On Saturday afternoon, Arts Editor Isa RingswaldEgan attended the Athena Film Festival’s screening of Periodical (2023), a documentary about menstrual justice, directed by Lina Lyte Plioplyte.

Whenever I hear someone talk about period advocacy, I always think about the scene from 20th Century Women, when Greta Gerwig’s (BC ‘06) character gives a monologue about how “menstruation” is a word non-menstruating people should say more often. For some reason, the images of her urging a young Lucas Jade Zumann to say the word stuck with me, maybe because I, despite being a menstruating person, don’t say it very much. 

Periodical (2023), directed by Lina Lyte Plioplyte, brought back these reflections and made them even more complex. The film even shows a clip of this scene from 20th Century Women, stressing that periods should be more freely discussed. Over the course of the film, the audience not only learned more about period law and policy change, but also potentially about societal attitudes towards periods, and even the bodies of people who menstruate, which was many of us in the room. 

The film centers around the journey of Anusha Singh and Madeleine Morales (BC ‘22) in their fight to get rid of the tampon tax in Michigan. Singh is a student at the Ohio State University and founder of their chapter of Period, an organization that aims to destigmatize periods and improve access to period products. Morales is a period justice activist and current law student at the University of Pennsylvania who has done the work of filing petitions and going to court over tampon taxes since her time at Barnard. Interspersed with their fight, and ultimate success, to abolish the tampon tax in Michigan, the film included interviews with women about their periods, information about the bodily process of the cycle, and interviews with celebrities like Naomi Watts, Gloria Steinem, Megan Rapinoe, and Kiran Gandhi, where they discussed menstruation and menopause. 

The film brought these elements together through a distinctly millennial style of post-classical editing, creating a style that was at once cohesive yet also felt somewhat outdated. One particular example of this was an animation of a personified uterus sitting on a couch in the middle of a cosmic and starry environment explaining the four phases of the menstrual cycle. Although the information being shared was valuable and interesting, and the animation was clearly skilled, the style did harken back to a Buzzfeed video circa 2017. I hesitate to criticize this, as 2017 wasn’t in reality all that long ago—and the intentions were good—but it did highlight how overused certain aspects of their rhetoric were. Catchy soundbites like “Anything you can do I can do bleeding,” and clips of interviews that were only a few seconds long are definitely of a certain time, and made the film feel at points as if it wasn’t adding anything new. Though they had their value for the movement at the time, this film came out just last year, so it felt a bit out-of-date.

Despite this, the content and story of the film made it overall genuinely informative and inspiring. I learned about the history of periods in media, including that they were once believed to have the ability to kill crops, and even that period sex could kill a man. Periodical responded to this history by encouraging those who menstruate to learn about their cycle and to look at and familiarize themselves with their vulvas. Though it sounds almost funny, since we’ve learned to be so uncomfortable talking about periods and vulvas, there is so much danger in not educating ourselves on these things. In recent history, a tampon called Rely was marketed in the 70s as a super-absorbent tampon that people could use for a whole cycle without changing. Later, its creator, Proctor and Gamble, had to pay out $58 million in damages after the product caused Toxic Shock Syndrome which killed and maimed Rely users. Better education and research about menstruation could have prevented this. 

In the spirit of better getting to know your body, the film educated the audience about potentially unknown aspects of the menstrual cycle. In a workshop with Singh and Morales as students, an instructor taught them about the four phases of the cycle: the period, the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase. When a body is closer to ovulation, the cervix will feel more like your cupid’s bow, and farther away from ovulation, it will feel more like the tip of your nose—something I had never thought of. I had also never considered the different types of discharge produced throughout the cycle, which the film touched on as well. 

One of the most emotionally salient moments of the film was a vignette of Lakota mother and daughter Medina Matonis and Ilyana Perez, members of the 100 Horses Women’s Society, where they talk about the sacredness of “moon time,” and demonstrate elements of the Becoming a Woman Ceremony. The closeness of the two and the care and reverence with which they treated the subject of menstruation showed the opportunities we have to become closer with our community and ourselves through the destigmatization of periods. The editing and cinematography in this section were also a highlight of the film. It was much simpler, stylistically, and focused on the beautiful American plains setting of the reservation. The sky, drawing closer to twilight, is filled with dusty pinks and blues. It seemed to reflect the beauty of the natural process that is the cycle, or the beauty we can find if we accept it.

The film was followed by a Q&A with the activist herself, Madeleine Morales, who further emphasized the importance of destigmatizing periods. She was inspired to take up this work during her time at Barnard and spoke about how inspiring and fulfilling her journey has been. 

Periodical is an invaluable insight into the injustices and lack of education that surrounds the topic of menstruation. In its exploration of all aspects of the menstrual cycle, it revealed the inherent multiplicity of menstruation across all of the people who experience it. The activism of Singh and Morales, as well as the shared experience of those highlighted in the film created a truly eye-opening and heartening piece of art. 

Anusha Singh via the Athena Film Festival.