There’s an anecdote in Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants where Mother Fey hands her daughter two booklets to prepare her for her first period. On the (not-so) auspicious occasion of Fey’s menarche, the limitations of her preparation were well highlighted:
I knew from commercials that one’s menstrual period was a blue liquid that you poured like laundry detergent onto maxi pads … This wasn’t blue, so … I ignored it for a few hours.
This anecdote aptly and innocently highlights the problem with talking in euphemisms and innuendo. That girls – along with every single man watching those clichéd white-skirt confidence ads – gets a thoroughly shoddy education about just what’s going on between a women’s legs.
In recent days Carefree – purveyor of tampons and pads and who in the 1970s had the oh so disturbing tagline “Carefree tampons are so different … you forget what day it is” – has decided to play it frank and fearless.
In a new ad for panty liners, Carefree dared abandon those well-established feminine hygiene tropes and have laid it out bare – quite literally – with a naked woman daring to use the words “vagina” and “discharge”. All in the one ad (below).
While I’m going to highlight some of the limitations of considering this ad as revolutionary, it is nonetheless worthwhile to acknowledge its importance.
Only two years ago, Kotex in the US tried to use “vagina” in an ad. Three networks refused to air it; the ad had to be re-shot using the twee expression “down there”. In 2011, it was considered thoroughly groundbreaking when femcare company Always dared use a single red dot on a line drawing of a pad in a print advertisement. Way to scare the horses!
Truth be told I’ll take forthright over blue liquid, plush beavers and head-exploding euphemisms like “vajayjay” in a heartbeat.
Hell, if I can suitably compartmentalise my belief that this is yet another marketing stunt for free press, I’ll even go so far as to dub Carefree’s ad a triumph.
But I think the story is a little more interesting than that.
It’s an easy feminist argument to make that our culture uses euphemism and innuendo because we’re prudish, squeamish and all too prone to consider women’s bodies as aberrant. And sure, I’d be the first to argue that misinformation, bad information and cultural silence can only ever be bad for women. While there’s a feminist argument for supporting out and proud references to our vaginas, there’s equally a feminist argument not to blather on about it. To keep quiet, to hide our menstrual products and to sneak off to bathrooms without ever disclosing what goes on in there.
That equality is better served by not playing up the differences between men and women.
Frank dialogue about menstruation and discharge reminds both men and women that there are some fundamental biological differences between the sexes. While this might seem like a pretty obvious point, this is nonetheless the very point that underpins stereotypes about women’s moods, capabilities and limitations.
Blue liquid and euphemisms work because they peddle products to a knowing audience and exist as mildly befuddling background noise to the unknowing. By excluding explicit details, there’s a solid case that women have a better chance of being seen as equal and as not being limited by the perceived hijinks of their bloody, unpredictable bodies.
For me, our silence, stupid euphemisms and embarrassment are unequivocally sad indictments about our culture. But let’s not pretend there isn’t a downside to putting vaginas out there in all their perfectly normal discharge-y glory.