Guest Post by Josefin Persdotter, Gothenburg University
As I write this, it is only hours until the acclaimed Swedish television program Kobra airs an episode about menstruation in art, and as a growing social movement in Sweden. They’ve interviewed none other than menstrual art and activism pioneer Judy Chicago. In the trailer she jokingly exclaims: “Oh, so Scandinavia’s discovered that women menstruate!” And it seems we have. Or at least Swedes seem to have. Sweden’s currently enjoying a kind of menstrual boom. Maybe one could even call it a menstrual revolution. From my (albeit very menstrually focused) horizon I see menstruation everywhere. During the last year it’s gone from (almost) total menstrual silence to it being in national newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, and naturally, all over social media.
I guess one could say it began last summer. Feminist cartoonist and writer Liv Strömquist (bravely!) did a two-hour radio show about menstruation, depicting menstrual taboos in history, arguing that it ought to be a much larger part of culture. The show aired on prime-time when “everyone” was listening. Being a menstrual activist for many years, I listened with a pounding heart wondering how Sweden would react. Though I’m sure she got some internet hate and many negative comments, the reception from those who liked it seems to have been quite overwhelming for Strömquist, and quite palpable to everyone else.
Instantly, something changed. Just as I had experienced when I met people through my own activism, but this time on a national scale. People began to open up; they shared their own menstrual stories openly on various social media platforms. And they haven’t stopped.
To only name a few of the many amazing things that have happened since then: several menstrual art projects have enjoyed unprecedented attention in the media, menstruation-related diseases make the headlines in the tabloids, several other radio-shows have had menstrually-themed episodes, a menstrual documentary has been made and another one is in post-production, new books about menstruation have been launched and sold out in weeks (!), and on top of that two national organizations for menstruation and PMS respectively have been founded. Menstruation’s become something that’s publicly handled as a truly relevant and important issue.
I may exaggerate a little, but I don’t want to downplay it either, as I really do think that something rather spectacular has happened. First I called it a menstrual spring, then it became a menstrual year, and now it’s going on year two. Could one dare to hope for a menstrual paradigm shift? Or might the public lose interest? I see no signs of menstrual fatigue, but quite the opposite. More and more people and institutions engage in menstrual issues publicly. The need to talk periods seem to be stronger than ever.
Sweden’s got a small population of about 9 million, speaking an equally small language. This has been a pain in the neck in my menstrual activism, until it wasn’t. I was quite jealous of menstrual activists friends who got to do their work in English or Spanish, having so many millions more that could like, comment, and retweet on social media. But now I’ve begun to think the small size might be a huge advantage. I think we have the size to thank for some of what’s happened. It might be easier to reach everyone, to become in some way part of the media mainstream and have a national impact in a small country like this. Sweden has only a couple of national newspapers, fewer television news shows, etc., compared to larger nations.
I post this to the international menstrual community wondering if I am witnessing something unique, or something universal? Are there currently similar menstrual surges elsewhere as well? And naturally: what’s it been like historically? What can we learn from eachother? What should we think about to make these changes last and become real shifts in the menstruculture?
In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post by Elizabeth Kissling originally appeared November 19, 2009.
I think few people would consider menstruation per se a disability, with exceptions for menorrhagia and unusually painful periods. But I’ve been reading a bit in the field of disability studies lately, for both professional and personal interest, and starting to think about disability differently. I’m currently reading Susan Wendell’s The Rejected Body and finding it especially powerful and provocative.*
She writes of disability as social construction; that is, disability cannot be defined solely in biomedical terms but must be considered in terms of a person’s social, physical, and cultural environment. A person is disabled when they live in a society that is “physically constructed and socially organized with the unacknowledged assumption that everyone is healthy, non-disabled, young but adult, shaped according to cultural ideals, and, often, male” (p. 39).
A feminist philosopher by training, Wendell points out that feminists have long sustained criticisms that the world has been designed for the convenience of men and male bodies.
