Big Red Tent

04.08.13

A Film Festival For Aunt Flo

Crankytown—the menstruation-themed website—is attracting edgy young stars with its new film fest.

In her 1978 essay, "If Men Could Menstruate," Gloria Steinem imagined a world in which America's so-called "superior" gender faced its period each month. "Men would brag about how long and how much. Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood.” More importantly, "Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.”

But since men have not yet acquired that superpower, three Canadian actresses have taken it upon themselves to "recognize the primacy of menstrual rights," as Steinem put it. They are the women behind Crankytown, a website for all things menstrual.

“I think one of the reasons that men tend to be more interested in shitting and farting is because they don’t have periods,” co-founder Liane Balaban told The Daily Beast. “They don’t have this amazing event each month where something comes out of your body that represents your reproductive power.”

Crankytown celebrates this reproductive power, providing information about periods—both on the website and during Twitter chats, like its upcoming "Period Q&A" live tweet on April 17 at 8pm, under the hashtag #AskDrCranky—and serves as an outlet for women to share their stories about menses. Here readers can find period poetry written by the singer Feist, and actresses Emma Thompson and Kathy Baker, as well as short films starring the likes of Mad Men’s Jessica Pare and Balaban herself playing Katniss Everdeen in a popular Hunger Games spoof.

“I think there’s a level of excitement around telling your story because there’s never been a place to really share this experience,” said Balaban, who initially started the project as a poetry anthology. “Because it’s seen as a women's experience it’s marginalized. That’s what we’re trying to change.”

In a 2011 study, "The Menstrual Mark: Menstruation as Social Stigma," Joan C. Chrisler and Ingrid Johnston-Robledo found that in the U.S., even educational booklets paint menstruation as a negative experience. "Cramps, moodiness and leaks were all mentioned frequently, but growing up was the only positive aspect mentioned," they wrote. "Girls living in the U.S. learn simultaneously that menstruation is important and natural and that they should hide and ignore it."

According to Chrisler and Johnston-Robledo, this has bred a nation of women with low self-esteem who tend to exercise "self-consciousness" and "hyper-vigilance" in the presence of their periods. Adding to the stigma are euphemisms like “Aunt Flo” and “the crimson wave” which are used to camouflage “menses” and “menstruation.”

Vanessa Matsui, another Crankytown co-founder, admitted she was asked not to mention the words “period” or “menstruation” on a Canadian morning news show a couple of years ago while promoting the website--despite the fact that she had already sent emails back and forth with the show’s producer about her site’s period-heavy theme. The host allegedly dropped the bomb on Matsui minutes before the live show. “Is there another word that we can use that’s not period?” the host supposedly said. “Because, I mean, people are eating their breakfast.”

Readers can find period poetry written by the singer Feist, and actresses Emma Thompson and Kathy Baker, as well as short films starring the likes of Mad Men's Jessica Pare.

Though Courteney Cox used the word “period” for the first (second and third) time on television in 1985 in a Tampax commercial, menstruation has by no means become a pop cultural norm. According to the Huffington Post, for her 2012 book, Periods in Pop Culture, Lauren Rosewarne only came up with 200 or so scenes that mentioned menstruation in films and TV shows going back to the ‘70s. “When menstruation does appear, it is treated as a drama," she wrote. "It is either traumatic, embarrassing, distressing, offensive, comedic or thoroughly catastrophic."

The misconceptions about menstruation come from it being a taboo subject to men in positions of power, says Crankytown’s third co-founder, Jenna Wright. The same males who brag about their own wet dreams tax essential female items like pads and tampons. “Traditionally we live in a patriarchal society where the policy makers are often men, so we’re considered ‘other’,” Wright said.

The founders of Crankytown experienced this other-ness first hand when they took part in a discussion on Metafilter a couple of years ago, soon after their website launched. “I remember one of the comments said: ‘Why would someone do something that’s so niche?’” Matsui said. “Women are still not considered mainstream.”

In some third world countries, menstruation is so stigmatized that girls are ostracized simply for being on their period. Crankytown attempts to combat these cultural norms with its Sponsor a Period feature. The site joined forces with Huru International to provide period packs for Kenyan girls for $25 apiece. They contacted the organization after Matsui saw an article in the New York Times about Kenyans who were missing out on an education because of their menstrual cycle.

“When they have their period, they have to stay home from school because the shame of a public accident is too much to bear,” Balaban said. “And because periods aren’t talked about, people don’t think about how to plan for a girl’s period in public policy.”

Still, Balaban believes we are in the midst of a cultural shift around menstruation. “Kotex is an example of how tampon manufacturers are changing their marketing to position periods in a positive light, moving away from the blue liquid to an open conversation,” she said, no doubt referring to the company’s viral “Reality Check” ad from 2010, which spoofed the stereotypical images of flowers and dancing found in traditional ads for menstrual products.

And last year Bodyform, a UK maxi pad maker, also went viral for releasing a humorous video response to a Facebook rant by a man who complained everything he had learned from menstrual ads was wrong. “Working with the brand for five years, breaking down the taboo around Bodyform and periods has always been a challenge, and I hope that we have started to address this,” said Yulia Kretova, brand controller for Bodyform, in a statement to AdWeek at the time.

Crankytown is trying to do its part. While the site’s founders have designs on making a puppet-period musical (“We're in a puppet moment in our culture,” said Balaban), they have already launched Crankyfest, a film festival featuring shorts about periods. Jury members, including Twilight star Rachelle Lefevre, are currently going over the inaugural fest’s entries and a winner will be announced on April 17 during #AskDrCranky.

And it’s not just women who have responded to their calls. Balaban said she, Matsui and Wright have been “surprised” at the enthusiasm towards Crankytown from men around the world. Recently actor Jay Baruchel, Balaban’s co-star from The Trotsky, contacted the site “out of the blue” to contribute his period story.

“If you’re a man it’s something that happened to your mother or your sister or your daughter,” Wright explained. “You can’t not think about it.”