Goodnight Menses: Period Realities & the Big Bad Wolf of PMS

1945 Illustrated Ad, Chi-Ches-Ters Pills for Relieving Pain from Menstrual Cramps. First published in  The Family Circle  magazine, November 9, 1945, Vol. 27, No. 18. Via  Classic Film/Flickr .

1945 Illustrated Ad, Chi-Ches-Ters Pills for Relieving Pain from Menstrual Cramps. First published in The Family Circle magazine, November 9, 1945, Vol. 27, No. 18. Via Classic Film/Flickr.

Last week, I shared a video in which Penny Higgs, Australian reality-TV contestant, threw down some real talk about the lack of attention given to women’s period pain. As a complement, may I present to you Goodnight Menses, written by Sami Main and illustrated by Dan Meth, which was posted to Buzzfeed in April 2015. Main and Meth’s digital work is a deliciously tart riff on Margaret Wise Brown 1947 children’s book Goodnight Moon.  

Brown’s famous work memorialises an anthropomorphic bunny’s bedtime ritual of saying ‘goodnight’ to all the artefacts in his room, and then the evening itself, the ‘stars’, the ‘air’, and finally the ‘noises everywhere’. (For a .pdf of the non-illustrated text, posted by the Early Childhood Lab at Stephen F. Austin State University, click here.) Every object to which the bunny wishes ‘goodnight’, then, is a part of his intimate – and fairly quotidian – experience. The text works as a catalogue of the landscape inhabited by the sleepy bunny, the routine contours of his life. The bunny’s words are a protective incantation: a means of reassuring himself, and also the objects, that they can reciprocally let go, close their (even inanimate) eyes and drift to sleep. This ‘goodnight-ing’ is an ending, surely, but also a ritual which suggests a perhaps interminable repetition – the ‘goodnights’ only end on that very un-good night when the bunny, or his subjects, are irrevocably absent. 

The delight, and impact, of Goodnight Menses is its skillful leveraging of these layers of Brown’s original work. Instead of the bunny’s childhood bedroom, the scene now is a woman’s ‘great dim room’, a glum space in which our sleepy protagonist endures her period. The text opens with a catalogue of the objects which populate the woman’s space, including analgesics, comfortable clothes, TV to binge-watch the pain away, and junk food:

In the great dim room
There was a beanbag chair
And a jar of Nutella
And a picture of
A goddess jumping over her moon.
And there were two little wolves sitting on stools
And three little Doritos
And a bag of Cheetos
And a little bottle of Midol
And an iPhone with a missed call
And a laptop and some sweatpants and a small old lamp
And a dent in the bed from where you rolled around with cramps.

Though not every woman will have these specific items in their menstruation survival kit, they are familiar enough items to operate as generalize-able categories. I read ‘Cheetos’, I nod, I think of my preferred salt and vinegar crisps. The text’s anonymous protagonist functions as a proxy for all menarcheal women. As Goodnight Moon allows us to envision the particularities of the bunny’s room (read: everyday existence), Goodnight Menses throws into relief the often unpleasant commonplaces of female life once a month. The text’s humour is drawn, at least partially, from the mundanity of the experience and the implicit familiarity of the tableau. Our collective coping mechanisms are on display. Therein, the enchantment of the ‘goodnight’ refrain: the ‘monthly visitor’ will stay only for a few days. With enough ‘goodnights' (stand-ins for 'goodbyes’), maybe you can speed its leave. But remember, the period is a repeat customer, it will be back. And, as with the bunny’s farewells in Goodnight Moon, that anticipation of interminable repeat casts its pall over Goodnight Menses

'mask' by Luisa Uribe. Via  Flickr.

'mask' by Luisa Uribe. Via Flickr.

Beyond the concrete items – ‘Midol’, ‘Doritos’, ‘iPhone’ – we encounter ‘two little wolves’, menacing embodiments of a hormonally frayed emotional state. PMS in lupine form, reminiscent of the fairy-tale staple of the Big Bad Wolf. In Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf swallows grandmother whole, dressing up in her clothes to fool, if only for a short while, a somewhat naïve Riding Hood. Goodnight Menses’ ‘two little wolves’, then, can pounce at any time to a woman in the ‘dim little room’ of menstruation. The space is not all bad though. For one thing, it’s a room of one’s own, in terms of lack of human co-habitants at least. And there’s that picture of the ‘goddess jumping over her moon’: a serene representation of the goddess of menstruation, traditionally tied to the lunar cycle, and a main-stay of New Age pro-period imagery. Embrace your goddess within! Jump over the moon with me! Do femininity! So the goddess, then, can be a two-edged sword. A positive affirmation of the ‘right-ness’ of menstruation; an irritating tone-deaf elision of real pain and discomfort. What’s more, the upbeat menstrual goddess meets her match in the sinfully female Biblical Eve, and it’s Eve that closes the text:

Goodnight Eve, for this original sin.
Goodnight stars
Goodnight air
Goodnight noises everywhere.

