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Seeing Red

Seeing Red : Meaning-Making and Resistance in Menstrual Culture

 Sarah Lawrance

About the Film

The film, Under Wraps (MacInnes, 1998), is a National Film Board of Canada documentary produced in 1998. A contemporary exploration of how menstruation is portrayed in North American popular culture, the film describes various efforts to break down the taboo surrounding menstruation by bringing it out from “under wraps” and thus demystifying it.

Under Wraps explores several examples of menstruation’s representation in popular culture, including Judy Chicago’s “Menstruation Bathroom” art installation ; Judy Bloom’s young adult novel Are you there, God ? It’s me, Margaret ; the Museum of Menstruation that has taken over one man’s life (and basement) ; a woman’s life-threatening experiences with toxic shock syndrome (TSS) ; environmental concerns resulting from the massive quantities of disposable menstrual products ; and concluding with another controversial art installation, this time Wenda Gu’s “Enigma of Blood”.

Generally speaking, the film has a progressive perspective on menstruation that actively and intentionally transgresses normative discourse.


This project explores the intricacies of how women use various tactics of resistance in their negotiations of the information presented by “strategic” powers, namely the documentary film and social norms, by incorporating an analysis of real women’s experiences of negotiating information from a documentary film about menstruation, in the context of a society where this topic is considered taboo.

Using qualitative methodological tools to explore how women negotiate information about menstruation in the documentary film Under Wraps, this project takes into account audience reactions and interactions during the film screening, the interactions and conversations among respondents in a post-viewing discussion, and a deeper exploration of respondents’ experiences through written personal reflections and individual in-depth interviews.

Feminist research methodology advocates that there is no such thing as real “objectivity” in science, and so highlighting the subjective experiences of respondents and researchers is important in providing context for the results and interpretations of a given study. Historically, women’s subjective experiences have been neglected and pushed aside in science, so feminist methodology puts in place a strategy that intentionally focuses upon these experiences. In the present work, a feminist methodology is used in order to understand respondents’ negotiation of an instance of mediated information about a taboo subject.

My general research question was : How do audiences negotiate information about a taboo subject presented in media ? More specifically, how do women negotiate information about menstruation as it is presented in a documentary film ?

For the sake of time and the manageability of this project, I have opted to rely on a convenience sample of five Caucasian Canadian-born women who are close to me, each with different degrees of English-French bilingualism, all currently based in either western Quebec or eastern Ontario. The study took place with two groups, which I have labeled A and B in order to distinguish between them in the following analysis. The relationship between the women in Group A is that of two sisters and their mother-which, in itself, accounts for a particular pattern of interaction among the respondents that turned out to be quite interesting !-and of two friends in Group B.

All of the respondents have been assigned fictitious names to make the following analysis flow more smoothly :

-  Group A :
“Deanna” is a 49-year-old single mother whose children have all left the home for school or to live independently. She is a tax auditor with the provincial government and has worked in the field of finance for nearly 20 years.
“Janice” is 22, has graduated from 2 college programs and is currently working in security, although her fields of study were fashion design and event-planning.
“Britney” is aged 21 and is taking a year-long break between her second and third year of university studies. She had been studying biology in hopes of eventually becoming a veterinarian, but has now changed fields and intends to pursue business administration.

-  Group B :
“Sonia” is aged 23 and works for an activist research and resource centre. She is also involved in various activist projects, including an anarchist bookstore and resource centre.
“Anna” is aged 24 and is studying psychology in university. She is involved in various activist projects, including a Women’s Collective.

The data-collection process took place in four steps : a short, private, semi-structured interview with one respondent from each group to find out more in-depth information about their perceptions of and experiences with their own periods ; a screening of the film with each group, where I took note of the interactions between the audience members and the film, as well as interactions among audience members themselves ; individual, written reflections on the film and each participants’ thoughts about it ; and, finally, a semi-structured discussion with each group about the film and some of the themes explored therein. The responses were coded and generally grouped according to discernible patterns in the data.

Findings and Discussion : Tactics of Resistance

Using the analytical tools presented in the theoretical framework outlined at the beginning of this paper, we can begin to interpret these women’s negotiations between the information presented in the film and the normative discourse about menstruation. For the purposes of organizing this analysis I have divided the responses into rough overlapping categories-herein referred to as “tactics of resistance”-that begin the project of describing peoples’ processes of negotiating new discursive spaces for themselves among and between the many different components of the regimes truth. The different tactic categories include (but are not limited to) : Othering & Normalizing, Self-Contradicting, and Comparing & Legitimizing. I also include a fourth section regarding audience critiques of the film and normative discourse, primarily because I felt these ideas were significant but did not know how else to categorize them.

Before delving into these specific categories of responses, I shall briefly describe some general observations about the two groups of respondents. Group A was primarily made up of people who adhere fairly strongly to socio-cultural norms about menstruation, and this was evident in their negotiations with the film. The respondents in this group tended to position themselves “inside” or “between” the two competing truth discourses, and by this I mean they tended to struggle between them, trying to create or find their own space.

