Every year, the National Film Preservation Board adds up to 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films” to the National Film Registry to be preserved for future generations.
In 2015, a 10 minute animated film called “The Story of Menstruation” was selected for preservation, sparking a slew of controversies that are still being debated to this day.
The first time I watched a film that was similar to “The Story of Menstruation,” I was in the 5th grade and the conversation was as gendered as it could get. Girls and boys were escorted by teachers into separate rooms — in the girls room we were effectively taught that our periods were life events we should do our best to hide. Tips were given on how to hide your pad in a purse, in a pouch, tucked up in your sleeve and then we were given a bright little pink bag to take back to our classroom. The bag, while small, called attention to the fact that the pads, panty-liners and vaginal wipes within it made us different than the rest of the class.
It was an uncomfortable moment and one that defined the tone of how we talked about menstruation.
Which, is honestly why it’s hard to want to erase, or dismiss, the existence of “The Story of Menstruation.” It makes sense that it’s archived and preserved because the short film itself was both revolutionary for its time and the best example of why breaking down taboos around menstruation is important.
In 1946, when Disney and Kotex came together to produce “The Story of Menstruation,” the goal was to use the educational short film in health education classes to have a more honest discussion about periods. Yes, there are many ways the conversation fell short, but the fact that it used science to debunk many of the myths around periods, was noteworthy. It also, maybe like nothing else had at that time, walked viewers through what happens exactly when a person is going through their period.
The film did fail to give greater context to menstruation, by avoiding the topics of intercourse, sexuality and reproduction. The closest statement that the narrator makes regarding these topics – “If the egg is impregnated, which happens when a woman is going to have a child” – cleverly skirts around the connection between menstruation and pregnancy.
“The Story of Menstruation” is credited as being one of many “firsts” – one of the first commercially sponsored films to be distributed to high schools and the first film to include the word “vagina” in its screenplay.
Nearly 70 years later, the word “vagina” is still largely considered to be vulgar and some women are still discouraged from using tampons if they are virgins. Today, menstrual education sessions are still just as much about marketing a specific brand of menstrual products as they are about informing pre-teens of the changes happening to their bodies. We just barely tell young women what a menstrual pad is, let alone what it is made out of and we are only beginning to draw attention to the “other” types of menstrual products like reusables and menstrual cups. The fact that not all people who menstruate are women and not all women menstruate has yet to be accepted by the mainstream or included in the conversations had about menstruation.
So, how far have we come since “The Story of Menstruation?” The answer to that question is complex. There are still so many taboos surrounding menstruation and so many people who would rather keep those taboos in place. But I do believe that this generation has the power and the determination to dispel those myths once and for all. And we won’t stop advocating until menstruation is viewed as an empowering, natural process rather than something to hide.