February 25March 4, 1999
Washed up: An environmental activist takes a stand against plastic tampon applicators.
Interview by Sam Adams
You don't often find films about North America in anthropological film festivals. They're generally reserved for "foreign" subjects. But for Penny Wheelwright, the Canadian producer and writer of Under Wraps, screening this weekend at the Margaret Mead Traveling Film and Video Festival, the dialogue about menstruation is so constrained it might as well be in a foreign tongue. An hour-long look at what Wheelwright dubs the "menstrual underground," Under Wraps interviews subjects ranging from Judy Blume, who gets letters from hundreds of preteens anxious about their first period; to Dr. Philip Tierno Jr., who crusades for the elimination of "super-absorbent" artificial fibers in tampons, which he believes increase the risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS); to an environmental activist (pictured) who fabricates a Statue of Liberty costume from plastic tampon applicators washed up on beaches. Her goal, Wheelwright says, is to get women (and men) talking about a subject that "affects half the population 12 times a year."
Did you have difficulty finding funding for the film?
When we started approaching TV stations, we basically ran into two different viewpoints. We were either told this wasn't an appropriate subject for televisionwhich was, of course, the whole reason we wanted to do itor they wanted us to do a film about the attitudes towards menstruation in other countries: What do they do in India, in Papua New Guinea, and so on. They didn't seem to think that our culture has any issues around the subject.
A lot of the film deals with choices and ramifications regarding the purchasing of menstrual products.
That was my entry into the film: buying products at the drugstore and having the clerk ask me if I wanted to double-bag my tampons, as if I was walking out with this forbidden item. When we were doing our initial research, we went and watched the health education films that they're using [in schools] now, and they really hadn't changed from the way they were 20 years ago. The thing that was alarming to me was that most of them were made by the product companies. They'd slip all kinds of advertising into what was supposed to be an educational film. The desire is to get a young girl when she's getting her first period, and then you've got a customer for life.
What's the impact of having advertising introduce women to their periods?
We have given how we're supposed to think and feel about the subject over to advertising. It's not as if it's not discussedit's on the TV all the timebut it's always via the product. You're only getting [the advertisers'] take on it: that it's a mess, it's an inconvenience to be dealt with.
What surprised you most about making the film?
I think that, along with most of the women in North America, I thought that toxic shock was something that happened in the early '80s. Obviously, when you talk to a family who lost their daughter at 13, or when Dr. Tierno talks about the struggle he's gone through to have artificial fibers removed from products, you realize that's it's still very much a going concern. [TSS] is still a rare disease, but women losing fingers and legs is not something you can ignore. There's really been very little research on the long-term effects of these products women have been using for the last 30 years. Since I made the film, I don't use tampons anymoreI use the reusable pads, or if I'm going on a trip, the unbleached kind you can find at health-food stores.
I have to ask: Have you heard from the guy with the applicator costume since you finished the film?
Actually, when we showed the film in New York, he came down for the screening.
Did he wear the outfit?
Well, not the whole thing. He did wear the necklace, though.
Under Wraps will be screened on Sat., Feb. 27 at 2 p.m. as part of the Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival's "Women and Taboo" program. See Movie Shorts for reviews of other festival films. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 33rd and Spruce Sts., 215-898-4015.