Jeff Kinney’s Diary Of A Wimpy Kid was first published in 2004. The twelfth in the series is due November 2017. Kinney originally planned ten, unless the quality dropped off. At this point he plans to continue indefinitely, so long as they’re still popular.
Television tie-ins, film versions and highly illustrated diaries of the Wimpy Kid ilk are all consumed in abundance. Such books should not be despised as merely unchallenging, or even pernicious (as Enid Blyton once was by disapproving parents and teachers); welcoming, accessible work, full of deftly harnessed silliness and engaging illustration, plays a critical role in the reader’s development, teaching by stealth the power of a punchline or a single phrase or word, and makes the act of reading pleasurable in a way that data-driven literacy objectives often do not. Predictable formulae, comforting, unchallenging narrative arcs and repeated re-reading allow a child to build a solid foundation of enjoyment from which he or she can go far.
The Utopian World is prevalent in children’s literature, known by various names as listed here. Move into young adult literature, and the top end of middle grade, and you will encounter The Apparent Utopia.
Besides slavery and dystopia, freedom and utopia, there is one other kind of world you can create for the beginning or end of your story: the apparent utopia. This world appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster. The suburbs are often an apparent utopia, with their manicured lawns and friendly neighbours, but in stories there is usually something terrible going on in the suburbs.
John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
Snails are widely connected with unpleasantness. Katherine Mansfield scholars have called this kind of storyworld ‘the snail underneath the leaf’. Generally the themes of these narratives focus on corruption of the world, or betrayal of others, whether directly or indirectly. (Katherine Mansfield’s short stories often feature actual snails.)
In “The Little Governess” the waiter at the hotel destroys the character’s chances of getting the job.
In “Bliss” Miss Fulton betrays Bertha’s love and the boy and the girl in the park ridicule Miss Brill’s illusion.
What other kinds of stories feature an apparent utopia?
As depicted so clearly in the opening scene to the Netflix series Riverdale, the apparent utopia looks beautiful to the tourist or to the casual observer but awful things are happening just beneath the surface. The voice over which accompanies the opening scene of Riverdale is a perfect description of the apparent utopia.
Blue Velvet (1986) is famous for the utopian opening punctured by death, foreshadowed initially by the gun on the TV screen. Note the white picket fences, the rows of colourful flowers, the manicured lawns. Also the symbolic dream houses. Interestingly, after the man’s death, the camera gives us a macro shot of that perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the wriggling insect life underneath. Insects, snails… it seems life in the undergrowth is symbolically connected to apparent utopias.
In the opening of L.A. Confidential (1997), Danny DeVito’s jaded, ironic voiceover explains how Los Angeles was marketed to wholesome family types, but turned out to be anything but.
Below is a description of Pines, which came through in a BookBub email. The copy describes your classic apparent utopia:
Pines By Blake Crouch
The Wall Street Journal bestselling mystery that became a hit TV show! Ethan is sent to a small town to locate two missing federal agents — but something terrible is lurking behind its picturesque veneer… “A thrill and surprise on every page” (Hugh Howey)
A SHORT HISTORY OF APPARENT UTOPIAS
The apparent utopia is a descendent of The Fall plot, which is as old as language itself:
There was once a time when there was no disease. Life spans were longer than those we enjoy today, there was no suffering, and people possessed magical powers. They could fly, go to heaven at will, and understood the language of animals.
This is the myth of the golden age, found in cultures the world over.The oldest stories predate Eden: Sumerian cuneiform tablets speak of Dilmun, ‘a place where sickness, violence and ageing are unknown.’ When the sun-god Utu and Enki, lord of soil and earth, brought water, Dilmun flowered and became a beautiful garden. Another pre-Edenic tale is the ancient Persian story of Yima, the first human. During his time, ‘there was neither heat nor cold, neither old age nor death, nor disease.’ Yima built a beautiful garden, the most widespread image for paradise. This is no coincidence, as Richard Heinberg noted: ‘The word paradise itself comes from the Avestan (Old Iranian) word Pairidaeza, meaning a walled or enclosed garden.’
