“It’s a side-splitting vagina cake, you people!”

Warning: the following includes graphic descriptions of vagina cakes and ovary bobbing.  (Well, not all that graphic.  There is the word “blood,” but there is no actual blood.)  And there are five thousand eloquent and grammatically correct words.  (Plus a few hundred.  And some superfluous ™s.) Proceed at your own risk.  Or don’t.

The other day, I was intrigued to see a headline that included the words “vagina cake”.   Who could refrain from seeing where a vagina cake crumb might lead?  (I mean, a “vagina cake.”  [Hmm . . .  is there such a thing as a vaginal cake?  But I digress . . . ])

Adam Mordecai’s Upworthy feed sent me to Eddie Geller’s, which presented this headline: “Being A Good Mother Means Sometimes Buying Your Kid A Vagina Cake When They Lie.”

Geller’s introduction to the video that follows lauds the company HelloFlo™ for its (her?) innovative marketing of feminine hygiene products: “But what they’ve done that’s even more genius is make a couple brilliant ads that normalize getting a period (you know, cause it’s normal). This is ad number two, and dare I say, it’s even funnier than the first one. So, let’s all watch the video and talk about how cool we are with periods, shall we?”

What could be more inviting?  Yes, the mysterious moon cycle is normal!  That’s what I and my fellow fifty-one per centers have been saying for, well, three and a half decades.  And there’s a vagina cake!  Bought by a good mother!  Whose child (“they”) lied!  And Eddie has prepared us that the ad is brilliant and funny and normalizing.  I was more than a little excited to watch this video that promised to defang the term “first period,” even and especially as I prepare for my final one, which will arrive one of these days, months, or years, at least as unpredictably as the first one did.

Adam’s and Eddie’s links pointed to a video (2’20” in duration), portraying an adolescent girl who is impatient for the arrival of her first period.  As the video begins, we see her decorating a feminine-hygiene product (ok, I’ll say it: a pad) with red nail polish, accompanied by a voice-over in which she lists the girls who have already flown to the moon.   She mentions Jenny, and “stupid Vicky.”  After she breaks the fourth wall for a while and fills us in on her predicament, her mother enters with the pad, and . . . hi jinx ensue!  I’ll come back to cover the entry of the vagina cake in a bit, but for now, I’ll say that I did not observe all that much normalization, nor was I inspired to celebrate how cool we all are with periods.  On the contrary, I was puzzled and dispirited.

I broke the cardinal rule of Facebook™ and sinned: I looked at the comments.  (Ten Hail Marys to follow.) They were about evenly split between commenters who found the video sidesplittingly hilarious—it mentions a “vagician”!—and those who, more like me, were puzzled or even disquieted.

Danger: Discussion of online discussion follows.  Proceed at your own risk.

Lately, I have been observing the different shapes Internet “discussions” take: on an independent (non-Facebook™) site regarding Celtic traditional music, for example, exchanges about the proper time signature of a reel may become heated, but this is tempered by the fact that, ultimately, the participants have a shared interest, and most want to learn something, not just berate those with whom they disagree.  In the face of a comparison between music and cuisine, one might even end up with the delightfully Dada question, “What is the proper time signature for a curry?”  (The fact that we have wildly different backgrounds and know little about one another makes it even more lively.)  On the other end of the spectrum, usually on Facebook™ posts that are less specialized, I see hostile and uncurious jousting over who can say “idiot” and “asshole” the most times.  (Online, these words are not usually used to refer to oneself.)  I’m probably not saying anything you don’t already know, and you may well reply, with good reason, “Just don’t look at the comments!  [Idiot!]”  But since I was a late bloomer, Internet-wise; since I am something of a hermit; and since my vocational practice concerns the intricate and varying relationships between everyday experience and art, I grant myself special dispensation to graze through the comments from time to time and to join in the frolicking on occasion.  And I am not defensive about it, really; I just imagine you’ll be interested in my process and status.  (Full confession: I also experience depression and grief at the pointed and persistent marginalization of women.  We are, paradoxically, marginalized everywhere, almost.  And a “where’s the woman?” state of mind can inspire me to seek out discussions of gender issues, which take on interesting forms online and can inspire an intensification or lightening of my despair, depending.  It’s a cycle.)

