It’s been more than a quarter-century since a young Courteney Cox said the word “period” – she said it three times, in fact – in a 30-second Tampax commercial to end the decades-old de facto taboo against speaking plainly about menstruation on television. Or in public, for that matter.
Taboos, though, have a way of lingering as the Canadian actresses Liane Balaban (New Waterford Girl, One Week) and Vanessa Matsui (The Bitter End, Lost Girl) discovered last February when they appeared on a live morning program at a Toronto TV station.
Balaban and Matsui are two of the three founders of Crankytown.ca (the other is Montreal art director/costumer/actress/puppeteer Jenna Wright), a website/“virtual village” started in late 2010 to sensitively and intelligently demystify menstruation for teens and tweens while providing a forum for the open, even funny discussion of issues related to it. Balaban and Matsui had been invited to the TV station to talk about Crankytown and their sponsorship of an upcoming benefit screening of the 2011 Jennifer Newsom documentary Miss Representation. The screening would raise money for Huru International, a favourite Crankytown cause – Huru means “freedom” in Swahili – which since 2008 has provided tens of thousands of free kits containing reusable cotton sanitary pads, detergent bars and panties to young women in Kenya who otherwise might have to use rags, mattress bits or wads of newspaper. Wright and company like to call it “sponsoring a period.”
About 10 seconds before they were to go to air, the women were told not to utter the word period during the interview. The reason? “All these people will be eating their breakfast,” and you don’t want to put them off their Cheerios, do you?
Balaban and Matsui were nonplussed – “We’d had many e-mails back and forth with their producers and it was very clear what Crankytown was all about!” – but gamely and deftly complied, believing it better to serve the greater good of a worthy cause than squabble over silly squeamishness. “I think we skirted around the whole thing very nicely,” Matsui recalled with a laugh in an interview this week.
Balaban, Matsui and Wright continue to dedicate their time and money to Crankytown. Indeed, this week in Toronto they announced the kickoff of an online video festival/contest called Crankyfest. It’s open to filmmakers of all stripes and idioms, female and male, the catch being that between now and the submission deadline of March 1 each cineaste has to produce a video no longer than three minutes dealing with (uh-huh) menstruation.
The winner will be chosen by a jury composed of Canadian actresses Rachelle Lefevre ( Twilight, Barney’s Version) and Meaghan Rath (Being Human), and Jane Grenier, vice-president for integrated strategy at Condé Nast publishers, New York. If the contest is successful, there’ll be more, perhaps as many as three a year.
In the meantime, the Crankytown principals have produced six of their own short period-themed videos and posted them online. Three of them, each less than 60 seconds, cleverly riff on episodes in The Hunger Games, with Balaban in two instalments playing a Katniss Everdeen-like character on a tear through a menacing forest. “We like doing the videos,” she acknowledged, “but it’s a lot of work.” Still, the trio is not averse to thinking big: Balaban for one would like to do a puppet movie called Crankytown: The Musical, figuring productions as varied as Urinetown, The Vagina Monologues, There’s Something about Mary and Bridesmaids have lowered the taboo threshold sufficiently to make a medley of menstrual melodies entirely feasible. “The period,” she declared, “is a positive experience and something to be proud of.”
The origins of Crankytown can be traced to 2008 when a 27-year-old Balaban, living then in Montreal, hit upon the idea of assembling an anthology of poetry about menstruation as a way to raise money for a local women’s shelter. (She’d had an uncomfortable PMS experience and found writing a haiku afterward made her feel better.) She sent an e-mail proposing the project to friends, including Matsui and Wright, most of whom responded positively. The idea, however, went on the back burner for a while as “e-books were coming out and I thought the anthology thing might seem a bit dated,” Balaban said. Then, in 2009, Matsui mentioned that the National Film Board (Quebec) was inaugurating an English-language, female-oriented initiative called First Digital Person and looking for Web projects to fund. The women, modifying the anthology idea into that of a virtual village dealing with menstruation, applied for and eventually received a $10,000 grant to seed what is now Crankytown.
Besides initiating Crankyfest this week, the women are posting four “celebrity” first-period testimonials they’ve made in recent months. The talking heads? Mad Men’s Jessica Paré and Montreal comedian/actress Claire Brosseau, and, for the male point of view, Ryan Cartwright (The Big Bang Theory, Alphas) and the Bascom Brothers music/comedy ensemble. Don’t, however, expect to see their real faces. To help “keep privacy” and ensure a certain charm and lightheartedness, Wright and company practise what they call “documentary puppetry.” That is, “we capture the person telling their story on video and then we make puppet versions of them … out of Value Village stuff and sync the audio.”
“Puppets are disarming,” Wright observed. And “period stories are a no-brainer“ for film and video, chimed in Matsui. “There’s drama, surprise, comedy – and lots of blood.” Aristotle likely wouldn’t disagree.