Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

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.

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.

A cha cha about menstrual products, and other menstrual poetry open mic originals.

August 31st, 2015 by Editor

#SMCR2015 Plenary Session Video Presentation

Menstrual Poetry Open Mic

Menstrual educator and activist Chella Quint, center, teaches the audience the Menstrual Products Cha Cha at #SMCR2015 Open Mic.

The 21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at The Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights, June 4-6, 2015, Suffolk University, Boston concluded on Saturday night, June 6th, with a menstrual poetry open mic. Local slam poets joined SMCR members for an evening of spoken word performances about menstrual realities: big, small, old and new. Performers explored the multiple dimensions of our messy, wondrous and vexing bodies, our sexualities, genders, health and our feminisms. The event was hosted and kicked off by Janae Johnson, a Boston area spoken word poet, teaching artist, educator and winner of the 2015 Women of the World Poetry Slam.

Click on the arrow, sit back and enjoy a unique, free-wheeling, all-welcome evening of spoken word performances.

Videography provided by courtesy of Robert Lewis.

Celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day!

May 21st, 2015 by David Linton

Say Yes to Rick Scott Sanitary Napkins

October 20th, 2014 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

For those who have yet to see, the College Republican National Committee has a new advertisement out that is intended to reach women, particularly younger women, to lure their vote for several GOP governors. The advertisement is the same for several governor races, save for the name changes, and the one that is getting the most attention concerns the Florida race between Rick Scott (R) and Charlie Crist (D). The ad is a parody on the popular reality television show Say Yes to the Dress where women try on different wedding dresses and debate the merits of each until they find “the one.” In this case of “Say Yes to Rick Scott,” Brittany, an undecided voter, tries on the “Rick Scott dress” and immediately falls in love with his “new ideas that don’t break your budget.” But Brittany’s mother is not having any of that as she wants Brittany in the “Charlie Crist dress” that is “expensive and a little outdated.”

There are already several write-ups on the stereotypical nature of this advertisement—that it serves the same jaded discourse that all women care about weddings and dresses—and that there could have been a more intelligent way to reach Republican women. What is most interesting is Stephen Colbert’s response to this ad. In typical Colbert fashion, he hilariously rips apart the wedding dress metaphor and decides to contribute an ad of his own: Rick Scott versus Charlie Crist sanitary napkins.

Equating “that time of the month” with mid-term elections, one female in Colbert’s parody is supported by Rick Scott napkins in her “private sector” and is a happy and peppy woman while the other is still using Charlie Crist napkins. Take a look at the side-by-side comparison for the blue liquid that has come to serve as symbolic blood in many advertisements and the mockingly way it is poured on each candidate’s napkin.

What is so great about Colbert’s satire is that he is not only addressing the humor of the “Say Yes to Rick Scott” piece but he is also ridiculing the traditional napkin and tampon advertisements so prevalent on television. Are these the only ways to speak to women? Colbert thinks not and this segment is a testament to that.

Remember, vote for “The Best Candidate—Period!”

Your Moment of (Menstrual) Zen

September 9th, 2014 by David Linton

Every night Jon Stewart closes his DAILY SHOW with the sentence, “And now, your moment of Zen,” which is usually followed by a clip of some cable news program in which people say dopey or inane remarks. The purpose is to remind viewers of just how much stupidity is out there and the target is commonly self-inflated pundits on the FOX or CNN system.

Tuesday night, September 2, the clip consisted of a young woman reporting on a new line of underwear while holding up a pair of panties and saying, “Our underwear is actually functional; it’s fantastic for moms, and believe it or not it’s actually great for that time of the month. I bet you didn’t expect that.” A reaction shot includes a stuffy looking man who seems to hesitantly accept the fact that, since the show is about the “modern man” that means they’ll have to learn to tolerate “period talk” on TV news and consumer programs.

