By Emily Rowan
“Blood is kinda like snot,” author Karen Houppert declared in her book, The Curse, “How come it’s not treated that way? People with runny noses do not hide their tissues from colleagues and family members. Young girls do not cringe if a boy spies them buying a box of Kleenex.” When hormones run rampant and shooting cramps puncture their insides, few women will declare their monthly period as something to click their heels about. Yet, it has been the American norm for women to be more embarrassed than irritated by their period. Why do many women shudder (or rather cry, depending on the intensity of their menstrual mood swings) when a man sees them carrying a tampon to the restroom? For a natural process that half of the American population will experience, menstruation has implied a lot of shame and embarrassment. Why is this? What does this say about American values toward women? Is this paradigm changing? Interestingly enough, these questions can be answered by looking to American media, in particular, advertising.
When compared with early tampon advertisements, the contemporary portrayal of women is astoundingly different. The once passive woman, embarrassed by her cycle, is now active. Rather than experiencing shame, she exercises pride and joy toward her femininity. This drastic change is a reflection of a major shift in American cultural values toward women. As American values of freedom and initiative have extended to women, women have developed strength and proactivity, breaking the cycle of female passivity and shame. Although passive portrayals of women still exist, advertisement campaigns toward women still reveal a changing tide in American values concerning femininity, which can be illustrated by changes in tampon advertisements from their emergence in the late 1920s to the present.
Given the general shameful attitude towards menstruation that existed in America when tampons emerged on the market in the late 1920s, it is interesting as to how advertisers informed the population about their product, when their general cliental was embarrassed to even admit they were consumers. Advertisers, however, used these insecurities to their advantage. Early tampon advertisements tactfully used women’s anxiety about menstruation to attract them to buy their brand of tampons. A 1947 Tampax advertisement depicts a picture of a women gazing upward contemplatively, with the text beneath her, “Think of how tiny and inconspicuous Tampax is in your purse! No odor and no disposal problem. Think of how Tampax helps your poise and frees you from self-conscious embarrassment!” What if my period has an odor? What if a boy sees me carrying a tampon? What if a boy knows I’m menstruating? Will he think I’m disgusting? The advertisement tactfully plays upon feelings of insecurity, shame and embarrassment toward menstruation, which is reflective of American cultural ideals toward femininity at the time.
While this ad was in print, menstruation was looked down upon. In Post-World War II America, the role of women was primarily subjected to bear children, evidenced by the enormous baby boom that occurred in the late 1940s as American soldiers returned home from war. If a woman was on her period, she was not completing her duty to American society as a reproductive woman, creating a contemptible attitude toward menstruation. Thus, women in advertisements, such as the 1947 Tampax advertisement, are portrayed as meek and embarrassed, and understanding their subordinance in patriarchal society. Nowhere in the advertisement does it express the freedom tampons give women to live a free and active life, even when menstruating, nor does it treat the cycle as a normal and natural part of being a female. Instead, the ad, like many tampon ads of the time, toys with the notion that Tampax will make menstruation as discrete and secretive as womanly possible. This portrayal of women as passive baby-makers who must hide a natural part of themselves has shifted to an image that is empowering, which is evident in modern tampon advertisements.
When the 1947 ad is compared to a 2010 Kotex advertisement, the difference is radical. Pictured is a blue convertible driving down an open road in the desert, its driver waving her hand freely in the air. “I tied a tampon to my key ring so my brother wouldn’t take my car,” it says in capital block letters in the sky. “It worked.” This modern woman defies shame, she is confident. She is clever. Instead of hiding behind her femininity, she embraces it to get exactly what she wants, which today is a blue corvette and an open road. She is comfortable with herself and her period, and proudly plays with man’s discomfort to get ahead. The advertisement raises this argument in smaller text, “Why are 40% of people uncomfortable with tampons? Break the cycle” (Note the advertiser’s choice to use the word “people” as opposed to “women,” the product’s consumers). Not only does this advertisement emphasize women’s modern outlook on femininity, but it also subordinates the general male attitude toward women. While women are embracing both masculinity and femininity, men are depicted as still fearing the feminine. The ad encourages women to continue to exercise their strength and intelligence so that one day they might “break the cycle” and blur the lines of gender roles. Some might argue that women have not made large strides toward abandoning the stereotype of being passive. However, this radical shift in advertising tactics suggests changing American value judgments toward women.
What is the root of change from this meek attitude toward femininity to one that is confident and strong? The sexual revolution in 1960s America provides much insight. With the legalization of birth control through the Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision in 1965, women experienced drastic sexual liberation. Before the pill, women did not look for long-term jobs, as impregnation would take them out of the job market. Thus, their roles were often limited to the home, as reflected in the 1947 Tampax ad’s portrayal of women. For feat of illegitimate pregnancy, the topic of female sexuality was treated with shame and embarrassment, much like attitudes toward menstruation. The pill provided women the opportunity to exercise the same sexual freedom as men without fears of illegitimate pregnancy, thus making female sexuality a less hush-hush social topic and retaining women in the workforce. Since the emergence of the tampon in the late 1920s, women have drastically changed from stereotypically passive in society to actively exercising freedoms, and advertisers have followed suit. Tampax, for example has made enormous strides away from encouraging female passivity since their 1947 ad, as illustrated in a 2010 ad found in Cosmopolitan Magazine.
The 2010 Tampax ad directly comments on this shift from female passivity to action. Serena Williams, professional tennis player, is standing in profile on a tennis court wearing a white tennis outfit. She is facing a small woman who looks as if she’s stepped out of a 1950s sitcom. The woman, a few feet shorter than Williams, wearing a green tweed jacket, bears a pink-ribboned box, labeled “Mother Nature’s Monthly Gift.” Above the woman is the text “Mother Nature has met her match.” Like the 2010 ad, Tampax is highlighting the female power to actively live life, even when menstruating, as opposed to appealing to insecurities about femininity like that of its predecessors. Williams is the optimal woman by modern standards: she is strong, active, beautiful, and fearless. She is not afraid to wear a short white outfit while on her period, and she certainly will not let her period beat her. In fact, she will not let the tradition of female passivity conquer her either. “Mother Nature,” adorned in outdated clothing, is reminiscent of the woman Tampax depicted in Tampax’s 1947 advertisement, suggesting that Williams is too smart and strong to fall into the trap of the passive female stereotype that preceded her. This is meant to inspire women to “outsmart Mother Nature,” as it dictates at the bottom of the ad, something they can seemingly achieve by buying Tampax brand tampons. The 1947 product is essentially the same as the one advertised in Cosmopolitan. Yet, something has changed.
In modern American culture, women are moving away from the passive stereotype that existed heavily in the mid-20th century. Some, however, may argue that women are still suppressed by this stereotype. However, after analyzing changes in the media’s portrayals of women over the past several decades, it cannot be denied that large strides have been made for women in American society. Once portrayed as meek and embarrassed by a defining female experience, women are now depicted as strong and intelligent, actively fighting to get what they want. Since media reflects the people it represents, this change suggests a shift in American value judgements toward women. As values of sexual liberation, freedom to change, and initiative to lead an individualistic life have become more socially acceptable to women, advertisers have reshaped their image of the modern American woman from one who is meek and passive to one who is confident and strong. Perhaps the period doesn’t have to be passive, after all.