-20th Century Women, directed by Mike Mills, 2017
This morning Naomi is going to talk us through one of her favourite examples of positive period representation in film, as part of our The Good, The Bad, The Ugly series. Strap yourself in, rip open a bag of popcorn and prepare for a deep dive into the world of film…
After a year in a pandemic- strange how normal it seems to type those words out now- it would be easy to be a glass half empty kind of blog writer. We could be all “How the Tampon You- Yes YOU- Flushed Down the Toilet in Year Ten Killed a Whole Colony of Pandas” and “We Asked Ten Babies if they Could Name ONE Eco Period Product- They ALL Failed”. But we want to change the cloud of shame surrounding periods, not play into them.
The subject I want to discuss- Periods On the Silver Screen- is tipped on the seesaw of films quite heavily to the negative side of representation. I want to take a closer look at the positive representation though, gripping on tight, high in the sky, on the lightweight end of the seesaw. The more we give the time of day to films which portray periods as shameful, or embarrassing, or something unpleasant, the more stigma is created. In the vast scope of all of cinema, Hollywood cinema is perhaps the most influential en mass- it is advertised on our televisions, on the billboards we drive past, it is what major cinemas show, and it is what is awarded at musty but ever popular awards shows like The Golden Globes and the Oscars. Hollywood cinema has also, since its inception, been dominated by the straight, cis, white man, and its output has reflected this. If a period is mentioned in a Hollywood film it’s either a body-shaming joke, or it's a bloody scene in a horror movie, a spectacular gross out extravaganza. Hollywood holds the power to influence and shape lives all over the world, and if this is how they’re doing it, then we clearly have an issue. If it’s the CIA and the army drip feeding their scripts, we have an even bigger issue- but that’s a conspiracy for another day.
See, I’ll be the first to admit that my premature “opinions” were heavily influenced by the media I consumed. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one at a high school sleepover where Superbad had been put on, cringing at that scene, but doing so in silence, maybe even fake laughing along. Picture it: it was 2009. The Iphone had come out two years earlier, but you still have a Sony Ericsson. Your BFFL says her dad has a friend who lives in Spain who gets the family DVDs for cheap. She opens a huge wallet of the things, and you pore over them. “Superbad is funny”, one person says, so you watch it, and McLovin is just HILARIOUS! But there’s that scene: a girl dancing at a party starts her period, and blood gets on the jeans of everyone’s favourite misogynist goofball, Seth. Cue vomit sounds and screaming, cue jeering from all the dudes drinking beer, cue taking non-consensual pictures on flip phones. That this was, and looking at current reviews, still is considered the peak of comedy, says a lot about how Western society views periods.
Yet it is not a reflection of everybody's views on periods. As a result of education, hard work on the parts of activists such as our CEO Dr. Zareen Ahmed, and films such as those I’m about to discuss, the normalisation of periods, and the destruction of myths and taboos surrounding them, are becoming far more commonplace. Change is happening right now, as I type. And I know for a fact that if that happened at a party I was at now, the girl would be offered a period product, run a bath or a shower if she wanted it, and be welcomed back with a hot water bottle, and a lemon and ginger tea. The party would continue like nothing happened, because a leak is nothing; a leak is normal.
To continue this counterattack to every Superbad film to ever be super bad, this wave of education and widespread knowledge through the internet, today I will focus on the outskirts of Hollywood, on a brilliant film saying something different. I will throw a party for this film, hype it up, and give it the analysis it deserves. So crack open an M&S tinny, put on Kylie’s new album, and settle in for the party that celebrates Positive Periods On Screen! I am aware that my version of a party might seem gay and sad but I promise you, it’s just gay.