Is this a peculiar form of progress or just another adolescent period joke? Should we enjoy our moment of mockery of those up-tight men who are so-not-hip, unlike us Comedy Central fans?  Or is the real joke on Jon Stewart and his producers for thinking that someone else making a casual period reference is something to poke fun at?

(Note: to watch the brief menstrual moment you will probably have to wade through an ad and a plug for the show itself.)

Save the Date! The Next Great Menstrual Health Con

June 16th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

The M Word—In Multiplex

May 21st, 2014 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Saniya Lee Ghanoui and David Linton

Cross-posted from Public Books

Tanna Frederick, Eliza Roberts, and Frances Fisher in The M Word.

We don’t know where the coy linguistic practice of using-while-not-using so-called offensive words by appending the term “word” after its initial letter and preceded by “the”—as in “the N-word”; “the C-word”; “the F-word”; “the R-word”—came from. The practice functions in spoken and written speech the way the “bleep” does on television. Everyone presumably knows what the word in question is and says it silently to themselves whenever they hear or read the euphemism, but a quaint regard for a Victorian notion of what can be said in “polite company” allows the meaning of the expression to be put into play while not offending anyone. Furthermore, the construction is usually reserved for talking about the word rather than using it in its actual grammatical form. As such, it functions as a meta-phrasing, raising consciousness about the need to be sensitive to the potential that words have to hurt or defame their referents.

This year, Henry Jaglom, the Woody Allen of the West Coast, has cleverly appropriated the practice by applying it to another value-laden, emotionally charged topic: menopause. And while the word “menopause” itself is not as socially verboten as the four words alluded to above, the taboo phenomenon itself is, in some ways, just as culturally vexed and discomforting as the subjects of the other coded expressions.

Jaglom’s decision to name his new film (his 19th feature) The M Word cleverly appropriates the semantic maneuver to several ends. He invites the audience to think about the function of the hyphenation gambit in all its manifestations while at the same time bringing menopause out of its closet for some close scrutiny.

The plot device Jaglom utilizes for this purpose is the “film-within-a-film” construction employed in The Truman ShowThe Artist, and Boogie Nights. Here, as in those films, the nature of the medium itself and the way it shapes the behavior of individuals becomes both metaphor and content. In The M Word, a character named Moxie (Tanna Frederick) sets out to make a documentary television series—inspired by her menopausal mother and two aunts—that involves interviewing a variety of women (and one man) about their experiences and views on menopause for a TV documentary called “The M Word,” which is also the title of the (non-documentary) film we, in turn, are watching in the theater. (The film is actually about perimenopause but, as is common in every-day speech, uses the word “menopause” instead. To avoid further confusion and at the risk of perpetuating this mislabeling, we will use the term of the filmmaker’s choice as well.)

Moxie is an actor on a children’s television show at the fictional KZAM network in Los Angeles, where the staff seem to have one thing in common: most of them are menopausal women. The appropriately named Moxie pitches her idea for “The M Word” at a crucial time—her station is bleeding money and a New York–based “suit,” Charlie Moon (Michael Imperioli), is flown in to assess the situation (someone is embezzling funds from the station) and make any necessary employee cuts. And this is where the title’s second meaning comes into play: money. The parallel between the menopausal women and the “menopausal” television station is obvious: both are on their last legs and losing to younger and fresher women/programming. The discussions about money are handled in the same delicate way as menopause; it is something no one wants to talk about but everyone knows what is happening. Moxie, however, brings both M-words out of the closet.

The documentary includes many zany exchanges, as when Moxie asks her mother “What are you feeling right now?” and her mother (Frances Fisher), experiencing a hot flash, fans herself with a head of romaine lettuce and responds, “I’m feeling quite wet.” But it is this type of pep that serves Moxie well when she organizes an impromptu sit-in to save her colleagues’ jobs immediately after Charlie fires a good portion of the staff.

