They’re calling it the last taboo, but for many early cultures it was also one of the first. In Leviticus, the people of Israel are basically instructed to avoid menstruating women (and all that they touch) like the plague, since “anything she lies or sits on during that time will be defiled” as a result of her “ceremonially unclean” and “impure” status. Of course, in the same breath, it also mentions that any “genital discharge” (including semen) warrants such sentiment. Yet unlike semen or male masturbation, the stigmatization of periods remains a bafflingly persistent one to this day. From tribal menstrual huts to the Aunt Flow euphemisms still rampant in our modern advertising, this menstrual taboo has kept a perfectly healthy and natural bodily function as profane as it was in the Torah.
And it isn’t just mass media or tribes, either. Even the supposedly liberated women studying menstruation feel the ramifications of its stigmatization. In a Guardian article reviewing The Curse: Confronting the Last Taboo, “both feminist writer and feminist reviewer confess to an ill-defined unease about their topic—it's trivial, it's embarrassing, it marks a woman as too irreducibly her body, as just too female.”
You might full well have missed the most explicit breach of the menstrual taboo in videogames.
But why? The source of all this long-lasting disgust and shame is, after all, just an involuntary biological function indicating sexual maturity, experienced regularly by half the population. The male equivalent somehow managed to surpass its taboo, becoming largely perceived as an accepted and even positive step in a boy’s maturation. Yet after sixty years of modern feminism, mentions of periods in mass media seem still confined to PMS as a punch line or as a source of female shame and male disgust.
The more notable exceptions to the menstrual taboo in popular media prove just as telling as the awkward silences, too. By far the most commonly used example in film is Cissy Spacek’s bug-eyed and bloodied desperation in Carrie’s infamous opening sequence (which we’ll get back to later). But what about games? Maybe videogames’ standout exceptions to one of society’s oldest taboos could provide some new illuminations.
Well, to no one's surprise, the young medium isn’t particularly awash with mentions of the unmentionable. Yet recently, it’s gotten a bit closer—though you might full well have missed the most explicit breach of the menstrual taboo in videogames.
As Booker Dewitt, you enter Monument Tower to find “the girl”—Elizabeth—in order to pay off a debt. Immediately, the talented environmental storytellers at Irrational inform you that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong here. Warning signs paper the walls, open electrical circuits crackle, and a telling audio diary hints at something ominous: “I can tell they scared out of their wits by that thing they got locked upstairs, yessir,” comes the crackly voxyphone voice of the tower’s janitor. “They got a tiger by the tail, and they don't know whether to hang on … or run.”
After traversing over more destruction and caution signs warning that the “specimen is dangerous,” you finally stumble upon a massive machine: The Siphon. Inside the monstrous device are three display cases. The first is a teddy bear, marked: Age 4. The second is a poetry book, marked Age 11. And finally the last case displays a long, rectangular sheet of paper with red marks smeared across it, labeled Menarche, Age 13.
For those of you who got the “unwanted boner” version of the body-changing lecture in grade school, menarche is the term used for a lady’s first period. I shudder (and kinda giggle) at the idea of all these male scientists in hazmat suits gingerly handling Elizabeth’s pads using sterilized tongs. I can’t imagine how frightening those first experiences of womanhood would have been without a single human contact to talk it through with—though Liz never once mentions it as an aspect of her trauma whatsoever.
Like Elizabeth, the creators responsible for Carrie’s fiction were mostly male.
Further ahead, you come across a chart. It indicates spikes in “power readings” over the “specimen’s growth.” The largest spike is labeled MENARCHE, while the plummet directly following it is labeled SIPHON INSTALLED. A hasty, hand written note is scrawled across the whole board: FACILITY UNSAFE.
In more ways than one, both film and videogame’s most notable exceptions to the menstrual taboo mimic each other. Carrie’s symbolism emphasizes a close link between her first menstrual blood and the protagonist’s newfound telekinetic powers. Like Elizabeth, Carrie’s powers frighten, horrify, and threaten those around her. Like Elizabeth, Carrie is made to suppress her blood-given powers for the comfort of the caretaker who fears her. Like Elizabeth, the creators responsible for Carrie’s fiction were mostly male.
Both Carrie and Bioshock Infinite join a longstanding tradition of horrific symbolism known in psychoanalytic feminist film theory as “the monstrous-female.” Common portrayals of horror in media reveal a lot about our society’s most commonly held and unconscious fears. The experience of the monstrous, according to theorist Barbara Creed, aims to “bring about an encounter between the symbolic order and that which threatens its stability.” Monsters represent the uncanny and dangerous in-betweens of a society’s strictly placed boundaries: what is both human and inhuman, man and beast, male and female, girl and woman.