In many industrialized countries, including Canada and the United States, life and work have been structured as though no one of any importance in the public world, and certainly no one who works outside the home for wages, has to breast-feed a baby or look after a sick child. Common colds can be acknowledged publicly, and allowances are made for them, but menstruation cannot be be acknowledged and allowances are not made for it. Much of the public world is also structured as though everyone were physically strong, as though all bodies were shaped the same, as though everyone could walk, hear, and see well, as though everyone could work and play at a pace that is not compatible with any kind of illness or pain, as though no one were ever dizzy or incontinent or simply needed to sit or lie down. [p. 39, emphasis added]
It is this physical structure and social organization that causes much of the disability in our society. Similarly, it is the physical structures and social organization of my culture that make menstruation a problem and a secret. I’ve written about some of this before (and SMCR members probably also see Emily Martin’s work echoing here), but was reminded of this issue in a recent conversation with a reporter about attitudes toward menstruation.
The journalist wanted to know if perhaps menstruation was kept hidden just because it’s private, rather than shameful. I asked her to think about the ways our society structures work that compel us to keep it private and secret. For instance, how easily can you find menstrual products in your school or workplace when you need them? (There’s a tampon dispenser in the women’s room in my campus building, but the sign has read EMTY for the all the years I’ve worked there.) I also spoke with her about a terrific study by Tomi-Ann Roberts and her colleagues about attitudes toward menstruation, in which a research confederate dropped a hair clip in one scenario and a tampon in another. Dropping the tampon led the research participants to offer lower evaluations of the confederate’s competence and decreased liking for her; they even displayed a mild tendency to avoid sitting close to her. This suggests that women conceal menstruation for good reason – to avoid appearing disabled.
Prejudice against menstruators is similar to prejudice against people with disabilities, particularly in judgments about competence, intelligence, and strength. Many disabled people do their damnedest to pass as non-disabled to avoid these same judgments. And in most of North America, people who menstruate do their damnedest to conceal their menstruation, because our physical and social structures are configured in ways that make it disadvantageous to menstruate.
Is menstruation a disability? No, but it surely is perceived as one.
In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post by Elizabeth Kissling originally appeared September 29, 2009.
Apropos of Chris’ most recent post, the video of Serena Williams’ new ad for Tampax just popped up in my RSS feed. You can check it out at right.
I’m so torn on this. I’m pretty certain that this is the First. Time. Ever. that the word “blood” has been used in an ad for menstrual products. Do you know what a huge step forward for body acceptance and menstrual literacy that is? When I was growing up in the 1970s, pads were advertised by showing how well they absorbed BLUE fluid. (So were diapers, by the way.) Kotex was the first company to use the color red and the word “period” in ad campaign less than ten years ago. So there is a part of me that is delighted when Catherine Lloyd Burns, playing Mother Nature, smiles slyly and says, “Well, there is plenty of blood, but none of it’s bad”.
But the core message and most troubling element of this entire “Mother Nature” campaign is the idea that menstruation is the gift nobody wants. Can’t P&G (and Kotex, and every other femcare advertiser) just promote the damn products without promoting shame and body hatred? Women will buy menstrual products without being told that periods should make them feel “not so fresh”. In fact, the ads might be more compelling if they emphasized the absorbency of the product and treated menstruation as a fact of life, rather than a secret disaster. Just spare us the blue fluid, please.
In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post originally appeared July 2, 2009.
As I’ve written elsewhere, entertainment media in the U.S. aren’t squeamish about showing us blood: gunshot wounds, horrific vehicle accidents, and surgical procedures can be seen in fictional narratives as well as nightly news. It’s only menstrual blood that must remain hidden.
Another reminder of this phenomenon can be seen in the brief internet buzz last month, when teen actress Dakota Fanning was photographed on a movie set with blood running down her bare legs. I read about this at Broadsheet, Salon.com’s blog about ladybusiness. Broadsheet’s take was uncertainty over whether the photos are real or from the film, and disgust with the
reactions from internet commenters at Livejournal:
Is the blood part of the movie’s plotline — in which Fanning plays rock chick Cherie Currie — or just a run-of-the-mill monthly mishap?
