Reproductive Writes: I Choose My Choice: An Interview with Elizabeth Kissling

Elizabeth Kissling is Professor of Women's & Gender Studies and of Communication at Eastern Washington University, and the current president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research. She is the author of Capitalizing On The Curse: The Business Of Menstruation. Here she talks about postfeminism and advertising.

You recently gave a talk at the Science of Gender and Sex conference at the Lewis & Clark college in Portland, can you tell us about the subject you were speaking on?

I looked specifically at the most recent commercial for the birth control pill Seasonique - the one with the tagline 'Repunctuate Your Life' - in terms of post-feminist media culture. I'll define this term, as I know it's contentious - some people think it means post-feminism as in after feminism, as though feminism is over, which of course is not true. It's like the bumper sticker says: 'I'll be a postfeminist in the postpatriarchy.'

I've been influenced by British academics Angela McRobbie and Rosalind Gill. McRobbie sees post-feminism as taking feminism into account in order to dismiss it. So, feminism is represented in mainstream media and at the same time dismissed. Gill discusses the defining characteristics and argues that we should see it as a sensibility. Postfeminist media culture has an emphasis on femininity being a bodily characteristic. Femininity has been understood as nurturing behavior, emotionality, but now it's about how your body has to be feminine. Also, women are positioned as a subject – they have sexual desires but are at the same time objectified. There's an emphasis on sexual difference, influenced by the ideas of evolutionary psychology that say we are hard-wired to behave as women, and men as men. Other characteristics are increased sexualization of culture over all and the belief that consumption can solve all our problems. McRobbie and Gill have in their writing looked at television shows like Ally McBeal, Sex And The City and Desperate Housewives. I've used this perspective to study the Seasonique advertising - which I believe fits seamlessly into postfeminist entertainment media.

How does the Seasonique advertising illustrate these ideas?

The Seasonique commercial starts out with a woman asking the question 'Who says you have to have 12 periods a year?' and repeats the question 'Who says?' eight times in the 60 second timespan, sometimes forming a whole question and sometimes using just those two words: 'Who says?'. This is taking feminism into account to dismiss it. The dictating authority they're speaking of could be a feminist academic, it could be the medical-industrial complex, or it could be your mother – it doesn't matter because the point is you don't have to listen, as you're an individual and can decide for yourself. It assumes you enact your individuality through consumer choice and this idea is a big part of post-feminism. It's also a big part of neo liberalism.

The advert frames taking the pill as an act of defiance whilst incorporating key feminist values – self-definition, control of your body. The contradiction between controlling your body and submitting to the medical-industrial complex by taking the prescription is glossed over. The six women starring in the commercial are shown one by one and have no apparent relationship to each other. So there's no collective, political action here that would relate it to real feminism – it's individualism.

They ask, 'Do you know there's no medical reason to have a period on the Pill?' They argue that it is not a real period, so there's no reason to have it. On Seasonique's website they call it a 'Pill period' and frame it in such a way to make it very easy to decide that having no periods is a good idea. The choice is that either you're not menstruating or you are having a fake period - they don't compare Seasonique to the actual menstrual cycle. This normalizes being on hormonal contraception, as well as 'questioning' authority again - suggesting we are being duped into having periods we don't need.

How does post-feminism relate to neo liberalism?

The non-menstruating woman could be seen as the ideal neo-liberal subject. A women's menstruating body is leaky, it swells, it's unpredictable, her emotions are heightened – therefore this body is seen as a problem in a neo liberal economy. A menstruating woman can't present herself as a rational, self-actualizing subject, she isn't able to participate in consumerism 24/7. A non-menstruating body is much better suited to market success in the consumer economy. Wendy Brown says - 'Neo-liberalism normatively constructs and interpellates individuals as rational, calculating creatures whose moral autonomy is measured by their capacity for 'self-care' – their ability to provide for their own needs and serve their own ambitions.' Basically, the capitalist free-market rules all. It is necessary that women are fully available, including sexually available. One member of the audience during my talk argued that it is 'more convenient' to not have periods. But it is inconvenient because of the way we define structure work structure in this economy. Professionals are expected to work 60 hours a week. It's a point of pride to get by on very little sleep. We are expected to always be 'on'.

