Courtney Cox shocked America in 1985 when she became the first person to say “period” on TV. Period, at least, in the context of menstruation and not punctuation.
Flash forward a couple of decades and this year the same daring word (along with a couple of other doozies) ruffled a few feathers in a Carefree ad. At least it did initially. The furore quickly dissipated and the ad now runs regularly, uneventfully, in Australia. We’ve seemingly learnt how to cope without the conniptions.
I daresay it’s the ingratiating of the Carefree ad – with its references to the bits of ladyhood ironically considered least feminine – into our landscape that’s paved the way for another revolutionary down-there-business ad going undetected. Undetected and surprisingly, unwhinged about.
The new Libra ad dares use the P-word again – sure, itself a euphemism but a) “menstruation” is probably too many syllables for a short ad and b) I’d still rather hear period than any other sanitised circumlocution.
The truly startling bit about the ad however, is the way female sexuality is presented.
For most of last year I was living and breathing menstruation while writing a book on it. My focus was on media presentations and sex n’ blood got treated to a whole chapter.
While there are signs that our culture has become more menstrually mature – we’ve evidently learnt not to dial 000 when discharge is mentioned on TV for example – some menstrual taboos remain. Menstrual sex is a biggie.
On one hand thinking of the menstruator as sexy seems outlandish in the context of film and television. A couple of wonderful Californication scenes aside, periods on screen invariably and inevitably disrupt sex lives and give women – and men – an excuse to restrict it to spoonin’.
On the other hand, feminine hygiene ads are in fact full of attractive ladies peddling products to help menstruators stay sexy all month long. In advertising, the idea of the bleeding woman as outwardly desirable is effortlessly detected.
A much more shocking – and far more insteresting – construct however, is the idea of the menstruator herself feeling sexy. By sexy here, I’m not referring to the way others see her – to her objectification – rather, to her being in touch with her own horniness at a time when women often feel – biologically or because society has coerced it – dirty and out-of-action.
The Libra ad involves a woman who, while initially reluctant because of her period, eventually joins her friend to perve on male boot campers.
Lecherous ladies in advertising are nothing new of course; Diet Coke has long been flogged with some mildly hideous Sex and the City-style male sexualisation:
My concept of feminism doesn’t deem women panting over men as something inherently progressive. It’s not the ogling in the Libra ad however, that interests me. Rather, it’s the act of ogling for the purposes of arousal while the woman has her period.
I can’t help but be charmed by TV offering us a horny menstruator.
While a niche genre, menstrual-themed porn – here, I refer to the indie material, rather than, say, the buckets-o’-blood-fetish stuff – hints to the idea that some women are, shock horror, actually randier during their periods. Mainstream pop culture and vanilla porn however, routinely give the idea a wide berth. As in No Strings Attached (2011), menstruation is apparently a time when a bloke is just not gonna get a look in.
Just as I’m delighted when I see a woman on TV who deviates from the young/thin/white archetype that pop culture so adores, equally happy am I to see an example of female sexuality presented as a little more complex – and a tad more messier – than what’s normally on offer.
When periods hit the news, and they do every now and again (no, not once a month – that’d actually be nice, and proof that it was a normal, neutral topic of conversation), my friends have me on speed dial. I’ve been hanging with my Off the Shelf Festival pals this week, though, and was apparently experiencing some kind of menses media blackout, because I was none the wiser about the latest Bodyform brouhaha until I got a Facebook message from my friend Bill that said ‘Quite remarkable’ with a link to a New Statesman article entitled Fighting Snark With Snark: Bodyform viral video destroys commenter.
So I clicked the link.
Nutshell: a guy recycled an old joke about femcare ads being unrealistic (This was at the expense of his girlfriend, whose period apparently resembles scenes from the Exorcist. Nice work. You’re a real charmer.) to made a tongue-in-cheek jab at the company, posted it on their facebook page, a zillion people ‘liked’ it (although there is this ‘fake likes’ issue so I do wonder a little – genuinely – not a lot, but a little), and the brand replied with a viral video, which only took a week to turn around.
