Menstruation casts a metaphorical deathly silence across the Western media, a silence featuring nothing but cheeks more crimson than menstrual blood itself. The women's cycle, kept as clandestine as a tampon that is mistaken for a sachet of sugar, earns barely a mention in the mainstream media.
The aim of this investigation is to observe the various representations of the menstrual cycle, and to question our normalised attitudes to it as a society. It seems that no matter how intelligibly the media interpellates its audience, there always seems to remain the assumption that we see the woman's 'monthly friend' as the most exasperatingly embarrassing, cumbersome taboo.
'Advertising of sanitary protection can no more mention blood than advertising of toilet paper can mention shit.' (Greer p37)
The existence of television advertising (which had only been legitimised in 1986) does not necessarily mean that the menstrual cycle is being represented fairly.
The Broadcast Advertising Clearance Committee remark that the category is 'unusually sensitive,' and that it can 'easily cause offence or embarrassment.' (The Guardian 1998.) The law that limits these adverts to the phraseology of 'channel liquid straight into the special core' (Always 2003) goes on to educate the audience that blood stands as a prime form in their anatomy of disgust. A 1992 advert for Vespre Silhouhettes was one of the most complained about adverts shown on television,Ý which shows how the negative sociological ideology surrounding menstruation has become normalised within society.
The implied narrative of the latest 2003 Kotex television advertisements is of females choosing underwear, similar to the shopping theme in its display advertisements where a giant red spot lurks menacingly amongst the clothes-rails. A binary opposition between a woman's sexual attractiveness and the clumsy, messy menstrual cycle is instantly created, when ironically; the cycle itself is a critical part of the woman's sexual reproductive system. Periods are degraded to a time of chagrin; it is Kotex asserts itself as the panty-lining saviour that reinstates a woman of her allure.
Commercials aside, television is wary of discussing the cycle other than to make the occasional trite quip that exaggerates and distorts PMS, for example 'don't mind me, its just my time of the month' (said by Charlotte in Reversals, ITV1, Nov 2003.) The male protagonist in drag, Charlotte, uses the cycle as an excuse for her irritability, However, other attitudes to periods are exposed occasionally; as in Channel 4's risqué adult chat show V. Graham Norton. Recently, (7/11/03) the host Norton managed to perpetuate negativity of menstruation during his routinely stand-up preamble. 'An art gallery is doing an exhibition on menstruation!' was coupled with a sickened facial expression. Wincingly enunciating the sanitary items at the London exhibition, he went on to humour women whilst the audience howled in mass-embarrassment. The programme's trademark sexual humour is encouraged to be taken trivially, yet horror is elicited at the mere mention of the cycle. Even male bodily fluid in a slapstick sordid circumstance is found to be completely acceptable, but a woman's period is deemed intolerably nauseating. In a cultural context, the institution has ignored the fact that appraised works of modern art inevitably include pieces that display images of sex or masturbation. It is ironic, and frustrating, that in contrast to the female bodily obligation of the period, explicit modern art and Norton's daily sexual anecdotes are a person's chosen action. Under the mask of comedy, Norton has embedded us with the value that quite simply human ovulation is grotesque. Moreover, Norton's cruel values have thus been perpetrated not just within his studio, but nationwide.
Political restraints are not the only factor affecting menstrual advertising; it is also because of women's tendency to 'adore magazines' (Brian Braithwaite, 1995 p20 Women's Magazines) that makes print-based material the most common and eminent medium for the distribution of menstrual social knowledge. Teenage magazines are notorious for their biased pubescent education where menstruation is said to be described as 'dirty and unpleasant.' (Ussher 1989.)
Teenage magazines aim to speak to their audience by becoming part of their culture. The informal register adopted by the writers is to 'make the readers feel more comfortable when discussing intimate details.' (Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel 1996-7) The general approach to the menstrual cycle by teenage magazines is to view it as a haunting reoccurrence, a painful bugbear that must be stifled with the girly 'essentials' for example a 'soft fluffy blanket, a hug, a weepy film.'
