Menstruation happens rarely in fiction. Perhaps you are rattling off half a dozen stories which feature menstruation, hoping to prove me wrong. But when you consider the impact of menstruation on a woman’s life, and how frequently it occurs, menstruation is heavily underrepresented in fiction. We need more of it. Girls going through adolescence in particular need to read more of it. Menstruation is one of the last taboos.
Outside basic instruction for adolescents, it seems adult women don’t read or talk about something that, for most of us, occurs every single month for more than thirty years of our lives. No one ever gets her period in a novel or a film, unless it is her first period, which is typically a part of the plot if it’s shown…even the famous Kinsey and Hite reports don’t mention sex during menstruation.
– Mentioning the Unmentionable, from In Context
Menstruation In Children’s Literature
According to some critics, the first explicit mention of menstruation in an American children’s book occurred in The Long Secret. In Sweden, a number of children’s novels in the 1960s and 1070s broke this taboo. However, this fact is as conspicuously absent from most children’s novels as other bodily functions. Although it is common knowledge that young women stop menstruating under extreme conditions, very few adventure or war narratives focus on this detail.
– Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature
Below, feminist thinker Ariel Levy explains the excitement of menarche. Perhaps girls in general feel far more positively about menstruation than is depicted in fiction for girls, when it is depicted.
ELEANOR DUKE: You write about doing your first story for New York: “I was writing about an unconventional kind of female life. What does it mean to be a woman? What are the rules? What are your options and encumbrances? I wanted to tell stories that answered, or at least asked, those questions.” You also talk about being excited from a young age about being a woman. What do you think caused you to feel that womanhood was exciting and beautiful, and got you interested in writing about women?
ARIEL LEVY: The excitement, I think, was that we were excited about going through puberty, we were excited about changing, about the future arriving. It was the arrival of various kinds of maturity. I don’t know if it was that we were excited to be women, we were just excited that there was going to be evidence, in the form of blood, that we were old, we were changing, and that everything would change.
A Brief History Of Menstruation In Children’s Literature
Harriet The Spy
In the second half of [the twentieth] century, as feminism launched its second wave, the limits of socially acceptable behaviour for girls were steadily pushed back, and one “subversive” book after another was at first condemned and then applauded. When it first appeared, in 1964, Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy was criticized because its heroine secretly observed and dispassionately recorded the foolish behaviour of adults. Its sequel, The Long Secret (1965), was censured because, for the first time in juvenile literature, it mentioned menstruation. Now both books are widely recommended.
— Alison Lurie, The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
As far as big, well promoted fiction went, this was pretty much it when it came to mentions of menstruation in the books that were around when I was an adolescent. And I’m not the only one to have noticed the unusualness of Judy Blume, before her time when it comes to matters of bodily functions.
In fiction for and about boys, however, anything associated with girls is too often presented negatively. As ever, the attitudes of the writer cannot be separated from the work.
The following remarks from Jeff Kinney stands out to me as troublingly femme phobic. When Wimpy Kid create was asked about childhood influences on his reading here’s what he said:
I also sort of inherited my sister’s Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary books. I read a lot of those, Freckle Juice and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Luckily I got the heads-up about Are you There, God? It’s me, Margaret and I avoided that one. In about the fifth grade I discovered fantasy. You know, I started reading books by J.R.R. Tolkien, Piers Anthony, and Terry Brooks and I don’t know if it’s a guy thing or if it was a condition of the age, but I really liked escaping into those epic books that just took me to a different place.
That comment reflects the attitude about girls which shines through in all of the Wimpy Kid books. Specifically: Girl stuff is gross, girls themselves are alien creatures and in order to preserve your masculinity you must stay the hell away from any of it.
Though not marketed specifically ‘for children’, this story is a young adult novel.
Is Carrie one of the few popular novels with strong menstruation symbolism running throughout which is also written by a man? I argue in my Goodreads review that in fact Stephen King doesn’t quite get female stuff right. Though our sympathies are with the girl who menstruates, King is nonetheless relying on the Gothic tradition
Perhaps other cultures are more comfortable with stories about menstruation. There is Through The Red Door by Inger Edelfeldt, for example, which hasn’t been translated into English.
[H]orror has continued to provide the perfect medium to explore these themes. The female monster has been a great platform for exploring puberty and all its commensurate delights: it’s all blood, mayhem and rage, after all. Think Carrie at the prom, exploding with fear, confusion and violence at her tormentors, triggered by her menstruation.
Menstruation Horror And Taboo In Netflix’s Anne With An ‘E’
In the 2017 re-visioning of Anne Of Green Gables, Walley-Beckett changed Anne’s age from 11 to 13. As a consequence, it was likely Anne would start menstruating. This event is used as a catalyst for Matthew’s buying her a grown-woman’s dress with puffed sleeves, not a Pride and Prejudice type party with the Barry’s to say thank you for saving their youngest from croup.
This change in plot has the effect of asking Anne what it means to be a woman — all the good things as well as all the bad. It also takes the emphasis off Anne’s needing to look pretty and dress up for what is essentially, culturally, an opportunity to put oneself on the marriage market. The addition of Anne’s first period makes the show more feminist.
It is unlikely that Anne will mention her period ever again, however, as the girls have told her it’s a taboo topic, and Walley-Beckett approaches her series with ‘documentary like’ realism.
Menstruation In YA and Adult Stories
The Red Tent
A high school friend was in love with this book and really wanted me to read it. I read it many years later. This particular friend was the earliest to hit adolescence in our class. She was the first to start her periods at age eight, and the primary school even had to install disposal bins in the girls’ toilets for her benefit, and hold a special assembly for all the girls explaining what they were for. Looking back, I can see how important this book was to that friend, who for some long months was alone in her experience of menstruation.
As awful as it feels to be alone, at least there’s the consolation of having passed a rite of passage:
When we stood apart, I saw how much she had changed in the few months we had been apart. She was taller than I by a good half head, and there was no need to pull her garments tightly against her chest to see her breasts. But when I saw the belt that had declared her a woman, my mouth dropped. She had entered the red tent! She was no longer a child but a woman. I felt my cheeks grow warm with envy as hers grew pink with pride. I had a thousand questions to ask her about what it was like and about her ceremony, and whether the world was a different place now that her place in it was different.
In some religious and cultural thought, bodily fluids are thought to be a matter of ‘waste’. Every sperm is precious; every menstruation a wasted opportunity to have procreated:
Rebecca’s anger was terrible. “You mean to tell me that her blood was wasted? You shut her up alone, like some animal?”
I have long wondered if women bleed monthly because of the moon, or if the female and lunar cycles are plain old coincidence. (After all, they don’t match up exactly.) Regardless of the answer, femininity has inevitably been linked to lunar cycles. And of course the moon is heavy with symbolism of its own.
“The great mother whom we call Innana gave a gift to woman that is not known among men, and this is the secret of blood. The flow at the dark of the moon, the healing blood of the moon’s birth–to men, this is flux and distemper, bother and pain. They imagine we suffer and consider themselves lucky. We do not disabuse them. In the red tent, the truth is known. In the red tent, where days pass like a gentle stream, as the gift of Innana courses through us, cleansing the body of last month’s death, preparing the body to receive the new month’s life, women give thanks–for repose and restoration, for the knowledge that life comes from between our legs, and that life costs blood…many have forgotten the secret of Innana’s gift, and turned their backs on the red tent. Esau’s wives…gave no lesson or welcome to their young women when they came of age. They treat them like beasts–setting them out, alone and afraid, shut up in the dark days of the new moon, without wine and without the counsel of their mothers. They do not celebrate the first blood of those who will bear life, nor do they return it to the earth. They have set aside the Opening, which is the sacred business of women, and permit men to display their daughters’ bloody sheets, as though even the pettiest baal would require such a degradation in tribute.”
Lack Of Menstruation Is The Norm
I recently watched Run, a British miniseries created by Jonathan Pearson, Marlon Smith, and Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan, written by Marlon Smith and Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan for Channel 4. Run is a well-written, suspenseful crime story which focuses on immigrant experiences — a welcome change for diversity on screen. Notice it was written entirely by men, though? I made a point of looking at the credits afterwards, because of a particular scene.
Run is no better or worse than any other show depicting a rape scene, but in general I feel women should be called in for #ownvoices critique in these scenarios, since a scene with a man raping a woman (the general scenario) is more triggering for women in general.
In short: A young Chinese immigrant character is raped in a car by a much older man who controls her finances and safety. The first problem is with the camera choices. The camera focuses not on the facial expressions of the old man during this rape but on the young woman, first as she slowly disrobes under duress. If the director was going for scary, he should have focused on the slow disrobing of the man — his facial expression, looking straight into the camera or just past it would have better depicted the terror of our focal character, the victim. Instead, by focusing on the disrobing of the young woman, the show’s creators end up with a scene which looks very similar to a sex scene. Why does this matter? Sex scenes are meant to be sexy. Rape scenes, however, are meant to be terrifying. When a rape scene uses the film techniques of a sex scene, there is a real risk of mixing those two things together. There are real world consequences for the cultural conflation of sex and violence against women, which pervades stories in the current era. Even the male viewer, so used to the male gaze that he doesn’t notice it’s there, would benefit from seeing that rape scene from the girl’s point of view rather than looking at the girl. I see no better way of depicting the terror of being raped by a bigger, stronger man than by putting the viewers (of all genders) into the point of view of the raped, not the rapist.
