Today I’m delighted to welcome Danya! She’s a librarian and a speculative fiction fan who writes book reviews on her excellent website, Fine Print. I really enjoy reading her thoughts on books and appreciate the way she dissects the books she reads—plus she has fantastic taste, as you can see from her coverage of Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter, and Monstress Volume One by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda!
The Menstrual Menace: Periods in Fantasy Novels
As a dedicated reader and reviewer of fantasy novels, especially those that feature women in prominent roles, I’ve often wondered: what’s up with the representation of menstrual periods in fantasy fiction? We read descriptions of characters covered in grime, authors mention the stink of the road, and stories reference hunger pangs from limited rations as part of daily life in many fantasy novels, so the relative absence of periods shouldn’t be dismissed as unimportant. Even more troubling is that when periods are mentioned in fantasy novels, they’re often linked to some extreme element of the magic system or the threat of sexual violence.
Although not all women menstruate and not all those who menstruate identify as women, menstruation plays an important role in the lives of real-life women and, when mentioned, in the lives of female characters in fantasy novels. Whether you’re looking at things from a biological perspective or a social one, the first menses is a significant and meaningful event for a young woman in fantasy: it can determine whether she’s of marriageable age, signify the awakening of her magic, and more often than not, menstrual periods coincide with dark and distressing aspects of the fantasy world.
I recently read Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey, a retelling of and prequel to Shakespeare’s play The Tempest that explores the relationship between Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban. In a very disturbing series of chapters, Prospero refuses to tell his daughter Miranda, raised in isolation on a desert island without any other women, what to expect when she “becomes a woman” and she’s thus totally blindsided by the pain and inconvenience her menses bring. Prospero then collects Miranda’s blood-soaked, makeshift sanitary cloths to use as a key ingredient in his shadowy alchemical works. Let’s just say that her menstrual blood isn’t exactly being used to conjure puppies and rainbows.
Similarly, Kristin Cashore’s YA fantasy novel Fire presents menstruation as an extreme complicating factor for the protagonist, inextricably linked to violence and magic. Fantastical creatures called Monsters are drawn to the smell of half-human, half-Monster Fire’s blood, flocking to her in violent hordes. Whenever she’s on her period she must either be hidden away inside fortified walls or she has to be escorted by a fleet of armed guards to prevent her from being killed. So while Fire’s period is acknowledged—an important aspect of the story for many of the book’s fans, including myself—it’s not presented as a routine part of life as a young woman, but rather as an event that can literally get you killed.
Although Miranda and Caliban and Fire are only two examples of novels that discuss periods, they’re pretty typical representations of how menstruation is incorporated into fantasy…if it’s incorporated at all. Those fantasy authors who do make an effort to present menstrual periods as noteworthy events without turning it into an overblown issue are the exception in my experience, not the rule. Tamora Pierce, who addresses menstruation in all of her Tortall universe books, takes an admirable approach to the topic in the Protector of the Small quartet: the protagonist Kel and her friend Lalasa discuss what to expect and how to deal with her first period when it arrives. Personally, I wish more fantasy authors took such an evenhanded approach to the topic of menstruation and would address it for what it is: a simple, if inconvenient, fact of life for many women.
|Danya is a librarian and blogger from Ontario, Canada. She is the founder of Fine Print, a book review site where she shares her love of fantasy novels, kick ass ladies, and romance…not necessarily in that order. You can find her on Twitter as @danyafineprint.|