Red Moon: Menstruation, Culture, and the Politics of Gender. Directed by Diana Fabianova. Northhampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2010. 53 minutes.
Vulva 3.0: Between Taboo and Fine-Tuning. Directed by Claudia Richarz and Ulrike Zimmermann. Brooklyn: Icarus Films, 2014. 79 minutes.
Vulva 3.0 opens as German dermatologist Dr. Uta Schlossberger shoots Macrolane, an injectable filler, into a patient’s labia.1 Stepping back and admiring her work, Schlossberger quips, “Very American, but it’s beautiful.”2 So begins Vulva 3.0’s movement through the treacherous terrain of attitudes toward female genitalia, at once shifting and static, personal and political, medical and cultural. Undeniably, this is provocative material for rich student engagement. Indeed, unpacking Schlossberger’s comment alone could occupy a full class period’s discussion.3
Also worth addressing is the perspective the film encourages. This documentary, absent a voiceover and subtitled in English, entices viewers to draw their own conclusions about the subject. But it is not hard to assume the filmmakers’ agenda of troubling the beauty ideal “down there.” A series of experts guide us through this inquiry. Photo editor Ulrich Grolla explains his use of Photoshop to trim labia. Medical historian Marion Hulverscheidt asserts that depictions of the vulva were more accurate pre-twentieth century than today when the clitoris has been reduced to a mere button. Author Mithu Melanie Sanyal narrates the shameful story of Saartjie Baartman, a nineteenth-century South African woman whose buttocks and genitalia drew the fascination of Europeans, her life an egregious example of the horrors of imperialism, exoticism, and racism.
Of those we encounter, Jawahir Cumar, is most illuminating. Cumar is the Somalia-born founder of Stop Mutilation, an organization whose mission is to “protect girls against the mutilation of their genitalia.”4 Cumar is an apt choice to raise the complex issue of genital circumcision, herself cut at a young age. Never mincing words, she narrates the prejudices she faces, when, for example, people assume she was unable to give birth. Smiling wryly at the camera, she asks, “Who should know best?” This privileging of the voice of those directly affected by genital cutting is undermined, unfortunately, by an intercut of a lecture delivered by Dr. Christoph Zerm, whose standpoint as white, European, and male, creates an uncomfortable tension, but one that could be productively explored in a post-screening debriefing.
The film brings us full circle, returning to shots of cosmetic surgeons observing—in real time—a surgical reduction of a woman’s labia. The procedure is digitially obscured, though, which reflects—quite literally—the film’s subtitle “Between Taboo and Fine-Tuning”—a suspension between honest enagement with our bodies while questing for a culturally bound ideal. Paired with literature and perhaps links to feminist health sites exploring the topic, Vulva 3.0 succeeds in inviting us to this dialogue.5
In contrast, Diana Fabianova’s Red Moon: Menstruation, Culture, and the Politics of Gender is a more heavy handed exploration of the complex interplay of gender, embodiment, and representation. Visually rich and geographically diverse, Red Moon is an ambitious film.6 Motivated by the filmmaker’s own frustration with disabling menstrual pain, Red Moon presents viewers with a wide range of experts and practitioners, including some peculiar choices (such as a Taoist educator to address the potential hazards of conventional menstrual products). But Fabianova does manage to cover a lot of territory, blending humor, anthropology, history, psychotherapy, movement, playful animation, and performance art to unpack the paradox of this natural bodily process, simultaneously familiar and mysterious.
Myself a scholar of activist efforts to challenge negative and harmful cultural narratives of menstruation, I found the film at turns entertaining, edifying, superficial, and frustrating.7 The film duly represents the interlocking problems that spring from keeping the menstrual cycle hidden—not the least of which is poor health, while offering up some little-known approaches to ease suffering (belly dance, anyone?). But it ultimately fails to sustain a focus on the sociocultural forces that shape our menstrual problems and solutions.
1 See Galderma
2 It is important to note that Dr. Schlossberger is an international trainer and speaker for the makers of Macrolane, Q-MED (see Dr. med. Uta Schlossberger’s website).
3 Supportive resources for such a discussion might include: Fiona J. Green, “From Clitoridectomies to ‘Designer Vaginas’: The Medical Construction of Heteronormative Female Bodies and Sexuality through Female Genital Cutting,” Sexualities, Evolution, & Gender 7, no. 2 (2005): 153-87 and “Genitally Feminist and Healthy,” National Women's Health Network, November/December 2012.
4 See stop-mutilation.org
5 One example might be “The Ideal Labia Is Your Own: Online Sites Push Back against ‘Model’ Genitalia.”
6 Filming locations include: Brazil, the United States, Slovakia, France, Australia, and Spain.
7 Chris Bobel, New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010).
8 See Chris Bobel, “The Year the Period Went Public,” Gender & Society Blog, November 12, 2015, The Tear the Period Went Public and Newsweek’s historic cover story at The Fight to End Period Shaming is Going Mainstream.