Now, to sample the vagina cake stirred up by the parental revenge fantasy.

Danger:  Facebook™ comments follow.  Proceed at your own risk.

One reader asked something like this:

“Am I the only one who is creeped out by this?”

No, she was not:

1) Public humiliation. Retaliation. Passive aggression. Trickery. Deceit (as punishment for lying, hmmm . . . ). Otherwise known as #ChildAbuse. Which is #NotFunny. Certainly not as a supposed way to, um, decrease shame about puberty? AND—(2) Upworthy, it is an advertisement for a company that sells products.

To my considerable surprise and dismay, an argument of sorts ensued—on the Internet!   About a gendered topic!  And including language.  I did not start it—really.  Those who critiqued (or even discussed) the video were advised repeatedly that it “was not real.”   Some implied that a reservation about the quality of the video could be held only by a viewer who lacked the capacity to distinguish between representation and endorsement, or between fiction and reality.  Some proposed that the cramping of enthusiasm in the face of such a portrayal of vindictiveness could only arise from a misguided inference that the advertisement had been designed to initiate parents into the practice and protocols of offscreen child abuse rather than to sell tampons.  To be clear, I’ve no use for an “us” or a “them,” or even a “you,”—not to be confused with you—but there was a noticeably consistent pattern: amused spectators asserted that anyone who remained undiverted necessarily lacked understanding of the brilliant comic authorial voice—not in those exact words—and even lacked a sense of humor altogether.  Where have we heard this before? 

I was glad to see Mordecai dive in:

Just FYI folks, I am not seriously advocating publicly shaming your children at every turn. It’s merely a funny ad to get people to understand that talking about menstruation shouldn’t be a thing to hide in shame about.  This ad is a humorous attempt at calling that to attention.

This statement makes perfect sense to me.  I would love to see a cultural product (and a commercial product to boot) that exemplifies Adam’s statement.  This HelloFlo™ advertisement, however, is not that cultural product.  Indeed, Mordecai’s original, earlier “share” was prefaced by this:

This goes along with my theory of parenting strategy [sic] that when my teen children inevitably try to throw a party at my house without telling me, the punishment will be me showing up at their school in a too tight [sic] superman [sic] costume to bring them lunch and call them by horrible pet names.  It will be glorious until they figure out how to one up [sic] me.

Yes, individuals in intimate and long-standing relationships engage in role-playing and mischief.  We also lose our cool from time to time and offend or even hurt one another.  All of this can be delightful, enlightening, frightening, enraging, and dangerous.  Sometimes play and harm get mixed up.  And mixed up.  The question is not whether fantasy is playful, but what sort of play is it?

You will be shocked—just shocked!—to hear that the conversation then went round and round in circles. 

Danger: unfashionably long and slightly retouched Facebook™ comment follows.
Proceed at your own risk.

Ok, let me get this straight. Menstruation is something we as a culture, and as individuals (particularly those experiencing it) remain embarrassed about discussing openly.  HelloFlo™ wants to ease that. The narrative of their commercial accomplishes such opening up in this way:

  1. A girl feels bad that she has yet to have her first period;
  2. she creates counterfeit “evidence,” using a cosmetic product, and leaves it for her mother to see (not exclaiming, “yay!”—and not telling her mother—why?).
  3. Her mother reveals knowledge of the fakery to the spectator, but not to her onscreen daughter  (why?),
  4. then proceeds to execute an extravagant, outlandish revenge plot, which involves
  5. publicly humiliating the daughter with a “celebration” of her rite of passage (which has yet to happen) with older men as well as girls and other people present.  These include her grandfather and the mother’s male coworkers  (one of whom presents the still-premenstrual girl with  kitchen supplies, culminating in the girl’s father jumping out of the long-awaited “vagina cake”);
  6. all of which serve, in the video, to mock the notion of a straightforward and earnest celebration of such a rite of passage;
  7. until the mother at last bestows upon her daughter a gift of the product for which this is all an advertisement.
  8. She reveals to the girl that she has already punished her for her deceit, rather than by conventional means, with this “first moon party.”
  9. To conclude, a man tells another girl about the same age, “Sometimes you just gotta wait.”  Cut to—as they say, “wait for it!”—
  10. the HelloFlo™ logo and pitch.