By this time a romance has developed between Moxie and Charlie that pits menopause against money with—spoiler alert—both coming out victorious in the end. The film also includes a good deal of commentary on PMS, as the menopausal women interviewed in the documentary reflect on their experiences as younger women. (These interview shots are humorously intercut with a scene of a debilitated Moxie struggling with her cramps.) Making the comparison between the painful menstrual cramps they used to have and the effects of menopause they are currently experiencing, the film presents the women as now free to enjoy their lives as older women and to face menopause as a rebirth.

A third M-word that Jaglom toys with refers to the current state of broadcast “Media” with its penchant for sensational and cheap—both in taste and cost—television content. Charlie is interested in the “reality TV” style of Moxie’s menopause documentary, which is shot on location with hand held cameras and uses non-professional actors. Charlie also identifies its suitability for niche market cable TV, seeing it as a more crass version of programming on the Oprah Channel.

“Home Made Menstrual Period for Game-Playing With Doctors”

May 14th, 2014 by Holly Grigg-Spall

(photo by Holly Grigg-Spall)

In the past few weeks I have been meeting with women’s health activist Carol Downer to collaborate on a new book. She shared with me a work published in 1969 that was a catalyst for her development of the self-help movement and feminist women’s health clinics – ‘The Abortion Handbook’ by Patricia Maginnis and Lana Clark Phelan – which is extremely hard to get hold of these days (Carol found her current copy on Ebay for a significant sum). This book has a strikingly contemporary tone- snarky, conversational, with a lot of black humor. It is also conspiratorial with very much an “us” (women) against “them” (medical establishment) tone. It’s something like ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ by Helen Gurley Brown, but with a recipe for a “home made hemorrhage” instead of a “fabulous dinner.”  That is, the writers outline ways in which women could circumvent the restrictions on abortion access of the time in creative, guerrilla-style ways in order to have a legal abortion. One of these is getting an IUD inserted in the early stages of pregnancy.

In an chapter entitled ‘The Loop Can Be Your Little Friend’ the writers provide women who have missed a period with a plan for persuading a doctor to insert an IUD, when, at the time, it was required that this be done during a woman’s menstruation, in part, it is claimed here, to ensure that an abortion would not be the outcome. Firstly the woman makes the appointment as soon as possible, not waiting for a pregnancy test to confirm, as, they say, she can always pull the IUD out herself later if she doesn’t want it as a contraceptive. Then:

“Buy some raw, fresh beef liver…dip your well-scrubbed forefinger into the blood on the raw liver and rub this bloody finger into your vaginal tract. Go way up, beyond your cervix, not just the opening. Menstrual blood collects in the back of the vagina, so be sure and put some there to make it look more authentic…if you wear a tampon, use a bit more blood before you insert it so there will be discoloration on the tampon. Do not remove the tampon before you see the doctor or loop-installer…if you use an external sanitary napkin, smear a bit of beef blood down the center of the napkin just as your natural menstrual flow would be distributed…not side-to-side and end-to-end like butter on bread.

(Sorry if this makes you feel sick, but this whole business nauseates us. We’d like to get out of this whole trickery business, and we will, just as soon as doctors get out of the abortion business so all this planned deception can stop)

Be sure to smear your vaginal interior lightly also, as this napkin-evidence may be removed by a nurse, and it would be hard to explain you nice, bloodless vagina after that bloody napkin. For heaven’s sake, don’t douche before adding your bloody, dramatic “proof of period.” Keep yourself naturally revolting and smelly to get even for this humiliation.”

Once the IUD is installed the writers suggest the woman go about exercising vigorously, swimming, horse back riding, dancing, moving pianos and having sex in order to help the IUD act as a fertilized embryo remover. They conclude:

“This has worked many times for desperate women lacking money for proper medical care, and who hadn’t the stomach for self-surgery. It is certainly worth a trial. Except for your spiritual humiliation for being forced to deception, it is certainly harmless to you physically.”

