The Problem With Periods: How Male Writers Misrepresent Menstruation
By Alex Cranz
I’m sitting there enjoying the hell out of Neal Stephenson’s latest, Reamde. Yeah things have gotten a little hinky. The book starts out as a study in fantasy fiction world building and over time turns into a very well written Tom Clancy novel where everyone speaks with the stilted diction of the non-native English speaker, but it’s a lot of fun and there are just enough cool little bits about video game design theory and world building and Iowa culture to keep me interested.
Then this character who is constantly being kidnapped (this is her third abduction in 500 pages of a 950 page book?) has a brief pause where she considers her period.
Okay. I get that. It would really suck if I’m chained to a truck in the middle of nowhere and the elevator from The Shining opened for business in my brand new sweat pants. And the accompanying cramps and bloatedness would make an abduction even more unpleasant.
But no she’s trying to remember if menstrual blood attracts bears. Again a valid concern. Bears like meat and sometimes all those giant clots of uterine refuse have a tangy meat smell. But apparently some small part of this character is upset (in a feminist way) about wondering about bears and menstruation.
Say what now? Why is that a feminist issue? Have the threat of bears long been a method men use to subjugate women on hunting trips? Is that really a thing?
Whatever Neal Stephenson.
I dig deep and move beyond his snarky slight towards feminism.
And then I get to her mentally counting the days since her last period to determine how close she is to to requiring a tampon. Because woman is on a strict 28 day cycle that would make lunar calenders and stupid iPhone menstrual calendar apps everywhere pleased. She can count the days and, it is nearly inferred, the hours to her next period.
And Neal, who for the first time in any of his books is keeping me enraptured with his plot, absolutely loses me.
There are few things I hate more than dudes assuming that periods run on a never wavering 28 day cycle non-stop forever and ever Amen. Newsflash to male authors and writers everywhere. Menstruation is not some sort of clock. It does not follow the same cycle as the moon. It is not always preceded by PMS (many lucky bitches don’t even have PMS!). It is often “irregular” in women.
While some women do have a uterine cycle you can set your watch too many women are a little more flexible. Why do you think tampon machines exist in restrooms? It’s not because women are forgetting tampons. It’s usually because they’re out and about and notice a funny feeling and have to traipse off to grab a little tube of cotton to stick up their yahoo to keep from ruining that brand new pair of underpants.
Why don’t they have tampons on them 24/7 if they’re not regular like a clock in a train station? Lots of reasons. More than one woman has had some dildo go through her book bag or purse and pull out a tampon or pad and embarrass the hell out of them. (But really shedding the endometrium is totes normal and nothing to be ashamed of so tell them to shove it.) Personally I don’t carry tampons wherever I go because I have enough junk in my purse.
And while one’s period is an unpleasant monthly/bimonthly surprise for some women for others it might be this annoying bitch of a biological process that seems like it is trying to “sync” with other nearby women. It’s like a Bluetooth keyboard only not at all and it is an absolute treat in a dorm hall full of 18-year-old women who subsist on nothing more than break and bake cookies and Smirnoff Ice. It also means that yes, some women may go a few days longer and some a few days shorter and some may end up menstruating for what felt like three months until we all begged her to see a doctor because we were pretty sure she was dying. But eventually they’ll all be on the same cycle more or less.
Some women, perfectly healthy, and often athletes, don’t menstruate at all. Their bodies are too busy doing amazing physical feats to worry about shedding uterine lining. Other women are so skinny that they do not menstruate.
And many women don’t menstruate because they’re experiencing a stressful situation. The character in Reamde has spent a week or two being abducted, exploded, drowned, assaulted, and she’s been busy doing a little assaulting and murdering of her own. It’s likely that she wouldn’t menstruate because her body is too busy keeping her on high alert for Russians/Chinese/Central Asian terrorists.
This is all easy information to acquire for male authors. They can look it up on Wikipedia or call a woman they know. Heck they can learn about it as I did, from a book I was given by my mother in lieu of “the talk.”
Neal, and authors like him only perpetuate a really stupid myth when they treat all women like leaky lunar calendars. Young women read that and they get freaked out because “they’re” not like that and what a teenage girl doesn’t need is another reason to be self-conscious about her lady parts. Liven things up! Have women miss their periods because they’ve taken up being kidnapped by terrorists! Have them forget when they last had a period and not immediately assume they’re pregnant. Heck take the super absurd route Larry David did in a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm and have women just “suddenly” get their periods–though please make sure it’s all to service the story because otherwise it just seems like page padding Neal Stephenson I’m looking at you.
It’s not hard to portray menstruation realistically. So why be lazy and possibly alienate half of your readership? At least Reamde is a pretty great book full of a lot of diverse female characters, a bevy of strapping Slavic men, and a dense narrative that never hold’s your hand. Bad use of the menses may have pulled me out of the story but the savvy heroine pulled me back in.