There's a scene that was part of a Sex In The City episode in which Charlotte is talking to Miranda about leaving her job once she gets married, and she gets very agitated with Miranda's response, repeating over and over, 'I choose my choice. I choose my choice.' Just because you chose it it doesn't mean it's empowering. There was a story in The Onion a while back with the headline, 'Newsflash: Everything Women Do Is Now Empowering.' So much of advertising suggests this – that you made the choice to buy the brand because you're an individual. I have students in my classes who argue 'It's my choice to shave my legs, it just makes me feel better, I choose to.' It's just a coincidence then, I say, that all women feel better the same way?

What's your view on the Kotex adverts that will be airing soon in which typical commercials for tampons and pads are mocked for being unrealistic and absurd - for suggesting women want to wear white spandex and dance when having their period, etc?

The corporations are claiming credit for something we have been saying for years. This corporate authority reinforced the environment of shaming and secrecy around menstruation and now is turning around and saying they're over it, when we've been over it for a long time. The thing is, they're selling the same products, they're just packaged differently. Kotex's PR firm sent me samples and if anything they're more environmentally unfriendly because of all the dyes used. The tampon applicator itself is neon. Even your tampon now has to be stylish. The boxes are like something you'd get at the cosmetics counter. They're certainly capitalizing on something of an attitude change amongst women - a resistance that's forming.

But this 'anti-ad' idea was started by Sprite in the mid-1990s with their slogan 'Image is nothing: Obey your thirst.' The industry now knows people are very cynical about marketing. We like to think of ourselves as smart, we like to think that we are not duped by adverts. We think that it's our choice to buy one brand over another. No one ever wants to admit they picked a brand because they liked the commercials.

Only one television network so far has agreed to carry these Kotex adverts. Three networks rejected them because they use the word 'vagina'. When they suggested changing this reference to 'down there' it was accepted by one of the three.

Comments

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Menstruation and Advertising

People do buy into advertising. Notice how much people buy into commercials during Superbowl games. I know people who want to buy the products in the commercials so they are part of the Twitter mania and commercial mayhem during the games.

I don't think you are empowered if you don't buy into the media craze over a product but if that is what floats your boat then so be it.

I buy the cheapest tampons because they work and I don't care what they look like as long as they don't leak and I use birth control to reduce my cycle's heaviness to prevent from being anemic again. People can make informed choices but empowering ?? I question that unless you can manufacture your own tampons and birth control, I think we are all still part of the same society that thrives off each other.

You can make your own

You can make your own menstrual products, or purchase reusable cloth pads, rubber cups, and many many more non-traditional (although actually they're very traditional) period products. I don't use them* although I feel like I should from an environmental standpoint more than the consumerist angle. The birth control is a bit harder because it is a necessary product, but how it's being marketed is the problem. There is only one pill on the market that provides completely menstruation-free protection, although all birth control pills can be used this way. And the periods you do have lower-frequency pills are artificial- and although I'm sure you knew this, many don't. The commercials feature women talking directly to the camera from a living room, or a nightclub, like we're pals, but this basic information still isn't disseminated. It's not that you're not empowered for buying a certain product, but if you aren't fully aware of the alternatives it's less of a choice.

*I buy those tampons that have braided strings and ultasoft plastic glide applicator and smell like Chanel #5.

Kotex ads are selling...

the same old tropes about why periods are bad. Granted, some of the tropes are based in reality (the first few days of my period I typically don't feel like dancing), but they still reinforce an overall negative stereotype that periods are something we should dread. Personally, as someone who chooses not to reproduce, I see my period as a monthly celebration of my choice to be childfree. Now how about we see an ad to that effect?

Absolutely right!

Mandy, you're absolutely right about the new Kotex ads. Our discussions have been so focused on how the *ads* are different from previous ads that not enough has been said about how the *message* is the same. Thanks for saying so here!