You know what else could have been done, had the creators really wanted to show how shocking this rape scene was? When the young Chinese woman slowly pulls down her underwear, the underwear is clean. Sure it was clean. It always is, on screen. Yet when rape of women really happens, in real life, there’s about a 25% chance that a woman’s underwear contains blood. Tampons are one thing, and if a woman is raped while wearing a tampon it would be a different kind of shocking to be shown the icky aftermath of that (instead we always see her hunched over crying in the shower), but young Chinese women from a rural area (i.e. this character) won’t be using a tampon because of cultural ideas about virginity and so on. This is the sort of knowledge that only women seem to have, and the disproportionately low number of women working in TV and film affects what we see on screen.
Menstruation At TV Tropes
The lack of women working in film and TV is also clear from the dominant menstruation tropes.
As pointed out by Jezebel: The mainstream media is out to teach you that menstruation is terrifying. (Fun fact, Fear of Menstruation= Menophobia, apparently.)
Related Links About Menstruation
1. Over at Jezebel some time ago, women were asked for their most horrifying menstruation stories. They weren’t quite prepared for the stories they got. I think this link needs a trigger warning, but if you are a man writing about a woman, or having sex with women, or related to a woman, give it a read.
2. A childbirth educator and Doula over at Persephone Magazine keeps getting unbelievable questions from women who don’t know the most basic things about their own physiology. She takes anonymous questions.
3. Have you heard the term ‘sexually antagonistic coevolution’? If not, you can find out what it means here, in which we are told that men prefer the voices of ovulating women over the voices of menstrual women.
4. For an explanation of the term ‘gaslighting’ and why you probably shouldn’t ask a woman if she’s ‘on her period’, see this article from Persephone Magazine, in which we also learn the unfortunate etymology of ‘hysteria’. I, for one, try to avoid the word.
5. What to do if you get your period when you go camping. Handy non-advice.
6. Women Spot Snakes Faster Before Their Period – because there are people studying these things. Now I’d like to see a superheroine based on that bit of research. Instead, comic book world will probably continue with the girls in fridges trope.
7. Your Period Is A Time For Deep Lady Bonding. Some researchers at the University of Chicago made an online survey to gauge women’s attitudes about their period, and discovered that women who belonged to religious traditions that had menstrual rules felt more shame surrounding their period and had a sense of seclusion during it, but oddly they also reported that they had an increased sense of community, from Jezebel.
8. Menstruation And Shaming For Profit, from Be Prepared
9. A Brief History Of Your Period, and Why You Don’t Have To Have It, from Jezebel
10. Menstruation in SF.
11. 1946 Walt Disney Menstruation Animation Tells Us We’re Okay Just The Way We Are from The Mary Sue
12. Why We Should Be Angry About Periods by Clem Bastow
13. The Taboo Of Menstruation from The Telegraph
14. Dot Girl Products, selling kits for girls having their first periods.
15. Is PMS A Myth? from Time Health and Family (not as dismissive as the title suggests). For the flipside of that argument: PMS Is Real, And Denying Its Existence Is Hurting Women from The Conversation and Is PMS All In Our Heads? from Slate
16. The Film Festival For Movies About Menstruation, by Jezebel
17. Pretend You’ve Never Had a Period With Tampax’s New ‘Radiant’ Line, from Jezebel
18. I don’t understand all this silence around periods from The Peach
19. Fifteen Memorable Menstruation Moments In Pop-Culture from The Frisky
20. Adventures in Menstruation from Alter Net
21. Welcome to the jungle: Your First Period from Persephone Magazine
22. Do Men Have A Monthly Cycle? from The Good Men Project
23. Unhappy periods and delivery room poos – let’s tell the truth about women from New Statesman
24. Women spot snakes faster before their periods from NBC News
25. No Menstrual Hygiene For Indian Women Holds Economy Back from Heeals
26. Over at Freethought blogs, a statistically literate person breaks down why the argument that women menstruate therefore they might legitimately be paid less is a bullshit argument. Worth a read, if only to hone one’s own bullshit-o-meter.
27. You may expect a female-issues driven website such as Jezebel to have a lot to say about periods. They do say a few things about periods, and that’s a bit of a round-up.
29. Girls Are Getting Their Periods Earlier and Earlier, and No One Knows Why from Jezebel. (Actually, a lot of people in the integrative health community have a theory: estrogen dominance, which we all have until proven otherwise, due to our contaminated modern world.)
30. Do Periods Really Sync Up Among Friends? from Persephone Mag
31. Menstruation from the ear? Science has advanced a bit since then.
32. A Periodic Table Of Your Period from Laughing Squid
33. ActiPearls and Having a Happy Period is a critique of a ‘sanitary pad’ commercial from Bad Reputation, in which ‘chemical stench equals sanitation’.
34. ‘Women weren’t included in the study because menstrual cycles may cause fluid balance fluctuations.’ That’s from a study on coffee, but makes me wonder — is the ‘complicating factor’ of menstruation (or menopause, or risk of damaging a fetus) part of why so often women are left out of medical trials and studies? At what point is it okay to eliminate women from a study, concluding instead that what’s true for men is also true for women? Many drugs are more dangerous than coffee.
36. Women Aren’t Run By Their Periods, from Slate