Menstruation & Menopause: Terms of Endearment?

Recently I went to the video store and rented 1983’s "Terms of Endearment," which many consider to be a quintessential women’s movie, for the purpose of reviewing it from the menstrual point of view. That is, given that all movies idealize experience, and the genre of women’s movies is no exception, how accurately does "Terms of Endearment" (TOE) depict menstruation and menopause?

I will be focusing on four scenes. However, having never before reviewed a movie from the menstrual point of view, and wanting to write a (semi-)serious piece of film criticism, I realized I needed a basic premise. And the one I hit upon, after viewing TOE for the sixth time, is that talking about menstruation (‘I just got my period,’ ‘them cramps was kickin’ my butt,’ ‘have you got a tampon on you by any chance?’) is an important way women bond with each other.

This goes beyond the simple overlap of menstrual cycles when women live or work together; for instance, two women who have never met may carry on an email correspondence in which occasionally mentioning their periods is a way of expressing the degree of intimacy they feel with each other.

I think an interesting experiment would be to pair women who have never met before, instructing them to carry on a two-hour conversation; only half of the women would be instructed to bring up the subject of menstruation a few times, and the other half not. All the women would then be asked to rate the degree of intimacy they felt was achieved during the conversation.

Ahem, now that we’ve established a (semi-)scientific rigor, let us proceed to the four TOE scenes which interested me. In the first, we see the recently-married Emma at a dinner party given by her mother, announcing that she is "unofficially pregnant." Emma says to her mother Aurora, "We haven’t got the tests back, but you know me, I’m never late."

I found "...but you know me, I’m never late" a little odd. If talking about menstruation is a way women bond, then NOT talking about it is a way in which they express their separateness and autonomy, particularly from their mothers.

We are given to understand that the relationship between Emma and her mother is an unusually close one; at the very beginning of the movie, we see Aurora attempting to climb into the infant Emma’s crib; later, after Aurora’s husband has died, we see a lonely Aurora getting into a young Emma’s bed to sleep; flash forward, and Aurora is adjusting a teenaged Emma’s straps, sweater, hair, and socks in rapid-fire progression, much to Emma’s irritation.

However, against this closeness, we have Emma’s statement to her mother the night before her wedding, that she "thanks god for Flap [Emma’s husband-to-be] for getting me out of here [her mother’s house]," as well as Emma expressing the desire, while still in her wedding dress, to get pregnant.

As both marriage and pregnancy are viewed by Emma as a means of establishing autonomy from an overbearing mother, would not holding back information about menstruation ("I’m never late") also be a way of establishing this autonomy? Think of the old rhyme: "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage." This seems to sum up Emma’s underlying strategy for autonomy from her mother.

However, I think it is more accurate, though perhaps less poetic, to say, "first come periods, then comes conception, then comes baby in a baby carriage." That Emma "is never late" seems to be information she would have withheld from her mother, and instead share with her best friend Patsy, as an expression of the closeness of that friendship. Thus, I feel it would have been more accurate for Emma to look across the dinner table at her best friend Patsy, saying, "Patsy knows me, I’m never late," or to leave out the "you know" altogether, and simply state, "I’m never late."

The next scene which refers to menstruation, in my opinion, also fumbles in its depiction of the bonding between women vis-à-vis menstruation. (Perhaps that the novel TOE was based on was written by a man, Larry McMurtry, and that the screenplay was also written by a man, James L. Brooks, accounts for this fumbling. However, the screenplays for both "Thelma and Louise" and "Fatal Attraction" were written by women, and both these movies contain plenty of fumbling from the menstrual point of view. But those are for later reviews.)

Emma, her husband and children are now living in Des Moines, Iowa, and having financial difficulties. We see Emma in the check-out lane at the grocery store with her two sons. She doesn’t have enough money to cover the groceries, so she starts putting things back. When her son suggests putting back a bottle of Midol, Emma grabs it and says "No way."

I can see the humor in this, and realize TOE was made in 1983, when the level of awareness regarding alternative (nonpharmacologic) methods of dealing with menstrual cramps was not as high as it is today. However, I would like to see a movie in which deep breathing, yoga (particulary the Cobra pose), stress reduction, and meditation are utilized, rather than a bottle of pills.

However, this isn’t the main problem with this scene; rather, it is the female cashier’s attitude, who is completely unsympathetic to Emma’s plight. Any female cashier very likely has either children of her own, or women friends with children; as well, she probably isn’t making all that much money, and thus probably has financial difficulties of her own. I found it highly improbable, especially given the bottle of Midol prominently displayed in this scene, that a female cashier would be so unsympathetic to a female customer’s plight.

As well, Emma appeals to the cashier’s sympathy not on the basis of them both being women, but rather "people": "Why do you have to be so goddamned nasty? It doesn’t help anything. We’re both people, you know." I suggest that any woman with children in tow in a grocery store, trying to appeal to another woman’s sympathy, is going to say, "We’re both WOMEN, you know," rather than "We’re both PEOPLE, you know."

The next two scenes that interested me focus on Aurora, the mother. The first depicts what is supposedly Aurora’s 50th birthday party; there is some question as to Aurora’s real age, as the family doctor is present, and he thinks she is two years older. Quite distraught by his challenging her claim to be 50, she storms outside. There, she gets the sudden inspiration to go next door and invite her neighbor, a retired astronaut, to lunch. What I find unintentionally humorous about this scene is that Aurora, as a 50-something woman, is very likely in the midst of menopause, which often includes quite heavy menses...and she is dressed all in white, as if she just stepped out of a tampon commercial!

Further, when the astronaut Garrett comes to the door, HE’s the one dressed in red! I wonder, with an amused shake of the head, WHAT the costume department was thinking of. I find the idea of a menopausal woman dressed in red quite wonderful, with any number of symbolic possibilities, which TOE was apparently not quite up to delving into.

Aurora and Garrett begin a sexual relationship, and eventually, she has dinner over at his house. The dining room is a virtual shrine to his days as an astronaut, with numerous photos covering the walls, on down to a stiff astronaut’s glove on the counter. When Aurora expresses a certain degree of contempt for this display, stating, "I think it turns your profession into a sex trap," Garrett storms upstairs. Aurora is left for a moment by herself in the dining room, staring closely at a photo of Garrett all suited up, his space helmet resting on his knee.

Later in bed, Garrett opens up and shares his experiences as an astronaut. Wistfully he says he regrets that "we [the astronauts] were never locked in a compare notes about the experience." He later describes how he became aware that the only sound he heard while in space was his own heart pounding: "that’s my moment, the one that doesn’t go away." To which Aurora responds, "this is my moment," i.e., being in bed with Garrett.

What I find dissatisfying, and yes, even disturbing, about this scene, is the complete silence as to the relationship between the moon and menstruation. The idea that there is some (albeit tenuous, convuluted, or even simply "poetic") relationship between the orbit of the moon and, if you will, the "orbit" of the egg from the fallopian tube down into the uterus, is just as special as the sound of a heart beating in outer space. Neither Aurora or Garrett seem to have an awareness of this. It would be especially poignant, I feel, for this to be touched upon by a peri- or postmenopausal women after lovemaking with an ex-astronaut.

I invite you to go back and take a look at your favorite movie from the menstrual point of view. Is it true to your experience with menstruation, and/or that of other women in your life? How would you rewrite scenes to be more expressive of the actual way women experience menstruation in their lives?

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