Check it out:
Analysis: First thoughts? I did say I like a two-way conversation, but damn. There’s nothing more two-way than a brand adbusting an adbuster. He’s hardly destroyed though. He’s made rather a lot of, addressed repeatedly by name, and given an awful lot of attention. They put the response together in a week, which is only a few days longer than I’ve taken with some of my ad parodies, and they made a whole film with acceptable production values and neat touches. (Right at the end, the mobile phone rings with the classic Bodyform ad as a ringtone, and then the correct part of the song picks up to carry on as non-diagetic sound for the outro. Classy.) The guy in question was an easy target, though, and commented in a way that amusingly got under the skin of a femcare company with the following message: periods are horrible, women on their period are out of control, and Bodyform were terrible for pretending it was all sunshine and flowers. So in the clever-clever video, Bodyform duly apologise for pretending periods were about unrelated lovely fun things, etc., but – here’s the kicker – then agreed that periods are totally horrible – so horrible that nothing to do with them can be shown on screen, and the truth makes grown men cry.
By the time I’d watched it, though, my pal Seonaid over on the west coast of the US had caught up and sent me a link from an ad website, with simply ‘Awesome’ written above it. Huh. Seonaid is a hip cool lady and knows her stuff. She thought it was awesome, thought of me, and sent it straight over. So I watched it again. The (FAKE! TOTALLY FAKE! A DUDE OWNS THAT!) CEO pouring out some blue liquid from a pitcher into a glass and then the recall of her drinking it at the end, that was pretty funny – really sound visual comedy, and the fart was a great afterthought (Teasing a guy for thinking women are classical and not grotesque? That’s a good gag. Oh yeah – playing by the rules of signers in femcare ads, though, she totally drank from a big old pitcher of blood. But I digress.) The original post is a riff on an old joke that people throw around all the time about unrealistic femcare ads of the ’80s, but this time someone actually told the joke to the brand itself using social media, which many people found refreshing.
It was a tweet from my Sheffield buddy Saul that I’d most like to respond to:
Good shout, Saul. I wasn’t sure either. Incidentally – I met Saul after he saw my TEDx Sheffield talk, which is a potted history of femcare advert messages. So if you add my femcare research background, my fanzine shenanigans, my natural skepticism, and my initial reactions to the Bodyform video, when I read this tweet I went back and watched the video again, not with the surprise and glee expressed by most of the people who’ve analysied this story for articles that are now cropping up in feminist blogs, ad industry press and in the mainstream media, but with a need to work out why everybody seemed to love it, and I was left with a bad taste in my mouth.
I hate to be a killjoy. I love joy. I’d be joy’s EMT, do joy CPR…heck – I’d even take a bullet for joy. But this facebook commenter’s post and the response, while funny on the surface, and clearly a lesson for all the advertisers and quite a few filmmakers, isn’t all it seems.
As we saw earlier in the summer, Facebook posts on femcare pages do garner attention, and Bodyform were right to respond (although if Femfresh had responded saying anything other than ‘You’re right, our stuff is pointless, possibly harmful, and we are slowly learning how to say the words vulva and vagina in pubic. PUBLIC. We mean public. Dammit.’ their product would have tanked immediately, which would have made lots of extra space on the shelf for reusable femcare products like menstrual cups, but been rather bad for their business). Femfresh should have responded this way, but either didn’t have the brand knowhow, or knew they had something to hide, and sarcasm couldn’t make it better. I made a spoof ad in response to that Femfresh campaign, you know. Not to go into a sulk or anything, but I’m a little disappointed they didn’t make me my own movie. I’m not in it for the attention – I do this because I want people to engage with their media environment – but at least after that case and this one we know for sure that femcare companies are hanging on our every word. It’s too bad that so far they only respond when there’s an easy target who’s comment plays right into theirh hands. Because this guy’s post and the ‘you asked for it, buddy’ reply both play up the same stereotypes of ‘all periods suck’, ‘all women are hormonal and out of control’ and ‘all men have to either deal with it or be shielded from this horror’ which is not very period positive, and throws in some mental health and physical disability stuff right in there with the sexism. I think the way to explain period positive to people is: the woman is not the butt of the joke.
