I was pleasantly surprised when Period. End of Sentence won best documentary short at the Oscars on Sunday. I hadn’t actually seen the documentary but I voted for it on my home ballot because I thought it seemed like an important subject. For a while, I’ve been mulling over an essay idea about how periods are rarely represented in fiction and in film, even though it is a monthly occurrence in the lives of girls and women. The silence around it contributes both to a feeling of shame and a sense that it’s not really that important. But so many of my friends have gone through times in their lives when they were in a lot of pain because of their periods, and there’s very little in the way of treatment. Which is really kind of crazy, from a capitalist perspective, because how much money could you make if you offered women some pain relief during their periods?
I kept thinking of how flawed capitalism is as I watched Period. End of Sentence. on Netflix last night. (It’s streaming there, and it’s only about a half hour, so it’s an easy watch.) The documentary takes place in a rural part of India, and observes what happens to a group of women after a pad machine is installed in their village. There is a lot of shame and misinformation around menstruation, but soon the women are working at the pad machine and going door-to-door to sell them. It is a product that the local women desperately need, especially young women, who often skip school when they are on their periods. They eagerly buy pads, but admit that they are hesitant to purchase them at the store because it is too embarrassing to do so.
Apparently, only 10% of menstruating women in India use sanitary napkins during their periods, which means there is a huge untapped market for entrepreneurs. But it seems that patriarchy trumps capitalism. In this particular instance, the lack of product has multiple factors: the silence and shame around menstruation; the fact that women don’t want to buy the product from men; and the fact that men don’t really understand what products women might need. It would help, of course, of there were more women in leadership positions at large companies, and it would help if more women completed their schooling so that they could start businesses, create marketing campaigns, become doctors, etc. But they can’t finish school because they don’t have pads. It’s a vicious cycle.
“I am a little bit feminist,” says one of the women in the film, a school principal. “Women are the base of society.” Sometimes I felt this documentary wasn’t feminist enough; it could have dug into the history of the menstruation taboo, and how it stokes a fear and hatred of women. But maybe it didn’t need to do that: it was enough to listen to the young women describe their embarrassment, and to see how a simple thing like a pad machine could improve their lives.
Another little quibble with this documentary was that they chose to dub the voices. I guess I’m just not used to dubbing, and it was very odd to hear snippets of the women’s real voices and then suddenly a smooth American voice interrupting to interpret. I would have preferred to read subtitles.
Period. End of Sentence. was directed by Rayka Zehtabchi, a 25-year-old Iranian-American, who was recruited by The Pad Project, a non-profit organization created by a Los Angeles schoolteacher, Melissa Burton. Burton and her students traveled to the village featured in this movie to set up the pad machine, but realized, after getting to know the local woman, that the real problem was the taboo around menstruation. So, this documentary was created to help start a larger conversation.
It’s worth noting that the menstruation taboo is alive and well in America. Yes, we have access to supplies, but it’s still a subject that you aren’t supposed to mention in mixed company, or really very much at all–and why not? It’s actually kind of an interesting process, and I have to question my own squeamishness on the subject, why I always make an effort to hide it, and rarely discuss it, except with other women. Men need to be a part of the conversation, too, and I hope this documentary will help–even if it’s just to open people’s eyes to a sales opportunity.