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Seeing Red

Seeing Red : Meaning-Making and Resistance in Menstrual Culture

 Sarah Lawrance

Seeing Red : Meaning-Making and Resistance in Menstrual Culture


This project explores how women negotiate information about a taboo subject-menstruation-as presented in the documentary film Under Wraps. Using analytical tools from the work of each Raphaëlle Moine (2002), Michel Foucault (1980), Mary Douglas (1966), and Michel de Certeau (1990), I construct a theoretical framework through which to interpret these women’s negotiation of the information being presented in the film. I go on to briefly describe the film and research methodology, and then I provide a summary and discussion of the results and their significance for both the social construction of menstruation and media reception studies.

Theoretical Framework : Power(s) and Resistances in Meaning-Making

The documentary film as a genre is embedded with expectations of “truth” in the information it communicates. Using Raphaëlle Moine as a point of departure, we can understand how a film’s genre creates certain expectations about the film’s communicative and ideological roles :

-  Le genre organise le cadre de référence dans lequel est vu le film. Le genre constitue un espace d’expériences à partir duquel se déterminent et se construisent [nos] attentes et [notre] lecture du film. Qu’on le considère comme un pacte de communication, une promesse ou un contract de lecture, le genre organise le cadre de référence dans lequel est vu le film. (Moine, 2002 : 80)

The documentary film as a genre is assumed to produce non-fictitious (read : truthful) representations of some aspect of reality, and audiences thus consume documentary media with this expectation in mind.

However, an aspect of Moine’s conception of genre is problematic. She suggests that ‘genre’- as an ideological conduit that creates and directs certain expectations about the reception process - in fact anesthetizes the possibility of multiple receptions of a medium’s message. This sort of determinism represents audiences as passive absorbers of mediated information, which robs the audience of any agency in the reception process. This paper, on the other hand, will demonstrate that while genre communicates a certain expectation about the nature of a given medium’s message (i.e. expecting a documentary film to communicate ‘truth’), media reception is ultimately a very complex process that does not take place in isolation.
The “truth”-based discourses inherent in such media are rooted in power. According to Michel Foucault (1980), power, understood as a productive force rather than simply a repressive one, produces forms of knowledge and discourses of truth. In this way the documentary film, as an expression of such truth discourses, and can be understood as exercising power (however abstractly) over its audience.

Foucault explains how societies develop their respective discourses or régimes of truth and meaning-making :

Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth : that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true ; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned ; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth ; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true. (Foucault, 1980 : 131)

This suggests that discourses of and about truth (and thus power) can manifest themselves in myriad ways, including through media, science, religion, and laws, among other institutions. It is clear that the documentary film as a media genre produces discourses of truth, and this essay takes the idea further by arguing that socio-cultural norms and taboos constitute another of these different types of truth discourses. In other words, the socio-cultural context of norms and values relating to menstruation exists as another set of perceived “truths,” though as a more subtle form of ideologically-naturalized power not necessarily originating with an identifiable individual or institution, but that is nonetheless very real in its consequences (i.e. social sanctions resulting from transgression, intentional or otherwise, of menstrual norms). I shall provide a brief outline of the contemporary normative discourse surrounding menstruation in mainstream Western society.

In her discussion of social norms and taboo, Mary Douglas (1970) discusses the social meanings of different body fluids. She addresses a general human fear of contamination resulting from contact with body fluids, in particular the contamination of men by women’s fluids, and suggests that it actually reflects the fundamental hierarchical relationships between the sexes in most societies, wherein men tend to be superior to and more valued than women. Within such patriarchal societies the male body is thus understood as superior to the female body, and so the processes and fluids that do not pertain to male bodies-such as menstruation-hold a special status of “impurity” or “dirtiness” within the context of those societies.

When not portrayed through the sexual male gaze, women’s bodies in general are also taboo. Douglas (1970) discusses rituals of and beliefs about purity and cleanliness, as well as their Western contemporary likening with a sort of secular sacredness or holiness, thus aligning conceptions of impurity and dirt with profanity. This discursive moralizing creates certain “truths” about acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, attitudes, and states of being. “As we know it,” Douglas explains, “dirt is disorder. There is no such thing as absolute dirt : it exists in the eye of the beholder” (1970 : 2). As a relative social fact,

-  [d]irt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organize the environment. [...] In chasing dirt, in papering, decorating, tidying we are not governed by anxiety to escape disease, but are positively re-ordering our environment, making it conform to an idea. (Douglas, 1970 : 2)

Douglas’s conception of cleanliness as the escape not from disease but rather from what I would term “dis-ease” or unease is particularly compelling. She argues that cleaning and producing self-representations of cleanliness (and, thus, purity and morality) are attempts to re-order and make sense of our environment, to restore comfort to our lives and to how we are perceived in the world.

