Padman, periods and Hollywood's problematic stereotyping of menstruating women

Anvisha Manral

Feb,07 2018 15:10:50 IST

With Twinkle Khanna-produced Padman hitting the theatres next week, the dialogue around menstruation has seemingly become more open with the #PadmanChallenge taking over social media.

It’s not everyday you get to see an Indian film on menstruation or a social entrepreneur who invented a low-cost sanitary napkin making machine. Before Padman, there was Phullu, which unfortunately got eclipsed by the hullabaloo over the CBFC certificate. 

But even before Phullu, there were Hollywood movies which gave ample representation to menstruation. However, a lot of the content was far removed from reality. Periods, as we — buyers of overpriced sanitary napkins and consumers of painkillers — call them, have always been projected as an ‘event’ in Hollywood. Bollywood is being kept out of the question, because let’s face it, we are a little late to the party.

Padman is going to be our only claim to fame if there is ever a worldwide declamation about ‘Representation of Menstruation in Movies’.

A still from Carrie; No Strings Attached. YouTube screengrabs

A still from Carrie; No Strings Attached. YouTube screengrabs

Therefore, the debate about how the West has, over the years, perpetuated the falsehood of periods being a fearsome, dramatic, five-day crime scene, stands revived.

In her book titled 'Periods in Pop Culture', political scientist Lauren Rosewarne lists as many as 200 scenes from Hollywood movies and TV shows which depict menstruation. However, the number of episodes in which periods are treated for what they are — a natural process which doesn’t always have to be end up in a bloodshed — were negligible.

Let’s look at a few scenes from popular movies which pretty much projected their heroines as women who get angsty (borderline crazy) right at the onset of their period. Who doesn't remember a harrowed Jenny McCarthy in Dirty Love, leaving behind a pool of blood in a super market aisle because she couldn't get the tampons on time? Not to mention, the unrestrained way in which she runs with her hair loose, hiding from men who are busy shopping, ultimately to drown in her own menstrual blood.

Image result for no strings attached GIFs

There's also the talented Natalie Portman in No Strings Attached, who exclaims, "It's not safe in here", to a confused Ashton Kutcher. He, by the way, is waiting outside her door and gains entry only after he reveals that he comes bearing cupcakes. As he enters the room, Portman's friend takes a cupcake, lies down on the floor and begins to munch on it while making (annoying) purr-like sounds. (There are three women in the frame who are all menstruating, along with their 'gay-best-friend' because one stereotype wasn't enough).

Superbad, the laugh-a-minute 2006 film starring Jonah Hill also had one of the most memorable period scenes. It’s the one where Hill is dancing with a girl and she starts bleeding, without either of the two realising. After she leaves, Hill notices a stain on his pants and L.O.S.E.S it. He legit feels emasculated because there's period blood on his pants and every guy in the room is laughing at the comedy of the situation...except that there isn't any.

Now, we know these films are merely exaggerating a simple reality because they are comedies. But period scenes in serious films aren't devoid of this drama.

Take the 1976 horror film Carrie. It is said to have one of the most terrorising scenes in cinema in which a girl starts bleeding in the shower and thinks she is going to die. Pulled, tugged and jeered at by her fellow female friends, Carrie's shrieks make it impossible for the viewer to separate menstruation and insanity. "Even though the audience presumably recognized Carrie was only menstruating, the character’s terror was contagious," writes Rosewarne, in her book.

The most recent example of a 'normal' menstrual experience was seen in The End of the F***ing World in which Jessica Barden's on-the-run, rebellious teen Alyssa, steals a couple of underpants from a store. She is bleeding and there is blood on her fingers and just that. There are no theatrics involved in the scene because sometimes, just sometimes, women don't 'feel' things when they are on their period. Sure, a lot of women go through excruciating pain and mood swings, but that doesn't make them shriek in the shower or drown in a pool of their own blood.

Akshay Kumar in a still from PadMan. YouTube

Akshay Kumar in a still from PadMan. YouTube

Yes, we live in a third world country where films need to be made on people like Arunachalam Muruganantham. The West is more informed (or let's say, has access to the right kind of information) and doesn’t really need a Padman. But if not anything else, Hollywood should acknowledge its privilege and not reduce menstruating women to the ‘crazy b*tch’ stereotype.

But this isn't a chest thumping contest between Hollywood and Bollywood for the ‘who represented periods better' contest. This whole conversation begins (and should end) with normalising menstruation. It only remains to be seen how successful Padman is on that front. 

Updated Date: Feb 07, 2018 15:16 PM