Menstruation is a tricky issue to deal with, not so much because it’s taboo but more so because of the unrealistic representations of movies, television shows, and advertisements. Since pop-culture and the audio-visual medium, in general, have an unmitigated influence on the audience, it is best to distinguish real from reel once in a while, to bust some myths and reclaim some stereotypes.
Most of the advertisements on periods on television that revolve around sanitary napkins, completely undermining the importance of generating awareness regarding more eco-friendly, economically viable, and sustainable products like the menstrual cup or tampons.
If that was not a big problem in itself, there is a bigger one on hand. Sanitary napkin companies like Stayfree, Whispers, and Sofy continuously use what I call – the “Rahul kya sochega?” (What will Rahul think?) trope to sell their products (Rahul is a generic, independent name to address the trope.)
If you have not yet grasped what this trope is, let me explain; most of these advertisements depict a girl on her periods, sitting and sulking on some college campus when her bubbly best friend comes and asks what the matter is. You would, in real life, expect her to say that it’s because of her cramps, but she proclaims that it’s because she had to cancel plans of going out for a movie with her boyfriend.
After all, she’s afraid that her sanitary napkin will stink. The bubbly best friend then offers the advertised product as a solution for all-day freshness and comfort. There are two problems here. Firstly, no sanitary napkin is supposed to keep someone fresh as a flower all day long on a heavy-normal flow day.
Doctors agree that a pad should not be used for more than a few hours, to say the least. Moreover, the “moisture-lock” for “all-day comfort” is just a concoction of synthetic dehydrating, perfumed chemicals that are true to their name- they lock the moisture inside, making it not only a potential breeding ground for bacteria but it also severely affects the normal and natural ph balance and moisture of the vagina, causing rashes, itches and sometimes, even a full-blown infection if used as long as is advertised.
Secondly, your period is not about Rahul. It’s natural for your vagina to smell like blood and sweat on days you are menstruating, and the smell is rarely ever so strong that you will have to cancel plans with your “Rahul.” On a more serious note, this trope not only encourages gendered dogmas about menstruation to stay put in one place but also shows how low the bar for men really is all over the world and how the liability to look still and smell like a flower falls on a woman, bleeding her ovaries out.
There are also the “I cannot do xyz activities, because what if my sanitary pad overflows” tropes. Staining is a legitimate concern for many people who have heavier flows, and though there are pads that help a lot with it, this is exactly where awareness about tampons and menstrual cups could be useful.
In making these advertisements, it is essentially telling young girls and women who haven’t still had the opportunity or exposure to learning more that there are limitations to what they can achieve during their periods, simply because these companies have failed to advertise or altogether introduce alternative products in the market.
The most famous tropes in TV and films include the ‘my friend/boyfriend brought me ice creams’ trope or/and the ‘periods are nothing to me while I rock the world’ trope, seen in No Strings Attached, End of the Fu**ing World and other pop culture productions, respectively. While both of these tropes do not at first glance seem to be problematic, they somewhere isolate an entire demographic of people in both cases.
While it is absolutely okay and much wanted that people care for you on your periods, it is also tricky if that is the ONLY ‘real’ representation of care. There is an entire population of women/ transpersons and their friends or partners who cannot afford ice creams, food, cozy retail therapy just because they are on their periods. Menstruators worldwide work in factories, agricultural fields, mines, making ends meet on their periods while their partners and/or friends do the same.
As someone rightly pointed out to me, “It is a first-world capitalistic concept.” While a little good food and some gestures help people feel good, it is only limited and restricted to a certain stratum of society. In contrast, the other, not-so-privileged strata do not have any real or reel examples of gestures of care and kindness during the menstrual cycles of their menstruator folks.
Gestures of care are inclusive of, but not limited to, ice creams or food; sometimes it’s about helping with household chores, helping in, making the bed, or washing the utensils to help your partner. While the “ice-cream” trope rages on in popular culture, it still does not evolve into a more intersectional trope of thoughtfulness to serve as an example to people from all backgrounds.
The second trope of ‘I rock the world, periods doesn’t matter’, is yet another reductive trope that is totally oblivious to countless people who suffer from various kinds of dysmenorrhea, hemorrhage, PCOS, anemia, and other periods related complications every month.
For them, shame, embarrassment, a sense of being a burden, etc., come hand in hand. Moreover, this type of stereotypical representation throws the argument, and the movement for period leaves, for people who really need it, out into the trash can.
You are supposed to brave it all, ride it out, just like countless glamorous, emancipated, and liberal on-screen presences have since time immemorial. The reality of it is, you are not obligated to treat your period sickness as just some headache because of the serious health issues that can arise if not properly taken care of.
These are just some of the tropes that are so detached from real life, that it fails to paint a holistic picture of the daily tribulations of a person undergoing complications regarding menses. My choice of using ‘person’ also indicates that pop culture has zero to hardly any representation of menstruation in the transpersons community like dust under the carpet.
It’s 2020, and all we want for Christmas is some realistic, intersectional, inclusive, and unbiased representation of menstruation on-screen.