Probably the latter. But that hasn’t prevented the Internet from erupting in an astonished, OMG! WTF? reaction, summed up best by the Livejournal poster who offered a pithy “Ew. Blood.”
[Click on photos to embiggen]
Of even greater interest is the comments at Broadsheet. Although I read Broadsheet every day, I usually skip the comments. (To borrow a term from Kate Harding, I find I can rarely spare the Sanity Watchers points). The overwhelming consensus of Broadsheet commenters was that OF COURSE it’s fake blood from the movie being filmed, because if it were a real period, no one would stand there looking so blasé while someone else cleaned her up. Apparently, if it were REAL blood, young Ms. Fanning would have run from the set to the nearest ladies room to plug it up, and not stood still for so many photographs, much less allow someone else to handle WetWipes duty.
Telling, no? It’s only OK for us to see this menstrual blood because it’s FAKE.
But this scene from the independent film Rid of Me is one-of-a-kind. A woman sees her husband’s new girlfriend in the grocery, and after a moment of icy stares, she quietly slips her hand into her jeans and then wipes it on her romantic rival’s face, leaving a wide streak of menstrual blood. No words are exchanged, and when the other woman discovers what is on her face, she runs screaming from the store.
Rid of Me is described on its website and on Netflix as a ‘black comedy’, which seems to mean comedy which doesn’t make you laugh. It’s the story of Meris, a socially awkward young woman who moves to with her husband to his suburban Portland hometown, where he is soon reunited with his high school girlfriend. He leaves Meris for his ex, and alone in an unfamiliar place, she makes friends in the local punk scene.
When Meris is baffled at being terminated from employment at the candy shop a few days after the menstrual scene shown above, her officious co-worker Dawn tells her that it’s because of the disgusting thing she did: not only the assault, but “touching your own menses”. But the menstrual assault gives her street cred in her new community. When her BFF Trudy asks why she did it, Meris sighs and says, “It had to be done”.
But did it? While the new punked-out Meris is more confident, the use of her menstrual blood doesn’t read as an empowering act in the way of riot grrrls throwing used tampons on stage. This seems meant to embarrass or punish a sexual rival, a reinforcement of menstruation as a stigma.
You’re busy celebrating Women’s History Month, the Ides of March, Pi(e) Day, St. Patrick’s Day, not to mention Spring Break and numerous lesser known awareness days and months. But don’t let Endometriosis Awareness Month slip away.
Endometriosis — when the uterine lining or endometrium grows outside of the uterus, most commonly elsewhere in the abdomen on the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and ligaments that support the uterus; the area between the vagina and rectum; the outer surface of the uterus; and the lining of the pelvic cavity — affects at least 6.3 million women and girls in the U.S., 1 million in Canada, and millions more worldwide, according to the Endometriosis Association. It frequently results in very painful menstrual cramps and other symptoms, and is notoriously hard to diagnose. There is no known cause, and while there are many treatments, there is no real cure.
So what can you do this month? Just talking about endometriosis — acknowledging it exists or sharing your own story might help a teenage girl realize that those gut-stabbing cramps aren’t normal or another woman to know that it’s not all in her head.
Feminists of a certain age may recall debates about changing sexist language, and the ways feminists were once mocked for insisting on replacing sex-specific terms such as policeman with police officer, fireman with firefighter, stewardess with flight attendant and the so-called generic pronouns he and him with he or she, him or her or they and their. When I tell you that students in my Cultural Studies class last fall asked why Althusser only wrote about men, it’s easy to think those battles have been won. But only about half of the 50 U.S. states have changed their official government documents to use gender-neutral language.
The fact that today’s young people do not understand the generic use of man is just one indicator of the power of language. It matters which words we use to name and describe our world; language both reflects and shapes the way we see the world and our place in it. As a feminist scholar of media and women’s health and sexuality issues, I’ve become increasingly mindful of how labels can be inclusive or exclusive. Anyone who cares about public health usually tries to use the most inclusive labels possible. That’s why blood banks ask if you’ve had sex with men who have sex with men, for example, instead of asking if you’re gay.
