Saturday, August 5, 2023

Walt Disney Proudly Presents a Period Piece

 It's that time of the month...again.

Greetings, movie lovers.

Today we return to the wonderful, funderful world of mental hygiene films.

A product of WWII, progressive educators felt the medium of film could be an effective tool in educating young people, just like it helped educate our troops. Whether it was good manners, household safety, improving your spelling or avoiding the ravages of drugs, alcohol, early marriage, head lice and VD, there wasn't a topic mental hygiene films didn't cover. All teachers had to do was show the short and that was that.

Then as now, how to teach kids about sex caused controversy. Progressive educators felt mental hygiene films could bridge the gap between what parents wanted their kids to know and what teachers and/or doctors felt kids needed to know to keep themselves safe. If a mental hygiene film on, say, menstruation could be made tasteful enough for parents, but accurate enough for doctors, who could object?

And that's how Disney Studios and the International Cello-Cotton Company (aka Kotex) teamed up to produce "The Story of Menstruation" (1946). 

Welcome to the world, baby girl.

Don't tell Ron DeSantis.

As we all know, Mr. DeSantis has a bee in his bonnet about Disney. So imagine what would happen if Ron learned his implacable enemy had made a period piece.

He'd probably have a fit--unless he actually saw the film.

Despite it's highly personal subject matter, "The Story of Menstruation" is about as "woke" as an ice cream social held by the John Birch Society. No graphic screed about "the curse", it's a politely, understated tutorial on an important subject. In fact, the short tries so hard to be genteel and restrained it veers into being rather dull (a common fate of many mental hygiene films).

"The Story of Menstruation" opens to the strains of gentle, lyrical music. White flowers from a blossoming tree waft in the breeze outside the window of a baby girl's nursery. The tyke is a little cutie sporting big eyes, big lips and one tooth. She's snuggled in a bassinet, which is decked out with pink ribbons.

Mother Nature watching over us.

"Why is nature called 'Mother Nature'?" our narrator (Gloria Blondel, kid sister of Joan Blondel) asks. "Perhaps it's because, like any mother, She quietly manages so much of our living without our ever realizing there's a woman at work."

Warming to the theme of a woman working behind the scenes, Ms. Blondel marvels, "Why, right from the beginning we breathe and sleep and wake-up with no more conscious planning than we used in sprouting teeth!"

Smart cookie, that Mother Nature.

One way Mother Nature controls our "bodily developments" is through "automatic control centers called glands." An especially vital gland is the pituitary gland, which releases growth hormones--"busy little messengers"--to kick start this process. Of course, the narrator explains, each person's pituitary gland sends out individualized messages, which explains why some girls "grow small, some tall, some heavy and some slight."

Now we get to the nitty-gritty. All girls menstruate the narrator says. Menstruation begins when a gal "is about 13" and her pituitary gland starts sending out "a new hormone" designed to "help the body mature" and get ready to have a baby. What follows next is a dry, dispassionate lecture (complete with diagrams) on how female eggs are either A) fertilized through "impregnation" or B) washed away by blood and tissue. This process happens every 28 days or so and it's "normal" and "natural".

Although "The Story of Menstruation" mentions "impregnation", it doesn't explain what that is or how it's done. That was typical. As author Ken Smith of Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945-1970, explained, sex ed films "were about plumbing, not sex". The subject of intercourse was strictly off limits. If, in that rare instance when mentioning copulation was unavoidable, mental hygiene filmmakers came up with some interesting ways to work around the subject. My favorite is "Wonder of Reproduction" (1961), where the reproduction habits of "Uncle Bob's aquarium of Egyptian mouthbreeders" stand-in for humans. As Mr. Smith pointed out, this switcheroo "undoubtedly confused a lot of kids."

I agree.

One of Uncle Bob's Egyptian mouthbreeders explaining reproduction.

Back to the movie.

Once "The Story of Menstruation" explains the technical aspects of why and how you get your period, the film shifts to simple tips to make that time of the month less of a drag. The narrator suggests, for example, that girls avoid "tiring themselves out" during their cycle. It's fine to bathe during this time, just don't have the water be too hot or too cold. Try not to get sick and cut-back on the crazy jitterbugging (it was 1946, remember). You can exercise during your period, but "use your common sense" and stay away from, say, horseback riding.

"The Story of Menstruation" becomes especially stiff-necked when PMS is discussed. Although Ms. Blondel acknowledges hormonal changes during this time can make you tense and weepy, for God's sake don't make a big deal about it! Remember, she says, "You have to live with other people" and you shouldn't make their lives miserable just because you're cramping. Take some Tylenol and get a grip. If that doesn't work, make sure your make-up is fresh and you aren't slouching. Live a balanced life and you should be OK.

"So that's the story of menstruation," the film proclaims. There is nothing "strange" or "mysterious" about this bodily function. "All life is built on cycles," the narrator reminds us and menstruation is just another way Mother Nature passes on nature's "gift of eternal life." The closing scenes return to the cute little tyke in her bassinet, beaming at her delighted mother. The end.

From the quality of the animation and the soothing, reassuring tone of Ms. Blondel, it's clear a lot of time and effort went into making "The Story of Menstruation". For example:

Disney wisely hired an MD to consult on their film.

*A male gynecologist named Mason Hohn was the flick's medical consultant. The Disney people obviously felt having a real MD attached to the project would give their film more creditability than, say, Donald Duck. To his credit, Dr. Hohn steered the movie to be more detailed about female biology and science and less interested in selling Kotex hygiene products. 

*The Kotex people still made free samples available and gave girls a booklet called Very Personally Yours, which extoled the virtues of Kotex products.

*In case you're wondering why tampons don't make an appearance, it's because Tampax Inc had a monopoly on the tampon trade and the Kotex didn't want to give their competition any free publicity.

*"The Story of Menstruation" was the first movie to say "vagina" out loud. The film was later added to the National Film Registry in 2015.

Unlike a lot of other period pieces, "The Story of Menstruation" doesn't feature a cast of thousands cheering on its tween protagonist as Aunt Flow makes her first appearance. Nor does it stray from the expectation that females will ultimately marry and have kids--no mention of going to college or working outside the home. However, for many girls, this mini movie was the only accurate information they'd receive on this subject.

A vintage Kotex ad.

With all the culture war hoo-ha about "woke" schools and their "indoctrination" of children, it's important to remember there was a time when educators were encouraged to help their students understand the world around them and their place in it. Yes, mental hygiene films had a dark side, too, encouraging a conformity that wasn't realistic or healthy. But at least they were an attempt to educate kids using "modern technology" to "meet the complex problems of modern life."

Thus, for trying to give young girls a better understanding of how their bodies work, as well as clearing up any disinformation they may have heard along the way, Disney and Kotex, Junk Cinema salutes you!

If you want to learn more about mental hygiene films, get your hands on a copy of Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945-1970. by Ken Smith. Not only will this book tell you everything you ever wanted to know about these mini-movies, it's funny and enlightening, too.

Also: I saw "The Story of Menstruation" myself in 5th grade and suffered no ill effects.

And save the movies, too.

Having your period is a breeze thanks to Disney and Kotex.