That Time of the Month
In an excellent English class in college, I learned about Julian of Norwich, a female mystic who lived around 1342 to 1416. Julian fascinated me because she wrote about her very intimate (and oftentimes sexual) relationship with Jesus Christ. Julian was convinced that women menstruate not to be alienated from God, but rather to be closer to him -- that the “time of the month” is actually a mini-crucifixion, a chance for women to bleed and suffer like Christ did on the cross. The idea that menstruation could be a link to female religious power, or just power in general, was pretty provocative in the 1300s, and it still is today.
It’s no wonder, then, that the master of horror, Stephen King, begins his first published novel, Carrie, with a menstruation scene. Published in 1974, Carrie tells the story of Carietta White, a high-school misfit whose religious mother seems hell-bent on destroying any chance of her having a normal life. But Carrie’s special -- she’s born with the gift of telekinesis, the ability to move objects with the power of her mind. By the time we meet Carrie, she’s fed up with being the butt of everyone’s jokes at school, and she’s fed up with her abusive mother. She’s working on using her power against those who would hold her down.
One day showering after gym class, Carrie starts her period, at age seventeen. Unaware of menstruation (her mother has not informed her about this), and horrified that she might be bleeding to death, Carrie’s classmates, in disgust, start to taunt her telling her to “plug it up!” and throwing tampons at her. By the time the gym teacher gets them to stop, Carrie’s hysterical and has to be sent home. Stephen King may be a dude but he’s smart -- this is every girl’s worst nightmare. How did he know?
Carrie’s period finally gives her that extra burst of power to start picking up bigger objects and threatening her mother. Her pain and suffering -- the kind that is specifically female in nature -- gives her the boost she needs to harness her power. A classmate, Sue Snell, one of the “popular girls,” feels terrible about the tampon incident and as an apology of sorts asks her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the prom. He agrees, and Carrie says yes. Unfortunately, the mean girls are still out to get Carrie -- one in particular, Chris, convinces her dropout criminal boyfriend to think of something humiliating to do to Carrie on prom night (knowing she’ll win prom queen if she goes with Tommy, the most popular guy in school). We all know what happens -- it involves two buckets of pigs’ blood followed by some fire and brimstone. Carrie’s revenge.
In the early 1970s, King had some mild success publishing short fiction in magazines, but he wasn’t drawing very many readers. When one accused him of only writing about “macho stuff,” and not understanding women, he responded by writing Carrie -- an idea he’d had for while, inspired by two girls he knew in school who had suffered at the hands of their classmates and their strange, fervently religious families. “These were the ghosts which kept trying to come between me and what I was writing, kept insisting that I combine them, somehow, into a story that would tell what could have happened if there really was such a thing as telekinetic energy (and for all I know there may be),” he writes in his 1999 introduction to the book. “What could have happened if the world was as fair to young girls as it is hard. In short, they wanted me to write a novel.” He didn’t expect much from the book, and even threw a first draft in the trash. His wife fished it out, and he completed it -- after being signed to Doubleday, it sold a million copies in its first year in print.
In hindsight, it's no surprise Carrie was so successful. It’s the ultimate revenge novel, paranormal novel, anti-religious novel, and horror novel, all in one. King anticipates the female heroine of the '80s and '90s, the super-girl, like Buffy: one of her gifts is she gets cramps (à la period cramps) when a vampire is near, a built-in warning. Turning the “female curse” into female power is neat, sure, but it also turns the religious right on its head.
According to the Bible, women have periods because of "Eve’s mistake" (trying to get knowledge in Eden); inferring that women might have periods to make them stronger or telepathic buries any shame associated with menstruation. Unfortunately, Carrie is unable to control her rage and ends up destroying herself along with the entire town. But the novel is a great start to a long tradition of women finding power through the supernatural.
Recently, a film called Jennifer’s Body was released -- starring the sultry Megan Fox, it tells the story of a sexpot cheerleader who hangs out with the wrong band one night and wakes up as a cannibalistic zombie monster the next morning. Like Carrie, Jennifer is unable to control her newfound powers, and it doesn’t end well for her. Women with supernatural powers have reached the pinnacle of strength; they are stronger and more capable than mortal men. But culture continues to punish them for the transcendence. Carrie was written in 1974, and Jennifer’s Body in 2009 -- isn’t it about time that our heroine steps off the stage covered in blood and just survives?
King writes in his introduction that he wishes Tina and Sandy (the two girls that inspired Carrie) were alive to read the novel. Neither women made it to the age of thirty -- one hanged herself, and the other died during an epileptic seizure. While hopefully it has become easier for women to survive in this world, it is still not a reality that women flourish and triumph in their daily lives. High school is tougher than ever, and celebrity-obsessed culture makes body image even more of an issue. Women are still not paid as much as men even when they’re working the exact same jobs, and we’re expected to marry, reproduce, work, take care of our offspring, and stay thin throughout it all. Unfortunately, for frustrated women, there are still plenty of reasons to burn down an entire gym filled with people -- and no, it’s not PMS. It’s pure, unadulterated rage.
Culture, popular culture in particular, should be the first place where women can thrive: in fantasy situations, in embellished stories of real-life trauma told through a paranormal conceit. This is how we fix the rage problem. Provide a scapegoat, a filter, and an inspiration through this kind of art. It’s happening, but slowly. Look at Tarantino’s Shoshanna in Inglourious Basterds. But I want more for these characters. As much as I enjoy the bloody catharsis, I just want them rise above. To shake it off. I want them to escape.