'As she has heard the womb spoken of a space inside her, like a room she did not know she had, her menstruation appears like a troublesome tenant after whom she has to clean up.' (Greer 1999: p36)
We see the epitome of the menarchal girl in Stephen King's Carrie; the eponymous protagonist of which is completely oblivious to the menstrual cycle until at 16 notices blood when in the school shower. Shrieking and crying in hysteria, Carrie is pelted with tampons and towels by her female peers who derogatorily tell her to 'plug it up;' 'you're bleeding, you big dumb pudding.' Menstruation is unwelcomed and detested. In the original novel we can see the reiteration of negative language: 'Sue felt welling disgust,' 'clean yourself up!' Miss Desjardin refers to menstrual Carrie 'dispassionately' and 'with distaste.' (The Shadow Exploded 1981.) The blood flows with 'terrible heaviness' which seems to link to today's attitudes toward menstrual flow; doctors prescribing the Pill will inevitably refer to consequently lighter periods as 'one good side effect.' (Usborne Growing Up 1985, p30) The blood itself is something palpably negative. In 1992 horror 'IT,' (dir. Tommy Lee Wallace) also ironically by Stephen King, the scene where a blood bubble in the bathroom bursts in young Beverley's face can be seen as a double-entendre for the commencement of the menstrual cycle. Her white clothing reeking pre-pubescent purity of Carrie White, and the ironic wording of the clown's dialogue 'we're down here! say hello to your friends, Beverley,' all point toward this being a peripheral metaphor for puberty. The confused girl is left alone to cower in blood-splattered solitude, strikingly reminiscent of Carrie's corner confinement. Like the female protagonist in 'My Girl' (Howard Zeiff 1991) who believes she is 'haemorrhaging,' Carrie believes she 'is bleeding to death.' 'I thought my stomach was bleeding' (J.B. from Ussher p36.) Similar, negative menstrual initiations by the public were recorded in a 1981 survey by Tampax2. The media employs this representation of the misinformed pubescent girl; suggesting her parents harbour an ideological shame over the female reproductive system. 'Shopper (1979) reported how mothers are more reluctant to name the genital organs of their daughters than of their sons.' (Ussher 1989: p19.)
The omniscient discussion of the menstrual cycle in most teen girl magazines further stretches out the complexity of menstruation itself; imaging it as an imminent alien apocalypse rather than a natural occurrence in the female body. A display advertisement for Tampax in Jackie in Feb 1987 (from Ussher 1989: p35) describes menstruation in a deceptively genial manner, depicting menstruation as a vile enemy, 'it won't smell or show.' In looking at teenage magazines of today, there lies an ugly verisimilitude in the negative portrayal of the menstrual cycle, underneath the 'lets talk about it' façade, sadly substantiating the longevity of sanitary products' insidious advertising. The front cover puff of a 2003 J-17 reads, 'Tears, tantrums and tampons everything you need to know about periods.' Alliteratively juxtaposing 'tampons' with 'tears' and 'tantrums' has a negative effect in that it encourages the female reader to identify her period as what should be an upsetting emotional time; social identity overrules whether she really does find this time of the month difficult. In 'My Girl' the female protagonist Vada orders her male friend Thomas to not return 'for 5-7 days.' This seems to insinuate that the young girl will earn from her female elders to view menstruation as biologically taxing even if they do not innately agree.