But then disaster struck. Myths of the fall are as widespread as those of the golden age. In Eden, the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Persia — one of the few stories not to attribute the loss of paradise to the actions of a woman — the Fall was brought about when Yima refused to do the bidding of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. Divine displeasure resulted in shorter life spans, pain, toil, conflict, and disease. We have been living in this world ever since.
A Short History of Disease: Plagues, poxes and civilisations by Sean Martin
The difference between Fall mythologies and the modern Apparent Utopian story is that it is often revealed that the setting was never utopian in the first place — it simply seemed so. This puts the audience in a state of unease, because from our comfortable position on the other side of the page or the screen, we too, could be living in an Apparent Utopia.
THE SUBURBS AS APPARENT UTOPIA
Aside from small towns next to lakes and forests, suburbia is a common choice for the ‘apparent utopia’.
“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”
Rachel Menken, Mad Men, season one, episode 6, “Babylon.”
Mad Men, of course, is an apparent utopia itself, making Rachel’s lines somewhat meta. Mad Men is set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home, hoping to keep his family safe. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are an apparent utopia, set in mid-century American suburbs.
FURTHER EXAMPLES OF APPARENT UTOPIAS
American Beauty, the movie, and also Six Feet Under, in a way. A family unit lives upstairs from a literal morgue. The apparent utopia symbolism is exploited most when the house has plumbing issues, spewing forth all sorts of vile liquid back into the family home.
Broadchurch, the British TV series, and pretty much any crime drama set in a picturesque small town, especially if it’s a holiday destination.
Tales From Outer Suburbia, the picture/coffee table book by Shaun Tan is an example often presented to children. (I think Shaun Tan’s picture books have a dual audience.)
Courage The Cowardly Dog, a horror/comedy TV cartoon series, which has fun with a ridiculously isolated prairie setting.
The Ice House, film from the 1990s based on the Rick Moody novel. Suburban apparent utopias often feature houses made mainly of glass.
So if a story opens with a happy suburban setting, know things are rotten just under the surface:
Like Margaret Simon, I was an only child suspicious of suburban idyll. I consumed the book, as I would go on, in my 20s, to consume anything by Richard Yates or John Cheever, seeking assurances that a lawn was a poor means of generating certain existential satisfactions. The novel [Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret] begins with its heroine forced to leave Manhattan, with all of its enrichments, when her parents decide to move to the suburbs (for all of the reasons parents have always decided to move to the suburbs). “Please help me God,” Margaret implores. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible.”
The small town which seems picturesque but is actually terrible is so common in story that it’s pretty much expected by the audience. For this very reason, storytellers can subvert that expectation by giving the newcomer a pleasant experience in a new place, even though that character expected the worst.
Suburgatory is a sitcom in which a teenage NYC girl with a superiority complex is forced to move to a nearby suburbs with her dad. She expects the worst — and so do we — because this is a brightly-coloured, well-manicured suburb. The main character does encounter conflict, but not because there is death and destruction lurking under the surface — because the very utopia these people created has magnified their small problems until now they seem very large.
This same gag is used in much of the Gilmore girls humour, which revolves around parish pump politics. Refer to Taylor and his town meetings. The inevitable message: Humans can never be happy. Where there is no outside opposition to unify a community, the community will invent conflict, turning against each other. (Of course, there’s no story without conflict.)
Schitt’s Creek is a different example of a subverted apparent utopia because the town is not presented as a utopia at all — the set designers went to a lot of trouble to make the town where it’s filmed look a lot worse than it is. Although this small town looks dilapidated on screen, it is revealed to the audience that the people of Schitt’s Creek are warm and friendly. This town looks like it will be full of illiberal bigots, but they embrace sexual diversity. The creators were sure of one thing from the start — they didn’t want any bigotry in this feel good show.
Menstruation is depicted rarely in fiction. Perhaps you are rattling off half a dozen stories which feature menstruation right now, 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 across storytelling. 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.