Much of my published research deals with media representations of menstruation, so it caught my eye last month when a prominent women’s studies professor posted the following remark on a very active women’s studies mailing list:
There is something a bit problematic going on in menstruation politics. It seems we are required, for sake of politeness to male-bodied transgenders, to pretend that men menstruate too.
She then quoted a paragraph from a book review that referred to radical menstruation and used the term menstruators rather than women or women who menstruate. (Full disclosure: I recognized immediately that the book had to be New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation by my good friend Chris Bobel, a brilliant ethnographic study of feminist activism around menstruation.)
I cite this example without naming the professor or the list because I am neither interested in calling out an individual nor shaming a group. I cite it because I want to talk about why it is important to write of menstruators, not merely a matter of politeness to transmen. (It should go without saying that politeness to transmen is also important.)
Menstruation exists at the crossroads of sex and gender, as Chris wrote in New Blood. It is a biological function, but like every other biological function its meanings are cultural, and the biology cannot be separated from the culture. The activists Chris interviewed emphasized two important biological facts often overlooked in our cultural interpretations of menstruation:
Not all women menstruate.
Not only women menstruate.
Some women don’t menstruate because of diseases, cancers, surgeries, pregnancy (although they may still bleed) or menopause. Other women don’t menstruate because they don’t have functioning uteruses, fallopian tubes or vaginas; maybe they were born that way or maybe they are transwomen. And yes, there are some people who don’t identify as women who do menstruate. Some of them are transmen. Some of them are intersex. Some may have fully functioning uteruses, ovaries and vaginas but may identify as genderqueer, transgender, third gender or something else entirely. They are menstruators, but they are not women.
Calling them menstruators is just like changing other biased language. It helps us tell the truth about our lives, and challenge both gender essentialism and biological determinism. It reminds us that our bodies do not determine our identities, and that we are so much more than merely bodies. Some of us are people who happen to menstruate, some of the time. Using menstruators instead of women also helps make vital health information available to everyone who needs it—not just women.
In Washington, the state where I live, the legislature just unanimously approved a bill that is the fifth and final installment of a multi-year effort to replace male-dominated language from the state code with gender-neutral language. Under the new code, penmanship will become handwriting, freshmen will be first-year students and watchmen will become security guards.
I watched it, I enjoyed it, I shared it, but I couldn’t ignore this other blog post title forming in my head after the first viewing:
“OMG! They’ve used an educational rap!” say several slam poets and rap battlers (including a statistically small number of female rap battlers) at once as they collectively facepalm.
Yeah, so, there’s that. A number of readers will know I perform regularly on the spoken word scene and I’m on my university’s slam team. Lately, there’s been a little more slam/battle crossover in the spoken word universe, so I thought I’d check in with a few pals for some peer review. They’ve each agreed to weigh in below on their impressions of the video’s effectiveness from a wordsmith’s perspective.
Sticking with the marketing point of view though, cultural appropriation of rap for commercial purposes is such an old trope that it’s more status quo than newsworthy. In fact, in this particular advert, I really think that the usual criticism is mostly offset by the genuine use of rap as protest against disposables.
Interesting as it might be to me, I know that the femcare industry and most consumers don’t need to read a peer review of the authenticity of the rap battle. I had a hunch that Mooncup’s choice to adhere to some of the conventions of the genre has actually helped them get the message across more effectively (and certainly more effectively than more typical #OMGRAP ads currently making the rounds).
I don’t think it’s a gratuitous use of rap. I think it’s a well observed and effective pastiche.
When I got in touch with Mooncup last week to get the stats for last Friday’s post, I also checked out the origin story for the rap battle. Kath Clements, their Campaigns and Marketing manager, was happy to share their process:
“It was a real collaborative effort between Mooncup and [the ad agency] St. Luke’s. We needed a device for positioning a debate and a conceptual framework – we put it in our natural habitat which is the toilet! We were aware we were appropriating a thing with cultural connotations, so we tried to do it with finesse.”
