With its unique ability of producing sound, movement and images in a life-like manner, the entertainment industry holds the potential to transform attitudes towards topical social issues. This places a crucial responsibility on the shoulders of cinema; of shaping notions on sensitive issues, which may lead to consequent actions, either of spreading shame or stigma, or empowering and informing the viewers.
Considered as a hush-hush topic, menstruation has never been in a very bright spotlight of the silver screens. Historically, however, the limited space within which the topic finds its portrayal, does not have a positive track record. Raising concerns about the problematic portrayals of menstruating women, a study by the university of Melbourne questioned, “whether it is frightening girls into believing it is worse than the reality.” At times, when menstruation was brought up by Hollywood, it was treated as a drama as opposed to an inherent biological feature of women’s existence.
One of the most popular example of this negative portrayal is a scene from the 1976 film, Carrie. Horrified at the sight of blood, Carrie runs to the girls in the locker for help, but is instead, laughed and mocked at, as the girls throw tampons at her while shouting, “plug it up”. While setting a message of terror and fear, it also tends to portray the girls as being insensitive to the very process they themselves go through. Moreover, detaching Carrie through the development of her telekinetic powers which turn evil, add a gory effect to the subject. Carrie’s menstrual cycle being referred to as the “curse of blood’, by her own mother, highlights the superstitions and taboos that have always surrounded menstruation. Considering it to be dirty and impure in many parts of India, menstruating women are prohibited from participating in normal life activities, whether it be the household chores, or going to school. Instead, women are sent to basic huts, known as gaokar, where they stay until the end of their menstrual cycle or in their words, until they are “purified”. Along with affecting the emotional state of women, this also leads to many health and lifestyle problems. “during the rainy season, it is all the more difficult to stay in a gaokar because water comes inside and sometimes the roof leaks”, says Javardhan, who lives in a village in Maharashtra. When addressed in a defiled manner by the cinema, superstitions like these are given justification, instead of breaking from stereotypes.
The 2007 film Superbad poorly uses menstruation as a comedic tool. This involves the lead actor reacting aghastly upon identifying a period stain on his jeans, while his friends laugh out loud on his statement of being “perioded on’. While this portrays the immensely natural and crucial process in a grotesque way, it also opens up a discussion for menstruation with regard to the opposite gender. While such reactions may depend on one’s own moral values, the issue of inadequate education should also be taken under consideration. According to the department of education in England, “menstruation is technically part of the curriculum for science”. Despite this, data shows about 15% of young people stating that they were taught nothing about menstruation in school. With overriding responses towards females such as “being moody”, or “smelling funny”, boys generally evade the subject, defining it as a “girl’s problem”. This evasion makes space for ignorance, which is then bluntly displayed on screens, and consumed with a comedic attitude, like that in superbad.
Another rather disturbing portrayal of menstruation can be seen in the 2005 film, “Dirty love”. When the lead character starts bleeding before she can get to the checkout line, she floods the grocery store, causing others to slip and fall. Portrayed as catastrophic, and gross, menstruation is weaponized in the movie.
Displayed as an embarrassing, comedic, traumatic, or even catastrophic process, menstruation has not been in a good space within cinema. However, the real problem with these portrayals revolves around the impact of these films. An associate professor of women’s studies at the university of Boston, Christina Bobel states, “what we say does make a difference. If most of our exposure is “keep it hidden’ and when you fail at that “be ashamed” how can that encourage self-confidence?”
Coming to India, we can take up films like the 2018 Padman, which is based on the inspirational true story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, who through his low-cost, sanitary pad making machine, made a big change in the lives of woman across India, or the 2017 Phullu, which despite its poor production, richly portrayed menstruation as a normal and an important process. Although India is yet to address the subject of menstruation on the big screen extensively, the initiatives hint at a rather better turn than previous Hollywood portrayals.
However, rather than starting a contest between the two industries, the society as a whole should work towards normalizing menstruation. Either it be through breaking myths, providing education, or by appropriate media portrayals.