Most ancient stories (up until recently, let’s be honest) have been recorded by men, and men are less likely to write about a uniquely female experience. But when it comes to sexual availability of women, then it does affect men. Take the symbolism of the mermaid versus the siren, for instance, which includes symbolism of menarche:
The single-tailed mermaid and the double-tailed species have not inspired distinct stands of stories. The little mermaid of the single fishtail strikes the onlooker as rather more virginal than the siren who exhibits herself by holding up her two tails on either side of her cleft; she has survived more vigorously in subsequent fairy tales and legends that tell of female initiation to love. The double tail suggests the onset of menarche and sexual maturity (Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, for example, bleeds when her tail is divided into legs and she becomes a human),
Marina Warner, No Go The Bogeyman
Menstruation In Middle Grade Literature
May 28 is World Menstruation Day, which aims to bring awareness to how lack of menstrual management products leads to further disadvantage in poor communities. At SBS Life, Vivienne Pearson asked: Where is the children’s fiction which includes periods? Most of the fiction she located for her daughter is from the 1960s and 70s, indicating there has been a disproportionate lack of stories which include menstruation published since then. This is especially disproportionate given the fact girls are reaching menarche younger and younger. It is now very common for girls to get their periods before age 11.
If you’re a wide reader of realistic middle grade fiction aimed mainly at girls, you can’ t help but notice the lack of 9, 10 and 11 year old characters who either have their period, whose friends have their period, or all the worrying and anxiety that tends to accompany the onset of getting a period.
Obviously, people who comment on Facebook articles are a self-selecting group. They are mainly Australian, Gen X and older, and I doubt many of them actually read the article. Of those who did, another large chunk of them have seen the Harry Potter movies (or heard about them), and that’s as close as they’ve come to children’s literature in 20 years. A number of commenters were bored or borderline outraged to find a story about menstruation in fiction in their feed.
Please please dont! Things like that do not need representation in the fictional world
I want to pretend I don’t get my periods. Don’t need to watch it on TV 👎😣 no one likes them!
Comments showing disgust demonstrate the very need for the representation of menstruation in fiction. I’m never really impressed by Facebook commentary. But the overwhelmingly negative response to his article disappointed me, still.
Apart from simple disgust, negative responses fell into three broad categories.
We don’t talk about poo, so don’t about periods.
No one uses the toilet either in movies.
Probably for the same reasons there aren’t many stories about bowel actions 💩!
Probably for the same reason authors don’t write about peeing and pooping.
for the same reason u don’t see charactors shitting or taking a leak
Because it doesn’t move the story forward, what a stupid question. Just to drive this home, why don’t history books have chapters devoted to Stalins bowel movements?
They don’t usually write about doing a poo, or any other bodily function either, unless it’s relevant to the story then those things are left out.
..and why don’t they ever take a crap or urinate? – because the Abrahamic religions have demonized all activity relating to the naughty bits 🙂
In 24, nobody has a pee or poo during the whole 24hrs! 😇
Actually, children’s literature does talk about poo. Often. The entire subcateogry of ‘gross out’ literature exists to fill a very specific developmental period in childhood, during which time we all learn to normalise toileting. Fart and bum jokes or anything containing underpants is THE most reliable way to crack a joke in this age group, lasting from the early to middle primary school years. Scott Dikkers even confirmed that for me in his book on comedy writing — don’t pull out the bum joke too early because it’s the pinnacle.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not making an argument for periods to be included in the gross out genre. The history of misogyny, taboo, disgust and ostracisation is too strong and present for that treatment. Including period blood in gross out gags would further stigmatise the process. I am in full favour of more naturalistic and regular mention of periods in realistic, middle grade fiction especially.
Judy Moody is a nine-year-old third grader. It is odd that Judy Moody isn’t thinking about periods, isn’t touched by prepubescent hormones, and that none of her friends have either.
Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine is the same age as Judy Moody. Clementine is curious and anxious and looks to the future, often getting things wrong. But not once has she given a thought to impending puberty.
I can say the exact same thing about other main characters in realistic middle grade fiction starring girls.
Part of this problem is down to a wider trend: The preference of ‘tomboy’ girls over ‘girly girls’ as main characters. Tomboyish, hyperactive girls comprise the majority of main characters of middle grade fiction, partly because they are so driven and interesting. (This switches around in YA, to the chagrin of agents looking for self-driven, sassy girls in their #mswl.) Girly-girls sit still and do as they’re told. They’re cast as opponents to our tomboy heroes. This in itself is problematic. I’ve written about that elsewhere, but didn’t mention the unintended consequence of complete erasure of periods in realistic middle grade fiction. Clementine is a wiry, prepubescent character and I’m not arguing that Clementine per se should have been about periods. I’m saying that’s all there is, for 8 year old girls who will start menstruating the following year. There’s nothing for them. It’s not even covered in schools until they know all about it through hands on experience.
