For most men in South Asia, menstruation or menstrual health is as alien a concept as it gets. This is largely because of two reasons: firstly, male bodies do not menstruate and, therefore, most unmarried men rarely have to register the existence of this process, remaining ignorant of it most of their lives; secondly, societal stigmatization of menstruation or period blood makes it almost impossible to educate men out of their ignorance.
In today’s multifaceted world, menstruation is no longer just a biological process; it is a phenomenon that has political, social, psychological, economic and cultural impacts on the lives of those who menstruate. Resultantly, there have been various misconceptions associated to periods, instigated by backward perspectives towards female lives and bodies in general. These misconceptions have created hostile environments where women are unable to freely talk about their issues related to menstruation and often have to rely on innuendos to get their points across. This has affected their health, progress at work, education as well as social standing, which needs to be highlighted.
Unfortunately, the media – which is responsible to shed light on these issues – has not done much to challenge the myths and misconceptions around menstruation or normalize the discussion around menstrual health. Most of the times men are introduced to menstruation through advertisements or banal comedy. We still see advertisements about menstrual pads explained in the most covert outlines possible, with blue ink still considered sufficient to represent period blood. Sitcoms and comedy bits relish at portraying “angry” women because it is “that time of the month” and, hence, they cannot “function” properly.
In the backdrop of all this, it comes as a breath of fresh air when media platforms try to portray menstruation and the struggles around it in an authentic way that highlights why awareness around this issue is important. Twitter has been a useful tool with using hashtags such as #ifmenhadperiod. There have been various visual representations as well that have been helpful in bringing the conversation about menstruation to the mainstream. If you are looking to familiarize yourself with such themes, these five shows and movies would be a good places to start your quest and become more aware of a phenomenon which affects the lives of more than half the population of the world.
My Girl (1991)
This coming-of-age film had one of the best scenes about menstruation, especially keeping in mind that it was released around three decades ago. When 11-year-old Vada finds herself bleeding, she exclaims “I’m hemorrhaging!” and fears that she will bleed to death. Her fears are soon put to rest when her father’s female friend, Shelly DeVoto (played by the ever-talented Jamie Lee Curtis), explains that Vada is simply having her periods – something that all women go through every month.
It is interesting to see that an 11-year-old was aware of what “hemorrhaging” meant – probably taught at school – but was completely unaware of menstruation; this can be seen as a comment on the education system which is still lacking acutely in addressing these concerns, at least within South Asia. This film is a good start for anyone who wishes to understand the discomfort young girls go through when they experience their first periods, resulting in higher female absentee and dropout rates in schools.
Game of Thrones (2012)
Though the globally-acclaimed series has brought various taboo topics to the forefront, the handling of menstruation was perhaps not the best part of the show. This could perhaps be blamed on the medieval period the show was trying to portray but it nonetheless made audiences uncomfortable, and not in a meaningful way. In season 2 of Game of Thrones, Sansa Stark experiences her first period and is immediately overcome by dread; this fear isn’t because she is unaware of what’s happening to her body, though – it is precisely because she knows what it is and what it means for her future that she is engulfed in terror. In a previous scene, Cersei Lannister – who might become Sansa’s future mother-in-law if she marries her tyrannical son, Joffrey Baratheon, the King of Westeros – inquires about her period blood, to know when she would become of-age and be ready for marriage. Sansa is horrified by the idea of having sex at a young age, that too with the person responsible for her father’s death, and tries to hide it when she gets her period.
This scene became a chilling reminder of how menstruating girls were treated as grown women in olden times, ready to be married off and bear children – something that, until recently, was prevalent in South Asian societies as well.
20th Century Women (2016)
In recent years, Greta Gerwig has given us extraordinary female-centered stories, including the likes of Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019). But before she dazzled in the director’s chair, she was part of multiple important films as a talented actor, and 20th Century Women is one of them. In a rather controversial scene, Gerwig’s character Abbie is seen laying her head on the table at a dinner gathering. When one of the guests asks her why she is acting like this, she responds by saying “I’m menstruating”, which sends a wave of discomfort through the table. Sensing this discomfort, Abbie confronts it by trying to normalize the word “menstruation” and makes all the male members say it out loud, one-by-one, who are sitting at the table.
While she does this, the female members of the dinner party reproach her, telling her that what she is making these men do is “disgusting” and she should apologize to the guests. In return, Abbie rightly highlights: “just say menstruation. It’s not a big deal”, which is exactly how this idea should be treated. Moreover, Abbie also highlights how important it is for men to be comfortable with a woman’s period, especially if they plan on engaging in sexual activities with women in their future. This movie, and the scene particularly, can help men understand why treating menstruation as a normal part of life – and not as a taboo – is important.
Anne with an E (2017)
Anne of Green Gables has been a beloved book for many generations, written by Canadian writer Lucy Maud Montgomery. The book has been adapted into movies multiple times but there is something unique about how Netflix has portrayed the story in its recent version – and that uniqueness is related to how the series deals with Anne’s menstruation, something which is omitted in the novel and the previous adaptations.
The new series dedicates an entire episode to Anne discovering her period and how she manages to understand what this means for her as a girl. The episode encourages viewers to look into other popular fiction narratives in literature and try to understand how menstruation was always present in the backdrop of female bildungsroman novels but was never overtly mentioned or highlighted. This would help highlight the gap that exists in popular media and stories.
Unfortunately, Bollywood has been woefully silent about menstruation and this is highly problematic. Padman is perhaps the only mainstream movie that this multi-billion industry has been able to produce over the past seven decades. Nonetheless, it is a welcome addition and has been a catalyst for discussions within India as well as Pakistan and Bangladesh, around the topic of menstrual health and period poverty.
Following the struggles of Laxmikant, who takes it upon himself to create affordable menstrual hygiene pads for his wife as well as the women of his village, Padman sheds light on the various stereotypes that not only stigmatize women who are on their periods but also discourage them from trying to get better access to healthcare products necessary for menstrual hygiene. This movie is a progressive take on the issue as it tries to challenge the stringent religious and traditional misconceptions rampant in South Asian cultures, and thus should be on the list of every desi guy who wishes to know more about menstruation in a local setting. It becomes even more relevant when you know that the movie is based on the real-life story of Tamil Nadu-based social activist, Arunachalam Muruganantham. Movies such as these can highlight the important work social agents and organizations are undertaking to create awareness about menstruation.
While these movies and shows have helped in bringing the lived realities of menstruating bodies to the screen, this is not enough. More representation on this issue is imperative and if there is a higher demand to see visual art made on these themes, it would be useful for future projects that might be working with period awareness. The onus of education and awareness lies on men as well, to become familiar with these struggles, because it is only after the problem is recognized that we can try and think of solutions that might help turn menstruation back into just a biological process and nothing more.