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You may not want to watch a documentary about menstruation, but you need to because “Periodical” is compelling, important, and eye-opening.


Of all the incredible films coming out of this year’s SXSW film festival, a documentary about the science, beauty, politics, and mystery of the menstrual cycle may not be high on your list. But I hope to make a case for why this strange but enlightening and even inspiring documentary directed by Lina Lyte Plioplyte is well worth your time.

I know it’s an unusual choice of subject matter — often a taboo topic and one of embarrassment and shame, even among women.

Let’s face it, there’s nothing “sexy” about menstruation, and we’ve been conditioned from a young age to consider the period as nothing more than an uncomfortable nuisance, a necessary evil that must be endured but never celebrated.

As the documentary brings forward from the very beginning, we have a history of not caring about periods, a history of stigmatizing and suppressing knowledge about the menstrual cycle.

Women are encouraged, both explicitly and implicitly, to keep quiet about what’s happening to their bodies.

They are taught to be ashamed of this essential and quite extraordinary process.

What’s most interesting about this enduring desire to degrade women for the natural — borderline supernatural — power of their bodies is precisely why this happens.

One commentator asks, “Are women scary to society because we are so magical?”

The more you know and understand about the menstrual cycle, the more awe-inspiring it becomes, and the more women seem like superheroes than mere mortals.

One period activist featured in the documentary says she chose to reconceptualize her period as her superpower.” And that seems pretty on-target.

Of course, it makes sense in a patriarchal society built on the idea that women are the weaker, less capable, inferior sex that we’d have a desperate desire to undermine any attributes that give women power. Patriarchy values women as breeders, but it devalues menstruation.

So, we get the tropes that women are simply slaves to their hormones, imbalanced and even crazy.

The medical diagnosis of hysteria — the belief that the very presence of a uterus can cause a variety of physical and mental ailments (coined in ancient Greece from the word hystera, meaning womb) — was not removed from scientific manuals until 1980.

For years, scientific articles argued that women are weaker and inferior due to menstruation. Women were excluded from medical research files for concerns their periods would affect results.

Modern euphemisms for menstruation, driven by taboos, are nearly universal.

 The longstanding view of menstruation is that it is impure and even dangerous. And this perception dates back thousands of years.

In seventeenth-century private journals of both men and women, menstruation is described as them and those. A woman’s period is widely referred to as “the curse” or Eve’s curse, stemming from the Biblical interpretation of the menstrual cycle as a punishment from God for Eve’s disobedience. Every major religion sees periods as impure and imposes its own restrictions surrounding a woman’s menstrual cycle.

In the film Carrie, the titular character’s transition into womanhood is one of horror, fear, and ridicule. It’s a source of trauma for Carrie. It’s also when she becomes “cursed” with her new abilities. Now that she bleeds, she is suddenly dangerous and powerful.

According to society, not only are women unstable, but they are also unclean.

Periods are disgusting. They aren’t something you talk about it. They are something you hide, whisper about only when it’s imperative, and try your best to pretend it doesn’t happen.

Until the 1970s, you couldn’t even advertise period products on television. It was Courtney Cox who first used the word period in a 1985 commercial. But even then, most ads didn’t dare say the word. They used flowery imagery and discrete visuals to advertise their products. They even used blue liquid instead of red to show the period flow because red was considered too gruesome and distasteful.

This toxic view of menstruation has widespread and oppressive consequences, causing significant harm to gender equity, access to reproductive health and education, and even economic security.

In a time when women’s rights are being rolled back decades by the courts, and an active political campaign exists to deny women agency over their bodies, this documentary about how women’s bodies have been perceived, persecuted, legislated, and shamed over the years is both timely and vital.

Periodical follows several through lines in its exploration of the subject matter.

One of the key narrative threads is a campaign by young lawyers and activists to abolish what is known as the tampon tax.

We learn that (at the time this documentary began filming) tampons are subject to sales tax in 38 states because they are not classified as medical necessities. However, items like dandruff shampoos, lip balms, and condoms are classified as medical necessities and free from taxation.

Women primarily bear the burden of this tax on natural bodily function.

People who menstruate are not treated equally under the law, which states that you cannot unfairly tax one group over another. Yet, this tax on women’s bodies brings in millions of dollars in revenue annually to these states.

We follow the journey of women attempting to bring a class action lawsuit in Michigan and a bill to eradicate the tax in that state.