Another possible issue: The adult gatekeepers of kidlit think boys will be icked out by any talk of periods, and even if they’re not, boys may conclude books including menstruation are not for them. This halves your potential book sales, and means these books won’t be purchased by schools in class sets. In smaller markets, like that in Australia, if a book isn’t going to be purchased by schools it may not break even. (It’s worth saying at this point that John Marsden does mention menstruation a couple of times in his Tomorrow When The War Began series, which is purchased in bulk by high school English departments across Australia and New Zealand. The action plot and the large number of boys in the cast no doubt compensates.)
We don’t talk about masturbation, so don’t talk about periods.
If we follow your logic, why did Harry Potter never have a wet-dream? Be careful what you wish for.
I ejaculated in my pants today and would like to drop that into a conversation with someone.
There is also a need for wider portrayal of masturbation in MG fiction and up, especially when it comes to girls, but that is a different issue. We can do both. We can fix both.
Also, there’s plenty of talk about masturbation. Where has this person been? The issue is more that masturbation is not considered appropriate reading material at the age most people discover it in earnest, if they haven’t already. (Adolescence.) It is absolutely odd that we only talk about male masturbation, that masturbation is still seen as a sexual failing.
In any case, the idea that ‘we don’t do masturbation well, so we shouldn’t do menstruation well either’ is… ridiculous. We are doing our young people a huge disservice.
Menstruation is never relevant to a story
A number of commenters assumed that menstruation is always uninteresting and irrelevant to plot:
Every word that doesn’t further the plot is wasted. Basics of creative writing
Probably for much the same reason we don’t usually see them on the toilet or cleaning their teeth … routine bodily functions typically add nothing to either the plot or character development.
Whether it is in movies, television or books writers of YA fiction will focus on important plot related stuff
And because SBS used an image from a Harry Potter movie to illustrate ‘children’s literature’, a number of commenters rolled their eyes and argued that Harry Potter would not be improved by inclusion of menstruation:
“Hold on Harry, I know we have to fight Voldemort but I just need to nip to the loo and change my tampon first” Doesn’t exactly make for interesting reading does it
They don’t go to the toilet either. Oh for there to have been a scene in The Philosopher’s stone where Hermione took a dump and Ron and Harry crossed swords at a urinal.
Someone even used her status as an English teacher (ie, not a writer — don’t @ me, I’ve been both) and told us about the irrelevance of menstruation in some hypothetical fiction she obviously has in mind:
As an English teacher, if the content is not relevant to the storyline or character development in anyway then WHY put it in. South Park on the other hand … 😂
These commenters are missing the point entirely. There is so much to be said about the experience of menstruation, which — as I argue above — is far more dimensional than poo. (Unless a young person is living with IBS or similar, in which case it would impact their life, and be as worthy of fictional representation as any other body-related issue.)
Because we still live in a culture of shame, simply by mentioning periods in fiction serves to break that taboo. That in itself is huge.
Men may not realise this and women may have forgotten, but for periadolescent girls, periods are scary. BLOOD. COMING OUT OF YOUR BODY. How much will it really hurt? (All other instances of blood gushing out of a girl’s body hurt.) How much will come out? Will it fountain out of me? Will it come out during maths and stain the back of my summer school tunic, and will everyone shun me forever? Stephen King co-opted the scariness of periods for his debut horror YA novel, Carrie, for which he received a massive advance. The story is part of our lore and has been adapted for film twice. King doesn’t have any idea what the day-to-day reality of menstruation is actually like (see below), but try and tell me periods aren’t anything to write a book about.
Periods change the way girls live their day-to-day lives. I mean, the entire ‘plot’ of their real lives. How does a fictional character on the swim team deal with her heavy periods and clotting? What does she do when periods coincide with big races? How does a ten-year-old cope at a sleepover when none of her friends have got theirs yet? Where does she put her used pads when there’s no bin in the toilet? Is it okay to ask the friend’s dad, since the mum lives at a different house? The plain old logistical problems around periods are endless. How do fictional characters cope with these issues, seriously, comedically? In either treatment, girls can learn scripts.