On the other hand, Group B was made up of activist feminists whose attitudes about bodies and menstruation are actively transgressive, so their responses tended to differ significantly from those of Group A. Group B’s respondents tended to situate themselves “outside” of the competing discourses, critiquing and evaluating both the film and social norms. Due to my own positioning as being more in line with Group B’s reasoning and politics, I had more difficulty “stepping outside” of myself in order to truly understand the patterns in their responses, although I had no problems finding patterns in those of Group A.

Also, because Deanna encompasses the widest range of experience of all the respondents-having been a young menstruator, a mother, and now a nearly menopausal woman-her answers tend to take a prominent position in the following discussion. The amount and depth of her experiences with these various roles or positions means she had much to say about them, and this is reflected below.

Othering & Normalizing

The first two categories of analysis, Normalizing and Othering, are interesting because they overlap and are mutually-reinforcing. The process of Othering involves pointing out someone’s transgression in order to affirm of one’s own adherence to a certain norm. It also serves to distract attention from a person’s own potentially transgressive behaviour by vilifying someone else’s. Britney and Deanna tended to engage in multiple Othering tactics throughout the viewing and discussion sessions.

Accusations such as “That’s not art !” were used to devalue a particular art installation portraying various aspects of menstruation by isolating and vilifying it, thus delegitimizing menstruation-themed art as a valid form of artistic expression. Consequently, this portrays menstruation (or, at least, representations thereof) as vulgar and offensive.

Throughout the course of the film and discussion, Deanna and Britney accuse the filmmakers and talking heads of “making a big issue out of nothing” (referring to menstruation, of course). Through this process they are re-asserting their respective normative positions in relation to the taboo subject. Britney calls them a “group of raving feminists” as a prefix to her accusation, a process which assigns a deliberately derogatory label to people who are engaging in a particular kind of activity as a method of delegitimizing the activity. This activity identifies and labels the speaker as being apart from the transgressors and thus “normal” while they are “strange” or “other” or “abnormal”.

During the film segment about the Museum of Menstruation-which is located in a man’s basement at his home and constitutes a grassroots effort to document the history of feminine hygiene products, social constructions of menstruation, and related phenomena-Britney exclaimed “Creep !” multiple times and had a disgusted expression on her face. When asked later why she made this comment, she responded, “Any guy who is interested in this kind of stuff is creepy,” including gynecology in her category of “this kind of stuff.” She explained that because men “have no relation to it” and “have no idea what it feels like,” they must just “want to look at a whole bunch of naked women,” and went on to describe how the museum was pornographic. “The female form is porn, a nude picture is porn, in my opinion, it’s all porn.” When asked about the diagrams of the human body in doctor’s offices, she conceded that these were different because they only showed a person’s insides, and that it was skin that constituted pornography.

She suggested that the only way a person (man or woman) should be interested in such a topic would be for a medical or scientific reason. This judging of the characters was her way of defining and normalizing her own distance from the taboo topic, expressing discomfort at the film’s message, and reclaiming what menstruation means for her : in this case, it’s something scientific or medical and a private personal experience, but by no means social or historical-and certainly not something to be looked at, cherished, or discussed !

Her comments, intended derogatorily, are particularly interesting because they suggest that men should not be interested in women’s bodies or biological processes in any way, and the reference to pornography serves to situate menstruation and representations of the human body in a “bad” place with other tabooed social phenomena. The entire dialogue is evidence of an uneasy process of struggling to find meaning between moralizing socio-cultural norms about bodies and the intentional transgression of the film. As can be seen in this and other dialogues throughout the discussions, this process often seems rooted more in the fear of social sanctions than in actual logic.

With all of these, the process of delegitimizing someone or something as a transgressive “other” and, therefore, “wrong” has the double effect of simultaneously making the accuser seem “normal” and “right.” This re-affirmation of adherence to cultural norms is what I call Normalizing, which describes the process of distancing oneself in some way from a taboo subject in order to reaffirm one’s own behaviour as “normal” or “correct”. This usually happens when the respondent identifies more with the normative discourse than with competing messages, or is too afraid of potential social sanctions to consider transgressing, and she thus feels the need to assert her alignment with the norms by discursively distancing herself from the taboo.

This primarily took place during certain parts of the film and discussions that dealt with especially graphic representations of menstrual blood and women’s bodies. In these instances, instead of participating in the discussion Britney would begin talking loudly to the cat across the room, or she would pick up a magazine from the table beside her and begin flipping through it, as though to communicate her disinterest in the topic being presented. She also admitted to being shy about the topic, especially in the context of being tape-recorded. She followed this up with a threat to move far away so that she would never have to participate in this kind of project again. Another similar point was when she noted that in class discussions about the topic she never bothered to pay attention, she simply was not interested (in something so fundamental to her being a woman).

I interpret Britney’s active process of distancing herself from the discussion about menstruation as her way of affirming that she was “normal” for not being interested in something as “gross” or “dirty” as menstruation. Her detachment from the film and the situation was her way of rejecting the film’s-and our discussion’s-transgression, while simultaneously aligning herself with the normative discourse of silence and secrecy around topics like menstruation. In fact, group B’s Anna astutely pointed out that it is socially acceptable to be embarrassed about such transgressions, since that embarrassment demonstrates a degree of social awareness of the topic’s taboo nature. Conversely, not being embarrassed about an unintentional transgression can be interpreted as a transgression in itself.

