• Pooja Narayan

Strictly Edutainment? Decoding Short Films on Menstruation on YouTube

Introduction


The short film genre of filmmaking has become the new, coveted way of engaging audiences eager to learn and educate themselves on social issues. One glance at the number of menstruation-related short films available on YouTube will reveal the diverse range of movies on the subject. From addressing changing attitudes to menstruation in families, exploring sexuality during periods, periods and relationships, the long list continues.


In their study of YouTube as a site for critical pedagogy and media activism, Kellner & Kim (2010) observe that going beyond the conventional modes of learning, learning through dialogues, "active participatory communication", modes of self-reflection and a decentralized and democratic space has become available to users on the Internet. Yet, the democratization of YouTube and other social media platforms remains incomplete owing to the vast digital divide globally and in India. In Keller and Kim's study (2010), out of eighty-one video postings, seventy-seven belonged to white creators, and sixty-five postings came from men alone. Suffice to say that similar results would surely come up if a study took place for the Indian YouTube scene.


In this blog, I examine some of the short films and movies that focus on menstruation to analyse the messages and narratives that shine through the movies. Understanding the nuances in depiction in these movies will help identify lacunae and ways to make the on-screen portrayal of menstruation more sensitive and empathetic.


A Brief Description of the Short Films


I decided to use language as a filter for my selection of movies. I specifically chose four movies in Tamil (She and Periods), Telugu (Gowri), Malayalam (Menses) and Hindi (Mahina) - the four languages that I can understand with varying degrees of ease, and proceeded to watch, unpack and analyze the awareness-raising short films. In this section, to better equip the reader with the plot, themes, and crucial symbols/imagery of the movies, I briefly describe the four movies. Following that, I attempt to critically analyze the movies, address shortcomings and present my thoughts.


The Tamil short movie, She and Periods (2021) is set in an urban locale in Chennai and aims to bring men into the conversations on periods. The video opens with a young woman asking a stranger to help her get pads since she left her wallet at home. He hesitates and says it would be better if she asked a woman instead of him. He also advises her that if she was menstruating, she should have stayed at home instead of travelling - “imagine how would I go buy the pad from a medical shop” he chastises and walks off. A few months later, the same stranger, Mr Vivek, is sitting for a job interview when he receives a message from his sister to bring him pads as he comes home. He retorts that since she is at home, she can get those herself. Vivek's interviewer turns out to be the same woman he had refused to help at the beginning of the video.


She questions him on premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and periods and asks him to demonstrate his skills by selling her a single pad. Vivek begins to get visibly flustered and hesitates even to touch the packet. Flipping the blame onto her, he questions if she is doing this to get her revenge and why the marketing job requires him to know about periods and PMS. She states that she is not asking unnecessary questions, and if he remained so unconcerned about these basic things, he wouldn't be able to understand his co-workers. Despite more what-aboutism from Vivek, the interviewer responds calmly to his patronizing questions. She adds that it is completely his choice to educate himself on menstruation. Rejecting his job application, the woman requests him to leave. As the video pans out, Vivek comes out of the interview a "transformed person" and enquires about the pads his sister had asked for.


The next short film, Menses (2021), much like the film above, emphasizes drawing men into the discourse of menstruation. This short film in Malayalam highlights the need for a supportive, caring partner who empathizes with the menstruator by depicting a couple's fight. The movie opens with a nameless couple at a cafe. When the girlfriend arrives, the boyfriend unleashes a barrage of questions about her not turning up the previous day. On revealing the excruciating pain brought about by her periods, he perceives her pain as an excuse and does not believe her. Through pointed and insensitive remarks, he continues to dismiss her pain; we witness her face fall, which only shows how deeply the partner's comments impact her.


However, she hits back at him for being extremely unsupportive and that with a support system and care, she wouldn't have had to suffer. Yet, in frustration with his personal needs remaining unheard, the boyfriend walks away. Later, that night, he wakes up with terrible pain at night to find that he is bleeding - so much so, his palm is drenched in blood. At the pharmacy, the shopkeepers ridicule him for asking for sanitary napkins for "gents", and his partner's words, "If only I had a support system, I wouldn't have to suffer", rings through his ears. Though a nightmare, he is bleeding, staining the bedcovers and his shorts in the process. The camera pans out with the word “menses” as blood gushes into “men” to tie the film together.


