inertia insertion: the sexual politics of menstruation

“Mary Mary” (2000) P. J. Speakman
“Mary Mary” (2000) P. J. Speakman

There is a spectrum of menstruation experiences that are rarely represented in the public discourse. For some, menstruation is a sacred feminine process and a cause for celebration. For others, it’s a curse and should be obsolete. For most menstruators, it just happens. It should be no surprise that the dominant and traditional menstruation narratives have been centered around shame, surveillance, and strategies of avoidance. However, there are occasional disruptions to this storyline.

Hello Flo an incredibly popular (over 5 million views on YouTube) and dissonantly optimistic story is about a young girl who embraces her menses power. Her “red badge of courage” affords her great power until she is dethroned by a business model that undercuts her authority as expert.

Unfortunately, Hello Flo isn’t an alternative narrative. It’s a well-produced ad for monthly deliveries of menstruation needs: Always pads, Tampax Pearl tampons, and “treats.” Hello Flo draws from classic marketing strategies of false empowerment, nostalgia, and humor which tap into a conversation that has been constructed as private so it’s tagged as innovative.

That the process of menstruation management can still be deemed provocative can be found by reading the comments of another trending conversation, “Still Using Tampons Or Pads? You Should Read This,” which has been liked by over 68,000 on Facebook. One could assume by the over 600 unique comments, in two separate postings, that the way we think about menstruation is still stalled at the intersection of a disposable consumer culture and hegemonic ideals about hygiene and menstruating bodies. The discussion of alternative methods and the subsequent disposal of menstrual blood continues to reinforce a plot line of control and tension between those who have hard limits on managing their menstruation cycle (you’re putting what where!?) to those who essentialize a biological process.

Looking at products like the Feby, a “female empowerment bracelet” that uses different shades of pink to signify when you are “most prime for procreation” in case there is any lurking sperm around, it’s pretty clear that the dominant menstrual narrative hasn’t changed since the first wave of menstrual product advertisements in the 1920s. There was a spotty sign of resistance in 2011 when we were witness to an Always ad that was the first to show menstrual blood as red and not the classic blue; however, these visions of a less-traditional menstruator still present a white, feminine body whose function is to produce human life. The public sexual politics of menstruation are quickly absorbed into private tactics around management and control.

The fact remains that this narrow category of a what makes a proper menstruating body is intimately connected to heterosexist, capitalist, and cisgendered norms. It’s no wonder that so many menstruators across the spectrum feel moody when their periods arrive.

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original publish date: August 18, 2013 (Bluestockings Magazine)

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