A visit from auntie Flo
It’s a crisp figure Marisa Carnesky cuts, no matter how opulent her cobalt frock, gleaming red applique seeping across it like a stain. As crisp a figure as a favourite aunt, perhaps, the one you can rely on to give the most piquant answers to questions about love and life; or a bustling matron on a hospital ward, the one who’s wiped up more shit than you’ve had breakfast smoothies. Her specialist subject is secretions, too, although the front-bottom variety. You know: the blob, bloody Mary, that time of the month when the painters are in. Shark week. My god we’re inventive with our euphemisms for menstruation.
Carnesky may be matter-of-fact, but that doesn’t mean her appreciation for monthly bleeding is unpoetic. As mistress of ceremonies, what she delivers is essentially a condensed version of her PhD research, although much less dry than that suggests: a playful survey of mythology and religion and art that has, over the centuries, attempted to capture and control the menstruating woman, harness her power for patriarchy’s advancement. Christianity, Carnesky argues, “stole the magic of our menstruation” by transforming the bleeding womb into Jesus’ bleeding wounds. As if Mary’s virgin birth and the punishment of Eve weren’t already insult enough.
Surfing the crimson wave
The incredible bleeding women – contrary to the title, there are seven of them, besides Carnesky herself – reclaim that magic by enacting menstruation rituals of their own devising: a carmine carnival of sword-swallowing, body-sawing and hair-hanging, carnal in its original sense of human, of the flesh. H Plewis ploughs into a red jelly that, she admits, with the ghost of a raised eyebrow, was mixed with her own menstrual blood, before introducing the being that once nestled in this womb lining: her little daughter Sula.
It’s typical of her reverence for menstruation, and for the complexity of experience, that Carnesky keeps in view the notion that each period is a “small death”: the shedding of an unfertilised egg – or, and this is another, more painful, social taboo, a fertilised egg lost to miscarriage. Including her own. There is much that is icky and sticky about this show, much that is cheeky and comic, but also much that prods at the heart.
In the time between seeing the show and writing about it, I had my own festive period, whose arrival was heralded on Christmas Eve with a crying jag so uncontrollable it felt like vomiting. This is what my period does to me: it makes me miserable. Not necessarily while I’m shedding the blood itself, more in the rhythm of the cycle: the first slump will happen roughly 10 days before, and the second a day or two, although I’ve never had a regular cycle so can’t even rely on that. I never used to talk about it, but reading Megan Vaughan’s twitter feed, through which I’ve followed her adventures in cystitis, moon cups and indeed sore tits heralding imminent bloodshed, encouraged me to be bolder, not least in acknowledging the hormonal connection between menstruation and also-arrhythmic low-level depression. My reverence for monthly bleeding has, for most of my life, been non-existent, and with it my appreciation for the poetry of menstruation. Watching Carnesky and cohorts, I noticed anew my own fiercely internalised misogyny.
For the past couple of years I’ve been having an intermittent conversation with performance maker and excellent human Emma Frankland about feminism and transgender womanhood: about the performance of gender, passing as female, practising with make-up and more. It interested me that many things I experience as difficult in womanhood, she embraces with the fervour of new discovery. At one point, I mooted that trans-exclusion among cis-female feminists – from which I wish to distance myself, and with which I wholly disagree – might have its roots in a fury that transgender women haven’t had to experience the curse that is menstruation. She, rightly, brushed me off: not all women menstruate, and after all some men do.
There is much that is wonderful about Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman – its wisdom, its celebration of fierce women, its worship of Kali and Medusa, snakes and dragons – but perhaps the most wonderful is its insistence that we “are all connected, all menstruate”. Several of the show’s rituals were created by the sea, its tidal flow a natural partner to the body’s flow of blood, and the piece presented by Rhyannon Styles is a hymn to both, a film in which she gives herself to the water’s edge and it embraces her back. It is so incredibly right that one of the bleeding women is transgender, and that she talks about her own, individual experience of the menstrual cycle – a cycle we all live within, in the turning of the planet, the pull of the moon.
As long as menstruation is gendered, it will remain a weapon with potential to demean and mortify women. Inspired by Carnesky to read some of that poetry about periods I’ve been dismissing for decades as, well, embarrassing pants, I came across The Period Poem by Dominique Christina, and lit up like a torch at the way she takes down a “twitter dummy” whose violent language about menstruation made her teenage daughter despair. Over on Christina’s blog, there’s a link to a piece by her published by International Business Times (!), in which she, too, surveys the treatment of menstruation across multiple religions and finds it toxic in its misogyny. There is a glorious, gyno-centric feminism out there that I’ve been ignoring, and Carnesky has pulled me to it with the force of gravity.
The thing that makes her radical call to activism most attractive, however, is its inclusivity: not just of all humans, but the environment that holds us and keeps us. She jokes, during the show, that perhaps if she could get her entire audience to synchronise their periods by the end of the run, it might “change time and reverse the world order”, but beneath that is a more serious point: that the menstrual cycle can be seen, as Styles puts it, as a metaphor for all ecological cycles, the natural rhythms of the planet that patriarchy and capitalism entwined are destroying in the hubris of declaring mankind – mankind, note – paramount. Carnesky isn’t just out to break the taboo surrounding menstruation: she’s calling for revolution, if necessary bloody, and offering tools through which to begin its march. And as the new year begins like the old, with news of a shooting in a nightclub, of a lone gunman opening fire in a public place and killing other humans with a peculiarly particular indiscrimination, I wonder: what do we have to lose?
Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman is on at the Soho Theatre until 7th January 2017. Click here for more details.