“We hope to normalize the subject and start a discussion about menstruation…it should be something we can talk about, both girls and boys.”
These are the words of Petter Bragée, the Head of Programming for Children and Youth at the Malmö offices of Sweden’s national public service broadcaster, SVT. Bragée was discussing the release of a new video (“The Period Song”) where dressed-up tampons dance to a song in which we are told that menstruation is “totally normal” and that it shows “the body’s working as it should.”
The final line of the song? “And that is really, really good. Hooray!”
On the heels of an animated SVT video that came out at the start of 2015 showing dancing genitals (“Willie and Twinkle”), this new creation is another shot across of the bow of cultural taboos from the home of in-your-face gender politics. Based on the reader comments under articles about clip, the menstruation video elicits either praise (this is a great effort to destigmatize an under-discussed issue amongst children) or exasperated eye-rolls (this is yet another example of Swedish egalitarian Socialism gone crazy). Of course, what riles critics (many of whom also live in Sweden, I should note) is not just the content of the videos, but the fact that they are aimed at children.
The “Period Song” video raises three important issues.
First, to what extent do our political, educational and media systems engage in honest efforts to de-mystify and de-stigmatize the discussion of so-called “controversial” issues? A broad and open discussion about gender politics and feminism in Sweden, for example, has meant that the term “feminist” has become a much more accepted part of politics and everyday life than in, for example, the UK or the US. This, in turn, had led to more open and honest discussions in Sweden about things like domestic labor or parental leave. I see a program about menstruation targeting kids as an effort to address a topic that many adults (particularly men) simply do not wish to discuss, and to re-assure young girls that what they are experiencing is normal and not to feel fear or shame. That can only be a good thing.
Second, it’s not a coincidence that many of the issues defined as “controversial” or “uncomfortable” are simply issues that men do not wish to discuss, or of which they have little or no personal experience. Take breast-feeding. Or menstruation. Or sexual harassment. The parameters for what is acceptable sexually and socially are often set based on clear gender hierarchies. For example, we have no problem as a society seeing ads for Viagra (created for the purpose of having sex), or making reference to or jokes about Viagra, but when the focus shifts from “erectile dysfunction” to menstruation or giving a hungry baby milk, suddenly we become Puritans who see the body as a temple to be used or worshiped only in private.
Finally, there is a certain optimism to be gleaned from the fact that a videos teaching children that certain parts of their body have functions other than for the purpose of engaging in sexual intercourse were made by a mainstream television company. This is in stark contrast to what large components of the media and the ad industry will tell those same kids (especially girls) every day for the rest of their lives. It’s no coincidence that SVT is a traditional, non-commercial European public service broadcaster with a remit to educate and inform (and not to simply pump out ads surrounded by cheap cartoons). When taken seriously, these remits can irritate, but such irritation is a normal by-product of de-mystification.
The temptation is great to cherry-pick a story like “The Period Song” from Sweden and to use it as an argument against Nordic egalitarianism run amok. To do so, however, would be to miss the larger point that — whether successful or not — what is being attempted is an effort to break down some of the barriers that hinder discussions that matter to people who might otherwise not be heard. It is also an effort to treat children as thinking, feeling citizens who have rights and concerns worthy of our respect.
That’s something to be encouraged, not ridiculed.