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Menstruation and the Monstrous Feminine

Published 5th February, 2021 in MRP Guest Blogger


I don’t want to talk about how growing up in the 90s we were taught to hide it, that it was a shameful embarrassing thing. Those of us who were there know it. Some of us are still there. And I don’t want to talk about how I have tried to be more open with my children, my sons and daughters, by keeping my pads and tampons in the open, by explaining them and what they are used for as soon as they started asking.

I want to talk about periods in the arts context and why they are still travelling hand in hand with the depictions of the monstrous feminine. Barbara Creed’s theory of the Monstrous Feminine denotes that rather than the victims they are usually depicted as, women are the base of all horror monsters which derive from the abject nature of women’s bodies and their ability to birth new life.

Little Red Riding Hood, a fable of rape wrapped up in a fairy tale bow drapes the main character in red. This depiction of red, an unusual colour for a young girl, represents her period. The red coat her mother dresses her in shows her readiness to mate, her fertile nature, but naïve as she is lead astray and gobbled up by the wolf, the leery patriarchy.

In Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s coming of age graphic novel This One Summer, the prepubescent female characters deal with growing sexual awakenings amongst a mixture of horror movies and eavesdropping on older teens going through an unwanted pregnancy. At the end of the novel, as Rose leaves the family’s holiday cabin, she leaves her childhood behind, her innocence, and a collection of rocks tipped out in a small pile on her bed mimicking the stains of a first period and her step into womanhood.

When I was a teenager there was a common sneer going around school amongst the boys that ‘you can’t trust anything that bleeds for a week and doesn’t die’. This idea that women are tricksters can be seen in religious mythology, with Eve tricking Adam into eating from the forbidden fruit, a metaphor for her body and the sin of sex. Women are the temptuous monsters longing for men only to reproduce as only in being physically full with child are they emotionally full and their body can stop bleeding for a time.

In 2019 I attended Lucy Peach’s informative and hilarious stage show about periods. I learnt more about my period in that show than ever before. Peach breaks the period down into four stages and explains what activities are best performed or avoided in each stage. It was empowering not just to learn, but to openly hear words like menstruation and tampons and period said out loud with confidence. This wasn’t something to hide it was something to celebrate, to understand. Watching the grown women next to us declare it the most disgusting thing they’d ever seen and walking out in protest was disappointing but watching their husbands and prepubescent daughters staying to watch gave me hope. What were the women scared of? They knew what a period was, they experienced it every month, yet seeing it openly talked about scared them. Were they really reviled? Or were they terrified of their own monstrous nature?

Women are so programmed to not take up space in society, to not be monstrous, that we respond strongly when watching the monstrous depicted in the arts. Creed says that women draw pleasure in the perverse acts of female characters because they are refusing to live by societies rules.

The Heroic Monstrous Feminine is a lesser seen monster that uses her monstrosity to save herself and others. Bodyform, a brand of sanitary pads made history with their advert aired in 2016 that featured red blood. Up until then sanitary ads used blue liquid to denote blood as it was considered more palatable, less graphic. Bodyform’s ‘No Blood Will Hold Us Back’ advert, part of their Red.Fit campaign showed strong women competing in everything from ballet to rugby while bleeding from obvious wounds. The ad even depicts a medieval warrior holding a broadsword high and riding into battle. The ad doesn’t just show that women bleed it shows that they can show their blood openly without disgust.

In Charlotte Wood’s Stella Prize winning novel, The Natural Way of Things, the main characters have their periods. Not as a plot point or to prove a point but because they are women and any female character that is depicted for more than twenty-eight days is going to have a period. The protagonists, abducted and trapped in the remote Australian outback, are forced to use strips of cloth for their periods that they must wash and hang on a line to dry. Their male gaolers mock this inevitably public representation of their menstruation. It is only much later in the story the prisoners find boxes and boxes of sanitary items that have been hidden from them. This debasement of women and their natural cycles reflects the everyday shame women are pushed into about their menstruation.

I can count on one hand the amount of art that has made me physically cry. Casey Jenkins performance art piece ‘Casting off my womb’ made international news and had me in tears. Her performance piece involved knitting a fifteen-metre scarf from wool held in her vagina over twenty-eight days. The emotion of seeing the physical representation of the menstrual cycle against the white scarf, a timeline in blood feels too powerful for words. It horrified some viewers, the idea that a woman would use such traditional materials in such a raw way. For me it was the ultimate depiction of the power of the heroic monstrous feminine and the way it should be seen, publicly and unapologetically.

Read Tiffany’s first blog post with us, ‘The Rawness of Rushed Writing’.

Tiffany Hastie recently graduated with First Class Honours in a BA in Writing and Children’s Literature, receiving the Plantation Award on graduation. A two-time winner of the Talus Prize in 2017 and 2019, Tiffany’s focus on speculative fiction explores futuristic worlds and hidden private lives revealing the dark underbelly of the id. Published as a winner in the Margaret River Press anthology Pigface,Tiffany has been a featured author on stage at both the Margaret River Writer’s Festival and The Australian Short Story Festival, reading excerpts from her stories and talking about her writing process.

We publish high-end literary fiction, crime and the best short stories currently being written in Australia.

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