Menarche: Representation in Media and Short Films
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Singh, P (2020, September 9). Menarche: Representation in Media and Short Films. BeyondBlood. https://www.beyondblood.org/post/menarche-representation-in-media-and-short-films
Menarche is an extremely confusing and isolating experience and conversations around it is treated as a taboo and the overwhelming under-representation in media is both the result and facilitator of the silence around the subject and adds to the isolation and confusion around it. Despite being an important aspect of female hygiene, menstruation never makes it to conversation and spaces in Bollywood movies and/or Indian television, even when it should take up space in the narratives. The lack of representation is facilitated by the silence around menstruation even within families and friends. With growing forms of media, a new form of entertainment that has grown in recent times is ‘Short Films’, which are mostly 10-20 minutes long and are released on online platforms like Youtube. They generally have a small setup and a deal with one or two themes.
Short Films, although being produced since the 1990s, have gained a lot of support, attention and audience since the internet boom, as it gave them a platform to reach a wide audience and have become a great medium for independent and low budget creators to make an impact. In stark contrast to the mainstream feature films in India, short films, a lot of times, pick up topics that are underrepresented and considered taboos. Such short films are refreshing ways of representing marginalised issues, even though they are not always represented accurately. One of the issues that a lot of short films have tried to portray is centred around menstruation, with menarche being an important aspect of it.
Menarche, a crucial part of the menstrual cycle, refers to the first menstruation cycle experienced by people who menstruate. It begins between the age of 11-15 years, with the mean age being 13 (Raina and Balodi, 2014). The experience of menarche and menstruation are more often than not concealed in embarrassment and humiliation, and the way menstruation is perceived largely impacts the experience of menstruation. Menstruation in the society is not discussed and continuously occupies a space in the ‘private’ sphere of the home, where it can be discussed only by the female members of the family. Women are taught to recognise menstruation as a 'limitation' in a male-centric world and reinforce and sustain the devaluation of menstruation and female biological characteristics (Coutts and Berg, 1993). Due to the lack of conversation, knowledge and information around menstruation and menarche, as well as the experience of menarche for young girls leads to one of humiliation and concealment. Not having enough or correct knowledge leads to confusion regarding the changes in the physical and mental aspects of the body.
For most women, any knowledge about menstruation comes from their mothers, that too at a time when they have reached menarche (Raina and Balodi, 2014). This knowledge is often communicated in the form of anxiety, and more often than not is more concerned with how to conceal menstruation from the rest of the world, rather than adequate knowledge and information about the process. The mothers' unwillingness to educate and talk openly about menstruation leads to ignorance, unsafe menstrual hygiene practices, and internalisation of myths and taboos around menstruation (Kaul, Arora, et al, 2012). An initial and open conversation about menstruation and menarche is important to alleviate the negative feelings associated with it rather than just treating it as a transitional phase. If the conversation around their feelings, anxieties and concerns are omitted, menstruating adolescents take on negative connotations regarding the issue and can develop other issues such as anxiety (Chopra and Sharma, 2011). Another important aspect to note, when it comes to lack of representation of menstruation or menarche, is the continued experiences of humiliation from the very early stage, contributes to menstruating bodies self-medicating, and makes it difficult to get medical attention towards health issues related to menstruation.
Misconceptions and unhygienic menstrual practices are the consequences of shame and exclusion associated with it which leads young girls to abstain from social activities, distance themselves from public spheres and miss school (Chandra-Moul and Patel, 2017). This shame stems from no representation or conversations around menstruation in media or even families. A major part of this shame and humiliation comes from the consistent efforts made by females to hide and conceal menstruation from male members in the family and/or the society. This builds upon the idea that menstruation is ‘impure’, ‘dirty’ and shouldn’t be discussed openly, which in turn becomes a reason enough to restrict and control a woman’s movement in and out of the public and private spheres. In India, even though menstruation being a part of the curriculum in 8th and 10th grade, is either altogether skipped or not discussed in detail. Adolescent boys, even if they know what menstruation is, have no in-depth understanding of it and whatever information they get are from informal sources such as advertisements, overhearing a conversation or practice of certain myth and ritual by the family (for example menstruating bodies not being able to enter temples or kitchen while they are menstruating). This is what leads to common negative attitudes towards menstruation which further isolates the experiences and emotions of non-menstruating bodies (Mason, Sivakami et al, 2017).