“Our idea of dirt is compounded of two things, care for hygiene and respect for conventions. The rules of hygiene change, of course, with changes in our state of knowledge” (Douglas, 1970 : 7). Since social norms are built into this “knowledge”, Douglas suggests that social norms regarding taboo produce discourse about what behaviours and attitudes are acceptable and unacceptable in a given society. The emphasis on contagion and purification in contemporary Western society means “the individual is in the grip of iron-hard categories of thought which are heavily safeguarded by rules of avoidance and by punishments” (Douglas, 1970 : 5). These rules and punishments take many forms.

Contemporary normative discourse involves both men and women feeling disgust toward menstruation (Roberts et al., 2002 : 133) as well as the compulsion to shroud it in secrecy : this involves keeping one’s menses private and out-of-sight, and it warns against looking at, touching, or otherwise acknowledging its existence except in a cursory and procedural way. By pretending that they do not menstruate, women in fact appear to be more like men (the unstated ideal). Paradoxically, hiding one’s menstruation is thus “an ideal of super-femininity” (Roberts et al., 2002 : 133). Because these messages about menstruation as taboo are so deeply embedded in the social world, “the sanitized, deodorized, and idealized images of women’s bodies become the only ones we encounter” and so we accept them (Roberts et al., 2002 : 138).

In those instances when women do break these “rules”-when they transgress-they face social sanctions. When the transgression is unintentional, the “appropriate” response is to demonstrate embarrassment and shame, since this reaffirms adherence to norms. Intentional transgressions-including most elements of the film-are particularly interesting because they are the ultimate signifier of “impurity” or “immorality” as the transgressors come to terms with the illogical process of denying one’s femininity in order to assert it. Instead of colluding in their own oppression, transgressors take a stance that is often oppositional to the normative discourse. I shall demonstrate, however, that such resistance to the norms takes many less evident forms, and that there is in fact the potential for resistance in all of us.

Foucault (1980 : 142) actually notes that power relations cannot exist without multiple resistances, and that these resistances are formed in the instant that power is exercised. My intent is to represent the film’s audience members not as passive consumers of the truth discourses described above, but rather as agents who actively participate in the processes of media reception and norm negotiation. These truth discourses thus provide, together, a context for interpreting an audience’s negotiation of competing truths. The possibility of these two sites of power communicating different or even conflicting truths necessarily creates processes of negotiation, consciously or otherwise, between the differing sets of information. It is these processes of negotiation, or productive acts of resistance, that I explore herein.

I have established that power is located in multiple places, including the truth discourses of both documentary films and, as I argue, social norms. Michel De Certeau (1990 : XLVI), in his discussion of audience reception practices, refers to these legitimized sources of truth/power as “strategies” because of their authoritative role in defining and determining reality. I have also established that the audience members being studied are herein constructed as agents who actively negotiate the information presented to them by both the media and the dominant culture. According to De Certeau (1990 : XLVI), these negotiating activities constitute “tactics”, which are productive practices of appropriation used by individuals at the lower end of the power relationship to create space for themselves in situations defined by strategies. In other words, tactics are meaning-making processes that acknowledge the distortion inherent in any interpretive practice, as well as the knowledge “products” resulting from this process.

In this essay I argue that the audience’s reception of documentary media does not occur passively or in isolation, but rather constitutes an active process of negotiation between the film’s imposed “truth” and the normative “truths” about menstruation at this specific cultural and historical moment. This project takes into account that negotiations with normative truths constitute a lifelong process of continuously positioning and repositioning oneself with respect to these truths. It is these processes of negotiating between competing truth discourses that constitute what I call “tactics of resistance,” since these processes involve a degree of resistance that produces the new spaces within which audience members are continuously (re)positioning themselves.

L'unité réelle minima ce n'est ni le mot ni l'idée ou le concept, ni le signifiant, mais l'agencement. Claire & Gilles
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