Yesterday Slate hosted a panel on "Marketing Embarrassing Products to Women," in which Target: Women genius Sarah Haskins, writer Susan Kim, and TV producer Allison Silverman taught us about rubber aprons, electric vibrators, and the mysteries of blue liquid.
Moderated by editor/Double X founder Hanna Rosin and officially titled "That Not-So-Fresh Feeling: Marketing Embarrassing Products to Women," the panel included a lot of funny moments. Haskins is especially on point in the clip above — YM's Most Embarrassing Moments really did make junior high me think high school was going to be one long run-in between "my crush" and a tampon. But most of the real information of the evening came from Kim, co-author of Flow: A Cultural History of Menstruation. Here she is explaining that for most of history, commercial products for absorbing menstrual blood simply didn't exist:
Kim also told us about some early feminine products that range from hilarious to disturbing. My favorite: a rubber butt-apron that Kim surmised allowed menstrual blood to "pool around your ankles" — ladylike. Less fun: Lysol's onetime popularity as a douche. And just fucking weird: the early electric vibrator, which predated both the electric iron and electric frying pan, and was conceived as a totally nonsexual treatment for hysteria. But as Dodai pointed out, no connoisseur of oldies would be shocked by the things women were once encouraged to put in/on/around their vaginas.
A little more surprising were some of Kim's revelations about the marketing of what she called "femcare." Want to win a really weird trivia contest at some point? Here ya go: the first person to say "period" in a commercial was Courtney Cox (now Arquette) in 1985. Before that, tampon and pad advertising favored vague statements like "Because" — and glamor. One campaign for Modess was shot by Diane Arbus, of all people. And, again in the "of all people" department, photographer and Man Ray muse Lee Miller was once "infuriated" when her image was used to advertise pads. I didn't expect to hear Arbus or Miller mentioned at an event about feminine hygiene products, but hey, everybody bleeds.
Except people in commercials, who ooze blue liquid. All women, at least in America, are familiar with this vaguely antifreeze-like substance, but it was interesting to hear Kim point out that blue is also often used to represent shit in commercials for digestive aids. She speculated that the blue goo is a "stand-in for anything too body-ish, too organic," which reminded me of a children's book I once had about the LA riots in which all the characters, regardless of race, were rendered in shades of blue and green. Publishers Weekly called this a way of "caution[ing] the reader against assumptions about race" — but I do wonder if using a neutral color is one way we tend to skirt society's biggest taboos.
Though amusing and informative, the panel didn't really take many taboos head-on — at least, not those still threatening to its audience. Judging by laughter, applause, and questions, all of us seemed to agree that periods are natural and shouldn't be embarrassing, that euphemistic advertising is silly and damaging, and that we ought to be able to admit that blood comes out of our vaginas once a month. While it's worthwhile to reaffirm these things — and especially to do so before less like-minded audiences — the evening's final question was somewhat telling. An audience member mentioned the web site Make Love Not Porn, and asked the panel to respond to the notion that pornography promotes a view of sex that has little room for love. A hush fell over panelists and audience alike. Haskins managed to make some funny jokes, but the truth was that no one had really come equipped to talk about something still so deeply controversial within the feminist movement. That's fine — the evening was really about pads, not porn. But the moment reminded me that even in the friendliest, most feminist environments, lots of tough questions remain to be asked.