What does menstruation mean? The documentaries Period Piece and Period: The End of Menstruation, debuting ten years apart, address this question. Both find that it is not so easily answered.
Period Piece focuses upon first periods — menarche — to create a narrative about how puberty is negotiated in the United Studies in the mid- to late-twentieth century. Co-directors Jennifer Frame and Jay Rosenblatt arranged for girls, teens, adult women, and post-menopausal women to be interviewed on-camera, the pink backdrop behind the interviewees stylistic of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The women represent a fairly diverse set of ethnic backgrounds, though regional representation is not evident. The women’s various ages and cultures offer nice attention to multiple perspectives, delivering both retrospective accounts of first periods and prospective anticipation of upcoming bodily changes.
At its best, this short thirty-minute film provides examples of the various manners in which girls are acculturated and come to learn about menstruation, from detailed conversations with their mothers to general denial and neglect of the whole subject by trusted adults. The event of menstruation marks a shift in the body from child to adult, but more is at stake in the transition from girl to woman. The interviewees reflect on a gamut of emotions that they confronted at the time of their first periods, ranging from happiness to sheer dread. One woman remarked that she was elated and felt like saying “I am a woman!” upon getting her period, but her excitement quickly dissipated with the more onerous realization of limitations that were now hers to embody.
The film reveals the real social pressures to look and be similar to other girls, including the travails of menstruating early as an eight-year-old, the anxiety of not menstruating and faking it by cutting skin to draw blood and wearing a pad anyway, and the challenge of forging a different kind of relationship with female caregivers and mothers. In the less poignant moments, the film inserts clips from historical menstrual education films, which often trivialize the very things that the film seeks to legitimate. The historical footage requires far more contextualization than the documentary is able to provide, and seems to lend a campy feel to an otherwise tender treatment of women and their first periods.
Period: The End of Menstruation? (54 min.) pays less attention to menarche and more to the incessant medicalization of menstruation through various interventions. Inherent to the approach of the film are the underlying but unstated questions: What are the consequences of this medicalization? What does it mean? And, who is resisting and how? This film, coupled with its accompanying Web site (http://www.periodthemovie.com/), provides insight to these questions.
In the film, Giovanna Chesler, the director and producer, travels around the United States to interview individual women and groups of women. Each segment focuses upon a particular medical drama, and how women have reacted to, interacted with, and contested the menstrual trouble before them. In many cases, Chesler chose to voice the interviews over footage of the women puttering about at home, instead of using more head-on shots of the women telling their stories. The former technique distances the interview subjects, but may also work to show how menstrual periods become disembodied in the same way.
The interviews reveal deeply held understandings about menstruation, and how individuals grapple with conflicting advice, beliefs, and societal dictates. For example, Jennifer, who goes by her first name, calls her monthly injection of Depo Provera “the pregnancy vaccine” but she uses it instead to rid herself of debilitating periods that once caused her to be hospitalized. However, as a consequence of the treatments, her bones are weakened, leached of calcium. Dr. Andrew Kaunitz, site tester for Seasonale, espouses the benefits of a drug that offers only “four bleeding episodes” per year, exemplifying the construction of menstruation as a hassle, a burden, and unnecessary. Alice Dan from the Society of Menstrual Cycle Research asks about the gaps in knowledge about not only birth control but menstruation in general. As a female to male transgender individual, Morty Diamond philosophizes about what it means to have a period. And artist Geneva Kachman plays with the expectations of a tampon dispenser in her exhibit to have it deliver chocolates instead. There are many more interviews, each with its own take on the problematic narratives of menstruation and the ways these constructions are embedded in pharmaceutical, medical, and commodified understandings of women’s bodies.
Both films examined here address a real need for discussion by providing an opening to air often silenced feelings and views. There are very few earnest treatments of menstruation as a bodily and cultural phenomenon, and these documentaries lend legitimacy to the serious questions about and experiences of menstruation. Despite being produced over the span of a decade, sadly, the films remain remarkably timely. They resonate with still prevalent issues, concerns, and emotions about what it means to live with and in a menstruous body.
Sharra L. Vostral is an associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and holds a joint appointment in Gender & Women’s Studies and History. She has written Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology1 , co-edited Feminist Technology2 , and is currently working on a cultural and technological history of Rely tampons and toxic shock syndrome.
1Sharra L. Vostral, Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008).
2Linda L. Layne, Sharra L. Vostral, and Kate Boyer, eds., Feminist Technology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010).