Thus, measurement and information around menstruation and menarche become necessary in making sure that menarche is not a traumatising and humiliating experience for anyone (Radha and Chellappan, 2015). The first point of information will always be family, and thus families must be open to conversations around menstruation and can provide adequate information and emotional support to someone who is going through menarche. How one’s family reacts and communicates with a menstruating body for the first time plays an important role in determining their experience of menarche and their subsequent attitude towards menstruation. The next point of contact and information are teachers and school, which have the responsibility to provide accurate and in-depth factual knowledge to both menstruating and non-menstruating bodies. However, the result is that both these points of contact either don’t talk about menstruation or talk about it in such a way that it adds to the myths and taboos around it. Adolescent girls who experience menarche or witness their friend experiencing it, mostly don’t receive information from their teachers (Raina and Balodi, 2014). The first reaction is to teach menstruating bodies how to ‘conceal’ and ‘hide’ the fact that they are menstruating and not why they are menstruating, what it means, and what are the hygiene practices associated with it. This becomes even more important when we are talking about India, where period poverty is extremely high and menstrual hygiene is accessible to a very low population.
Media is one of the most powerful ways of disseminating information, opinions and knowledge about any issue. Popular media both reflects and perpetuates widespread notions and perceptions. Thus, it is the media which can play an important role in opening up and starting a conversation around menstruation and make it a ‘comfortable’ topic to talk about. The only sense of representation that menstruation gets from the media, comes from sanitary napkins advertisements. The problem with menstrual hygiene product advertisements is that there are unnecessarily focussed on concealing the fact that menstruating bodies are menstruating, and rather than depicting what menstruation is. They are extremely unrealistic and women in these advertisements appear to be obsessed with trying to control or deny the effects of menstruation, and menstruation is shown as a physiological function that must be covered up, negated and denied so that women can live ‘normally’ or as dictated by the society (Coutts and Berg, 1993). During such commercials, menstruation is considered a negative thing that needs to be covered and strengthens the idea that menstruation is highly unclean and unwanted (Simon and Berg, 2001). Shame becomes an essential part of the experience of menstruation and becomes imprinted in the way young bodies experience and perceive menarche and menstruation.
Other than advertisements there are no other forms of media that even remotely mention menstruation. Mainstream Bollywood movies and Television shows don’t include menstruation in any narratives and conversation. What essentially happens is that lack of representation fuels the myths, taboos and shame associated with menstruation and further pushes the conversation outside the mainstream and popular narrative.
Media should be an effective means of representation and knowledge dissemination. This, in effect, could alter families' menstrual practices and help to improve their lives processes and experiences with menarche and menstruation cycle (Chopra and Sharma, 2011). With the advent of the internet, various new forms of media, such as web series or short films, have become increasingly popular. One of the reasons for their popularity is that they provide and represent an alternative narrative which is refreshing, new and covers bases that are often forgotten by mainstream media. Short films have become a very popular and widespread phenomenon on online streaming platforms, especially Youtube, which provides easy and free access to content. While the quality of the content produced by these short films is extremely diverse, they do sometimes portray underrepresented topics. Menarche is one such topic and the article looks at two short films that discuss the experience of menarche and tries to break the myths and taboos around it two different ways.