Periods can hurt. What is it like to live with that pain, and also have to pretend — because the culture insists on it — that pain doesn’t exist? Many girls are dealing with this. Leaving aside childbirth, there are two times in a woman’s life when periods are statistically more likely to be super painful and super heavy — cruelly, that’s when you first get them and last get them: adolescence and peri-menopause. It is just so very validating to read a fictional version of your own experience. This is why we read! To feel less alone. The idea that fiction is not reality misunderstands the entire raison d’être for fiction.
The following snippets just skim the surface of the plethora of ways in which menstruation can be relevant to plot, character arc and theme:
KATRINA McIntosh*, an eastern suburbs mother with a daughter in year 7, was surprised when her daughter’s sleepovers and pool parties suddenly became complicated midway through grade 6. When dropping their children off, mothers would confide that their 11-year-old daughters had started their periods and would not be able to go swimming. Other girls needed discreet assistance to ensure privacy when they changed for bed at night. ‘The girls are still young and they didn’t know how to deal with it. They were too embarrassed to tell each other and it got tricky with swimming and sleepovers,” Ms McIntosh says.
Alice Friend, from central Melbourne, whose daughter started menstruating in year 6, says their school only had one toilet with a sanitary bin in it ”and all the girls were embarrassed to go in because that was like a sign that they had their period”.
Early menarche can mean being forced to grow up before one’s mind, and decision-making abilities, are ready. “If you’re 11 and you look like you’re 15 or 16, people will treat you like you’re 15 or 16.”
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.
It’s worth mentioning that not all depictions of menstruation should be miserable:
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.
And here’s why menstruation needs to be a part of middle grade fiction, not just YA and above:
Ms McIntosh says her daughter’s former primary school provided ”quite graphic” sex education. ”But it was all cast into the future. They never said, ‘It is normal that this will happen to some of you this year’, so it was a shock for the girls when it did.”
A Brief History Of 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 1970s 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
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 by any common definition.
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 of female bodies as terrifying.
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.
I haven’t read these — they’ve come up in my search for material on this topic:
Waiting For It by Christine Keighery (Australian)
Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth is a series of fantasy books. More than one character refers to having her ‘Moon flow’. He writes very good, strong female characters by the way.
Tamora Pierce does not shy away from menstruation.
If there’s a tentpole novel about menstruation, this is it. Or, this was it in the 1990s. 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?”
Worse, bodily secretions are thought to be ‘sin’. Male ejaculation is seen as sinful and private. The advantage of having a male body is that you (more or less) control when this happens. Without modern medicine, women have no control at all over their ‘sinful secretions’.
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 In Fiction 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 gender dynamic in these scenarios) is more triggering for women in general. (Men raping men seems to trigger men who aren’t otherwise triggered by rape — I refer to common male responses to one of the first depictions of male rape in popular entertainment — the film Deliverance.)
In Run: A young Chinese immigrant character is raped in a car by a much older man who controls her finances and safety.
The first problem with this scene concerns 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, under duress, 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 usually see her hunched over crying in the shower), but young Chinese women from a rural area (i.e. this character) won’t realistically 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.
The Last Taboo Is Actually Menopause
Menstruation is becoming more commonly mentioned in stories for and about young people, probably due to period activism and a culture which names and avoids shaming of any kind.
The cessation of menstruation is another matter. Break of Day by Colette is one of the few novels about menopause.
By the way, there’s a non-fiction book by Professor Susan Mattern called The Slow Moon Climbs, This book makes the case that menopause is a collection of symptoms and shouldn’t properly exist as a single concept, much like ‘hysteria’ was conceived last century.
Menstruation At TV Tropes
The lack of women working in film and TV is also clear from the dominant menstruation tropes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As an adolescent I was keen to get my hands on the complete works of Judy Blume, but unfortunately only a select few were available to me. I’ve only just read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Blume’s first and perhaps greatest, and because this year is my year of studying John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, of course I was struck by how neatly this story fits the principles of good storytelling — whether Blume herself was analytic about this as she wrote, or intuitive.