suggests. But a band of feisty women have decided to come out of the menstrual tent to protest the secrecy surrounding the chemical content of menstrual products.

It seems that woman have had to hide their periods forever, as this image from the ancient Biblical story of Rachel and her father, Laban, suggests. But a band of feisty women have decided to come out of the menstrual tent to protest the secrecy surrounding the chemical content of menstrual products.

It looks like menstrual activism is springing up all over the continent. We at re: Cycling launched an exploration of social and political menstrual activism at the beginning of October, just weeks before Cosmopolitan magazine noted 2015 as “The Year the Period Went Public,” devoting 12 full pages to the topic in the November issue available on newstands now. Several articles from this issue, plus others covering a broad range of topics, were posted on the Cosmopolitan website in mid-October under the headline Your Guide to the Modern Period:

Why the Hell are Periods Still Taxed?

What It’s Like to Get Your Period When You’re Homeless

8 Life-Changing Ways to Stop Your Period Pain

Everything You Need to Know About Your Menstrual Flow

The 8 Greatest Menstrual Moments of 2015

What Guys Really Think About Your Period

Answers to Your Most Important Menstruation Questions, Period

8 Fixes for Your Worst Period Problems

Does Your Period Have to Be This Bad?

Donate Now to Help Every Woman Have an Easier Period

And a group of activists has taken up the cause that the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research has been promoting for several years: holding the makers of menstrual management products responsible for publicly posting the chemicals and other agents used in their tampons and pads. The story was reported in the Oct. 26, 2015 online edition of The New York Times.

Though other aspects of women’s reproductive lives are under attack, including access to contraceptives and abortion rights, it looks like there’s progress on the menstrual front.

David Linton is an Emeritus Professor at Marymount Manhattan College. He is also Editor of the SMCR Newsletter and a member of the re: Cycling editorial board. His research focus is on media representations of the menstrual cycle as well as how women and men relate to one another around the presence of menstruation.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.