The illustrious Walt Disney is remembered and celebrated for his classic fairytale films. Snow White, Cinderella, and other princesses are immortalized in the American cultural memory by his cartoon renditions of their stories. These stories, however, are also known for their tendency to portray an extremely limited vision of what the ideal girl is. Passivity and perfect features rank as the two of the most notable qualities required of a princess. Because of this, Disney is somewhat infamous for promoting chauvinistic tropes. But in 1946, Walt Disney produced a very different kind of cartoon. It was called, “The Story of Menstruation.”
Narrating this “story” is a female voice who describes the biological process of menstruation in the context of maturation. She explains the biological mechanisms driving this event, and scientifically accurate diagrams accompany her explanations. Additionally, she clarifies what life is like during “that time of the month,” what girls can expect, and what they can do.
A number of overall themes as well as specific lines are strikingly progressive in this video. In contrast to the traditional mentality that depicted the female cycle as unclean and peculiar, this video declares: “menstruation is just one routine step in a normal and natural cycle.” The normalization of this experience so basic to women’s lives is a significant move away from popular stigmas that make menstruation shameful. In her article, “Something Happens to Girls: Menarche and the Emergence of the Modern American Hygienic Imperative,” Joan Jacobs Brumberg explains that with the advent of commercialized feminine hygiene products, menstruation was emphasized more as a process to clean up than a process of maturation. This film seems to break with the trend, framing “The Story of Menstruation” as an important development in the tale of maturation. Also remarkable was the acknowledgment of the variety of girls’ body types – especially in the context of Disney productions that are so well-known for doing the opposite. Though it came short of celebrating that variety, even the recognizing that girls’ bodies naturally come in different shapes and sizes is a relatively positive outlook. Furthermore, the language in the miniature-film is noteworthy. The script kept to a very scientific treatment of the subject, and the frankness of word choice – particularly in the unapologetic use of the avoided word “vagina” – combats the trend to euphemize menstruation. As discussed in earlier posts, the euphemisms cultures have developed reveal deep tensions concerning processes of the female body, and usually take on severely negative connotations. Thus, the openness with which this film discusses menstruation seems ahead of its time – perhaps even ahead of our time as well. Besides quelling the terminology taboos, the narrator explicitly condemned the “nonsense” taboos that prohibited swimming, bathing and exercising during menstruation. She strongly encouraged healthy living on a daily basis. One of the key themes in the film is captured by the line: “You can do practically everything you normally do!” Yet, this encouraging advice is limited. Being able to do “practically” everything a girl normally does is not the same as being able to do everything a girl normally does. The cartoon girl could engage in a traditional slow dance with a boy, but the narrator suggests it was ridiculous for her to jitterbug while menstruating. Thus girls’ agentic space during menstruation maintained socially-set boundaries. Nevertheless, the apparent message of the video was relatively progressive and enlightened: “There’s nothing strange or mysterious about menstruation.”
Despite the remarkable features that fit in well with our modern mindset, there are aspects in the film that betray some of the more conventional ideas of the mid-twentieth century. The cartoon girls shown in the film were all white; no minorities had a representative in the “story” regarding a biological process affecting all females regardless of skin color. Racism abounded at the time of this movie’s production, when segregation was widely accepted. One of the major refrains through the mini-film was the importance of appearance. Concerning how to maintain a bright mood through “those days,” the narrator states that “once you stop feeling sorry for yourself” you’ll feel better. According to the cartoon, powdering your nose is much better than allowing yourself to indulge in wallowing, because “that well-groomed feeling will give you new poise and life your morale.” The notion that beautification is powerful enough to combat cramps, bloating and back aches seems irrational, but says a great deal about pressures put on American girls. Lastly, the film concludes with the image of a glowing bride fading into a peaceful baby. This conclusion maintains that menstruation is a step in the maturation story, and the next step in that story is marriage and childbirth.
“The Story of Menstruation” was likely not a project thought up in the liberal corner of Walt Disney’s mind, but a money-making side-project sponsored by Kotex. It was not a story that garnered much success past a few schoolrooms full of high school girls. Compared to the fantastical stories of passive princesses, the realistic story of menstruation is practically unknown.
Source: The Story of Menstruation. Produced by Walt Disney. United States: CineGraphic Studios, 1946. Uploaded January 11, 2010. Accessed November 3, 2016. http://www.youtube.com.
Link to the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_l9qhlHFXuM#action=share