Catherine Redfern reviews the The Curse by Karen Houppert
Gloria Steinem once wrote a witty article called ‘If Men Could Menstruate’. It pointed out the fact that menstruation is something women are supposed to be embarrassed about, something to hide and be ashamed of. Karen Houppert’s excellent book looks into this phenomenon and asks why menstruation is ‘the last taboo’.
When a portion of the book was published in The Village Voice in 1995, the front cover of the paper showed a woman’s lower torso. As Houppert says, it “looked like any of a dozen provocative ads…” The difference was, if you looked closely you could just see a tampon string poking out from between the woman’s thighs (the same image is used on the cover of the book). As Houppert so eloquently says, “people freaked”. The very fact that this image was deemed so offensive and disgusting proves Houppert’s point rather well; that a normal, natural bodily function can be seen in such illogical terms.
The book is extremely entertaining and fascinating to read. It looks at four main subjects: the sanitary protection industry, the experience and attitudes of adolescents, the PMT phenomenon, and the ‘menstrual counter-culture’. Along the way she examines how advertising has sold sanitary products, how the industry has taken over teaching young girls about periods, how menstruation is presented in popular culture (looking particularly at The Diary of Anne Frank, Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and Stephen King’s Carrie.) She vists the ‘Museum of Mestruation’, looks at the ‘goddess-feminists’ and riot grrls approaches to menstruation, is present at the birth of a new radical sanitary product, and takes a hilarious look at those 1950’s instructional films shown to girls to inform them what’s to come:
Dad – wearing cardigan, holding pipe – comes downstairs, announcing that the fight he was watching is over. ‘Is this a private conversation?’ he asks. Mum says she doesn’t think so, and Molly agrees it’s not. ‘Only, you tell him,’ Molly says shyly. Mum stands up for the formal announcement: ‘Well, Jim, Molly’s growing up. She’s having her first menstrual period.’ Dad, busy lighting his pipe, stops abruptly and turns on them. ‘What? Already?’ Angry and accusatory, he addresses his wife: ‘For goodness sake, Alice, I thought …I mean, after all, she’s only …’ He pauses, suddenly in the wrong sitcom; wasn’t this supposed to be Father Knows Best? Molly interrupts. ‘Oh Daddy, don’t be so silly. I’m not a baby anymore.’ Annoyed and indignant, he continues, ‘I know dear, but…’ The news has taken him by surprise; the implications are unwelcome. Suddenly he grows silent and gets a faraway look in his eyes. ‘No, no, darling, I guess you aren’t.’
I really enjoyed reading this book; it’s funny, informative, and interesting, and its about a subjct that affects all our lives. I’d love to know what she thinks of the latest radical developments: sanitary towels for string underwear; helpful facts written on the wrappers (Always); black panty-liners; Kotex’s red ‘spot’ that hovers dangerously close to the pad before zooming away again (is this the end for the traditional ‘blue liquid’?), and actual use of the ‘P’ word (shocking!). I can only assume they read this book, and took the hint!