Here’s his comment (sic):
Hi , as a man I must ask why you have lied to us for all these years . As a child I watched your advertisements with interest as to how at this wonderful time of the month that the female gets to enjoy so many things ,I felt a little jealous. I mean bike riding , rollercoasters, dancing, parachuting, why couldn’t I get to enjoy this time of joy and ‘blue water’ and wings !! Dam my penis!! Then I got a girlfriend, was so happy and couldn’t wait for this joyous adventurous time of the month to happen …..you lied !! There was no joy , no extreme sports , no blue water spilling over wings and no rocking soundtrack oh no no no. Instead I had to fight against every male urge I had to resist screaming wooaaahhhhh bodddyyyyyyfooorrrmmm bodyformed for youuuuuuu as my lady changed from the loving , gentle, normal skin coloured lady to the little girl from the exorcist with added venom and extra 360 degree head spin. Thanks for setting me up for a fall bodyform , you crafty bugger.
Bodyform were eating this stuff up though. It follows the classic advertising technique where the company has to convince you that you have a problem, before they can solve it for you. If you think periods are ok, you probably won’t have a lot of time for people who seem afraid to talk about it. But if you are a company that targets people who think periods are gross, this is right up their menstrual street. Which is why their response video intro on their page says:
We loved Richard’s wicked sense of humour. We are always grateful for input from our users, but his comment was particularly poignant. If Facebook had a “love” button, we’d have clicked it. But it doesn’t. So we’ve made Richard a video instead. Unfortunately Bodyform doesn’t have a CEO. But if it did she’d be called Caroline Williams. And she’d say this.
See what I mean about the totally fake CEO? She’s a made up character. Which reminds me – Richard’s girlfriend is a nameless, faceless possessed child. There are no women in the fake focus group (the fake-us group? the faux-cus group?). There are no real women anywhere in this exchange, with no real voice – they’re simply spoken about. Yet loads of women enjoyed watching it all unfold. I’d imagine the ‘battle of the sexes’ trope provides for a satisfying ‘smug male’ smackdown. I suspect some women who really do have horrendous periods caused by underlying medical conditions may have felt vindicated to finally see their take on things put across on screen. It’s definitely funny that the only graphic description of periods in the ad is accompanied by a subtle zoom out that takes in a conveniently placed plate of red jelly (that’s Jell-o or generic gelatin dessert, for speakers of US English). The eating and drinking menstrual blood metaphors are a little surreal – I’m not sure if they were going for vampire or cannibal, but these bits add a quiet menace that keeps up the horror movie theme running through the whole thing, just in time for Halloween.
Bodyform could have taken this opportunity to tell the real truth: that periods are part of a bigger cycle, can be anything from painful to annoying to no big deal to an exuberant turn up for the ‘not pregnant!’ books, or just, you know, a sign that you are in good reproductive health and everything’s ticking over nicely, like your pulse, and your blood pressure and your peak flow and stuff like that.
For some people, it’s just fine, you know. Periods are a part of life – like every other bodily function. We call them bodily functions because most of the time, they’re functional. Stuff works. And when it doesn’t work, like with this awful cough and head cold combo that is sweeping the UK right now (I hope this makes it into some professor’s pandemic prediction algorithm, but I’m nerdy like that…), you get cranky and irritable and may feel short tempered, like my wife does right now. I don’t think she’s acting like a character from The Exorcist, though. I think she has a head cold, and I will probably buy her some ginger ale to sip and try not to bug her too much. Like I said, this guy sounds like a real charmer. Bodyform is his target, but it’s at his girlfriend’s expense, and she’s not the only one on the receiving end of the putdowns.
The original post is at a woman’s expense. It’s written in a patronisingly innocent tone toward Bodyform, and the butt of the joke is the man’s girlfriend – a woman whose period causes her to become, quote, “the little girl from the exorcist with added venom and extra 360 degree head spin”. He does call out their outrageous adverts, but not for implying that women’s real bodily functions are normal. He says (and Bodyform sticks with this view in its response) that women lose it during their periods, which are unmentionably horrible, and men are the real victims.