Firstly, I want to talk about 20th Century Women. I saw it in a cinema in Berlin, which was located in an abandoned shopping mall. The circumstances were strange, but I think it only made the comforting, friendly nature of the film even more endearing. In an unfamiliar locale, I immediately felt like I was joined there by a group of women I’d known throughout my life. The characters: Dorothea Fields, a single mum living in Santa Barbara, her son Jamie, his best friend, Julie Hamlin, their tenant, a photographer, Abbie Porter, and their carpenter and love interest to many, William, are all written with a depth that makes them seem real. They are flawed and beautiful; you learn their joys, and their pains; you find out what songs they dance to, and how they dance. Each character learns from one another, be it Abbie teaching Jamie what bands to like or how to talk to people in a bar, Dorothea teaching Abbie how to be more responsible, Julie teaching Jamie how to be a teenager, or Abbie teaching Dorothea to pursue what you’re passionate about. William mostly teaches everyone how to hold a house together perhaps slightly metaphorically, but mostly structurally. This circle of teaching extends to the viewer, and one particular scene manages to be a multifaceted educational experience: it is all at once hilarious, bold, and a destruction of the hush around period talk.
Dorothea is hosting a dinner party with her friends, and all of the main characters are invited, too. Framed by an open space where a door would be, signifying Dorothea’s welcoming and inviting nature, a long shot depicts a relaxed group of guests chatting, and, since it’s the 80s, smoking, too. This cuts to a mid-shot, with the audience being directed towards Dorothea, for she is speaking loudest in the group, the most confident, mature, an experienced dinner party host. Abbie, meanwhile, is in the left-hand corner of the frame, head down on the table. Jamie is asked by his mother to wake Abbie up, and there is a cut to a medium shot which centres her. She then says the pivotal line: “Stop it. I’m menstruating”. Dorothea retorts with a line I’m sure we’ve all heard before: “Sure, you’re menstruating. But do you have to say it?”. Instead of creating a dystopia where periods are universally renowned as a beautifully natural time of the month, the film chooses to include the common, mistaken view that those menstruating should suffer in silence- pretend their cramps don’t exist, or that they aren’t exhausted. In doing so, it provides a springboard for a counter-narrative to the norm to be discussed. What’s more, it can be discussed around, and thus heard by, a diverse table of individuals, and that’s exactly what happens. “What? I’m menstruating. Why is that a big deal?”. Even if it were this line alone that were Abbie’s retort, the film would be doing more to openly discuss periods than the vast majority- and by this I mean 99.9999%- of Hollywood films. But it doesn’t stop there. Enveloping critical discussion within humour, Abbie, being a no-nonsense arty type (I may see myself most in her, yes), puts her foot down. “If you ever want to have an adult relationship” she teaches Jamie “you need to be comfortable with the fact that the vagina, menstruates. And just say menstruation, it’s not a big deal, so, start saying it now”. There is a switch from a medium close up shot of Abbie, to one of Dorothea, whose facial expressions embody every repressed adult uncomfortable with speaking openly about their bodies. Even after forcing Jamie to say the word “menstruation” out loud, for what is probably the first time, Abbie isn’t satisfied. To her, one attempt which can be easily forgotten about isn’t enough to break the Antarctic sized ice sheet that is Period Shame. She makes him say it again, with confidence and normality, just as you would say “abolish the monarchy”, or any other casual sentence. Taking the heat off of Jamie, Abbie then goes around the table of guests and makes them say it too, starting a chorus of period praise. As soon as it seems like the whole table is somewhat comfortable with talking about it, William steps in to try and teach Jamie a lesson about sex (“Never have sex with just the vagina, you have to have sex with the whole woman”), which isn’t well received. Not only does this final moment in the scene, meant to be a casual dinner party, now turned sex education soiree, tip off its absurdity, making it tummy-hurting funny, it is the perfect depiction of the straight, cis, white man of Hollywood stepping in with his opinion where it’s not wanted, let alone needed. A layer of meta-ness falls over the scene and suggests to the viewer to think more widely about the topic, to place it outside of the contexts of the film and into their own world.
I wrote earlier that, in the context of the scene, that “one attempt which can be easily forgotten about isn’t enough to break the Antarctic sized ice sheet that is period shame”. This same theory also applies, though, to how many more films we need to freely, funnily, fabulously, and most integrally, honestly discuss- say it with me now- menstruation, to break the ice. The status quo of Hollywood still reigns supreme. So do we infiltrate it with more trans, queer, disabled, fat, black, and brown female directors, writers, actors and producers telling stories from their perspectives? Or do we celebrate those making those films on the outskirts already?
Here’s my theory: we do both.
Tune in next time for more Positive Periods on Screen!