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This 8 minutes long short film deals with the experience of menarche for a young adolescent girl, whose mother is at her job and tries to make sense of the experience, with just her father at home. The film starts with a few shots of the girl's bedroom which include her pink backgrounds, her pink headphone and a picture with her mother. All of these shots use certain types of gender stereotypes to make it clear that the room belongs to a young girl. Then the film shows us the girl, who is confused as she looks at her fingers with blood on them. She goes to her father and asks him to call her mother. There is a parallel story portrayed by the mother who is a gynaecologist and is delivering a baby. The film follows the experience of the young girl, as her confusion and humiliation slowly transform into comfort, because of the way her parents looked at menstruation. Her mother left a small box in her cupboard which contained sanitary napkins, information about how to use it and an uplifting note about how it’s a normal process. Her father, even though confused about what to do, provides support and care to his daughter. When the mother returns home at night, her daughter is well asleep and finds a card made by her daughter telling her she loves her. The movie ends with some hard-hitting facts about menstruation in our country which leads to young women dropping out of schools and the unawareness of fathers regarding the issue makes it even more difficult for young girls. The film urges everyone to break the taboo around menstruation.
With around 3 million views on Youtube, the movie portrays a very important issue in a simple and non-confusing manner. The subtext of the movie remains that menarche can be a healthy emotional and physical experience if menstruation is not seen as shameful and dirty. Support, care and knowledge help young girls to adapt to the process and conceive menstruation in a positive rather than a negative light. There are various ways in which the movie tries to break various stereotypes. One of the most visible was the role of parents, with the mother being out for work and father at home. Protagonist's mother is shown as a strong and capable doctor, who has made sure that her daughter has every available knowledge about menstruation even if she is not there with her. Another major aspect of the film was the role of the protagonist's father supporting her. In an important scene, when the daughter goes to the washroom after taking the box her mother left her, her father is standing outside and tells her that he’s there if she needs anything. When the daughter comes out of the washroom, she smiles at her father who is waiting for her with a hot water bottle and ice-cream. These two themes, and the importance of dealing with menarche in an open and supportive manner, becomes the entirety of the film’s premise.
While the film does employ certain gender stereotypes, the main aim and message of the film remain intact. There are certain problems with the way the protagonist's father behaves as he is supportive but completely clueless about what to do and depend on female figures in the film. The film in the end also mentions the fact that 90% of fathers have no idea on how to deal with their daughter’s menarche and puberty. While support is important, the one problem with the film is that the male members of the family should also have equal and important knowledge of menarche and menstruation. It cannot be fully dependent on the female figures, and men should be able to provide immediate information, help and support. Related to this was an excessive emphasis on a ‘mother’s love’ and her guilt of not being there with her daughter.
The film was not perfect, but it did remain true to its message and was a refreshing story dedicated to portraying the importance of destigmatising menstrual issues. It had a very simple premise with a very simple message: menarche can be a positive experience if it is treated with proper care and information. The moment we remove ‘impurity’ and ‘dirt’ from our conversations around menstruation, it ceases to be a humiliating and shameful experience.
A hard-hitting short film, ‘First Period’ is essentially an Indian and dramatic interpretation of Gloria Steinem essay ‘If Men Could Menstruate’. The 10-minute long film follows the story of a young boy, who upon realising that he has got his first period, is humiliated and ashamed. His family consists of all-male members, which are portrayed as doing all kinds of housework, that are essentially assigned to women. He refuses to go to school and his father encourages him to go to school and tells him that it is a natural process and he doesn’t need to be ashamed of it. The story then follows how his rest of the day goes, with a few examples of how menstruation would have been treated as a normal biological process, without any shame and taboos, if male bodies menstruated.
The film employs certain good and subtle examples to draw the contrast between ‘what-ifs’ and the current reality of menstrual hygiene in the country. One of the earliest examples used was when the young boy goes to buy sanitary napkins with his brother and the film subtly shows that sanitary napkins are available at a very basic roadside shop. His brother asks very openly for a sanitary napkin and even tells the shopkeeper that it was the young boy’s first experience with it. The shopkeeper gives the sanitary napkin without any dark-coloured polythene bag(contrary to the ones we get every time we purchase a sanitary napkin). The essence behind the scene is the fact that menstruation and menstruating bodies are not looked at with disgust or impurity. Another important aspect of the scene was the easy availability of biodegradable sanitary napkins and their apparent affordability. If men could menstruate, sanitary napkins would have been cheaper, environment friendly and much easily available.