In contrast to the above movies where men refuse to buy sanitary products for the menstruators in their lives, the next two movies explore the impacts of inaccessibility to menstrual products. Addressing this inaccessibility to safe and hygienic menstrual products that women in rural India face, Gowri (2019) is a tale of a young child, Gowri, who menstruates for the first time. The film draws attention to the problems she (and her menstruating mother) encounter, the myriad questions that come to her, and how people react when she menstruates for the first time. Based in rural Telangana, Gowri comes to her mother in immense pain, who tells her she's menstruating. The women of the village come to perform a small ceremony to commemorate her first menstruation and advise Gowri to stay at home, eat food and take some rest. At home, she sits outside, separately, after her mother (who is also menstruating herself) gets her some used old cloth scraps to use as an absorbent. Gowri is reprimanded when she offers to bring the pickle for their dinner. Her mother informs her that she is not supposed to touch anything when she menstruates - pickles, flowers and lamps - as they are a bad omen.


Gowri watches young school girls on the television, dancing and without stress on their periods, filling her with curiosity. At school, she asks her teacher about Whisper. The teacher provides detailed information on the benefits of sanitary napkins as opposed to women using unhygienic cloth scraps. She adds that none of God's creations is impure in response to Gowri's question of staying away from things. She also notes that the idea of staying away from things ensured women rest during their periods that later became convoluted into a superstition. We can witness the doubts and questions in Gowri's mind flash across her face as she absorbs so much new information. Eventually, Gowri decides to start using a sanitary napkin after her friends laugh at her when she stains her school uniform. The last scene ends with Gowri handing her mother a pad as she comes home, whose joy and relief are unmistakable to the viewers.


The last short film, Mahina (2021) though focused on menstrual health management (MHM), is largely from the lens of an urban woman whose visit to a village leaves her aghast about the harsh realities that rural women face when they menstruate. Much of the initial parts of the movie take the viewer through the roads of Mumbai to the resort in Karjat, where the rich, "upmarket, modern couple" stays for their brief vacation. Several minutes of the movie pass in watching the couple, Adi and Ishu, enjoy in the resort, visit the nearby village (the discomfort that the villagers experience on accommodating unknown individuals becomes rather palpable to the viewer). Suddenly, Ishu sees a woman in a dilapidated hut, isolated and in pain.


On enquiring, Ishu finds that women in the village must stay in isolation, without any communication with other village members during their "Mahina" - the few days when women menstruate. Seeing the lack of facilities - the bucket full of bloody rags, the ill-maintained toilet, menstruating without a sanitary napkin, sends shock-waves in Ishu's life, so much so, her partner has to comfort her at this aghast discovery. She decides to help (read, save) the women through a low-cost, efficient pad-manufacturing unit. Yet, in the closing minutes of the video, Ishu and Adi hand out StayFree pads (the unmistakable blue cover) to the numerous women of the village. They stand in a single file, much like schoolchildren, awaiting their turn to get the single pad packet. The movie ends with the self-satisfied, proud smiles of the couple who bask in the glory of having done their "bit" for "these women".

Decoding Themes

In this section, I unpack the various messages and cinematographic nuances that weave the short films into the larger narratives. All four short films are part of bigger production channels on YouTube that create “content” in the form of videos - web series or educational content. While the main message across the videos is to generate awareness and initiate dialogues about menstruation, individually, the videos present varied conversations about menstruation. Both She and Periods and Menses seek to integrate men into the conversation on women through similar tropes - the men (in these movies, both are cisgender men) remain unaware and unconcerned about menstruation unless menstruators (here, cisgender women) share their lived experiences of menstruating. Studies globally demonstrate that young boys, owing to the cultural constructions of silence and stigma around menstruation, are left with inadequate knowledge and informally sourced information (Eurchull, 2020; Allen et al., 2011).


Since patriarchal ideas greatly shape menstrual taboos and stigmas, negative evaluations of menstruators (Erchull, 2020), such as constantly "complaining about normal and simple things'' (She and Periods) and attempts to dismiss and invalidate one's pain ", only you are in pain, huh?” (Menses) are observed in the movies. The cinematic trope of blood exaggerated to highlight the true extent of periods does not convey much to the viewers. Its sole purpose is to only add an element of gore to the entire narrative of menstruation. While much of these two movies focus on Vivek and the boyfriend being educated about menstruation, not much emphasis is given to them introspecting and self-realizing their role as allies or support systems; their transformation rides on the back of the menstruators in their lives. The focus remains exclusively on educating the audience, yet there are no concrete solutions, conversations on further steps to break cycles of silence and taboos. Without this crucial element of addressing actions ahead, the audience is left believing that combating menstrual shame and stigma ends with a transformative experience for non-menstruators at the behest of menstruators.


