The 1976 cult classic Carrie has burned an image into my mind. Its opening scene shows Carrie in the showers after a humiliating P.E. class, washing herself and slowly unwinding. We then reach the iconic shot of her reaching between her legs, pulling her fingers away as she sees her menstrual blood for the first time. Panicked, Carrie careens around the locker room, wailing and begging for someone to help her – she has no idea what is happening to her, and her fear is palpable. The other girls in the locker room respond by pushing Carrie away, cornering her and taunting her while they throw tampons at the poor naked girl howling in the showers.
This scene is over 40 years old, but if you watch it today it holds just as much meaning as it did all those years ago – it speaks to the cruelty of women against women, the fear and confusion our bodies can make us feel, and the agony of being in high school. But one part of this scene has begun to resonate with me differently over the last few months, as I remember it in contrast with contemporary pop culture. In Carrie, tampons are used as a weapon, something used to humiliate and intimidate the person menstruating. In this scene, Carrie’s menstruating body is constructed by the others in the scene as something to be ashamed of, and while she gets her revenge by the end of the film, the image of those wads of cotton being hurled like sticks of dynamite has stayed with me.
A few decades later, I’m sitting at home watching the third season of the TV series Fargo – much like the original movie starring Frances McDormand, it’s snowy, filled with adorable accents and gruesome murders. The character that intrigues me most is that of Nikki Swango, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead– she’s sexy and wily and could so easily be written off as just another vixen, ready to be relegated to the sidelines while her boyfriend Ray (Ewan McGregor) takes centre stage. But Nikki will do no such thing, and the series makes that clear by the end of episode two – while Ray distracts his brother Emmit (also played by McGregor) outside Emmit’s mansion, Nikki sneaks in to steal the vintage stamp at the centre of the feud between the two siblings (it’s a long story). When Nikki discovers that Emmit has removed the stamp and replaced it with a picture of a donkey, she takes a moment to think before standing up and unzipping her pants. The episode then cuts to Emmit coming up the stairs to his office, only to see the picture of the donkey smeared with the words “Who’s the ass now?” written in blood. He opens a drawer to find Nikki’s used tampon lying there, waiting for him to discover it.
Compare this moment with a scene from one of 2017’s most beautiful and understated films, The Florida Project. Taking place over the course of one summer, it looks at the life of six-year-old Moonee (played by the incredible Brookynn Prince) and her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), who live in a motel just outside of Disneyworld. Told mostly through Moonee’s eyes, the film paints a stunning portrait of Halley, a woman who is brash and loud and could-not-give-less-of-a-fuck. What we learn over the course of the film is that Halley is a complicated, flawed woman who still deeply loves and wants to protect her daughter, even when that seems at odds with her swaggering exterior. This attitude is beautifully illustrated during one particular scene, during an argument Halley has with motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). At the climax of the fight, she storms out of the lobby, only to reach her hand into her pants, pull out her stained menstrual pad and slap it against the window. She stomps away, leaving the pad stuck there for all to see.
These two scenes speak to me of something so powerful and exciting. Here we have two women, both poor, both screwed over by a system that wants to keep them that way, and both full of a passion and rage that they aren’t always sure how to channel. And in these moments, they are transforming their fury, making a gesture that is grotty but also communicates a glorious level of disrespect in the face of the patriarchy. These two women are turning their sanitary products from something that they are told to keep quiet, into a weapon to use against those who hurt them. The tampon is a sword, and they swing it wildly against anyone who crosses them. Particularly in the case of Halley, this speaks volumes about her character – we have seen Halley scream obscenities in the street and flick the bird at helicopters landing at Disneyworld, flipping off the rich and powerful people inside them. But when it came to her fight with Bobby, she wanted to find a new way to express just how furious she was, something so disrespectful that he could have no reply. In a world that tries to teach women shame, to keep them quiet and demure, these characters say “I bleed, I bleed and I am still fucking here.”
But for all the power these women have reclaimed, and the strength I find through them, I have to remember that these grand cinematic gestures are valuable only to certain people. Though Nikki and Halley are both living in poverty, in trouble with the law and struggling to find support, they both still have the advantage of being white, thin and cis. As it has been said so many times before, representation matters, and the fact that the bodies of these characters conform to our white-supremacist patriarchy’s ideals means that their attempts to rail against it can only go so far. In the real world, outside of the beautifully shot cinematic havens I escape to, there are bodies that don’t look like mine that suffer as a result of their marginalisation. To see these characters represented on screen would be a true act of empowerment and rebelliousness. Now, I’m imagining the film that centres a menstruating trans or non-binary character, and the triumphant scene in which they whip out their tampon, slam it on the desk and look down the barrel of the camera with a defiant glare that says “This is me, this is my body, I bleed and I will not be silenced.” Is the writer of that scene out there? Is the actor for that scene already waiting to be cast? I think they are, and I hope that it doesn’t take another forty years for us to see them.
When I think about depictions of menstruating bodies, I used to think of clear blue liquid daintily dripping onto pads with ergonomic designs and wings “for extra protection.” I used to think of hushed whispers and knowing glances on television shows that wouldn’t dare utter the word “period” for fear of losing their primetime slots. I used to think, exclusively, of women. I used to think of Carrie, huddled in the corner, naked and frightened and battered by tampons. But now I think of Nikki and Halley. I think of their defiance, their flaws, their ability to give zero fucks. I think of them, and all who will bleed after them – may they continue to wield their tampons against those who dare to try and silence them.
Grace is a performer, writer and general maker-of-things from Melbourne. She is a sub-editor at Girls Will Be Girls and you can find more of her work over at her blog. She has a passion for velvet dresses, cookie dough and feminism.