I’m not the only one who’s noticed. There are a number of dissenting voices in the comments on the Facebook page, calling this stuff out, but many of these commenters are dismissed with replies that are patronising or accuse the poster of, charmingly, not being able to take a joke because they are currently on their period.
Here are a couple:
I estimate about 25% of the female responses on here are very aggressive towards Richard, even though he was clearly just making a joke. Hmmm what on earth could be currently causing about a quarter of women to act like psychos, lacking any form of reason or logic? – Chris Dubuis
Lol, seems like half the woman on this post have their monthly friend. Good thing Richard is on their mind! – Paul Antoniuk
Here’s one from a woman who wanted those who were not amused to shut up:
Very clever Richard and I like the companies come back……. both VERY clever……… LIGHTEN UP LADIES…….. it’s a joke, a HA HA, a giggle, snicker and or snort…… it’s all for fun……. I found it amuzing, thank you for writing this Richard. it was a hoot – Linda-Lee Bosma
Wow. Effective reinforcing of negative messages, Bodyform. But here are a couple of commenters who do a better job than Bodyform in terms of injecting some fair representation and role reversal into your humour:
Richard, sometimes a man just needs a little more game in order to get a date with a skydiver, dancer, biker, surfer or rock musician. Keep trying, buddy, and good luck. – Liisa Pine Schoonmaker
@Richard…I train at a MMA gym..I train in Muay Thai Kickboxing, regular boxing, and BJJ. I do it while my “Happy Period” is in session. I don’t let it slow ME down. I also do the fun stuff like dancing and amusement parks. So, I guess they must have made the advertisement about me… – Lorelle Massageworks
They did have a particular target in mind for their advert, but it’s not the person above, it’s not Richard specifically, or men generally, or women who have painful periods. The whole thing’s a smokescreen. The truth rocks up 45 seconds into the viral video, when the C.E.FAUX (That works, right?) says:
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but there’s no such thing as a happy period.”
She looks straight into the camera, delivering a direct hit to the Always ‘Have a Happy Period’ campaign. (This tagline was in use in the US, more recently in the UK, and is still around in other European countries. It’s most well known for, ironically, a fake viral campaign that started out as a McSweeney’s article, and coincidentally namechecked another fake exec, but this one was male.) It’s not ok to pretend all periods are a walk (rollerblade?) in the park, but the reverse is also true. It’s not all doom and gloom, and it’s irresponsible to insist it is. Even their focus group fake out (The voice over: “We ran a series of focus groups to gauge the public’s reaction to periods.” is run with clips of men crying while watching a screen we ca’t see.) Playing up the negative maintains the taboo even while trying to pretend to break it down. It may seem funny on the surface, but look below the blue liquid for a minute and things do get scary.
This ad isn’t just a coy game with Richard, though, and it’s not just complicit in supporting men’s negative feelings about periods and the people who have them, or even those annoying old ads. It’s a big ‘up yours’ (as it were) to Always, a coded message to potential customers to laugh along with them at the international maxi-pad market leader’s catchphrase, and a bit of (nearly) subliminal encouragement to jump ship and declare new brand loyalty with cheeky old Bodyform (which many Facebook page posters have now done, including one lady from Canada, who went so far as to say that she had never heard of Bodyform before, but should she ever be in the UK and have her period, she would seek their products out specially, in some new kind of uber-brand-loyalty I have never before seen, except in my head where I covet Smeg fridges and they populate my fantasy dreamhouse).
But back to the ad. Fakety-fake-faker Caroline ‘Fake’ Williams continues: “The reality is, some peopele simply can’t handle the truth.”
One perceptive Facebook commenter seems to reply directly to this:
Finally, at last, we have found value in the truth. By the way, just when was it that man first became incapable of handling the truth? Speaking of the truth, when did we stop telling the truth? Ah! There in lay the rub, If we don’t tell the truth, how on Earth are we going to be able to handle the truth, let alone ever know it when we hear it? – Bradley Acopulos
A good point. Simply saying you’re telling the truth doesn’t mean you actually are.
Bodyform uses a clever ploy but it just reminds me of Nick Clegg. (I guess at this point, Bodyform would say, ‘It’s called a metaphor, Richard.’) At 18 seconds in, the actor hired to impersonate a pretend CEO says: “We lied to you Richard, and I want to say sorry. Sorry.” At the Lib Dem party conference, Nick Clegg apololgised for promising he wouldn’t raise university tuition fees, when he should have been apologising for raising university tuition fees. Bodyform apologises to a guy for making periods look like fun, but they should be apologising to women for playing up to the stereotype that periods turn women into possessed little girls.
So. It was remarkable, Bill. I have felt the urge to remark upon it at lengt. It was awesome Seonaid. I am in awe at the irresponsible and seemingly irrepressible force behind age-old period stereotypes, propagated by people who do their research and should know better. And Saul, it was not a step in the right direction, they were being coy, and unless advertising changes radically, they’ve probably got plenty to hide.
When Arunachalam Muruganantham discovered that his wife was using old rags for menstrual pads to save their family the cost of pre-manufactured sanitary napkins (paying Indian prices for sanitary napkins “meant no milk for the family” that week), he decided to create a low-cost napkin. Read his amazing story of how he did it: It includes teaching himself English and pretending to be a millionaire to get U.S. manufacturers to send him samples of their raw material, and testing his pads by wearing them himself — while also wearing women’s underwear and his own homemade menstruating uterus, consisting of a bladder filled with goat’s blood.
It’s hard to imagine a high school dropout in the U.S. pushing this as far as Muruganantham did with the obstacles he faced — but only because we can take cheap pads and tampons for granted.
So says 15-year-old Judy to her boyfriend Johnny on the occasion of her first period, in this vintage film about menstruation, Linda’s Film About Menstruation. This 18-minute treasure was produced in 1974 by the Creative Artists Public Service Program of the New York State Council of the Arts (CAPS), a program that ran from 1970 to 1981.
Would that cities and states still had arts budgets for these kinds of projects!
Mr. Dad is a syndicated parenting advice column in my local paper, and the September 26 edition featured a query from a dad worried that his 11-year-old daughter may begin menstruating while her mom is deployed overseas (she just left, and she’ll be gone for a year).
Mr. Dad’s first bit of advice is for the squeamish father to find an adult woman to talk to his daughter about puberty:
Your first assignment is to find an adult woman to run point. This could be a relative, friend, or even one of the female spouses whose husband is deployed with your wife’s unit. She’ll be able to walk your daughter through the basics and give you a list of supplies you’ll want to have on hand.
To his credit, Mr. Dad doesn’t let Nervous Dad off the hook, and does advise that he learn about female puberty “just in case things don’t go exactly according to plan”. But I’d rather see more dads embrace the possibility that they may well be the one their daughter turns to at menarche, like this dad.
Heck, they could even up being the helpful, available next-door neighbor in a time of need, like ol’ Hank Hill, in this video clip.
There is much cheering in the feminist blogosphere this weekend, for good reason, as Summer’s Eve has removed three offensive vagina puppet videos from their “Hail to the V” website and their YouTube page. My co-blogger, Laura Wershler, will have a lot more to say about the Hail to the V campaign next week and I don’t want to steal her thunder, but I can’t help feeling a little cranky about the response of the Richards Group (the ad agency responsible for these ads). For more than a week, many feminist critics have written eloquently and angrily about how these videos are offensive on several levels, and the company continued to defend them. But a finally, a dude mocked them, and Stan Richards decided the ladies have a point.
Yes, Stephen Colbert’s satire was great, and I’m a fan — but if I had a nickel for every time a feminist critic said something about it would be obvious how ridiculous these ads (and these products) are if we saw comparable products marketed to men, well, I’d have a lot of nickels. I’m just sayin’.