One does not have to mistake this for documentary footage (sometimes confused with “real life”) or overlook the efforts at humor (some parts work, some don’t, and the video will read differently for different viewers) in order to critique the end product.  Discussion and inquiry need not issue from a lack of understanding or an underdeveloped sense of humor. HelloFlo™’s advertisement, while ostensibly pro-woman, pro-girl, and body-celebratory, trades on tired tropes of conniving girls and underhanded women; emphasizes the importance of masculine gaze and response (comic coffee?); and mires its ostensible shame-cleansing agenda by portraying more shame.  At the very least, it is confusing to use the master’s mockery to build the mistress’s moon.  If this is such a new and pro-girl agenda, why muddle it?

Clearly this advertisement for a product trades on internalized misogyny.  It is stained by unintentional unfunniness.  The video targets the customer, the mother, with a revenge fantasy that falls flat.  I certainly don’t see it puncturing embarrassment and shame about growing up.  With respect, Adam, your original comment did have to do with parental revenge—yes, it’s clear you did not mean that seriously either—but that is the impulse this advertisement for a product is manipulating.  This is efficient for the advertiser (and one could say cheap and exploitative too).  Isn’t it worth noting that this groundbreaking new advertisement for a product hooks the viewer through displays of revenge rather than affection and caring?  Does humor have to be cruel?  (For some, yes.)  If that entertains and interests you, great, but I would rather not confuse that with a genuine, new, open, and healthy vision of girls’ experience.  In re “lightening up” [mentioned by other commenters], one cannot have it both ways—saying this advertisement for a product is doing the cultural work of positively affecting our attitudes without considering the possibility of a negative effect.  Hello, Flo: How about going right from the girl’s impatience, to her mother’s compassionate witnessing (mostly absent from the clip, except as related to her consumer status), perhaps by way of a sorbet of generational strain (one of the better ingredients in the video as it is), to the starter kit, to the ketchup guy?  (I’ll let you keep it a guy if you agree to the rest of my revisions.)  Nah, there’d be no “story.”  So why this story? Or how ’bout an advertisement for a product that just had women and girls celebrating their bodies? That would be dotty, right? Why?

(One commenter instructed five or ten of the others to “get therapy”; she also informed the poster above that she hoped she would find her sense of humor someday.  I was grateful for her concern and well wishes, and my friends and I found this riotously funny, since, well, I often have to restrain myself from disrupting any conversation with my unbearably witty banter.  [I fancy myself a modern-day Dorothy Parker without the obscenities.  Or the hats.  Or the civil rights activism.  And carrying a little less heartache, but only a little less.])

Danger:  unbearably funny and not-quite-supercilious Facebook™ comment follows.
Proceed at your own risk.

I was entranced by the way that the ethos of the advertisement refracted through the discussion about it:

This is such a lively and illuminating discussion; I’m learning so much. For example, I notice that, for the most part (especially until the recent comments about therapy), those who question the perfection of the video comment on the video, and those who disagree comment on the people who have commented on the video; in other words, the words “you,” or “you people” (even more idealistic, given the anonymity of the Internet) are circulating with abandon. Some favorite phrases of those advocating this “humor” are the following:

“Calm the hell down. . . .”
“People really do need to lighten up.”  (Several votes for this one.)
“These must be the same people who . . .”
“See a shrink. . . . ”
“Get a sense of humor, people.”
“For those of you who find this offensive – get over it or un-follow the page.”
“You need a therapist and a big drink if you think this is child abuse.”

(What a high degree of sobriety is required to promote levity!  I have been unable to find out whether that last recommendation was for a simultaneous therapist and big drink or perhaps a big drink with the therapist, which might be illegal, as well as funny.  Nor was I able to ascertain what size the therapist should be.  But I digress . . .  back to our show.)