In one retroactive scene from Infinite’s DLC, Elizabeth witnesses a conversation between Daisy Fitzroy and the Lutece twins that dramatically changes a major event in the main campaign. The twins explain that it will be Elizabeth, not Daisy, who brings about Comstock’s downfall. So in order to truly make a difference, Daisy will have to help Elizabeth reach her full potential as a woman rather than lead the rebellion:
“And what makes the difference between a girl and a woman?” Rosalind asks.
“Blood,” Daisy answers, resigned.
Daisy then agrees to sacrifice herself for the greater good, eventually becoming Elizabeth’s first kill and the catalyst for her major transformation. (The enormously problematic symbolism of a black woman sacrificing herself for a white female savior warrants a whole other article entirely.)
Little Sisters need their Big Daddies because they are too weak to protect their own coveted bodies.
It isn’t hard to imagine how a woman’s transition from innocent little girl to potential mother might pose as a threat to the symbolic order of a patriarchy. Let’s not forget that the original Bioshock has its own revealing symbols of the monstrous-female, too. Because the true horror of a Little Sister is not her gothic make-up or fearsome Big Daddy. Rather, it is the perversity of her innocence at the hands of a society which literally feeds upon her preadolescence. Little Sisters need their Big Daddies because they are too weak to protect their own coveted bodies. The horror of Elizabeth (and Carrie) is simultaneously the magnitude of her power as well as her potential independence from the caretaking father. Symbolically, menarche represents the loss of innocence, but also a transition away from the patriarch and towards the maternal. In Infinite Elizabeth forgoes the baby doll dress for her own mother’s sexualized corset minutes after she kills Daisy and becomes a “woman." No longer figuratively powerless, the daughter gains an ultimate ability after menarche as the potential life giver, while the father loses his role entirely. Infinite, like other media representations of menstruation, suppresses these threatening powers under the guise of patriarchal protection. And sure enough, almost as if sensing the danger of her independence, Songbird (Infinite's version of a Big Daddy) immediately comes screeching in after her transformation to bring Liz back under his wing.
Though Songbird fails, Elizabeth is never too far from a patriarchal protector who both fears and manages her power. It comes as no shock, then, that eventually destroying the Siphon on her power ends poorly for Booker Dewitt (and all his other multiverse iterations). With her powers fully realized, Elizabeth ostensibly becomes the mother of death. Rather than life-giver, she uses her newfound autonomy to become life-taker, killing the father again and again to “end a cycle.” Yet her thirst for blood becomes insatiable, and her vengeful hunt leads to the events of a two-part DLC that mimics Booker’s journey, with bloody acts begetting more loss of feminine innocence. At the end of Burial at Sea: Part One, Elizabeth sacrifices a Little Sister (Sally) in order to carry out savage revenge against her father—becoming a mirror of the patriarch who exploited her innocence for his selfish gain in the first place.
“I will never escape it,” she realizes, perhaps speaking to more than just her family’s curse. “Exploited, exploiting … It's like a wheel of blood spinning round and round.”
Both Carrie and Bioshock join a long tradition of a menstrual taboo that speaks volumes about how our society manages female power and autonomy. Some academes even argue that the origin of the Polynesian word “taboo” (or tupua) applied specifically to menstruation, suggesting that menarche really was the first taboo ever. However, in its original use, the word “taboo” referred to unspeakable sanctities as much as it did to unmentionable profanities. In fact, a cross-cultural analysis of these taboos reveals that, in more matriarchal societies, “many menstrual taboos, rather than protecting society from a universally ascribed feminine evil, explicitly protect the perceived creative spirituality of menstruous women from the influence of others in a more neutral state, as well as protect the latter in turn from the potent, positive spiritual force ascribed to such women.”
Maybe our mass media thinks the general public is a lot less grown up than it actually is.
Menstruation wasn’t always a source of embarrassment, shame, or disgust. Yet its widely sustained stigmatization probably shouldn’t be chalked up to chance, either. But in 2014, our earliest and last taboo may finally be showing some signs of lifting. HelloFlo, a company created and run by CEO Naama Bloom, recently aired a hilarious period-positive ad that garnered twenty million views in just over a week. That type of response speaks volumes. Maybe our mass media thinks the general public is a lot less grown up than it actually is. I can say anecdotally that the conversations I see happening represent a tonal shift, a generation that’s moved far beyond cutesy euphemisms and fear-laden period symbolism. And if there’s any medium primed to counteract the remaining upholders of this last taboo, I suspect it’d be one that was young, innovative, and boundary-pushing—maybe one that reaches a wide male audience while you’re at it, too.