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An Oscar-winning film about menstruation shows we’re only just waking up about women’s bodies

91st Academy Awards - Oscars Show - Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 24, 2019. Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton accept the Best Documentary Short Subject award for "Period. End Of Sentence."
Reuters/Mike Blake
Melissa Berton, Rayka Zehtabchi and team.
  • Cassie Werber
By Cassie Werber

Reporter

“I’m not crying because I’m on my period or anything. I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar.” So began the funny, emotional acceptance speech of director Rayka Zehtabchi, who claimed the best short documentary award for Period. End of Sentence, a 26-minute film about attitudes to menstruation in rural India, at last night’s Oscars.

The film focuses on the lives of women and girls in a village outside Delhi, where stigma about menstruation is high. Access to sanitary products is so limited that women often have to miss school or even drop out of education entirely as a result of getting their period. The documentary follows the village as it is given equipment to manufacture sanitary pads, with the help of funds raised by an American school.

The Oscar win is notable because it brings the subject of menstruation to the fore—not just for the benefit of India’s culture, but Western audiences as well. The documentary details an extreme situation in which women are ostracized for bleeding and both genders are barely educated about the realities of monthly periods. But the speeches by Zehtabchi and producer Melissa Berton are a reminder that the film’s subject matter is  still a taboo in the West. Tampon advertising might be commonplace, but people still don’t talk about periods much in the public domain, and certainly not in Hollywood. American Honey, Andrea Arnold’s 2016 coming-of-age movie, in which protagonist Sasha Lane removes a bloody tampon during a sex scene, was a rare instance of film including this near-ubiquitous fact of human life.

Despite its efforts to catch-up with Hollywood’s diversity issues, the Oscars still present a view of humanity that’s sanitized and highly groomed: Most women in expensive dresses and elongating high-heels, most men in suits. Julia Roberts’ display of underarm hair at a film premier back in 1999 is still cited as subversive of the norm.

A win for Period. End of Sentence. is good news for public discourse about menstruation, but we’re still nearer the beginning than the end of that discussion.

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