And there is even real recognition of one poster’s “socialist, lesbian loving attitude!!”  (An insult from stranger to stranger?  How humorous!)  Indeed, such syntactical formulations show the advanced jocular status of those who project such utterances—what funny language!  What a thought-provoking trend: those who either find the video hysterically funny (hysterical: get it?! LOL!)—or who simply want to argue—tend to use the second-person imperative, presuming to correct the opinions and attitudes of others, whereas “you people” themselves—again, generally speaking—use the third person to consider the video rather than promulgating ad-hominem [sic] vitriol—and at least, not retaliating with “you ‘you people’ people.”  (“YYPP”?)  This is very funny!  I can’t imagine why there would be such a correlation. For example, those who have endeavored to express unease haven’t thought to say (or have, but have refrained from saying), “Well, ‘you people’ need to insert a little bit of analytical perspicacity into that so-called humor of yours!—and the reason I find it unfunny is because I do have a sense of humor, a sophisticated one, which you cannot but aspire to.  This humor of yours is of poor quality, so there!”  Well, that is something I for one would not say, except in this form of reflexive narrative transgression—and, above all, a humorous one.  Of that I am . . . sanguine. (LOL!)

(With the important caveat that such could happen under duress, I would not dream of calling someone stupid, telling them to see a therapist, or insulting them personally; the sort of double-faux retort above is my limit; and it’s all play.)  I find abusive language, with or without frosting, utterly and invariably demoralizing.  Yes, I know there are sitcoms that portray characters plotting and scheming and insulting one another, and I know well that such a display can serve as a sort of outlet.  But I do not find such discourse funny (save for affording a certain small license to Big Bang Theory, about which I remain ambivalent).  Laughter does not confer comedic immunity.  In more intellectual and academic circles, I often argue against the notion that an artwork delvers a univocal message and for less literal hermeneutic maneuvers.  But that does not mean that all cultural products are equally sophisticated and equally open to complex and multivalent readings.  It’s cheap and lazy to use humor to conceal, rather than to reveal, hostility—and it is unsurprising that a commercial, even one touted as progressive, takes the low road.  I’d rather not shame the shamers.  (LOL shamers?)  Claims of “shaming!” comprise another Internet tendency that has become more than a little wearying.  But it is interesting to observe this correlation: viewers who found the video funny and/or defended its portrayal of humiliation routinely used abusive language and personal attack.  Celebration of the video was insufficient; denigration of those with differing points of view was crucial and central.

To put it bluntly, individuals comfortable with the humor of humiliation also embraced disrespectful discourse.  And they weren’t even funny!

Ready-made verbal formulae designed to defend abusive behavior are widely available, and they all showed up, one after another, in the accolades for this video.  This gives occasion to consider what might be tucked inside of, or excused by, comedified dysfunction.

It’s not funny to see a fictional girl fictionally tricked over a real-life rite of passage that engenders real-life vulnerability, especially under the guise of breaking down a tired taboo.  This is not subversion of the status quo; it is submission to it. The story about the story is disingenuous.

The topic of first menstruation raises many significant issues: emotional responses such as shame and embarrassment are important, and I am glad HelloFlo™ and others are trying, if indeed they are, to release that.  Some girls grow up in households where discussion is frank, and others (as did I) have to figure it out on their own or with the help of schoolteachers and friends.

This is not a trivial matter.  Freer-flowing discussion could foster better personal, and medical, experiences for women.  I contracted toxic shock syndrome during my freshman year in college.  (This was before it was well known that TSS was not by definition fatal.)  As a result, I learned some things about my reproductive system which would have been good to have known earlier on.  Around the same time, a male friend wrote a paper for a class investigating what he termed the late and insufficient response of the medical community and the feminine-hygiene product industry to the advent of toxic shock.  (In response, an older female relative said, “He’s weird.”)

I shuddered ten or more years ago when I read that there had been more research on the effects of bleaching dinner napkins (the paper kind) than on the whitening of tampons.  During my years of cyclicity, there have been interesting developments in products, including unbleached tampons.  Now there’s the DivaCup™ and Softcup™.

