Critical Menstruation Studies, Week 1: Binaries, Vocabulary, and Controversial Norwegian Sex Ed Videos

This is the first in a five-week series of posts recapping a micro-seminar I'm taking on Critical Menstruation Studies through the Boston-area Graduate Consortium in Women's Studies.

The first session of the seminar was dedicated to the topic of "Conceptual Frameworks: Stigma, Disciplined Bodies and Commodification." Here's the list of readings:

  • A chapter entitled "Feminist Engagements with Menstruation" from the instructor, Chris Bobel's, book New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation (2010);
  • "Technology and Passing," a chapter from Sharra Louise Vostral's book Under Wraps: A History of Hygiene Technology (2011);
  • "The Menstrual Mark: Menstruation as Social Stigma," an article by Ingrid Johnston-Robledo and Joan Chrisler from the scientific journal Sex Roles (2013); 
  • and Gloria Steinem's fairly famous 1978 piece from Ms., "If Men Could Menstruate."

Since this was the first week, the goal was to set up some critical paradigms and conceptual frameworks, as the session title suggested, and also, I think, just to get us talking. One of the things I found the most interesting about the readings on the whole was the vocabulary they used and the way they thought (or didn't think) about language. Two of the readings called out the fact that menstruation is almost always talked about in coded, euphemistic language. Even "period" is a euphemism. The article by Johnston-Robledo and Chrisler linked this "communication taboo" with the idea of menstruation as a stigmatized subject: "If menstrual blood were not stigmatized, there would be no reason to call it anything other that its formal name: menstruation or the menses." I'm not convinced by this, though. I think about all the ways in which creative and even transgressive use of language can be seen as a tool of power, and the variety of in-group linguistic codes that have developed around menstruation seems like a possible site of resistance. There's plenty of baggage that accompanies the medicalized, "formal," "correct" discourse of menstruation, so I don't think slang necessarily equals shame or stigma.

Another idea that recurred in all the readings in a vast variety of contexts was that of binaries. Of course that's an enormous concept that's at the heart of many hermeneutics, but it was particularly interesting to see how desperate the discourses around menstruation seemed to be to create clear dichotomies. At any time a female body is bleeding or not bleeding; pregnant or not pregnant; controlled or uncontrolled. The very sexual essentialism at the heart of almost every understanding of menstruation is that it is a thing that women and girls do, but men and boys do not, and the only people who do menstruate are female. This is of course a completely bogus binary, but it was shocking to see how many of the readings left that completely uninterrogated. There is also the binary idea that menstruation must either be the dirty, shameful thing that the patriarchy has for so long taught us that it is, or that it is some kind of magical, natural, and entirely positive gift to be celebrated. Thus, feminists are not supposed to seek to avoid menstruation, say by using continuous hormonal birth control, because any desire to avoid it is clearly the product of your brainwashing by the patriarchy. If you dread your period, you are a bad feminist. At least in these first few readings, there seems to be very little space for a less straightforwardly celebratory view of the topic, although the end of the excerpt from Bobel's book seems to hint at other possibilities: Menstrual activists, she writes, "subvert the precepts of the dominant narrative of menstruation and strive for an authentic autonomous embodiment. Their aim is to seize agentic menstrual consciousness from the docile, disciplined body and stimulate new ways of knowing and being that neither shame nor silence." I'll be interested to see how that develops in later weeks.

Lastly, we watched a few interesting videos over the course of the first session that make for good conversation-starters if you want to get people around you talking about issues surrounding menstruation. One was this this lesson on how the menstrual cycle works from TEDed, which makes an interesting counterpoint to another video we watched, from a sex ed series that aired on Norwegian TV. It's NSFW (and unless you speak Norwegian, you'll have to turn on the subtitles), but it's worth watching to see how another culture approaches talking to young people about their bodies. 

As the seminar goes on, I'm definitely going to be keeping an eye out for false binaries, lazy or loaded language, unquestioned assumptions, and surprising Scandinavian uses of body paint. If you watch the videos, seek out any of the readings, or have any thoughts about the things I'm pondering here, I'd love to talk more about it. The course is just getting started but there's only so much you can do in two hours a week, and besides, the whole point is to bring conversations out into the world at large. What was your childhood sex education like on the subject of menstruation? How would you describe cultural attitudes toward menstruation? What does a feminist approach to menstruation look and sound like? Is this all too weird to talk about??