Posted by Kavyta Kay
In recent times, there has been an emerging movement of menstrual activism on social media that attempts to address the absence of positive representations of menstruation. I am drawn to the collective feminist project of challenging and eradicating stereotypes of women’s bodies by exploring how social media, whether through blogging or posting pictures, has allowed young women to cast normal female bodily processes in a more positive light. If for many years, staining has signified shame, it can be said that 2015 was the year periods went public in a social media movement that seeks to discuss and deconstruct the stigmas stuck to menstruation.
In 1978, American women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem wrote If Men Could Menstruate, a satirical essay on how society treats men versus women. In this piece, she humorously describes the inequalities in the social construction of menstruation when she says that if this was a bodily function assigned to men, it ‘would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event‘. Though this was penned more than 40 years ago, it is reasonable to ponder how far this social construction has evolved since then. If the 2016 hashtag, #IfMenHadPeriods, which trended on Twitter is anything to go by, this decades-old critique bears much relevance even today.
Of the thousands of slang terms for menstruation, the period is not necessarily something that comes to the forefront of one’s mind when talking about human rights issues. Yet it is largely disregarded, as the latter, and on May 28, 2014, the first ever Menstrual Hygiene Day was commemorated by a coalition of non-governmental organisations to break the taboo of silence on this topic.
At the grassroots level, we see how menstruation management is a critical part of women’s lives and how some organisations are taking these important steps in breaking taboos. #ThePadEffect campaign for sustainable menstruation highlights the damaging effects of sanitary pads on the environment as well as the Dalit and marginalised communities. It calls for a switch to alternative sustainable menstrual products as eco-friendly and cost-effective alternatives.
The increasing activism around various aspects of menstruation is encouraging – this is happening not only at a ground level but also in media culture. To use a tech buzzword, groups such as Feminism in India and Binti as well as social media movements could be described as engaging in disruption, where young women are writing about their bodies and bodily functions into both traditional media (film and television) and new media (social media and digital distribution).
Historically, film and television does not have a positive track record in portraying women menstruating. A study by the University of Melbourne raises concerns about Hollywood’s treatment of menstruation, and whether it is frightening girls into believing it is worse than the reality.
Carrie (1976) features a scene where Carrie comes across her period in the shower room at her school gym. Aghast at the sight of blood, she runs to the girls in the locker room seeking help but rather than receiving it, she is mocked and laughed at. The girls throw tampons at her shouting ‘Plug it up‘.
So the first message becomes that of horror and fear. Another example of a poor use of menstruation as a comedic tool is in the film Superbad (2007) where upon identifying a period stain on the lead actor’s jeans as being ‘perioded on‘, two young men react in horror to the sight of this.
More recently, there has been a gradual rise of women filmmakers and emerging creative talents who are refocusing menstruation in less negative ways. Amy Schumer, one of the most prominent voices on body positivity and smashing period stigma, often talks about this in her comedy on stage, in film and on television.
Michaela Coel, who writes and stars in the London based comedy show Chewing Gum (2015) illustrates her character’s period not as a poorly inserted comedy device, but in an open, non-taboo manner that is relevant to the plot. Bollywood has yet to depict menstruation in it’s films but there is a new wave of online creators who are placing uncensored women’s stories at the forefront such as Girliyapa.
It could be posited that, though much smaller in numbers, these media spaces driven by women, are filling a major gap in the way that Bollywood and Indian television portrays women.
In Social Media
While there is an identifiable, gradual movement in Hollywood to end period shaming with women taking agency of their bodies and experiences in the limited ways that can be afforded by them, it could easily be said that the conversations on dismantling the taboo have expanded in more diverse ways because of social media.
This technology, through platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and so on, has enabled conversations which contrast with existing patriarchal gender norms to an unprecedented degree. Whereas previously there was a lack of spaces, physical and virtual, to express any feelings on menstruation, presently, one can readily access support on online feminist communities. Furthermore, the recent wave of body-positive campaigns has significantly helped in the push towards normalising menstruation in the public.