Such products reveal some of the innumerable ways in which women’s experience, even as it is acknowledged and supported, is simultaneously commodified, packed and sold back to us.  This observation is no news flash (though some participants in the Upworthy discussion said they found the HelloFlo™ products expensive).  And it’s interesting to think of a girl being sent a monthly package tailored to her flow, in “discreet” (the same word as in 1978) packaging.  I’m not sure what to make of that; nor am I sure why a Beads For Life Sanyu Bangle Bracelet  or other mentionables are included; but there must be a reason.

Women, Get Your Period™ Here!

My ultimate response to the HelloFlo™ video is colored by its pairing of commodification and womanhood.  (What a quaint word.  I use it advisedly.)  First, the swag: there are ready-made kits, even including paradoxically advertised “surprises.”  (Here, buy this surprise!  Only $29.99!)  I remember my own starter kit; I waited eagerly for it to arrive in its “discreet” packaging.  I’m not sure I understand why a monthly delivery of semi-customized supplies appeals, but perhaps it’s handy to be relieved of the burdens of making selections and carrying light packages of absorbent fluff around.  And the “complimentary” (one might consider respelling that) items: this sounds festive, but not a little impersonal: “Will Flo send the organic hard candy in the pink container or—the other pink thing?”  Indeed, the tagline on Period Starter Kit, “every girl should have one,” says a lot.  One—size fits all.  And this comes at a time when, entering adolescence, young people are engaged in individuation.  WOuldn’t it be neat to create one’s own totem, ornament, or treat?

(Is it possible that these “gifts” are akin the the “complementary copy” I remember Gloria Steinem writing about in Ms. many years ago?  It was a protocol whereby, in order to garner a contract with an advertiser, the magazine would be required to run copy that related to the given product and supported the advertising even outside the advertisement proper.  Of course nowadays, the possibility of a boundary between content and come-on is seldom even acknowledged.)

As de Beauvoir said: second, womanhood.  Let’s glance at cultural (and, thus, political) constructions of and battles over gender.  In “our” culture at large, which includes movies, television, video games, comic books, enlivening and enervating Facebook™ discussions, and things I have yet to hear have been invented, there is a character one almost never encounters: the crone.  The womanly Trinity begins with maid, progresses to mother, and then—some grandmotherly presences notwithstanding—where does she go?

In too many settings, women are devalued and diminished even as we grow in wisdom and maturity.  However, I am fortunate to have a number of allies in my life whom I call “wisewomen.”  You know who you are; in fact, you taught me that expression.  I am grateful that these maternal figures (whether or not they are literally parents) are willing to initiate me into their wisdom so that I can be a wise elder, I hope, if and when the time comes.  (And, crucially, there are also some male role models who can spin with the cycle.  You too know who you are.)  But experienced, mature women remain woefully under-appreciated in both mainstream culture and more specialized realms.  I recently heard a sixty-something man introduce an extraordinarily distinguished and renowned sixty-something woman at a public, academic/professional event, and he coyly, or passive-aggressively, suggested that she might (should?) be ashamed of her age.  (Obviously, she would not be the distinguished artist she is, invited to that very stage to be honored in such a way, were she twenty-something.)  Perhaps not coincidentally, she was exponentially more accomplished than he.  I notice, in my own profession—which one would expect to have little in common with that of Maggie Smith, Meryl Streep, and Angelina Jolie—that wisdom is not always an asset.  Students seek seasoned teachers, but, among our peers, women practitioners “of a certain age” are often unwelcome.  Still.  In 2014.  Despite all we offer to others, we are left aside and even rebuffed.  Now a parody of that could be funny. . . .  There are many reasons one might avoid revealing this, not least among them that, as I am doing right this moment, one risks exacerbation of difficulties by acknowledging that they exist, and more.  Our marginalization, silencing, and invisibility are, as menstruation used to be, a topic we discuss amongst ourselves, if at all, when we fly off to mull over our matriarchal mysteries.