A four-page special on periods in J-17 is plastered with pink, prettified media language and forms sugarcoating the underlying assumption that the female menstrual cycle is a ghastly occurrence. 'We're not going to lie that time of the month can be a real pain.' The heavily opinionated language of the magazine clearly shines a derogatory light on the cycle, 'Periods can be horrible,' normalising the ideology that the cycle is indeed 'the curse of womanhood.' (Ussher 1989: p41)
A 2003 Lil-lets display advertisement in this issue of J-17 is part of a campaign featuring characters Sandy and Mervin, and may seem like a warm, light-hearted approach to advertising sanitary products in its facetious design scheme. However, comedy is used as a deviation, masking any plain denotation that the product is intended for the menstrual cycle. It incorporates an upbeat interpellation of its audience on first glance, but Sandy's narration in the copy underneath is as euphemistic a veneer as used by women in general society. Sandy's phrases are put into inverted commas 'if we're 'on'' and 'irritation 'down there.'' The audience is discouraged to refer to their own bodily parts or even the monthly cycle itself, and instead learn to merely hint at their menstruation with these clandestine euphemisms. There are many terms and labels for the menstrual blood flow, many of which are reinforced or even invented by the media itself. The napkins used to absorb menstrual discharge are titled 'sanitary protection' as if the blood was both loathsome and dangerous; the industry has further abbreviated this to 'sanpro; as if to muffle an otherwise distressing subject matter. Even the most commonly used term, 'period,' suggests only a 'period of time,' remaining very vague as to what exactly is happening in its duration. Between women, the images maintain secretive, negative attitude, and which Sandy in the Lil-lets advert disturbingly echoes. Examples include 'the curse,' 'I've come on,' 'grandma is here,' 'the package of troubles,' 'Bloody Mary,' 'the cotton bicycle,' 'red letter day.' (Examples prompted by Ussher 1989: p32.) It is interesting to note that words 'hysterical' and 'lunatic' actually originate from the woman's menstrual cycle.a The myth that women are 'unstable' during their period lies under the surface of society; making the Western media a palimpsest of old-fashioned ideology once one scratches away the bright pink surface of teen magazines, or fades out the soothing Scottish female voiceover on the Always commercials.
Lasker, an advertising giant cited by Ogilvy 1983 had an 'intuitive genius' for sanitary towel marketing where market research was not required, but 'just a few of us talked to our wives' The idea of placing plain packages on the counter meant that one 'could walk away without embarrassment. The business boomed.'
Could this prove that the institutional source of sanitary products is merely part of a pluralistic model; that it only reflects women's negative attitudes to their periods? Whatever the case, it is still clear that the media recycle and contort the idea of female discretion. The leit motif of female shame running through menstrual media texts is a result of minimal efforts to exhibit a divergent representation; of a woman who does not fear promulgating her monthly purchases of Kotex Super With Wings.
'Many women have reported that menstrual products are placed in brown paper bags by shopkeepers, as if they were on a par with pornographic magazines.'
(Ussher 1989: p32.)
Whether brown paper bags have lost their ubiquity or not, it is evident that hiding your tampons and pads is the social etiquette. One of the most valued assets of a sanitary product is its discretion. Bodyform Microliners boast that it 'couldn't be smaller, or more discreet,' and Interlude towels are 'folded and wrapped for added discretion.' WHILST MORRISONS HAVE A BRAND THAT IS ACTUALLY CALLED 'DISCREET!'
The taboo function of tampons attempts to be disguised by Tampax's attractive floral design whilst Tampax 'Compak' hail themselves as so 'small and discreet' that they 'fit into the palm of your hand,' with the slogan 'made to go unnoticed.' This notion is taken to the extreme with the recently coined buzzword 'invisible.'
The Lil-lets advert disconnects teenage girls from their own bodies by reassuring them that the 'girlie wipes' are pH balanced and so 'are in tune with our bodies!' Reliance is placed upon a single manufactured cleansing cotton wipe that will 'protect.' As with Always's slogan 'talking your body's language,' pseudo scientific banter insinuates that it is only by an overrated and superfluous sanitary towel design that women are liberated. Lil-lets offers a 'personalised period diary' on their website which seems to further detach the female from knowing her own body; she is deemed unfit to tread on her vaginal territory.
In the same J-17 magazine it states, 'In the old days women used rags, or nothing eeurgh!' implying that it would be absurdly grotesque to be in naked contact with one's own menstrual blood. The magazine goes on to describe the ancient menstrual cup, 'they're washed out once full and reinserted um, nice!' It seems that in the disdainful language the vagina is regarded as gruesome as the rectum. Girls are discouraged from letting an object fraternise with their genitals as if it were a sucked lollipop touching a dirty kitchen surface.
