Spoiler alert: Cat is on her period in the opening scene of TAME.
For one of human biology’s most everyday phenomena, the mere mention of menstruation in American theatre remains astoundingly rare; some extensive Internet* and library searching revealed only the occasional exception to the rule, from Wendy Wasserstein‘s groundbreaking Uncommon Women and Others and the many seminal works of Eve Ensler to Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why and even a fairly recent riot grrrls Fringe rock show entitled On the Rags to Riches.
Cat’s mother explains it as “the burden of her femininity,” and while girls are no longer being told to “wear a deodorant…pay more attention to your hair and your nails, and plan to wear your prettiest dress” during their unsanitary time of the month, euphemisms remain our standard for broaching the taboo that is menstruation.
As recent as March of this year, a study conducted by Clue with The International Women’s Health Coalition examined 190 different countries about attitudes toward menstruation, identifying more than 5,000 euphemisms for periods in 10 different languages. Some English language favorites include:
– Aunt Flo
– Time of the month (or TOM)
– On the rag
– Red tide/river/sea/moon/light/army/curse/days/dot
– Code Red
– Monthly visitor
– Lady time/Lady friend
– Crimson wave/tide
– Bloody Mary
– The Blob
– Shark Week
– Having the painters in
That’s to say nothing of some particularly clever international idioms, including Germany’s Erdbeerwoche (“Strawberry week”), Denmark’s Der Er Kommunister i Lysthuset (“There are communists in the funhouse”) and France’s Les Anglais ont debarqué (“The English have landed”).
Only last year, America seemed on a vicious period attack. There was Instagram’s brief moment of infamy after it took down artistic photos of a woman on her period for violating its community guidelines; the photos were promptly restored, but the controversy only bolstered the photographer’s artistic statement of making viewers “realize these are just regular, normal processes.” And there’s no forgetting Donald Trump’s 2015 allegation against Fox News’ Megyn Kelly that “there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” another instance in a long history of using menstruation to dismiss women’s ability to participate in any number of male-dominated activities, from space travel and military combat to holding political office.
For all its cultural taboos, the period is making something of a pop culture comeback this year—and not just on the Avant Bard stage. Amy Schumer satirized the hormonal politician stereotype in a sketch imagining the first female president getting her period on her first day in office, lambasting the hormone-crazy archetype with such zingers as “I have epic cramps and my mind is like, mush, right now, if I’m being real.” Schumer’s period-openness continued on the red carpet at the Emmys this summer with her response to the increasingly infamous “What are you wearing?” question: ““Vivienne Westwood, Tom Ford shoes, and an O.B. Tampon!”
Perhaps the most barrier-shattering instance of 2016 was thanks to Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui, who unabashedly told the press “I just got my period yesterday, so I’m still a bit weak and really tired. But this isn’t an excuse for not swimming well.” The period taboo is fiercely contested in the athletics world, but even more so in China, where menstruation is virtually never discussed and ads for feminine hygiene products are banned during primetime television hours.
There’s even taboo-shattering hope for board game nerds in the form of The Period Game. It might technically be marketed for adolescent girls, but given the limited understanding so many adult women have about their menstrual cycle, a game that requires playing the period lottery around a pair of plastic ovaries might be just what the world needs.
Perhaps this is the dawn of a new period era, one in which women can speak beyond euphemisms, walk down the aisles of a CVS and proudly buy their supply of tampons and pads. Perhaps this marks a future that no longer includes, as one now-viral mother-daughter text exchange decries, vagina secrecy:
“VAGINAS ARE MYTHS, WHISPERED QUIETLY IN SECRET AMONG THE BRAVEST OF MEN, COURAGEOUS ENOUGH TO EVEN MENTION THE NAME.”
*Special thanks to the brilliant women of the digital DC theatre community for their brainstorm assistance.
Maegan Clearwood is Avant Bard’s Director of Audience Engagement and Resident Dramaturg. She recently completed a year as the Literary Associate at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, where she served as Assistant Dramaturg on Slaughterhouse-Five (music by Jed Feuer, book/lyrics by Adele Ahronheim) and End of Shift (by Jenny Connell-Davis). Favorite credits from her Olney Theater Center Dramaturgy Apprenticeship include I and You, The Piano Lesson, The Tempest, and Colossal. She studied drama and English at Washington College and is a proud Sophie Kerr Prize finalist, Association for Theatre in Higher Education Dramaturgy “Deb,” and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas member.