What of the mature feminine presence in the HelloFlo™ commercial? Some find the mother’s vengeful acrobatics funny; others gasp or yawn at the prospect of a grown woman duping and humiliating her daughter.  The posts by the two Upworthies—both men, which is nice—suggest that the advertisement eases shame and embarrassment, but it relies on shame and embarrassment.  Perhaps it eases their shame and embarrassment?  That’s nice too, but perhaps a secondary priority.  Sorry, guys: matriarchy rules.  And because this is a commercial, there is a customer in mind: the mother.  Clearly, the way to hook the fish is with a (supposedly funny, certainly fictional, possibly intertextual) revenge tale.  The mother’s  life experience becomes subservient to her use-value to the company as a consumer; her character submits to a vulgar narrative wherein grown men do imbecilic things and inspire raised eyebrows, while the girl, the supposed protagonist, does something adolescent—after all, she is an adolescent—and gets punished.  Her up-growing is exposed in front of the men brandishing coffee filters, red vagina-imitating bodysuits, and slow-moving ketchup.  (“Idiots!”) There is even a boy band up on a balcony that has been festooned with girls’ underwear.  Now that is decidedly creepy.  (The grandfather in his undershirt “bobbing for ovaries like a champ” could have benefited from some video surgery as well.)  While in the past, a girl might have shuddered at the advent of menstruation, here the girl cringes at others’ appropriation of it, before she has even experiences it for herself.  It is a possession, but not hers, and she does not like what is happening.  No one else is cringing.  (“Assholes!”)  How funny.

I am fascinated by the ways in which periodical (that’s a clever peer’s coinage, so clever that she cannily critiques the word “clever” [#IAmNotMakingThisUp]) advertisements have changed over time.  I remember gazing at some utterly weird booklets that my older sisters must have received at school in the seventies; the text and images completely mystified the entire topic.  “Modess . . . because.”

(Okay, because why?  [Like, I always want to ask, “‘Have a good one?’ A good what?  And only one?”]  And why is the ellipsis placed before the word because, when the statement is left unfinished?  Okay, okay, I’ll do my best to go with the flow.)

Mid- to late-twentieth century advertisements show women in flowing gowns.  And “Modess”: is that like, a female mod?  Like “seamstress” or “poetess?”  Almost passé enough to have a comeback.  Perhaps today the advertisement would read, “Modster™ . . . whatever.”  Anyway, by the time I reached adolescence, advertisements presented images of  sporty young women in tight white clothing playing sports.  (I wondered if I was supposed to wear white one week per month.)  And now we have HelloFlo™, who proffers“special delivery for your hoo-ha”  and urges, “whatever you call it, we can help you take care of it.”  Indeed, engaging and refreshing.  Amusing and arch.  I say this in earnest.  That’s great to see, and much more appealing than “. . . because.”

But this attitude does not stick.  The climax of the humiliating vagina-cake advertisement comes when, unable to endure her mother’s torment a moment longer, the girl exclaims, in frustration, “I faked it!”  This moment is poignant and sad in the way many funny things turn out to be, and it has more resonance than I would like.  (I would love never to remember the image of Meg Ryan in the diner in When Harry Met Sally again.) 

Such an utterance from such a young girl reminds me of the innumerable ways women choose to, or are pressured to, hide ourselves in order to play to the crowd.  It reminds me how we learn to please, to appease, and from whom, and what happens when we stop faking it.  

The two-minute and twenty-second advertisement does not, on its own, effect this; it “merely” reinforces it.  (Even the specific choice of words, “I faked it,” brings too-heavy baggage to the first moon party.)

The folks on Facebook™ would surely “advice” [sic] “you people” [sic] to undertake some “lightning” (OK, that I did make up, but only sort of) and would likely proceed to remind the killjoys that “this is not real!!!!”  They’re right: advertisements are not “real,” but then again, nether—Bless you, Autocorrect™!—are our daily lives, filled as they are with things like . . . advertisements.  And Facebook™ posts.  And arguments based more on assertion than thought.  And women who undertake plastic surgery to look like Barbie™.  And viral videos of real-life rapes.  And sober questions about the relationships between and among religion, commerce, law, and women’s (as well as others’!) health.  I would not propose that HelloFlo™ and Co. intended to create a piece of propaganda through reactionary faux-normalizing-but-compliant cultural work designed to serve the misogynist hegemony.  As another wise-woman apprentice my age says, “It is not a conspiracy.  It doesn’t have to be.”  In other words, business as usual—uncontested, contested inadequately, or dressed up as new wine—lubricates the gears so that the gender-performance machine may continue to revolve under the moon.  As my father used to say, “Garbage in; garbage out.”  We can convince ourselves we have improved things, as long as we have something to chuckle at.  As long as our belly laughs as we are distracted us from any irregularities or muscle spasms.

