home  Bord cadre
Seeing Red

Seeing Red : Meaning-Making and Resistance in Menstrual Culture

 Sarah Lawrance

Comparing & Legitimizing

Another tactic of resistance that I noted was the respondents’ tendency to compare the film’s presented information to various other sources of information : personal experience, as well as normatively legitimate and illegitimate sources of information.

During the film’s segment on Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), Deanna said, “I remember this... all those women died...” thus confirming that the film was providing accurate information on something she remembers directly from her own experience. As if to keep the momentum of the film’s correctness, she seemed to accept what it said even when it didn’t coincide with her own experience : there was a section on the environmental hazards of flushable tampon applicators washing up on the beaches along the US’s coasts, and she didn’t remember any of this from her own annual trips to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, over the past several years. Instead of critiquing the film, she said, “they must clean it all up before the tourists arrive.” This comparison to her own experience to legitimize the film’s information, coupled of with a willingness to accept the film’s information as truth, again demonstrates the strange contradictory nature of the negotiating process between competing truths.

When something was said or shown in the film with which she disagreed, she would sometimes openly tell the TV that it was wrong, or she would play the “expert” role of comparing it to her own experience of having periods for nearly 40 years, or at times she would play the role of the “mother” (which she was), drawing on the naturalized authority and experiential truth of motherhood, and begin explaining a particular concept to her grown daughters (like the history of pads, the meaning of TSS, her theory about the transition from a patriarchal to a matriarchal society). In this way she was both challenging the authority of the film for daring to tell her how her own body works, as well as she was challenging the information itself by either confirming the messages or shutting them down with stories of her personal experiences.

Other methods of comparing the film’s information included comparing it to established legitimate sources of information, such as science. An example of this is Britney’s acceptance of the field of medicine as the only legitimate space within which to discuss menstruation. Medical and scientific interests are legitimate (to a degree), but social and activist reasons for interest are not legitimate.

These tactics are particularly interesting due to the degree of irony in the fact that she was, originally, the respondent most excited to see the film when she found out it was going to be related to biology, something she understands and recognizes as legitimate and valuable. She didn’t expect that it would delve into women’s bodies on a social level, and reacted negatively because the social realm is outside of her comfort zone. In this way, her resistance was an attempt to keep the meaning and discussion of menstruation at a place where she felt comfortable.

Within the context of menstrual representations as art-a primary focus of Group A-respondents also compared art as a legitimate form of expression with the apparent vulgarity of representing women’s bodies and bodily processes. Deanna refered to art as being aesthetically pleasing, but did not believe that anyone wanted to see images of a tampon being pulled out of a vagina, nor that they would consider it art. “Art is supposed to make you feel better,” she argued, “artists should use more ‘niceness’ in their work.” This suggested that menstruation and women’s bodies were not ‘nice’ but actually provocative and antagonistic. She compared the artistic representations in the film to the Jerry Springer show, thereby making yet another association between menstruation and a social phenomenon regarded with very little social value.

Another tactic used to situate oneself in relation to the taboo is by comparing menstruation to other bodily processes that involve excretion, including urination, defecation, and ejaculation-processes that are all heavily stigmatized themselves. Such comparisons of menstrual blood to other bodily secretions and conditions, as well as comparison’s between pads/tampons, condoms, and diapers for kids and adults perform similar tasks. “People have been peeing since the beginning of time,” argues Deanna, “and we don’t make documentaries about peeing !” Statements such as this demonstrated her disconnection from feminist thought, which would tend to recognize connections between the silence around women’s bodies and gender-based oppression. Instead she immediately made the connection between menstruation and gender-neutral bodily functions, identifying it as “gross” and “messy”-which is in sharp contrast to the film’s presentation of menstruation as “empowering” and “life-giving.”

Similarly to Group A, Sonia from Group B also made a comparison between menstruation and excretory processes. “It’s not only menstruation we don’t talk about, but also poop,” she explains, noting how we try to pretend such bodily processes don’t exist. She mentioned some products that can be put in the toilet which are specifically designed to deodorize the bathroom after passing feces. She also compares this to “freshening cloths” that come with female condoms, noting how social norms vilify female genitalia, while “it’s ok for a guy to have a sweaty gross penis.” In an equally sarcastic tone, she quips, “Or maybe they’re always clean because they’re so stable and manly,” followed by knowing laughter from both her and Anna.

Miscellaneous Critiques

Most of the respondents had an opinion about normative discourses surrounding menstruation, or about the film’s own discourse. While Group A’s respondents tended to situate themselves between the film’s discourse and the normative discourse, Group B actively discussed the problems with normative discourse, with the film’s discourse, and with the film’s inability to adequately address normative discourse. Because this section is a little more difficult to organize, I have divided it according to themes from the discussion :

Birth control as menstrual control : Anna was particularly disturbed by the film’s and popular discourse’s conflation of sexuality with the onset of menstruation. She explains that sexuality is typically portrayed as only starting the moment a woman first menstruates, and describes how this presents a conflict for young women. “’You’re a woman now...’ As if when you can’t reproduce then you don’t have a sexuality.”

Conflations such as this are facilitated by products such as birth control pills that are marketed as “solving” the problems of menstruation. While Janice praises birth control pills (a “miracle pill”) as “fix[ing] everything about being a girl” (such as increasing breast size, “curing” adolescent acne, and reducing or even eliminating a woman’s menstrual flow and associated abdominal cramping), Sonia and Anna are deeply disturbed by the effects of “the pill” on menstruation. What was lacking in the film was a critique of this conflation between birth control and menstrual control, as well as a critique of the pill’s harmful effects, including reducing a woman’s flow, potentially eliminating her period altogether, disrupting hormones, associations with depression, and some women’s tendency to purposely alter or disrupt their flow by taking placebos on the wrong days (half of these so-called problems were considered positive attributes of the pill by Janice !).