Reading this I was reminded of how today we see menstrual activists stain white jeans with fake menstrual blood to confront the menstrual taboo in public or create accessories like the Stains by Chella Quint, that are an attachable fake period of sorts, in order to question the need to be secretive about this natural bodily function. On the television show ‘Nashville’ a main character used animal blood to fake a miscarriage for the observation of her husband in order that he remain married to her (it’s complicated, but a great show, you should check it out!). I was also reminded of the study from 2012 that claimed 38% of women have used having their period as a way to avoid an activity they did not want to do at the time. 20% said they have used their period as an excuse not to go into work. The study did not show how many women are actually having their period when they do this or how many are pretending to be having their period.

I’m interested to hear if others have read this book and thoughts on how it perhaps feeds into the idea of using a “fake period” as a form of activism or protest. Of course, here the fake period is suggested for a practical purpose, obtaining an abortion when one would otherwise not be able to do so, however it is also an act of rebellion against the medical establishment’s efforts to control women’s bodies.

No Snack, Just Tampons

April 24th, 2014 by Heather Dillaway

I was flipping through the May 2014 issue of Working Mother Magazine the other day and landed upon a small article about a working mother’s recent “faux pas”: on a “crazed morning” she accidentally packed her bag of tampons in her 7-year-old son’s camp bag and took her son’s snack to work with her. Not only did this mistake leave her son without a snack for the day but also with an “inappropriate” item in his camp bag. The article, titled “The Big Switch,” told of this mother’s horror when she realized that she packed tampons in her son’s camp bag. It told of the constant agony and mortification she felt in just thinking about what might happen at school if anyone found the tampons in her son’s bag. She called her friends and they laughed, offering no advice. She braced herself for the end of the day but, when the end of the day came, she found out that her son had received a special treat of Oreos at school because he had no snack. Her son arrived home happy and unphased. The story ends without us finding out whether the son ever even realized that he had tampons in his school bag. We are also left to think, “Phew, disaster averted.”

Mothers naturally make mistakes all of the time (indeed, it’s maybe one of the things we do best!). However, this mistake was high stakes because it challenged an important social norm: a concealment norm. Women should not let anyone know that they menstruate and they should definitely not involve and/or show kids the evidence. This mother worried for her son’s potential willingness to “share” his knowledge of the tampons in his bag among his friends. She envisioned moments within which everyone at camp would know that she had packed tampons in her son’s bag and was concerned about potential repercussions. This mother worried that camp counselors might even call Protective Services if they found out about the tampons in her son’s bag, and that other parents might find out and complain as well. She knew there could be real consequences….but there weren’t consequences. In fact, in the end, this mistake seemed trivial. Perhaps the son saw the tampons and didn’t think they were a big deal, or perhaps he never saw them.

When we go against concealment norms and “show” to others that women/moms menstruate, we realize exactly how powerful those concealment norms are. This mother spent an entire day on the edge of her seat, unable to engage in her paid work, worried about what would happen to her son and to her because of this mistake. She thought about all of the possible problems and solutions, and engaged in quite a bit of emotional work trying to deal with the fact that she had made this mistake. This illustrates exactly how much work women invest in the concealment of menstruation, how much time and energy it entails yet also how fragile concealment is over time. Women must continually engage in concealment (and also be ready to do damage control) to make certain that menstruation can remain hidden.

This is also a story about how working mothers are constantly negotiating whether they are “good” mothers. This mother provides lots of excuses for why the “big switch” happened – everything from having deadlines at work to being a single mother. Thus we see another set of social norms at work as well in this story: social norms about who is a “good” mother. According to our social norms, there is only one kind of good mother at the end of the day: the mother who does not make mistakes. How silly is that? The ending of the story even seems to suggest how silly these motherhood norms might be, because the son turned out just fine — tampons didn’t hurt him, nor did his lack of snack.

In the end, this small story is just one more representation of the tightropes that women walk, and the impossible demands that social norms place on women. Let it be known that women menstruate and that mothers make mistakes. No social norm has the power to discount those facts.

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.