In Search of Menarche:
An Interview with Molly Strange
Molly Strange made "In Search of Juan Colorado," a film about a girl who gets her first period while on a camping trip with friends. She coined the term "flofilm," and collaborates with me on the Menstrual Monday holiday.
Find out more about flofilms and Flofilm Festivals by clicking here.
aren’t that many people, or even simply women, who know the word whose meaning
is: "the establishment or beginning of the menstrual function." That word is
‘menarche,’ and its sole significance seems to lie in the fact that early
menarche may put a woman at higher risk for breast and other reproductive
Even fewer have seen Molly Strange’s ‘In Search of Juan Colorado,’ a film exploring one girl’s experience of menarche while on a camping trip with friends. After obtaining a copy over the Internet, I interviewed Strange by email about this first and only nondocumentary having menstruation (and specifically, menarche) as its subject matter. Strange says only after trying to distribute her film did she realize "how TABOO this subject is! People still say to me, "How gross! Why would I want to watch a film about menstruation?"
Strange believes "there are plenty of reasons for women and men to look back. Maybe this will lead some women to examine their opinion of their own blood, and the next time blood gets on their fingers when they change a tampon or pad, they won’t recoil quite as much. And for men, the next time they encounter blood of their girlfriend/wife/daughter, maybe they will be able to have some sort of understanding of what is happening." Strange thought, "If I have a daughter (which I did!!!) it is my responsibility to have my own menstrual history in order, before I try to help her with her own."
Strange made ISOJC while a grad student at UCLA Film School, and she described "a trajectory of acceptance" she traveled in writing the script, one she hopes to bring her audience on as well. After the character Marty awakens to discover her first period, she, Ruth and Lily fling Marty’s bloodied shorts between themselves, a game which only ends when their initial disgust has turned into respectful curiosity.
By replacing "hot potato" with "bloodied shorts," Strange creates a new feminist cliché, "play a game of bloodied shorts," light years away from the trivializing and inaccurate "bra-burning" of the early seventies.
And if "bloodied shorts" seems too gender-specific and gross to ever become a cliché, we might ponder ‘seminal,’ a word equally gender-specific, and, when you think about it, gross. In my Oxford Abridged Dictionary, ‘seminal’ is defined as "of or relating to seed, semen or reproduction," as well as "providing the basis for future development (of ideas, etc.)."
This second (cliched) meaning is applied as easily to women as men: For example, Jacqueline Jones’s ‘Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow,’ a book exploring black women’s working lives, is praised by Henry Louis Gates as "a seminal work of scholarship."
For the word ‘menstrual’ itself, my dictionary gives only one meaning, empty of social or intellectual import: "of or relating to menses or menstruation."
But menstrual or seminal, who is this Juan Colorado, anyway? Strange says she learned of Juan Colorado from another grad student who’d grown up in Mexico: "He’d always hear his mom and older sisters talking about Juan Colorado. He thought this was a real guy until he was 13 or so and finally figured out what they were referring to." In Strange’s film, Marty, Ruth and Lily search for the mysterious Juan Colorado on their camping trip, but it is only upon returning home that Marty, having just started her first period, finds out that Juan Colorado is not a man, but menstruation itself.
By "casting the symbol of menstruation as male," Strange "wanted to comment on practically every film ever made where plot points are made by men, and women exist only to react to the male characters’ actions." Strange’s "first inspiration for the film came after watching "Stand by Me," directed by Rob Reiner." "I really liked the film but then I realized there wasn’t even a single major female character in the whole movie. I was amazed and dumbstruck..."
However, Juan Colorado meets his match in the 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson, a woman who often appeared in her poems "amazed and dumbstruck" by a mysterious "Him." As a character in ISOJC, Dickinson gradually eclipses Juan Colorado as the symbol of menstruation, culminating in a scene where a distraught and menstruating Marty cries out: "It’s helpless! We’re all doomed!," and then Lily gently points out, "Even Emily Dickinson got her period."
In "Feeling as a Foreign Language," contemporary poet Alice Fulton has observed: "A child who receives a mother's name is a bastard. The pervasiveness of this view makes it difficult for us to imagine women as creators of dynasties -- be they familial, financial, or literary. Since lineage must pass from father to son, Dickinson cannot offer legitimacy to her successors...The same prejudices apply to...all poets who are women. They are our perennial spinsters, deprived of issue and successors."
Or put more generally, the word ‘menstrual’ is deprived of the privileged meaning ‘seminal’ has enjoyed for centuries: Certainly no book, theory, or school of thought has ever received ‘menstrual’ as an adjective of praise.
Given the above, I found the scene with Marty, Ruth and Lily gathered on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean quietly yet powerfully subversive, as they start out by calling for Juan Colorado but end up discussing Emily Dickinson. Here we witness Marty, Ruth and Lily, and through them all young women, become "issue and successors" of Emily Dickinson -- opening up the possibility, however briefly, for other matriarchies ("familial, financial, literary;" artistic, athletic, scientific) to come into being as well.
As ISOJC runs 29 minutes, I asked Strange for the names of other films to watch alongside it. She suggested Jane Campion’s ‘An Angel at My Table,’ saying: "At the center of Campion’s films are women and girls and their lives." She also suggested Todd Solondz’s ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse,’ of which she comments: "I liked the portrayal of confusion and trying to fit in at that odd age of 12 or 13...but ultimately it left me flat, and the whole "rape me, please" ending didn’t work for me. The film betrayed its author in the end (written and directed by a man) and, again, no mention of menstruation at all."
When asked about the possibility of their being an entire genre of menstruation, perhaps called ‘menofilms," Strange brainstormed: "How about Mensepix? Or Menstruflix? Or Flowfilms?" She says: "To have a genre of menstruation would be great, because it would mean that there would be many viewpoints and politics represented. If I let myself dream, I imagine that a cultural revolution would happen. Maybe some people would view this as unimportant, but I think it is of critical importance. There is so much shame women carry around inside...Maybe some people, especially women, would cringe at the depiction of menstrual blood in Juan Colorado, but if there were a genre of such films, my viewpoint would be only one among many."