The chapter title in teen guidebook 'Looking for me' (Sapsted 1989: p8) reads 'what girls have to cope withperiods are often the first and most noticeable thing.' We can see that the language initially introduces the subject as periods as inevitably daunting. It also steers toward a physically derogatory representation; blood, mucus and bits of body tissue make it seem 'a bit lumpy' and 'it smells a bit.' The blood is seen as a grotty emission similar to excrement and completely alienated from the body. 'This is perfectly normal and as long as you change your tampon/towel at least 3 times a day' The procedure is worded like a diagnosis for a strange quasi-illness. This ideology isn't dissimilar to 'Dare to be You' (Kenton 1990.) 'Coping with periods, especially in the beginning, can be awkward.' We see the word 'cope' once again, an icon, echoing the language of hundreds of other media texts directed at adolescents. Tampons apparently 'allow you to forget you're having a period,' the use of a tampon applicator further detaching female from her genitals. The whole idea behind the tampon itself is interesting, is it covertly suggesting that menstruation should remain arcane; that the idyll for the woman is to be blissfully unaware of her inner menstrual antics?
It seems definite that the instigation of the use of the tampon promotes the value that the blood should be stored away from the outside world; surreptitiously discarded in the toilet at the end of eight hours in the style of a secret operation. Two-thirds of those surveyed by Tampax in 1981 said that 'women should not mention their periods in the office or in social situations,' including 'veiled references to cramps or headaches.'
'There is strong evidence that young boys hold very negative attitudes and beliefs about menstruation.' (Clarke and Ruble 1978, from Ussher 1989: p30.)
When queried of 'what would be the worst aspect of being a girl,' boys inevitably mention periods. (Brooks, Gunn and Ruble 1982, from Ussher 1989 p30.) Puberty is said to give the man 'the knowledge of greater power' whilst giving to the woman 'the knowledge of her dependence.' (p18.) Under a guise of lightheartedness, male opinions given in magazines over decades treat the cycle as the anathema of womanhood. In the late nineties, Mark from band 'Another Level' once gave thanks for being a man in a mock-Semitic1 fashion, whilst another chortled that he 'wouldn't be able to stand' menstruation.
Part of the teen genre is to continue weaving a consistent intense thread of socially conditioned polarisation between male and female. Menstruation acts as an event dividing the sexes even more and is iconographic to view the male gender as an alien species 'that dark mysterious world of boys.' (J-17).
'I started my periods Sep 15 I was tremendously happy and excited but when I told my mother she curiously confined me to bed I wanted to tell my father and she said I mustn't.' (Oakley, by Ussher 1989: p29.)
Indeed, the stereotypical alination of daughter from father recurs is detected by the media and distorted in its texts, for example in the aforementioned horror 'IT.' The hostile father whom Beverly beckons to the bathroom is unable to see the bloodied sink, thus insinuating that the father is no confidante for the first-time-menstruating girl. Female pubescents from learn both magazine and mother that periods are synonymous with negativity, it may be that 'when it comes it means failure.' (Margaret Atwood 1985.) As menstruation literally portends an unfertilised womb, and if procreation is a woman's main purpose, 'the Almighty, in creating the female sex, took the uterus and built up a woman around it.' (1870 doctor Rosenberg and Rosenberg 1973) it is consequently apt, for periods to be sociologically met with a pessimistic eye.
Robert Campbell of Lil-lets commented in 1998: 'Most are still very embarrassed or offended at having these messages beamed into their living rooms as they sit beside their husbands or boyfriends.' The Lil-lets advert in J-17 endorses the notorious barrier made between men and women by menstruation. Male Mervin's face epitomises the supposedly ignorant male attitude. Female protagonist of the advert, Sandy, exclaims in the copy; 'what a silly divvy Merv is!' setting women apart from the opposite gender with 'us girls do'
Euphemisms for the menstrual cycle used amongst males ooze deprecating and sordid connotations, for instance, 'riding the rag,' 'falling off the roof,' she's covering the waterfront,' or 'flying the mainsail.' (Ussher 1989: p32.) Rap star Eminem refers to the cycle as 'on the rag' in his hit Without Me (2003); his use of euphemisms is critical when considering his massive teen male audience, who are to be influenced by his ingrained derogatory attitude toward the female cycle.
