“Menstruation is just one routine step in a normal and natural cycle that is going on continuously in the body,” says the female narrator of the 1946 film by Walt Disney called The Story of Menstruation. “There’s nothing strange nor mysterious about menstruation. All life is built on cycles, and the menstrual cycle is one normal and natural part of nature’s eternal plan for passing on the gift of life.” That film is believed to be the first in the United States to discuss openly the female body and the process of menstruation, including the first film to use the word vagina. In this blog I will focus on one particular menstrual education film, Naturally … a Girl, to explore how it differed from previous other prominent films.
Naturally … a Girl, released in 1973 and produced by the Personal Products Company (Modess—the same makers involved in Molly Grows Up), presents a playful, colorful, and a new technique not seen in menstrual education films before: the interview. While an authority figure is present throughout the thirteen minute film, she only performs as a guide to keep structure in the film and provide the basic biological information. It is the numerous interviews—with racially diverse girls from pre-period to those menstruating for over six years—that execute the reliability factor so important in advertising.
Throughout the film young girls are shown dancing in brightly-colored tights and leotards against a black screen. Sometimes there is a single girl dancing and other times there is a group of young women, and in all instances the dancing creates a sense of voyeurism that the girls are there to perform for the audience’s eye—whether they know the audience is watching or not is never fully revealed. The girls are all said to be twelve years old and are in varying stages of physical development. Some still possess the more square shape of a young child while others have fuller breasts and wider hips. The camera is above the girls and looks down as they lie on the black background, thus giving the viewer a shot of the girls’ entire bodies. The allure of this shot is created through a sense of scopophilic eroticism at the girls as the audience voyeuristically gazes at them moving their bodies in a tight space and close to each other.
As with the menstrual education films before it, Naturally … a Girl has an omnipresent authority figure who works as a narrator and makes an appearance at the end of the film noting how lucky she feels to be a woman. Employing montages the film narrativized the notion that all girls are different yet experience the same problems and concerns growing up. Doing so deletes the need to break the fourth wall, as with Molly Grows Up and As Boys Grow, since the numerous faces and distinctive interviews form a feeling of relatability by difference. While this creates a viewer interest it does not necessarily promote any involvement on the part of the audience. To solve this the film utilizes questions throughout; basically the film functions as a pop quiz for the audience members by asking them questions, often with multiple choice answers, and a brief moment to answer.
Overall, though, the film better encapsulates women as multifaceted beings than its predecessors. By the end of the film the narrator is introduced as a woman who, as she says, used to dream of acting and is now an actress. She reassures the audience that being is better than dreaming and what follows is a montage of working women: nurses, teachers, police officers, flight attendants, lineworkers, and mothers. The last line of the film sums up the film’s overall message from a young girl (still missing teeth) who concludes that being a woman “is better than being a boy.”
Saniya Lee Ghanoui is a PhD student in media history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her dissertation looks at the history of sex education films in the United States and Sweden.