A blood red moon
Has spared our bed
But not your rivals
Rufus Wainwright, The Consort
Was Wainwright talking about a period? Because if he was, two things:
- Interesting juxtaposition of lust, biology, and political violence
- This might be the very first time I ever encountered even an oblique reference to menstruation in popular (well, not that popular, he wasn’t exactly pop) culture
No, I take that back. Gchat with a friend who’s reminding me of Tamora Pierce, a fantasy writer whose heroine Alanna pretends to be her twin brother so she can join the ranks of the knights and he can study magic instead. They’ve been brought up in a conservative environment by their father, so when she hits puberty and wakes up to find everything one giant, blood-stained mess, the results are predictable.
Actually, hang on a second. That might have been the second time I encountered any talk about a period in literature. The first was Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
There’s an important point that I want to make here, about cultures that encourage the consumption of literature in which the main characters are not representative of the consuming culture. Every character in every juvenile piece of writing I created were white males. What does that tell you about the power of storytelling?
We’ll come back to that in a second.
Anyway, I remember Judy Blume fondly because it was also the first time I realized what a period was: that it involved blood. High school biology took care of the science.
The society I grew up in took care of the rest.
The entire concept of a woman’s period can be viewed from two extremes: a) it’s a horrifying mess, and b) it’s a beautiful facet of nature. Neither of those come close to the kind of shame and humiliation that’s inflicted on us implicitly when the subject comes up.
It’s really difficult to explain to a man what it feels like to be in such bad pain that you can barely walk, the kind of pain that can’t be ignored or sometimes even medicated. It’s even more difficult to explain the kind of gut-wrenching horror that comes with knowing that you’ve leaked. On a bus. In public. Through parts of your body that most cultures steadfastly refuse to acknowledge.
Most young women absorb these lessons consciously, because they’re told by their mothers or aunts or friends (I think it’s important to remember that the same women who gave up so much for us were, in many instances, also the women who held us back in a multitude of ways). But we also absorb it subconsciously, through a deafening silence. And that silence is in literature.
I can’t think of a single mainstream novel I’ve read — and most of those were by men, anyway — that approached the concept of young womanhood in all its grim reality.
I read some fantasy recently that I deeply enjoyed, set in a parallel universe. That last fact might have been why the concept was never brought up, but the three main characters, one of whom is a woman, are flying across an ocean in a helium balloon-type thing for weeks, and all I could think of was…
… how did she bleed?
And what about the women on Lost?
My point is not that women are driven solely by their biology, but that there’s a vast undercurrent of that biology, emotion, logistics and code that drives us. Most of the time we, like our male counterparts, function blissfully ignoring the small hormonal volcano residing in our uterus that erupts every four weeks. But when it does, we ask ourselves lots of questions. Do I have enough underwear for emergencies? Do I have enough pads/tampons? Am I going to have to make any difficult decisions today that require me to be on my game, and in that case, do I have enough painkillers? Can I perform the small feats of magic required to slowly sneak aforementioned pad/tampon out of my bag, into my sweater, and to the women’s restroom, without anyone male observing my actions?
None of that features in any plot, ever. Strong female leads breeze through life without the slightest indication that they may be suffering or just annoyed that they’ve run out of pads, or whatever. If it’s brought up, it’s rapidly used as the butt of some joke.
We joke about it too. We call it “our monthly visitor”, or “the time of the month”, and in my mother tongue, we say “she’s not at home”. This last could be literally true; historically, women were banished from the home because they were so unclean while on their period that they could taint anything by their mere touch.
But the thing is, we’ve earned the right to joke about it, because we’ve lived it.
You may have guessed by now that I’m days away from this happy event, usually heralded by the aforementioned hormonal volcano, which produces an emotional rollercoaster. So yes, I’m angry. We all are. We’re also exhausted.
Just once I’d like to read or watch a something really real, something that features a strong woman who needs to actually figure out the logistics to deal with this week-long event. And if more young women were reading literature that gently normalizes that experience, they might grow up with a little less shame.