I asked her about how it was written, and she told me that St. Luke’s worked with a producer who battles in his free time, and liked the concept enough to help them out and write it pro bono. He also coached the actors who play Tampon (who has actually rapped before in her own right) and MCUK (I just got that joke), who appeared in Mooncup’s last viral ad campaign.
With that insight, it looked to me like I could analyse the battle in good conscience. See, I really like the wordplay, puns and syncopation of classic freestyling, and my twelve-year-old self delightedly and ignorantly partook in gentle games of The Dozens with my middle school pals. The casual sexism and homophobia that I’ve witnessed on the current battle scene puts me off, though. I valued this ad’s depiction of women in a rap battle scenario. So I wanted to check out my theory that the quality of the pastiche and the rhyme are part of the payoff for this ad.
The first bit of commentary comes from Harry Baker, who’s been on Don’t Flop but who also raps about maths and slams about dinosaurs, both of which are more my speed.
“I think it’s almost too obvious that it’s made up of key statistics made to rhyme, but I guess that is the point of the advert. Things like the ‘no strings attached’ line would get a reaction from a crowd probably. So first reaction is ‘eye roll’ + ‘rap to get down with the kids’ but the rhyme/hook is there. For me I’m fine with it being a rap battle between two women, and it makes sense as a way of A vs B advert information, but the rhymes themselves aren’t really good enough to get away with it, or do the genre justice – I guess it’s good they want to use the format in mainstream media (pastiche is a great word) but what I would watch for/do in a rap battle is the intricate word play and rhyme schemes which I feel this lacks!”
Next up was Paula Varjack, originator and host of the Anti-Slam:
“Cheesy rap as an advertising device has been in effect since the eighties. I think the device only works if the rhymes are very clever or funny or both. Like a bad slam poem this doesn’t totally work as its more didactic than clever, and definitely not funny enough. I’m not sure I would have watched to end unless you asked me, and it’s only a minute and a half long. But as advertising for menstrual products go, it’s nice to not have abstract scenes of tennis playing and the like and I did actually glean info about Mooncups. Also I give them a couple points for rhyming mental with lentil.”
So the first two responses swung more toward the #OMGRAP side of the cringe-o-meter.
I spoke next to Kate Garrett, my captain on the Sheffield Hallam University slam team.
“Wow – first impression is, yes a bit cheesy as many ads are, but it’s also wicked cool and far more clever than most. I enjoyed that. In the case of women selling femcare, I think that’s a good device and empowering, that side of it isn’t cheesy – I just find most ads cheesy because they’re ads. Also as the Tampon Crew started the rap battle, it’s showing how those companies are quietly bullying us all into using what’s already widely known, and trying to bully other options out of the market by going, ‘ew weird reusable femcare omg go away’. So if anyone wakes up to that, the ad’s done a great service. Mooncup had good rhymes, and great lines ‘we only collect from the menstrual flow’ and ending the ad with ‘no strings attached’ – love both of those, great wordplay (I like ‘flow’ because a rap is someone’s ‘flow’ as is the intended meaning in this context, and obviously strings/tampons – excellent …)!
“Nothing particularly jumped out as a bad rhyme, it scans well and seems to work, however, I’d say they shouldn’t use the phrase ‘it’s making me mental’ just to rhyme with ‘lentils’. There are other words and other rhymes more suitable. In an advert empowering women to make informed choices, which is refreshingly free from the usual sexist stuff, it’s probably better not to use any ablist language either. Then again, the phrase came from Tampon Crew, among several insults, so I guess they could’ve been making a complicated point about tampon companies being bullies by giving them certain language? I’m not sure now. Could’ve been lazy writing, could’ve been super clever subtext.
“Anyway. I also loved that Mooncup were honest about loving the earth in the face of being called tree-hugging hippies and whatever else. The Mooncup Crew clearly don’t care what people think in this rap battle, which is ace. In a rap battle, if the other person can’t insult you, you win! I prefer this ad over other femcare ads. I actually started mentally blocking ads for tampons and sanitary towels years ago, but this ad is totally honest, clever and genuine – it uses words like “menstrual” which I’m not sure I’ve even heard in an ad for tampons!”