The second part of the film focuses on the protagonists day at school, a day which begins with shame but ends with happiness and comfort around the process of menstruation. The film distinctly shows his father dropping the protagonist to his van, where he openly discusses with another parent how it's the first day of the period for the boy. In the classroom, the protagonist refuses to play football, is quiet and ashamed around his friends. When his friends ask him about it, they are extremely supportive and assure him that they have also gone through the same process. Once the class starts, the teacher also gets to know about it and tells the entire class that it is something natural and asks who has already reached menarche, to focus on the point that the protagonist is not alone. The teacher then shows him a machine installed in the school for disposing of sanitary napkins and menstrual waste hygiene products. Essentially, if men could menstruate, there would have been a supportive classroom environment, supportive and informative teachers and essentials provided at school.
The film mainly draws over contrasts between the reality associated with menstruating bodies in the country, with what utopian society, which was open to menstruation and didn’t see it as impure because it was men who menstruated. Even though there are plenty of examples in the film, the two-story examples of buying sanitary napkins and the experience at school become very important. They are in sharp contrast to the everyday realities of menstruating bodies. Buying menstrual hygiene products are often masked with shame, humiliation and hushed whispers. Even after purchasing them, all attempts are made to make sure that the product is properly hidden and concealed from public life because menstruation is seen as shameful, humiliating and dirty. Similarly, menarche is often a humiliating and traumatising experience, especially at school. There is certain disgust associated with it and often leads to peers making fun of it, which adds to the humiliation. The film puts forward the idea that all of this would have been a much more positive experience if men could menstruate.
Another subtext is that the society and essentially the way conversations around menstruation are received are male-centric and the concealment of menstruation essentially comes from a male- centric understanding of the process. More importantly, the film portrayed the idea that menarche can be an informative and positive experience if talked about openly and provided with adequate care and information without any aspects of shame and concealment. The protagonist in the film goes on to play his football match and is happy and fulfilled with his day. Being a menstruating body, because of the positive and open conversation he came across, doesn’t become an aspect of shame and humiliation in his life.
The film ends with repeating the first scene, but rather this time, experiencing menarche is a young girl, and the end scene is the makers asking its audience ‘What about our girls’ and provides us with information regarding how big taboo menstruation is and how the fact that it is considered dirty, leads to other major repercussions for people. The short film delivers a hard-hitting message in a short time and employs a rather unconventional way to start a conversation around menstruation and menarche. It is a well made, to the point film, which uses a male point of view to highlight just how discriminatory that point of view is.
While both films provide a very different way of representing menarche, the bottom line and aim of the films remain the same-to free menstruation of its taboo and stigma. They both tried to portray the fact that just by being open about the conversations around menstruation can seriously alter the way menarche are experienced. If there is no stigma attached, and if it is not seen as something that is dirty and needs to be hidden from everyone, the experience of menarche will not be one of humiliation and shame. While the films do not talk about the process of menstruation or menarche as such, it is the representation that matters here. There is no denying the fact that the films have missed several points or could have been better, but that is not the point of the current discussion, Representation and portrayal of stigmatised topics become important when there are silence and no conversation around them. Films and visual media are impactful and impressionable and have the power to shift the narrative. The fact that the internet and short films are trying to take up topics such as menstruation is a step forward.
While we celebrate and encourage films and forms of media that talk about menstruation or try to destigmatize it, it also important to note the kind of audience this content reaches. Accessibility to the internet and using it is a privilege and does not reach everybody. The Internet and the kind of content uploaded on it, is changing the mainstream narratives and stories, but these stories from the margins are not accessible to everyone. This is one of the reasons why the representation of menstruation in all forms of media becomes important. Moreover, the films represented a middle- class family and background, who generally have access to good menstrual hygiene. There should be an acknowledgement of the fact that stigma is not the only problem, and it perpetuates other serious issues such as menstrual hygiene and period poverty. While removing stigma is a positive step, there should be constant awareness and representation of the fact that most of the menstruating bodies in India don’t have access to proper hygiene products and facilities. There is an urgent and crucial need to put forward menstruation in mainstream narratives, while continuously trying to make menstrual hygiene accessible and universal. Representation in short movies is a very small step, but it's a way forward.
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