A friend involved in a half-hearted pregnancy quest recently asked me about ovulation. A technical question about how and when and the duration. I stared back blankly, offered her a shrug. “Didn’t you spend all last year writing a book about it?” she pressed.
Indeed, I did. A whole book about it. Not about ovulation per se, but about menstruation. About pop culture’s presentation of one of the last remaining taboos. And while a year on that project failed to gift much insight into the mechanics of my monthly hijinks, the media’s relationship with the women’s issue, has since become my obsession.
As Helen (Isabelle Adjani) remarked in the 1981 film Possession: “There is nothing in common among women except menstruation.” Of the deluge of things that make women socially, sexually and aesthetically disparate, menstruation exists as a common experience.
Nearly all women will bleed and just as many will experience its conclusion.
Last week’s Masterchef was pretty gruelling for me. The wonderful untypical TV superstar Amina was wrenched from us without warning. All that’s left now is a gaggle of interchangeable Amina-less names and faces. Shudder
More interesting than Amina’s untimely ousting, however, was Debra’s mentioning of the M-word. Not menstruation - with its ugly mouthfeel - rather menopause, that endgame of all those years of bleeding and concealing and deodorising and discarding.
Be it through crafty editing or just the high-stakes game of competitive cooking, Debra was shown having a fair few kitchen melt-downs. She was pissy and teary and snappy and fatigued. And when eventually asked about it all she divulged that she was a middle-aged woman going through menopause. And everyone laughed gaily: ahh … it all made sense now.
Initially, truth be told, the mention of the M-word delighted me. Ours is a culture where everything to do with our menstruating selves is kept secret. From the earliest age girls are taught how to ensure that it’s all done secretly and odourlessly and far, far away from men. We’re expected to plug it up privately and get on with the job. And when it’s all over we’re supposed to carry on as always, lest anyone discover the sins and smells of our femaleness.
For Debra to dare put her hand up and say, hey, things aren’t perfect in my body, in my head, in my spirits, I felt a bit chuffed. Daring to speak the unspeakable always delights me.
And then - because I’m an academic and can’t bloody help myself - I thought more about it. Perhaps too much more about it.
For most of 2011, I catalogued and analysed portrayals of menstruation in film and television. I embarked on the book assuming screen silence and ended up with more than 200 screen examples. It was a productive year.
That first periods and late periods and dwindling periods each had a identifiable presence in film and television pleased me; silence breeds stigma and secrecy and misinformation. As a feminist, I want these topics aired.
Less pleasing however, was that the vast majority of those 200+ scenes were negative.
As much as I want for Debra - for any woman - to feel strong enough and safe enough and supported enough to tell her story, I just wish that it didn’t comply with the standard sad sack narrative that the screen has always offered.
Pop culture presents a very standardised tale of menstruation: it embarrasses young girls, puts women in bad moods, sparks bouts of irrationality if not hysteria, interrupts sex lives and is only ever vaguely interesting when it’s late or when we’re willing it not to come.
For menopause, the story is one of mood swings, hot flushes, forgetfulness and that tried and true sitcom staple: excessive facial hair.
The answer isn’t a simple one: if Debra’s experience with menopause is a hard one, she should - unquestionably - have the right to tell it like it is, sister. But her story needs to be supplemented.
We need more stories of those women who bleed for 30-odd years without the dramas and fanfare and homicidal rages that the screen too often offers. Equally, we need tales of women who’ve gone through menopause without the craziness and the moustache and the meltdown.
Lauren Rosewarne’s is author of Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television.