Regarding mental/lentils: In real life, the intersectionality of oppression means avoiding the word ‘mental’ to challenge mental health stigmas at the same time as challenging the menstrual ones. Examining all of Tampon’s lines, though, I think Kate may be right about the super clever subtext.
Throughout the rap, here’s what Tampon is says about herself:
She is criminally dismissive of outer space
She has no qualms about repeated name calling and putdowns
She uses the phrase tree hugging hippies, so she stereotypes people
She uses the word mental when describing her own escalating emotional state after considering the implications of reusable femcare gaining in popularirty and stubbing her out once and for all.
This is a clever way of alienating Tampon from the audience, it’s a little bit Brechtian, and works in Mooncup’s favour. Kate’s right: In rap battles, blatantly ignoring a dis and coming back with a better one is in keeping with the genre. But maybe next time they could try to find another rhyme or have Mooncup use counterspeech to call her on it within the ad. After all, most people watch viral videos and move on – there’s not a lot of time for deeper analysis.
To round off all that food for thought, I asked the University of Sheffield’s slam team captain, for balance. He’s a good guy, when we’re not in direct competition on stage. He thought the battle format was essential for allowing a reusables company to challenge the disposable femcare industry. Here’s Jack Mann, captain of Dead Beats Poetry Society:
“Rap as a medium for advertising always seems cheesy, however I didn’t know about Mooncups, and so I followed the link to see what they were. As such, the ‘cheese’ was necessary for awareness and, in such an ephemeral zone as online media, worked exactly to spark intrigue. It’s a parody, soI knows that it isn’t to be taken seriously as a medium, however as a poem in that sense is spot on ! it pits them as equals, as if that’s assumed.”
I point out that the Tampon and the Mooncup don’t have equal time – that after the first round, Mooncup actually has two extra lines per round to make its point and subtly influence the viewer: not only do Tampon’s excuses seem shorter and whinier, but Mooncup grows more articulate as each round continues.
Back to Jack:
“Because [Mooncup] want to usurp the grip of the tampon without seeming like upstarts, the only way to do that is to forget that they aren’t on the same level and then use the language behind the established leader to assert that the tampon is not just (relatively) silly but no longer on the same level. In a live battle she would potentially be scored down for exceeding the time limit, but because of crowd reaction would invariably score higher – same as with slams – if a poet pleases the crowd, the crowd then usually influences the judges who then want to please the crowd also.”
These guys all took my questions seriously, scored the Mooncup rap as if there were weighing in after a battle or judging a slam, and answered my slightly tongue-in-cheek queries about the battle rules honestly. It looked overall, whether they thought the rhymes were cheesy or not, that this worked.
I asked Erica Mitchell Packington, social media tech consultant and Chair of Sheffield Steel Rollergirls why it works.
“I think it’s clever, funny, the rhythms work and its factual as well as being kind of kitch and knowing. I guess if I was properly going critique it, I’d recognise the ‘cat fight in the toilets’ thing, but it comes across more strongly as a rap battle that situates the choice in the place that it’ll be enacted and the Mooncup character role models ignoring insults and using stats to fight back against bullying.
“If people don’t know what a Mooncup is, it might prompt them to look them up. I love the way they deal with the whole hippie aspect of it. It’s ridiculous, but I felt a bit sorry for the tampon woman at the end. But rap battles are battles and someone has to lose, I suppose. Might have been better if the victory was softened by her taking a Mooncup or something, but I doubt that fits with the practice of rap battles!
“From a social media perspective, they have really tried to honour the conventions of the rap battle. In the past, advertisers might have been able to get away with a vague approximation of an art form or subculture, but now it’s much easier for the audience to check. The access to the ‘real’ (or at least the real that is shared) means marketers have to quite finely balance the tone.”
Details in this ad are very well observed, and the tongue-in-cheek nod to rap battle as product showdown, despite the initial cringe-factor, is satisfyingly executed. So? Does the battle complement Mooncup’s game plan?
Harry summed it up well:
“On the whole I like the ad because it gets its message across without insulting women, which is a lot more than you can say for many femcare ads and many rap battles.”