The other two short films explore the MHM scenario in India through a more emphasized approach on menstruation. The messages that one receives in both the movies, however, differ significantly. The lens adopted for Mahina in all its thirteen minutes is a Savarna-saviour complex (discussed extensively after Article 15’s release) which fuels Ishu and Adi's intentions to provide better menstrual care and hygiene facilities for rural women. The camera angles and the dialogues make it quite evident that the couple hailing from Mumbai, "who are intelligent, well-connected and well-educated" (as Ishu reminds her husband), are the authority figures in the entire narrative. Be it how the menstruating woman in the village is sitting meekly, almost withdrawn from her surroundings, in comparison to the confidence (read, entitlement) that Ishu and Adi have as they walk around the village. The rural woman (and other women in the movie) remains nameless, almost invisible in the entire discourse concerning their bodies, needs and aspirations. Their opinions and concerns about receiving pads from strangers as part of their "charity model" are not considered.


In contrast, the characters of Gowri are written with relatively more sensitivity to the setting by portraying hardships that menstruators face in rural India. Camera angles capture Gowri's first experiences of bleeding, such as the pain, the questions that bother Gowri, the cloth scraps that hang in the house as both mother and daughter are left with scarce resources. Gowri's mother, the women in the community, the teacher as the primary sources of information for the do(s) and don’t(s) during her periods depict the intergenerational transmission of menstrual myths, taboos, stigma.


Out of the largely prevalent menstrual stigmas, the notion of impurity, impure touch and menstruator’s social exclusion is explained by invoking Hindu deities and practices. Yet, neither Gowri nor Mahina touch upon, let alone address the Brahmanical roots of menstrual taboos of touching pickles, flowers or cooking at home (Sukumar, 2020; Tamalapakula, 2020). The videos subtly depict the inhumanness of the brief “untouchability” (the voiceover in Gowri and the isolation that the rural woman faces in Mahina) that menstruators face. In doing so, they equate the practice of untouchability, a defining, oppressive feature of the caste system that has dehumanized oppressed castes, with the "temporary defilement that dominant caste'' experiences during menstruation (Tamalapakula, 2020).


Lastly, both the videos end with depicting the use of sanitary napkins as a "hygienic alternative" to "unhygienic practices of cloth scraps". This is depicted as the first and the last step towards better menstrual health for all women. This hyperfocus on sanitary napkins as solving all socio-economic, cultural impediments has been critiqued for excluding other fundamental aspects of MHM (Lahiri-Dutt, 2014, p.13). The tunnel-vision approach, primarily taken by the Indian state in various health policies and MHM initiatives, fails to consider comprehensive education on the menstrual cycle, excluding necessary solutions to address menstrual taboos and stigma (Korrapati & Sinchana (2021). The endorsement of StayFree and Whisper by both the films also points to the influential role of multinational corporations and capitalist, neoliberal agendas in standardizing menstrual products for all women. In turn, breeding further inequalities and inaccessibility for menstruators.


Conclusion


All four movies present unique insights into the current discourses surrounding menstruation in India. One can witness the popular narratives that inform the views and perspectives of the movies. The idea of rural India as a site of unawareness and menstrual stigma and taboos compared to "modern" urban India and the recent conversations that bring men into the fold of menstruation are examined at length in the films. Additionally, the State's and NGOs' main thrust towards hygiene and sanitary napkins in the MHM discourse in India also crop up. These narratives that aim at raising awareness and consciousness are sprinkled across the other short movies that engage with menstruation on YouTube.


As I finish watching these movies, the questions that I am left with remain unanswered. Did the boyfriend become more supportive and empathetic after suddenly experiencing menstruation? Did Vivek really extend his unequivocal support to his sister or the other menstruators in his life at his next workplace? How did Gowri and her mother's life transform (if that happened, of course) once they started using the sanitary napkins? And lastly, what about the next mahina for the rural women who only received one packet of Stayfree? Yet, in the quest of being strictly edutainment (as the description boxes of these videos claim), is a critical approach missing in these movies? Are the movies reinforcing the very same notions, myths and binaries they seek to dispel? Of course, a single short film cannot examine all the varied themes in the broad universe that is MHM in India. Yet, attempting to critically examine and constantly question the dominant narratives around us might push us to be more sensitive in our everyday approaches.


Bibliography


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Sukumar, D. (2020). Personal narrative: Caste is my period. In C. Bobel, I.T. Winkler, B. Fahs, K.A. Hasson, E.A. Kissling, & T. Roberts (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of critical menstruation studies (pp. 137-142). Palgrave Macmillan.

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Tamalapakula, S. (28th, May 2020). No, All Women Are Not Dalit Because They Suffer Untouchability While Menstruating. Youth Ki Awaaz.

https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2020/05/can-we-really-discuss-menstruation-in-india-wit hout-talking-about-caste/

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