Many women are still embarrassed when they have a period women still call a period 'the curse.'' (McCaffery 1985: p)
In the teen media, the embarrassment factor plays a massive role in identifying stereotypes to attract audiences. An Always advert in Mizz (Sep 2003) implies the narrative of a schoolgirl unaware of her skirt caught in her underwear. The lower section of the advert details the science of the pads with the use of brainwashing jargon, 'the funnel shaped holes in the top sheet.' 'Its turned into gel and trapped.' The language here is even further poignant in that the word 'trapped' is an animalistic term used to describe a poisonous snake or disease-carrying rat alienating the female's own blood. The copy ends with the iconographic 'they're ultra discreet too' hinting at the brand's genre membership in offering the desired discretion.
The brand leading magazines retell the stock scenario where the young girl, only just adjusting to her irregular flow, is suddenly exposed to desired male/ indeed any male figure.
'Period Drama' 'me and my family were in a café when my little sister said really loudly, 'Has Louisa finished her period yet?' Everyone went quiet and looked at me. I just burst into tears and ran into the toilets. I wouldn't come out for ages.'
(Louisa, Cringe! Readers' Confessions, Mizz Sep 2003.)
There are a countless number of ludicrous values in this reader's confession. Not only is the girl embarrassed to tears over something that happens to every female in existence, but finds shame in it in the company of those closest to her. The mere notion of Louisa being on her period seems to be as shameful as finding a soiled sanitary towel stuck to her bottom. The sense of animosity in the manner in which her family 'went quiet' and looked at the culprit may hint at a sense of disgust projected by the male members. The template is reapplied in 'Bag Blunder' 'a tampon flew out of my bag and landed in front of the fit lad from Year 7! I ran off in shame.' As in the previous anecdote, there is no slapstick accident occurring here, other than a messenger in the form of a tampon reminding the male world that women menstruate. This embarrassing-story template is a typical part of the narrative of teenage menstruation; a girl who kept her name withheld submitted a story to the May 2001 edition of Sugar where her sanitary towels fall from her purse at the feet of a male ticket collector, and 'two of the fittest lads from school' had apparently 'seen the whole thing.' 'Hole of shame, swallow me now' is given as the 'Cringe Rating' whilst Mizz marks Louisa's story with 'buy a wig.' Jonathan Bignell (1997) argues that the magazine is 'just a collection a signs.' The reader is rewarded with payment for recognising the horror in their experiences. Here, Mizz and Sugar as authoritative media texts have 'reaffirmed a common feminity and a shared group membership,' and 'instructed' the females 'on how to be.' (L. Johnson Lee/Ferguson 2003.)
'If women regard their own menstrual fluid as 'googoomuck' we are a long way from taking the pride in our femaleness that is a necessary condition of liberation.' (Greer 1999: p37.)
A puff on the cover of a recent edition of Mizz (Sep 03) reads, 'true or false? Kelly R drinks blood. Gross!' This is intended to be a vampirical joke but the connotations of this trivia lie are much more profoundly sinister in that it indoctrinates an anatomy of disgust in the reader's subconscious. In The Female Eunuch Greer argues that a woman cannot be truly liberated until she tastes her own menstrual blood, and this puff on the cover of Mizz, however removed from the topic of periods, is hauntingly contradictory of feminist tracts such as by Greer. This socially conditions young girls to regard blood in general, not precluding their own body's menstrual fluid, as revolting, as 'gross.'
'It seems likely that tomorrow's teenager will not always be in their teens.'
(Braithwaite 1995: p120.)
The title Just 17 is irrelevant when the producers are quite aware that it will successfully target girls several years younger. If more glossy-paged menstrual misrepresentations are to wind up in the hands of the increasingly petit-fingered, the seeds of female oppression are to reap in the womb of the woman that the girl becomes. They may continue to be force-fed the saccharine portrayal of menstruation by flowery Tampax wrappers but may never taste the bitterness of the motives within; of the insidious institutions whose profits correlate with female insecurity.