The critical importance of these efforts is highlighted, knowing that the failure of the work in Michigan could have catastrophic consequences nationwide and impact the ability to change laws elsewhere.

Periodical also addresses the idea of period poverty. Access to menstrual hygiene, it’s argued, really depends on your zip code. And it’s both shocking and devastating that so many low-income women and girls face enormous barriers to basic needs, unable to afford expensive menstrual products.

Period poverty also refers to the increased economic vulnerability faced due to the financial burden posed by menstrual supplies, including pain medication and underwear. And this is not a problem isolated to developing countries. It also affects women in wealthy, industrialized countries like the United States.

Difficulty affording menstrual products can cause girls to stay home from work and school, with lasting consequences on their education and economic opportunities.

Periodical provides an insightful educational lesson while exploring the lack of resources often available to menstruating women.

So many young girls transitioning into womanhood never get the period talk.

They typically don’t learn anything about their period in school, and many parents are ill-equipped to educate them properly at home. Many women recall starting their life-changing journey by being handed a box of pads or tampons by their mom and being left to figure it all out somehow.

Sex education in schools, where it even exists meaningfully, is not mandatory. And politics at indeed at play. Periodical highlights women working to figure out that gap, challenging institutions to be allies for their students.

In a shocking scene, one of these advocates leads a classroom talk. She asks for a show of hands of how many students can explain what the menstrual cycle is and how it works. Almost no one. She then asks how many young women have had their period. Many hands are raised.

This means that most women must go through these dramatic and critical bodily changes with little to no knowledge about what’s happening in their bodies.

Why do we let this happen?

Perhaps it’s because the more you understand, the better prepared you are. Knowledge is agency. And with agency comes power.

Power is something many in this country have a vested interest in keeping out of the hands of women.

If knowledge is power, silence is deadly.

This lack of appreciation for and understanding of menstruation isn’t just frustrating; it’s dangerous.

The documentary explores the history of menstrual products — including the invention of the first pad by nurses during the first World War. Despite their widespread use, there have never been any long-term studies on the effects of using these products. That’s true, even though anything inserted in the vagina is immediately absorbed into the bloodstream.

However, the FDA considers tampons and pads to be medical devices and, thus, does not require companies to disclose the ingredients on the packaging. If they were cosmetics, you’d get labels.

Tampons were invented in 1931 and began being mass-produced in 1938 by Tampax. And the product had not changed much in over four decades until a heralded revolution in menstrual products was announced.

In 1975, Proctor & Gamble released a new brand of superabsorbent tampons, advertised to “even absorb the worry.” The product claimed it could up longer than the leading tampon because it was made differently. Rely was hailed as the holy grail of hygiene products because it was discrete, would not leak, and would not stain. In other words, those “dirty” periods could stay hidden where they belong.

Tragically, the rise in this product’s popularity led to a baffling new potentially deadly illness in women called toxic shock syndrome.

After a long struggle in the courts against women who suffered toxic shock syndrome and the families of women who died, Proctor & Gamble eventually pulled Rely from the market.

Periodical shines when emphasizing the multi-faceted experience of the menstrual cycle.

Not every woman has the same relationship with her period or the same attitudes and ideas about childbirth. And that’s as it should be. Though the menstrual cycle is a shared, universal experience among people with uteruses, there is no one way or right way to perceive or go through it.

The documentary explores different cultural beliefs (I personally loved the reference to menstruation as moon time or being “on our moon”), the unique challenges of intersexual identity, and even the simultaneous relief and sorrow associated with menopause.

However, one of the most powerful messages from this eye-opening documentary is that young people can and will change the world.

No longer are women content to stand on the sidelines and accept a culture of ignorance, repression, and misogyny.

The largest youth-run nonprofit in the world is dedicated to period activism.

Due to the tireless efforts of young advocates, Michigan eliminates its unlawful tampon tax. Though, 22 states still impose this tax. So, while barely taking a beat to celebrate this monumental victory, the women immediately respond, “On to the next one; on to the Senate floor.”

We don’t stop. We can’t stop. Change is necessary and inevitable.

Periodical isn’t just about periods. It’s a celebration of that change and a call to arms, encouraging others — men and women alike — to stand up for women’s rights and reproductive health.

Featuring medical professionals, world-class athletes, movie stars, journalists, activists, change-makers, and everyday people, this eye-opening documentary had its World Premiere at SXSW.

I urge you to see it as soon as you’re able. It’s compelling and imperative.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4

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