Ads for menstrual products have been notoriously evasive, avoiding the dreaded ‘v word’ (vagina) and using blue liquid as a stand-in for the blood that is markedly absent in both linguistic and visual representation. Words conveying the reality of menstruation – blood, clots, cramping, etc – are absent, as are visual depictions of what actually happens during a period – or the fact that females bleed, often copiously, from that most dreaded “down there” (a euphemism that, as Feministing points out, “two out of three network censors still feel icky” about).
Yet, a more realistic (and humorous) representation of periods seems to be slowly seeping into popular culture. An example is the recent U by Kotex ad, the transcript of which is as follows:
How do I feel about my period? We’re like this [crosses fingers]. I love it. I want to hold really soft things, like my cat. It makes me feel really pure. Sometimes I just want to run on the beach. I like to twirl, maybe in slow motion. And I do it in my white Spandex. And usually, by the third day, I really just want to dance. The ads on TV are really helpful, because they use that blue liquid, and I’m like, Oh! That’s what’s supposed to happen!
Though this ad avoids the v word as well any specific reference to the product itself or why one should use Kotex (as pointed out here), it’s self-mocking tone pleasantly parodies the way menstruation has been characterized in the majority of ads. Periods, it reveals, are not a time one tends to want to dance joyously in a tight-fitting sheer dress or frolic along the beach in a white bikini. While the ad does play on the idea of menstruation as “the curse,” and thus perpetuates a negative rather than a positive (or neutral) view of this female biological process, it at least admits that periods often involve pain and inconvenience (not to mention no blue liquid whatsoever).
Though the NYTimes documents that three networks rejected the original ad, which did use the v word, even this de-vaginized version uses humor to mock our cultural shock and horror surrounding menstruation, moving away from ridiculous suggestions that bleeding, bloating, cramping, and/or menstrual headaches really make women want to dance, shop, or exercise (what else, after all, do women ever want to do?). And, though we have no specific references to female genitalia, at least there is an acknowledgment that periods for many (most?) are not all that fun.
Moreover, as reported in the NYTimes, “Visitors to the Web site, UbyKotex.com, designed by the New York office of Organic, part of the Omnicom Group, are urged to sign a ‘Declaration of Real Talk,’ vowing to defy societal pressures that discourage women from speaking out about their bodies and health. …For every signer, Kotex will donate $1 to Girls for a Change, a national nonprofit based in San Jose, Calif., that pairs urban middle school and high school girls with professional women to encourage social change.”
And, while the ad had to be “sanitized” for television (or, in other words no real mention of what a sanitary napkin or tampon is for, let alone a mention of where they go, was approved), the accompanying website is far more explicit in its anatomical and functional details, including a section entitled “challenging the norm” that aims to “start a new, healthier conversation about periods and vaginal care.” Thus, not only is Kotex partnering with a organization aimed at empowering girls and women, it is actually offering REAL information about menstruation and menstrual products – what a concept!
While the tv ad’s self mockery is certainly a fun and refreshing approach to a bloody subject, I wonder when/if the mainstream media will allow ads that admit – horror of horrors – that females have vaginas and this bodily reality is not disgusting, not a curse, not even a reason to boogey-down in celebration but rather nothing more or less than a bodily reality.
I am not saying that having a vagina is not cause for celebration (I personally rather like mine), but I feel whenever the body (or part of it) is showcased as something to uncritically celebrate, the flipside – where the body is denigrated and denied – is not far behind. Instead, I would like to see wider recognition and acceptance of the fact that menstruation happens, and does so often (for too often for my taste, in fact), that the body is not all pleasure and desire but also pain, inconvenience, and monotony.
As I am currently attending the National Popular Culture Association conference where I am presenting on a panel with three other women who are also menstruating, such concerns have been foremost in my mind. After seeing each other face to face for the first time after months of email organization and discovering are bloody synchronization, one of us joked “I know women are often in sync, but are we now so technologically advanced that we can sync via email?”
Our running joke was that we would announce our panel, a feminist analysis of Twilight, via sharing “You are about to hear an analysis of male, heteronormative, white privilege from four menstruating feminists.” In our banter, Robert Pattinson’s now rather infamous claim that he is “allergic to vagina” was a recurring point of reference as well. Though I feel Pattinson meant this as a joke and is likely not the misogynist some have suggested, I feel in contrast that US culture more broadly is allergic to vagina – to the word vagina – let alone to the fleshy, bloody, and yes, toothless, bodily reality.
Alas, as Gloria Steinem wrote in her 1978 piece, if males menstruated it would likely be a sort of bragging right, a competition over who could bleed the most. Yet, as it is female’s bodies that require the use of pads, tampons, and diva cups no such celebratory bragging rituals occur. Rather, even within the self-aware mockery of the way menstruation is rendered invisible and monstrous (such as in the above Kotex tv ad) it is still something that cannot be named, let alone visually represented. This, indeed, makes me blue.