In 1946 Disney Made an Instructional Video About Menstruation, and You Can Watch It Now
When I got an email alerting me to the fact that in 1946 Disney had produced a short cartoon titled “The Story of Menstruation,” I prepared myself for madness. Midcentury Disney products are a mixed bag, and I was ready for anything. Singing birds in the fallopian tubes. Slide whistles instead of the word “vagina.” Racism, slut-shaming, body-snarking, etc. Heck, if it had diverted into a diatribe against communists, I would not have been surprised. But honestly, it’s pretty surprisingly useful and progressive in many ways. It’s certainly not perfect–it gets downright weird when it starts insisting that you stand up straight and smile so people will like you–but while it’s definitely very old-fashioned, it’s also informative and respectful.
Disney’s menstruation video was designed to be shown in schools, so it had to be scientifically accurate. It is reportedly the first film to use the word “vagina.” It’s straightforward and not cutesy. It doesn’t shy away from words like “vagina,” “uterus,” “rectum,” or “menstruation.” It’s mature and for the most part scientific. The whole voiceover is given from a dignified, female, midcentury voice with gravitas and authority. She sounds sensible and without nonsense, but kind and accepting. More voices should sound like this narrator. If my GPS system spoke like this narrator, I would never mistrust her again.
The video is useful and noteworthy because it makes a specific point of telling them that their bodies are not weird, and this is all perfectly normal, and that there isn’t one correct way to menstruate.
“Just as the pituitary gland orders some girls to grow short or tall, some heavy and some slight, so its orders about menstruation may differ wildly among normal, healthy women. The important thing is that you be fairly regular within yourself.”
Girls are shown dancing, riding horses, riding bikes, exercising, and taking baths. The video does not mention sex or reproduction, but girls watching the video would be given handy pamphlets with personal calendars, and a bit of useful advice.
“Of course, you’ll want to keep a personal calendar. Mark the first day of each period, and check to make sure that there are about the same number of days between periods,” the dignified voice says. “It’s not only a useful record of past performance, but it comes in handy when you have to plan ahead.”
Did Disney’s dignified video just tell everyone in 1946 about the rhythm method? Not really. The video was sponsored by a company selling feminine hygiene products and is mostly about what exactly is going on in a woman’s body, and that it’s important to be clean. It skips over sex and reproduction. But still, this was before the Pill existed, and high school girls were being given useful calendars for tracking their menstrual cycles. After a bit of practice with that, it’s trivially easy for anyone to look at it and figure out when she is ovulating.
OK, it’s a midcentury cartoon sponsored by a feminine hygiene company, so it’s definitely not the most feminist piece of media ever created. I love the narrator’s dignified voice and the unembarrassed way she says the word “vagina,” but I hate that she tells girls who might be feeling anxious or depressed or just uncomfortable that they still have to be around people, so that means smiling and being pleasant. (In the cartoon, “people” are apparently dudes who might want to date you, so be sure to put on a hair bow, stand up straight, and smile.)
And the science at the beginning loses some credibility when the video launches into an exhortation to stand up straight and smile. According to 1946 Disney, standing up straight is essential to making sure your internal organs function properly. If you slouch, it looks unpleasant, and also your womb might turn upside-down or something. Then you will get constipated. (Oh, dignified narrator, we started out so well.)
“There’s nothing strange nor mysterious about menstruation,” the voiceover says. It’s superimposed over photos of a girl going from toddler to teenager to bride, then showing her smiling at a brand-new baby, but the message is solid. There’s nothing strange or mysterious about menstruation.