Plus

See the magazine ads they'll be following up this campaign with:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/16/business/media/16adco.html

It's not like they're going to use blood rather than blue liquid, or show where the tampon goes, now they've exposed the lies! Nope, instead they're gonna come out with some smart-ass tag lines that trade on all the same rubbish.

This Kotex commerical would

This Kotex commerical would a great one for discussion under Bitch's whole blog series about advertising. On the one hand, it's so seductive, because it's clever, this actress is pretty great and it's high production value. They more or less produced two commericals - 1) a wry interview with a tampon user like me! and 2) a funny tampon commerical parody. It's really pretty entertaining in the end.

But it's ridiculous for all the reasons pointed out here. It reinforces the idea that your period is a bad thing, and that you should do something about it. It also reinforces the idea that that something should always be evolving. That seems like a timeless theme in advertising - the value of the work of consuming - which advertisers seem to continue to suggest is women's work although we've long ago stoped being the primary consumer for the family in that 1950s housewife division of labor kind of way. I bought a bra the other day that can be adjusted in several spots, and the tag said "the bra that multi-tasks...like you." I had a moment where I thought to myself - "yes that's true. we women do multi-task", but then thought, "wait! don't pander to me, bra, and don't pressure me to multi-task, either." I don't know. I'm curious how others react to this commerical.

So sorry I missed this talk!

I live in Portland, and I would have loved to attend, thanks for posting this interview here!

The idea that biological functions can and should be controlled with products is disturbing enough, and "normalizing" taking pills that severely curtail a body's hormonal cycle is even more disturbing. Another interesting point is advertisement's recent focus on "period control," rather than "birth control." According to marketing, birth control isn't even about baby prevention anymore -- it's a sexy, glamourous lifestyle choice.

That Onion article made me

That Onion article made me mad. Instead of making fun of commercials and the way they sell "feminism", they chose to make fun of feminism itself. Especially to the average reader it's more of a joke about those "silly feminist women", always thinking that everything they do is so empowering. They also mocked the fat acceptance movement. Not cool.

'Alternative' tampons

I just received a couple of boxes of Gynotex tampons to review for a UK magazine. They're round balls which you squeeze and push up into your vagina. The website claims they contain no toxic chemicals and are more absorbent than normal tampons. However it also claims their superiority based on the fact you can keep them in when you have sex.

'No woman of today can feel that having her period is particularly pleasant. Even without the - only too frequent - physical discomforts, menstruating all too often gets in the way of daily life and of cherished pursuits. You know: the weekend you were looking forward to is spoilt, once again, by your being unable to take part in sports, to go swimming, or to visit a sauna. And, maybe worst of all, during menstruation, sexual intercourse very often looses all its attractions.'

To illustrate this there's a cute little red heart on the box.

I really can't get my head around the sex issue - what 'attractions' are lost and to who? Are there men/women out there who really refuse to have sex when period blood might be involved?

http://www.gynotex.com/index.html

Gynotex

"I really can't get my head around the sex issue - what 'attractions' are lost and to who? Are there men/women out there who really refuse to have sex when period blood might be involved?"

One could just use a diaphragm - I've done it. Same effect (i.e., no muss, no fuss), reusable, easy. And doubles as birth control!

And the "Cabaret" tampons? Nasty.

...

I totally agree with you. What angers me the most is that they use a heart to symbolize that you can have sexual intercourse without "loosing all its attractions". I think that the heart symbol represents love and if anyone truly loved you they would NOT loose their attraction from seeing you bleed, and you should not be afraid of them seeing it. It is sad how society has conditioned men to be disgusted by this natural process and conditioned us that we should be ashamed of it.

Thanks a lot for posting

Thanks a lot for posting this interview! I came across the Society for Menstrual Research Blog about half a year ago. Since that time I'm its great fan and visitor.
The latest stuff I enjoyed was the critisizing “Cut Mother Nature Down to Size” TV ads. I was really happy someone was as outraged by this even offensive stuff as me.