Whether periods are grotesque or not, it is not acceptable for a particular feature of human existence to be brutalised in this way. From the ejaculation of semen to the blowing of a nose, every other bodily ejection is accepted, but society acts as if the world only discovered yesterday that blood seeps from a woman's vagina once a month. Men learn to express alienated nonchalance, such as Mr. Morton in Carrie, who misunderstands women and has 'no urge at all to discuss menstruation,'(p54) whilst women such as young Louisa in the aforementioned Mizz letter learn to lock themselves in the toilet in shame. Men and women alike learn to interpret menstruation as revolting. In other cultural contexts, we can see this ideology subverted; as with the tribe that sees its male members through envy of the female induce nosebleeds to act as their own sanguinary purging.3 The Western media have chosen to normalise a particularly negative home-brewed slant on menstruation, thus having a tool to wield over manipulated women. We do not question our puerile attitudes to this ideology, therefore allowing society's hegemony to herald their sociological triumph. What both society and the media are telling us is that the menstruating women is inept; and that for the 6 years she is menstruating she should remain in her own ancient Persian4 seclusion in how inadequate and dirty she is made to feel. To have six years of one's life controlled and condemned; whilst the media coin in the cash, is quite frankly is bound to make anyone's blood boil.
Ý The Guardian Monday June 29th 1998 Belinda Archer media section Now we're grown up we can talk Tampax with tea
1: Mock-Semitic: There is a prayer used by Jewish males that thanks God for not having made them women. This prayer is satirised in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Menstruating women are also thought to be unclean.
2: Tampax Survey 1981: a major national survey conducted by Tampax, designed by a company called Research & Forecasts surveyed more than a thousand men and women across the country.
3: Ancient Persian Seclusion: in Ancient Persia menstruating women were segregated from society and forced to reside in a hut. If their menstruation did not stop within a few days they were whipped; and later made to undergo purification ceremonies.
Atwood, Margaret The Handmaid's Tale 1985 Vintage London
Bohen, Henry G: The Elements Of Health, And Principles Of Feminine Hygiene 1852 Tilt E. London.
Braithwaite, Brian: Women's Magazines 1995, Peter Owen Publishers London (p9)
Congress, David R. From The Shadow Exploded: Documented Facts and Specific Conclusions Derived from the Case of Carietta White 1981 Tulane University Press (p54)
Greer, Germaine: The Whole Woman 1999 Doubleday Great Britain
Kenton, Susannah: Dare to be you: A Revolutionary Handbook For Teenage Health And Good Looks 1990 Great Britain Lightning (p52-53.)
Meredith, Susan Usborne Facts of Life: Growing Up 1985 Usborne Publishing
Ogilvy, David: Ogilvy On Advertising 1983 Wiley UK (p190.)
Sapsted, Anne-Marie: Looking for me: Beating The Teenage Blues 1989, Purnell Great Britain
Ussher, Jane M: The Psychology Of The Female Body: Critical Psychology 1989 Routledge Great Britain.
J-17 October 2003
Mizz September 2003
Heat October 2003
Sugar May 2001
Now we're grown up we can talk Tampax with tea
The Guardian Monday June 29th 1998 Belinda Archer media section
The Daily Mail 11 Nov 1981
Eminem 'Without Me' (2003)
My Girl 1991 Dir. Howard Zeiff
Carrie Stephen King 1976 Dir. Brian De Palma
Stephen King's IT 1992 Dir. Tommy Lee Wallace Warner Bros
Display Adverts 2003:
Kotex from Heat
Always from Mizz
Lil-lets from J-17
Tampax from Jackie
Carefree from Heat
Bodyform Micro Liners from OK
Packaging: Kotex, Tampax, Always, and Interlude.
Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel First Annual Report 1996-97.
Jonathan Bignell (1997)
V. Graham Norton 7 November 2003 C4 10pm
'Reversals' ITV1 November 2003
Ferguson's theory in a Representation Handout, Media Studies 2003 L. Johnson Lee.