Living in this culture and knowing something about women’s and girls’ experiences, I am not amused to think that “Being A Good Mother Means Sometimes Humiliating Your Child When They Lie.”  Now, inserting “Buying Your Kid A Vagina Cake” in the place of “humiliating your child” sweetens it up, but if this is funny, consider how bitter our humor must be.

There are other thought-provoking nuances, likely reflexes, in the language of the posts and the video.  Notice that construction above: “when they lie.”  “They” has long been accepted in place of a gender-specific pronoun, both in mainstream culture and by academics, but that is not my point.  Why use “they” here?  Worthy and urgent contestations of the gender binary aside, in this context, “Being A Good Mother Means Sometimes Buying Your Daughter A Vagina Cake When She Lies.”   That has a less “embarrassment-alleviating” sound, doesn’t it?  (I’d like to put “something” before “means,” but no matter.)

Toward the end of the video, after the girl has been subjected to the over-the-top-of-the-first-moon “party”  (whose party?), she is rewarded with the gift of a HelloFlo™ kit from her mother.  Mother and daughter sit together, and the girl asks whether she’ll be grounded for lying.  Her mother reveals that the party was her punishment and adds, commenting on her long-held knowledge of the purloined period, “Periods don’t have glitter on them.”  This too is interesting language.  The girl did not create a false period, but rather evidence of one.  That evidence is known as blood.  Menstrual blood does not contain glitter.  A period is not an object—except when it becomes a product to sell and buy.  I can imagine that marketing experts might discourage the use of the term “menstrual blood” to sell a product.  But the slippage of terminology is curious.  Similarly, the word “vagina,” which hardly dances on the tongue, seems to have become a substitute for the female genitals.  (Rick Perry even asked, “Which one?”)  We teach ourselves to obfuscate even as we profess a desire to communicate.

(How could you place anything on a period anyway?)

And why is it that, after this exchange, the last scene of the video shows a middle-aged man advising a young woman, as he suffers the clichéd or archetypal “anticipation™” of flow from the sluggish ketchup bottle, “Sometimes you just gotta wait”?

(I know it would be too much to ask HelloFlo™ to go Godot.  But a Girl™ can dream.)

(Perhaps we can all meet up at Maleficent instead.)


Warning: Wise Women Ahead (With Some More Wise Folks Right Beside)

It is sad that it is so hard to imagine a narrative in which a mature woman, perhaps a parent, has wisdom to impart and does so in a caring and dignified manner.  This could be heartwarming.  It could also be funny!  Trust me: wise woman are a scream!

Why the need to mock a first moon party, with “grandpa bobbing for ovaries,” in order to promote a starter kit for camp, with its helpful Good for You Girls™ lip balm?  Why not a first moon party?  Maybe restricted to women; maybe not.  (One of the commenters online described something that sounded like that; I bet my wise women might know about such rituals too.  Do you?  Do you laugh at the very idea?  If so, why?)

Is it coincidental that the process of female maturation, at both ends of the child-bearing years, veers wildly between the poles of invisibility and farce?

The “vagician” is by no means a new invention (nor does she have to be to be in order to be worthy).  There is Carolee Schneemann’s breakthrough performance Interior Scroll,  from 1975, and impish Laurie Anderson’s “Beautiful Red Dress” from fifteen years later.  There are women here and there who use menstrual blood in art-making, when it is available.  In a different vein, I just read an enchanting scene in Mary Robinette Kowal’s latest Regency/fantasy novel, Valour and Vanity, wherein the protagonist, in short hair and trousers, discusses her cycle with her husband.  It’s touching and light-handed, and it is a matter of urgent importance within the narrative.  (You can’t miss it: It’s right before Lord Byron wins a swimming contest and rips his clothes off in the canal.  That embarrasses Jane more than her period.)

