Outside basic instruction for adolescents, it seems adult women don’t read or talk about something that, for most of us, occurs ever 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

 

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

 

Menstruation At TV Tropes

The Menstrual Menace

No Periods Period

All Periods Are PMS

As pointed out by Jezebel: The mainstream media is out to teach you that menstruation is terrifying. (By the way, fear of Menstruation= Menophobia.)

Now for the books which are well-known in The West for being About Menstruation. It’s a pretty short list?

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Are You There God, It's Me Margaret menstruation

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.

More recently, Jeff Kinney, author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, was asked about his childhood influences. 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 his 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.

The Red Tent

The Red Tent Menstruation

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.

 

Rebecca’s anger was terrible. “You mean to tell me that her blood was wasted? You shut her up alone, like some animal?”

 

“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 afriad, 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.”

Carrie

Carrie menstruation

Carrie director Kimberly Peirce tells us why tampons are still terrifying at io9

Review of Carrie from FSR

And here is Stephen King himself talking about Carrie.

Is Carrie one of the few popular novels with strong menstruation symbolism running throughout which is also written by a man?

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.

Bad Reputation

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.

 

A Positive Response To Menstruation

Ariel Levy is talking about writing biographically, not fiction. Do we see enough positive attitudes towards menstruation in fiction for young readers? Perhaps the reality is quite different from that which is most commonly presented in stories.

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.

interview with Ariel Levy

 

Related Links

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.

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.

28. Turns out bears aren’t actually interested in women’s menstrual cycles from io9

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.

35. What Life Is Like When Getting Your Period Means You’re Shunned at Jezebel

36. Women Aren’t Run By Their Periods, from Slate