In this negotiation between competing messages, actively delegitimizing the more transgressive positioning of others often simultaneously serves to align oneself more closely with certain norms. In this way, the processes of Othering and Normalizing are deeply interconnected. To apply Mary Douglas, I could argue that the “dirt” in the film left the respondents feeling unclean, so they tried to “clean up” or re-order their respective environments and positions through these Othering and Normalizing tactics of resistance in order to be at ease. This analysis also applies to other tactics throughout the discussion.


I want to begin the description of this tactic by emphasizing that the point of identifying respondents’ self-contradictions is not about accusing them of lying in their responses. Rather, it is to flesh out the processes by which people seek meaning in and among competing messages as they try to determine their own positioning with respect to these messages. This negotiation is a continuous process of always re-figuring, re-determining and re-evaluating our own positioning in light of new information or old memories, and this process is bound to be fraught with inconsistencies and contradictions.

One example of such a contradiction is when Janice began her interview by stating that she is “pretty open to talking about” menstruation, yet she barely contributed to the discussions except to point out how the rest of Group A was “wrong”. Whenever one of the other two women would make a comment she didn’t agree with (which was often !), she would directly challenge them, thereby suggesting that she was open to considering the film’s perspective. She tended to play the role of the “voice of reason,” trying to mediate between the film’s message and the reactions of those around her. It was a difficult position to occupy : trying to confirm some aspects of the film’s messages while simultaneously facing normative and moralizing feedback from the rest of her group. I can subcategorize this self-contradiction as a constructive use of silence : a process whereby Janice engaged in thoughtful reflection in order to negotiate her positioning. This could be motivated simply by a quiet personality, or more interestingly by an inability to articulate a position, or an unwillingness to vocalize responses that might be perceived as “wrong” and thus either “uptight” on the one hand, or “immoral” on the other.

_Deanna began the discussion with a statement that menstruation is an “amazing, life-affirming process,” then later contradicts herself when she talks about her joy about the onset of her own menopause, and throughout the discussion continues to reflect upon her own deep frustrations with menstruation, such as how it always interferes with her beach vacations and how “it’s just a crappy thing about life that you have to live with.” She described it as inconvenient, messy, and an interference in her sex life. At another point in the discussion she dismissed periods as being an unimportant issue, just something the body does, “like peeing and pooing.” These three different perspectives-embracing, condemning, and disregarding menstruation as unimportant-all contradict one another, thus demonstrating a process of negotiation between the film’s primarily positive messages, her own negative experiences, and the socio-cultural norms encouraging women to pretend that the menstrual experience doesn’t exist, or at least doesn’t matter. The complexity of the process of finding meaning amidst all of these contradicting messages reveals itself in these contradictory positions.

The pervasiveness of the norms about menstruation are deeply-rooted. Deanna hypothesized that if she were “stranded on a desert island, if there would be a shortage of pads or something, it would be very inconvenient.” This sort of reflection demonstrates the degree to which these norms invade peoples’ thoughts and operate at a level that is more rooted in a fear of social sanctions than in logic-that, were she stranded on a deserted island, the lack of hygiene products would be a woman’s biggest concern ! This contradicts her repeated statements that menstruation “isn’t a big deal,” as well as her statement that she’s “not embarrassed about people who menstruate.” Clearly if the fear and shame are this deeply ingrained into your thought patterns, then the norms have affected you.

Similarly, Deanna also contradicted herself when she justified the historical shift of hygiene products from reusable items to the disposable variety as being solely due to convenience and not to the shame associated with having to carry around the constant reminder of a woman’s bleeding. She compared it to the parallel change in baby diaper products as being a result of convenience : having less laundry to wash. Within the same breath, however, she also described how her learning about menstruation was uncomfortable, a message passed down this way unconsciously by her parents : “initially it was hush-hush and we didn’t talk about it.” She explained she had actively tried to counteract this in the process of bringing up her own daughters to understand menstruation as not being shameful. Again, this contradiction is evidence that while Deanna wanted to believe that the shame did not affect her and that she embraced the movie’s positive depictions of menstruation, she simultaneously was trying to understand the role that it did in fact play in her socialization into “womanhood.” Wanting at once to be the “progressive” thinker applauded and celebrated by the film, yet at the same time afraid of the sanctions that come with such independent and transgressive thinking, she found herself in a state of self-contradiction.

Finally, Britney’s likening of representations of menstruation to pornography was another contradiction : that images showing actual human skin are pornographic and thus profane while depictions of internal organs are scientific and thus acceptable. Here her logic was rooted most strongly in finding a medium between the illogical normative discourses about menstruation and pornography respectively, which then created internal contradictions in her reasoning.

L'unité réelle minima ce n'est ni le mot ni l'idée ou le concept, ni le signifiant, mais l'agencement. Claire & Gilles
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