#Periodtalk, #Livetweetyourperiod, #AMAMU, #JustATampon, #HappytoBleed are just a few examples of trending conversations designed to challenge stigmas and shaming through its open access forums. One of the more well-known campaigns which garnered headlines globally was the menstruation-themed social media photo series by Canadian artist Rupi Kaur. In addition to being subsequently trolled with malicious comments, Instagram twice deleted the picture citing that it did not comply with community guidelines which prohibit nudity, sexual acts and violence.
thank you @instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique. you deleted a photo of a woman who is fully covered and menstruating stating that it goes against community guidelines when your guidelines outline that it is nothing but acceptable. the girl is fully clothed. the photo is mine. it is not attacking a certain group. nor is it spam. and because it does not break those guidelines i will repost it again. i will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be okay with a small leak. when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified. pornified. and treated less than human. thank you. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ ⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ this image is a part of my photoseries project for my visual rhetoric course. you can view the full series at rupikaur.com the photos were shot by myself and @prabhkaur1 (and no. the blood. is not real.) ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ i bleed each month to help make humankind a possibility. my womb is home to the divine. a source of life for our species. whether i choose to create or not. but very few times it is seen that way. in older civilizations this blood was considered holy. in some it still is. but a majority of people. societies. and communities shun this natural process. some are more comfortable with the pornification of women. the sexualization of women. the violence and degradation of women than this. they cannot be bothered to express their disgust about all that. but will be angered and bothered by this. we menstruate and they see it as dirty. attention seeking. sick. a burden. as if this process is less natural than breathing. as if it is not a bridge between this universe and the last. as if this process is not love. labour. life. selfless and strikingly beautiful.
The debates thereafter intensified to such an extent that Instagram reposted the picture and personally apologised, yet this act of censorship remained in the minds of most. But it is also a clear example of feminist activism and as a moment of disruption through which social structures could change.
Another example of activism was that of Kiran Gandhi’s free bleeding at the London Marathon, the idea being to challenge period shaming. These moments of resistance through menstrual activism are taking place against a backdrop of ongoing feminist debate and gendered political structures. More recently period shaming as a derogatory insult was exemplified in the comment that then US presidential candidate Donald Trump made towards a news anchor saying, “Blood was coming out of eyes, blood was coming out of her… wherever”.
As a retaliation to the current US President’s misogynistic statement, the social media movement #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult sprung up. The aim of this was to highlight that it is not acceptable to use this as a derogatory form of attack. If the bra, or ‘ban the bra’, was a widely used cultural metaphor for feminism and challenging sexism in the 1960s, then it could be said that the tampon is a cultural compass in showing the status of women today in the world.
As discussed earlier, in cinematic representations, menstruation was rarely mentioned let alone shown and if so, this was as a tool of grotesque, horror or embarrassment. In recent years the simple tampon has highlighted an embedded gender bias which has come to the fore both in social media and politically, specifically in the global debates on the tampon tax, a term used to describe the sales and VAT imposed on menstrual sanitary products.
Circling back to cinema, if one were to rely on the construction of menstruation in this medium which have largely been presented as a negative episode in a young woman’s life course, this would be invariably misleading and result in some deeply misinformed notions of what is a natural and normal human bodily function.
The implicit internalised media messages of menstruation as unclean, embarrassing or inconvenient are false representations in film, which as a visual art form, affects the way in which women interpret and experience their menstrual cycle.
One striking example is the omission of the infamous tampon scene in the Fifty Shades of Grey film adaptation where the lead couple, Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, have sex while she is on her period, and Ana is shown to enjoy this. The notion that an ‘other’ depiction of female sexuality was not even considered in the film adaptation is hugely telling in the limiting ways that female bodies continue to be depicted, especially in a film, (otherwise problematic for its ignorant depiction of BDSM sex), which had the potential to demystify period sex. Instead, this reinforced the idea that the concept of period sex is gross and taboo.
Rating systems and censorship are set out to establish a certain standard of decency, but who gets to shape the language, criteria and codes of decency? The male gaze is protected from any images deemed undesirable, indecent or unattractive and herein lies a huge problem as the understandings of menstruation become highly restricted and negative. This is an issue which can be identified in the community guidelines of social media sites but with regards to cinema, there are hardly any stories of this experience as one of power, positivity or enablement.
Kavyta Kay is an early career researcher and Associate Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London and writes on gender, race, South Asian cultural and screen studies. She tweets @KavytaK.
Featured Image Credit: Kiran Gandhi