There was an interesting difference between Janice’s and Anna’s interviews : while Janice appreciates the pill for its ability to “fix” woman-ness, Anna condemns the pill, expressing her own experience with menstruation as a positive reminder of her femininity and her reproductive capabilities.

“Hygiene products” :

Sonia was particularly disturbed by the film’s focus on “sanitary products” and “hygiene products.” She was upset that the film didn’t critique the lack of fit between the products and their “sanitary” and “hygiene” classifications, and that such a cursory discussion avoids the issue of “what menstruation is and how it affects women and our lives with each other and our sex lives, and those things are easy to not talk about when you’re looking at ‘Are pads healthy ?’ and ‘What are the alternatives to pads ?’” Of all the potential topics for discussion about menstruation, she could not understand the film’s chosen emphasis on hygiene products. She said that menstruation is more than the products used for “hygiene”. The film focused too much on the “clean-up” aspect of menstruation, and she felt that taking this focus was merely a way of talking about women’s oppression, but not really touching on it at all. The fixation on sanitation was generally bothersome to her and did not address women’s alienation from their own bodies. It also overlooked or avoided dealing with men’s misunderstanding of women’s bodies and menstrual cycles, just as it avoided discussing the cultural/social norms and pressures on women regarding dialogue around their bodies.

Interestingly, the in-depth interviews with Janice and Anna revealed intimate familiarity with the products they use, with Janice naming-unprompted-the specific product brand, the colour of each level of absorbency of her brand, etc., and Anna providing a nearly scripted description and history of her product of choice, the Diva Cup. This suggests that such “hygiene” products do play an important role in the experience of menstruation, though the film’s way of dealing with it was inadequate.

The critique of the film’s focus on sanitary products led to a discussion about Diva Cups and how they actually measure a woman’s blood in ounces. Anna describes the experience :

-  A Diva Cup really gets you connected with your flow-with tampons and pads you don’t even interact with your blood ! [...] Tampons are so popular because you don’t ever have to look at your own blood. If you change it frequently enough, you can spend an entire cycle without looking at or touching the blood. With applicators, now, you don’t have to even touch your own vulva. [...] I enjoy interacting with my period ; look forward to it, I like using the cup and seeing the different colours and combinations... the texture is cool, with different layers of stuff floating on top. [...] It makes you more in touch with your blood.

The behaviours, attitudes, and imagery in this description are incredibly transgressive. Perhaps another sub-categorical tactic of resistance to the film’s messages, then, is taking a stance that is in fact “more radical” than that of the film-the transgressive object of discussion-itself. This sort of positioning is significant because it rejects both the film’s and the normative discourse’s attempts to assert power over their knowledge.

Other critiques :

Because there have been so few films about menstruation, there were some far more important topics that Group A felt ought to have been discussed. These included, among other things, the compulsory secrecy and shame about menstruation.

Sonia recalls her mother forcing her and her sister to hide their pads under the sink in a compartment at the back of the cupboard-they were not allowed to dispose of them in the trash. Believing this was the norm, when visiting friends houses Sonia would tuck used pads into her sleeve in order to transport and dispose of them at a later time. Sonia describes her mother as “trying to be the ‘perfect woman’-as in a woman who doesn’t menstruate because she’s ‘clean.’” Experiences such as this are crucial to our understanding of the depth and breadth of women’s experiences with menstruation.

Similarly, Sonia argues, there has never been an adequate forum for discussing the feelings of guilt and shame associated with accidentally bleeding on a friend’s bed sheets during a sleepover and other such inadvertent transgressions. The film also skimmed over the need for better and more frequent communication between men and women about menstruation, on topics like sex during a woman’s period and the enormous set of taboos surrounding that specific issue.

Anna reflects that in spite of the film having been made ten years ago, the issues considered important in 1998 important are still the same today (secrecy, safety of products, denial). While the public discourse about it has somewhat increased, the problems and prevalent messages about it have not changed.

These last few points actually help to articulate more clearly a pattern that has been emerging throughout the course of this analysis : the importance of subjective experience as knowledge or truth. In the process of asserting their own experiences as sources of knowledge about the world and thus their positioning within it, women are actively resisting objectification.

The major themes explored in this project-namely taboo and the social construction of menstruation-are significant because their meanings are deeply embedded in cultures around the world. If the goal of feminist research is to correct for the invisibility and distortion of women’s experiences in popular culture, then women’s lived experiences of menstruation must necessarily be addressed as part of this process.

Michel Foucault refers to these lived experiences as subjugated knowledges, that is, forms of knowledge that are considered “illegitimate” (i.e. feminine, subjective) against the tyranny of “objective” knowledge as true knowledge, a regime that values scientific over experiential discourses, thereby negating human experience as a valuable source of knowledge.

Giving validity to these forms of knowledge creates new modes of understanding human experience and the social world. Unfortunately, however, due to the transgressive nature of such activity, there are few forums where the meanings of these experiences can effectively be expressed and explored. In spite of their fairly resistant attitudes toward transgressions, even some of the members of Group A seemed interested and even eager to engage and express their experiences with the group.

L'unité réelle minima ce n'est ni le mot ni l'idée ou le concept, ni le signifiant, mais l'agencement. Claire & Gilles
© 2006 Lignes de Fuite - Mentions légales espace privé   -   crédits : www.antipole.fr