Today, we take a break from esteemed feature films like Scream, Blacula, Scream to look at something even more curious: the once-banned, entirely odd Disney production The Story of Menstruation, a 10-minute animated short from 1946 “presented with the compliments of Kimberly Clark.”
Reportedly the first screenplay to include the word “vagina,” it’s a time capsule that’s both frank and admirable while still being completely weird and off-putting on several levels. Have you seen many Disney outings that refer to “the rectum, bladder, and their external openings”? Or that specifically mention it’s ok to bathe when you have your period? I have now seen exactly one, myself. If there are others, please correct me.
Some context is needed. After watching the fantastic Wetlands, a friend and I were discussing how rare it is to see any frank, judgment-free (or enthusiastic) discussion of bodily fluids on screen not played for a laugh, particularly where the ladies are concerned. Wetlands is an extreme example of bucking that trend, maybe, but we agreed it’s rare in general.
You have your My Girl’s, sure, and the sit-com tradition of oblique, winking coming-of-age narratives. More recently, you have your Obvious Child’s, which isn’t about periods but doesn’t shy away from bodies. Neither of those actually put too fine a point on it, and don’t come close to what even Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret tried to pull of in print. And in any case, it’s usually more like Superbad (“we’re blood brothers!”) or Carrie (a great film, but still one which approaches the female body with horror, as an alien force defined by barely-controlled menace). Even David Cronenberg, our reigning Baudelarian poet of the body, doesn’t help out here: he usually reserves the more viscous depictions to his male characters, from Scanners’ exploding head, to James Woods’ gushy stomach-vagina in Videodrome (do we have to give dudes vaginas in order to include them? Also, is there always a gun in there?), to the constant wetness of Naked Lunch’s homoerotic fantasia. Marilyn Chambers in Rabid might count (though she’s certainly a nightmare vision), but even so these examples still showcase how infrequent such depictions are.
Could it be true that menstruation is still that taboo in film? When Jason Biggs is going around fucking pies in the cultural imagination, and Cameron Diaz is styling her hair with Ben Stiller’s ejaculate, and boners (or lack thereof) drive the conversation, you’d think there might be more counter-examples, serious or not.
So, fast forward: the search for said examples led me to The Story of Menstruation, a film I did not know existed and am sort of awed by. It was produced by Disney, with funding from Kimberly-Clark, and widely distributed to schools, with an accompanying educational book titled Very Personally Yours (available for download here). Interestingly, commercial products are never mentioned, but the general sense seems to be that it was a corporate promo to sell tampons, which needed some arguing for at the time. However, cash-grab or not, it also is remarkably accurate and actually kind of progressive, enlisting a gynecologist as consultant to oversee its production and insisting, multiple times, that its subject is “normal and natural.” Good! But, watching today, the pairing of frank discussion with classic Disney doe-eyed figures makes it extremely odd to watch.
As the short opens, with saccharine strings and falling rose petals, we are told that “Mother Nature controls many of our routine bodily processes, through automatic control centers.” Well, then! This is not the last time the film emphasizes our subjugation (ok, I am a dude and will mind the pronouns; women’s subjugation) to the authority of the body. Cellular communication and hormonal effects are routinely described as “orders” – you get the sense that there’s an army inside, on this march to puberty. But almost immediately, the film displays its cooler side, specifically describing the lives of young girls as a progression from “blocks to dolls to books,” which is pretty rad. Good work, Disney and Kotex.
We learn about the pituitary gland, growth hormones, and, in an awesome diagram sequence, how the fallopian tubes, uterus, ovaries, and vagina relate. The narrator trips up a bit on the first enunciation of “vagina,” but she recovers, before adding a brief, rather lyrical overview of “the watery fluids and blood [that] begin to build a thickened lining of somewhat velvety material.”
It was at this point that I realized why it had been banned. Frank discussion is bad enough to some folks; the use of the word “velvety” is probably several bridges too far. Honestly, I’m not sure this could be made and distributed to American schools today, which, regardless of quality, is kind of depressing.
All these scenes are paired with recognizably Disney-like babies, cooing and giggling, and teen girls who bring to mind the princesses we’ve come to know so well. It’s strange to see them spliced between long segments tracing the adventures of an egg through the body, but it’s also kind of amazing. And then are baffling moments, like when (at 5:14) several women hang out with an adorable dog for no discernible reason.
There’s a progressive, body-positive message but it’s accompanied by a decidedly less feminist vision. The film urges women to “do something about that slouch,” notes that it’s “smart to keep looking smart,” and sagely advises, “don’t let [menstruation] get you down – after all, no matter how you feel, you have to live with other people … and you have to live with yourself.” Fair enough, I guess? The writers “explode the old taboo about bathing during your period” (what?) and “the old taboo against exercise – that’s nonsense!” So many old taboos. (Still, the film makes sure to note that you probably shouldn’t ride wildly bucking horses. Pro tip, from the folks at Kimberly-Clark). And as if answering in advance someone questioning its morals amid all these muddled messages, the film starts and ends with the image of adorable babies. It’s all for a good cause.
The Story of Menstruation is very easy to laugh at – and absolutely anyone will, and should, seeing as it’s hilarious that it exists and that its coupling of progressive instruction with retrograde sentiment is deeply weird – but it’s also kind of poignant and interesting. The truly laughable thing is that nearly 60 years later, it manages to be surprising at all, simply by stating facts about bodies amid all the 1940s paternalism. Honestly, I intended to snark about it more, but I ended feeling sort of affectionate towards this thing. It’s the best 10 minute Disney/Kotex production you’re likely to see.
Watch it here: