This past fall I stumbled upon the Heartland Film Festival. I also found one movie that inspired a research paper that would allow me to deconstruct the representation of females’ menstruation in cinema. That movie is Girl Flu (2016).
The film has been a part of many film festivals around the country, gaining positive reviews from critics and fans alike, but there is one important reason why Girl Flu.‘s narrative is especially important to write about. Audiences are learning while watching film–whether they are aware of it or not–and Girl Flu.‘s Producer David Wilson contradicted any alternative narrative Girl Flu. was trying to promote.
“Usually periods are used in movies as a punchline… a dumb joke. It is meant to humiliate people. That’s usually our cultural reference for menstruation. It’s something evil, horrible, humiliating, disgusting… it’s never really given its due.”¹
– Dorie Barton, Director of Girl Flu.
A naturally occurring process that happens to roughly 50% of the population isn’t being seen on screen enough, and when it is seen, it is misrepresented as taboo–a conversation that should be behind closed bathroom doors only. Hence, Barton’s inspiration to write and direct Girl Flu.
Girl Flu. is a newly circulated film about an independent California girl nicknamed Bird (Jade Pettyjohn) whose life drastically changes on the last day of sixth grade: she gets her period. She reacts how most young girls do, with anxiety, embarrassment, and thinking her life is over. Bird says that she is no longer pure and because she had her period, she will have to have sex and become her irresponsible, stoner mom Jenny. Despite Jenny’s (Kate Sackhoff) anxiety over her inability to have the first “period talk,” she reacts with excitement, enthusiasm, and pride that Bird is becoming a woman. The unconventional family–Bird, Jenny, and Jenny’s best friend Lilly (Heather Matarazzo)–celebrate Bird’s period, while trying to battle her melodrama towards growing up. The mom and daughter also struggle with deep-rooted issues such as familial roles, drug abuse, the lack of a father-figure, commitment, and more; but, all of the plot is centered around one of the largest changes in Bird’s life at the time…starting her monthly cycle.∗ Throughout the film, Jenny learns to both educate her daughter and cope with the idea that Bird is no longer a little girl. Bird, on the other hand, learns how to normalize the idea of now having a period and by the end of the movie, she is content with the natural process.
Yes, Girl Flu. was created. It was a great movie, so we can check ‘period representation’ off the ‘to-do’ list in cinema, right? Wrong. Because…something interesting occurred during the Q&A after the screening at Heartland.
Producer David Wilson was the only one in attendance, so he was the only one to speak for the film, and I’m really glad he did. During each response, Wilson never once said the words period or menstruation. Instead of stating the actual content of the film, he diverted from using the words in normal conversation. Wilson’s silence in between words, where the word period should have been, caught my attention.
There was a clear conflict between the message behind Girl Flu. and the message behind Wilson. There is no doubt that he believes in this film–or that he wants to believe in this film–but his non-verbal language during the Heartland Q&A spoke louder to me than any other words he said aloud. He was uncomfortable with periods. Now, I’m not blaming him for this behavior–it has been constructed in our society that all people, especially men, shouldn’t discuss periods. So, I’m not blaming him, but I do find it problematic. In this context, Wilson as producer, is a symbol of power within the film industry. In a larger societal context, Wilson is in a position of privilege as a white male. Because of both of these positions he is in, he has the opportunity to use Girl Flu. to change the dominant view on menstruation. He had the power to promote a different, more accurate, narrative about periods, but he sent a different message. A message that perpetuated all narrative Girl Flu was trying to combat.
His language made an impact just as much as Girl Flu. did. But, there is a way that the David Wilsons of the world have the ability to change the way periods have been constructed as. Keep talking about periods and support films like Girl Flu. Periods are happening–once a month–and will continue to happen, so we might as well keep talking about them. Girl Flu. is still screening at festivals around the U.S., but you can sign up here for updates on when it screens near you.
What are your thoughts on the representation of menstruation in cinema?
∗It is important to note that not all women’s menstrual cycles are monthly; because of health conditions and birth control, it is common for women to have irregular cycles. You can better educate yourself on that somewhere else besides this blog.