And let’s not forget the truly revolutionary Annie Sprinkle, who has genuinely opened things up.  (Including her cervix.  She deserves her own paragraph.)

More generally, apart from artistic products inspired by the menstrual cycle,—”inspired by the menstrual cycle”; that too sounds oddly unfamiliar—there are myriad opportunities to observe a rite of passage in a meaningful ritual.  Such an enterprise need not be packaged in a commodified stunt.   (Dear Facebook™ acquaintances:  the stunt, in this case, is the advertisement, not the actions narrative.  Then again, I am an idiot.)  It’s easy to poke fun at earnestness.  Too easy.  Doing so can be a handy cover for one’s own cowardice, and one’s own shame.  If one cannot risk sincerity when the next generation’s maturing bodies are at center stage, when can one?  Returning to the proposition above that the eager consumption of narratives portraying humiliation may correlate to the utterance of speech acts that do the same: might it be possible to invert this?

Perhaps paying attention to the details of such a cultural product—ignoring pressures to lighten up or move on or get a (different?) sense of humor—may have something in common with, may reflect or foster, the simple but profound act of paying attention to others’s experience.  Now there’s a cycle I would like to see enacted.

There are too few opportunities for girls, as for women, to be honored as themselves, without being prematurely sexualized, cruelly silenced, chastised for being “bossy,” constricted or even terrorized by gendered aggression, or instructed how to adapt to untenable circumstances rather than being offered better ones.  But there are some examples, and their poignancy underscores their scarcity.  They are offered by men as well as women.

Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15
or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?
We think you’re special just being you —
playing with your food and staring into space.
Billy Collins, “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl”

Now this is humorous!  And vengeless.  Indeed, it drily touches on mundane ways in which girls (and boys too) are put upon, pointing to the tiny and immense pressures they experience as they come of age.   It creates some distance from the intergenerational drama, and its lightness, reminiscent of Calvino’s Boccacio’s Cavalcanti’s leap, is much needed in this next millennium.  I want my favorite (read: all) pre-adolescent aunts to have as much access to this sort of jump as to images of clumsy red-suited fathers emerging from “vagina cakes.”

(That a red flag went up the first time I saw Collins’s title is sobering.  Fortunately, it descended.)

A woman-identified, intergenerational flavor is not entirely absent from HelloFlo™, the company; in fact, Flo’s most important contribution may lie in her blog and the “Ask Dr. Flo” column.  I hope that these offerings are as useful to customers and participants as they appear.  (This may be an example of the marvelous aspect of the Internet, where a girl can find information—if she knows where to go.  And to learn that, she still may need a wise elder in her corner.  And so we cycle back again.)

These more promising aspects of the HelloFlo™ “brand” only serve to set in relief this confused and confusing advertisement.  Sure, whack the  piñata utera if you like.  I’ll pass, not because I disapprove, not because I mistake the play for reality, and not because I am immune to periodical humor, but just because the pink pillow on the ceiling is too flimsy to be of interest.  It comes apart too easily.

Can’t we care for young girls without ridiculing their experience, without telling them stories wherein their counterparts are mortified?  They are still young, and growing up is important and worthy of attention and celebration.  I bloody well hope so.  If we are going to say we are saying “vaginas don’t suck,” can’t we at least find a way to show something other than an awkward adolescent slurping on a marshmallow that’s been dipped in a red-chocolate fountain?  And for what it’s worth, such an image makes me, and old pro at bleeding, squeamish in several ways.  This is supposed to normalize the cycle?

(I do want to try the “vagina cake”—but only after the guy in the red bodysuit who jumped out of it has left the building.  By the way, what is he doing in his daughter’s vagina cake?  And after all of mom’s labor, why does it look nothing like a vagina?  Gee, that’s funny.  Dot.  Dot.  Dot.  Or, as the French would say, “point.”)

—Posted by Rose Marie  McSweeney