Eve and her ‘original sin’, symbolized graphically in her monthly ‘curse’, are just part of the status quo of a misogynist patriarchal culture – ‘noises everywhere’ – which categorises women’s bodies as abnormal, evil, or disgusting simply for behaving as biology intended.

Ultimately, Riding Hood too joins her grandmother in the pit of the Wolf’s stomach. The Wolf is superficially the agent of their demise. Yet he is also, symbolically at least, agent of their (re)birth. When a rescuer slices open the Wolf’s belly, both women fall out of his stomach alive. Goodnight Menses’ ‘two little wolves’ represent the hormonal component of menstruation, broadly speaking. Saying ‘goodnight’ definitively to these wolves would entail splitting them open, generating two alternate forms of womanhood – pre-menarcheal (Riding Hood) or post-menopausal (grandmother). Note, then, that we never say ‘goodnight’ to the wolves in the text, not directly:

Goodnight room
Goodnight moon
Goodnight goddess jumping over the moon
Goodnight bloating
And the two little wolves.

Letting go of the ‘wolves’ is hard to do, a grudging appendix to other menstrual attributes to which we are more than glad to bid farewell, relegated to the next line. Wrapped up with the ‘wolves’, we see potential elements of adulthood and independence:

'Flow' by Eugenia Loli. Via  Flickr .

'Flow' by Eugenia Loli. Via Flickr.

And goodnight missed call.
[…]
and goodnight Cheez Whiz.
[…]
and goodnight marathon of Breaking Bad.
[…]
and goodnight to the lamp.

It’s good to be a grown-up some times. You get to stay up as late as you want. Decide what you eat for dinner, no matter how unhealthy. Develop an independent social life, sex life. What happens when there are no more missed calls on the iPhone? When you’re no longer in demand, or viewed as sexually desirable? This is aging womanhood writ large, and it is not a particularly attractive prospect. So, goodnight menses, goodnight but hopefully not goodbye for good. 

Period Pain & Reality TV - Big Brother Australia S11E45

Until about five minutes ago, I had no idea who the woman in the video below is. Master Google tells me that her name is Penny Higgs, an Australian actor-dancer who finished fifth in the 2014 cycle of Big Brother Australia (i.e. series 11). Cool.  I am not super interested in learning more about her, nor has she motivated me to rewatch endless hours of Big Brother, vintage or otherwise.  But  I wish her very well, and hope she has a great life. Basically I'm sending her the kind of decent-human vibes I hope most people beam out into a world filled with people in whom they're neither hugely interested nor squarely disinterested. I will forever respect Penny, however, for a short and impassioned monologue she delivered in the Diary Room in episode 45 (24:04-25:36 of the video below). She lays out the utter ridiculousness about the cultural silence about women's period pain with vigorous clarity:

Yeah, I've had a weird day. I'm going to talk about something. And I don't know why, like, this doesn't get spoken about really ever. And I want people to hear this. Like, don't be like, don't be like, 'Ooh, no we shouldn't do that'. But my ovaries are on fire today, like nobody talks about period pain. I just have to say, right, for a quarter of the year, a woman will have her period. A quarter of the year. Now, this is a fact of life, right. No-one talks about it, but just think about this, right? When you walk around to the shops, and you go to the shops, and someone's serving you, or you go order your coffee, or you go to the bank and a woman serves you, you know what? You didn't even know, that woman might actually be in excruciating pain. Like, fully, like so much pain. But they just get on with their day, no-one would know. But sometimes, when I have got this kind of period pain, which it doesn't get spoken about, because I had to tell one of the boys [fellow housemates], they said 'What do you need painkillers for?' And I said, and they were all like 'Oh, oh,' [and] like got all a bit weird.
And I said 'Period, period, period! Period!' It's just a fact of life. So, like, hats off to women, they just walk around like everything's OK.

 

 

Honestly, I am so overwhelmed with adoration for Penny's soliloquy I find I can only respond in .gif form. To wit: 

 

And, indeed: