The Ms. Q&A: The Women Behind “Pandora’s Box” Want You to Talk About Menstruation

feature image by Jason Dixson.

In Nairobi, one woman designs reusable pads so girls can stay in school when they begin menstruating—because she didn’t have that chance. In Mumbai, another stands on stages before women and girls and talks about their periods, often marking the first time in their lives that anyone has. In the UK, one woman boxes up donations of menstrual products in a storage facility to help girls experiencing period poverty in schools. In the U.S., formerly incarcerated women shamelessly provide free period products to the women at Hope House—many of whom likely suffered the shame of stigma any time they menstruated in prison.

None of these people are alone. They are part of a global community of menstruators who have suffered from stigma and poverty because of their periods—and they have the support of advocate, lawmakers and Instagram influencers intent on changing that story.

But first, they’re telling their own in Pandora’s Box.

The 75-minute film takes viewers around the world to witness the global pandemic of menstrual inequity with their own eyes. The documentary takes us from Maasai villages to Mumbai, from London to Manhattan—and in each community, we meet people who were deprived of their dignity, opportunities and their voices because they began to bleed.

Three of the women associated with the film—Carinne Chambers-Saini, Executive Producer and CEO of Diva International and Founder of DivaCares; Rebecca Snow, Director and Scriptwriter and subject Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, menstrual equity movement architect (and Ms. contributor!)—celebrated its premiere last month at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. They opened up in a post-screening Q&A with Ms. about the journey to the film and what they’ve learned from the movement—and the movie.

Jennifer, you talked a lot in the film about your aha moment with menstruation. Rebecca, where did the movie start from—the interest in menstruation, that desire to really bring this story to the big screen? And, obviously, same question to you, Corinne.

RS: It started with Carinne, so I’m going to just pass the mic.

CC: We’ve been part of this menstrual equity movement, I would say, before it ever was claimed by Jennifer. We’ve just been really interested in—there’s so much stigma and taboo and inequities, as you can see in the film. When I was doing the keynote at Period Con, and it was just like: we need to film this, we need to capture this. And we’d been talking about making a documentary and we partnered with Media One Creative, and then the project—I feel like it was kind of an accident how big this got, and I can’t even believe we’re here today at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival because it started smaller and then it just kept ballooning. And we hired Rebecca to work on the film and it’s just become such a passion project and we wanted to do it justice. Today, seeing how far it’s come, I’m really proud of the entire team and everybody. Rebecca, thank you so much for really pulling the vision of what we had into this and really doing justice to a very important issue.

RS: I’m very proud of this film because it’s a very, very largely female produced film, and shot—we have female directors of photography around the world and female sound people, and it’s not that common. I work in a lot of documentaries, and I’m usually surrounded by men, so it was a really conscious decision to be as female as we could.

And Jennifer, you wear all these hats—as a lawyer, as an advocate, as a subject in this film! What have you learned through doing the work that you had been doing and the work that you’ve always done as an advocate through this lens of menstrual equity? What do you think it brings to the fore as a feminist?

JWW: I have to say that working on this film with both of you and the whole team, the thing that it brought up most to me—I mean, I’m a lawyer, I’m a subject, I’m an activist, I’m an advocate, I’m a lot of things in this world, and I actually tend to have a very narrow view of what makes for change. I tend to think of legal change and policy change. Thinking about all-out societal change, and seeing the array of humans that you talk to and who got to share their experiences in this film, has been so eye-opening to me, as has this entire movement. The idea that musicians and athletes and children and philanthropists and collectors of menstrual products can all be part of the same solution is kind of radical to me, because I tend to be a little bit narrow and just think it’s where the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted and commas are placed in a bill that matters the most. I’m really humorless about the technicalities of all this. Thank you for opening my eyes to, it’s not humor, but it’s the humanity really, that is just so present in this story. How even sort of speaking about policy can thread all these stories together is kind of mind-blowing and thrilling to me.

Carinne, what was your menstruation aha moment? What made you want to make menstruation your career, your life?

CC: Well it really goes back to my mom as a 13-year-old girl in the early sixties who just, you know, hated the products, was so limited by the products of the time, so she started thinking about this concept—there has to be a better way—and she always cared about the environment, too. That’s where the menstrual cup idea started brewing. She actually got into the business in ’92, and then we developed our own product, the Diva Cup, in 2001 and we started this journey. It wasn’t honestly something I’d ever really thought was going to be my career or what I’d become passionate about, but what I learned over the years was that there were just so many issues—from gender equality issues to period poverty, it just expanded. It opened my eyes. Even doing this film, even being in this business now 20 years, I was shocked to see and kind of can relate to what Jennifer said—there’s so much of a human aspect to these issues that needs to be brought to the surface, and through just this film journey, I think that’s really become even more of my own personal passion, and I think it extended to our whole team at Diva international.

RS: I’m so glad to hear you say that it all makes sense to you, seeing all those human stories woven in, because actually that was the biggest challenge with making this film. It’s just a vast subject, it is so vast, and all the people—we interviewed so many fantastic people for this film, and heard so many stories, and there’s only so much you can put into a 75 minute film, so that was the huge challenge in the edit. Geographically we span four continents—we could have done more, there’s so much to talk about. And for me, as a documentary filmmaker, it really is in the human stories that the audience connects with and understands the subject, so that was really important. That was what I was driven by in the film, and I think that’s what sort of stands out.

You touched on this in the film too—seeing all these different solutions, all these different approaches to menstrual equity around the world. There’s so many different approaches and challenges and models. What have been some of the most powerful takeaways for all of you from this process, from this work, about how everyone can be part of the solution, and the larger the frameworks that need to shift in order to make really big change?

JWW: I’ve been involved in this for five years—almost five years to the day, because it was New Year’s Day, 2015, that was my first sort of revelation that led me here, because two kids in my own community were collecting tampons and pads for our local food pantry. That was kind of the beginning of the end, or the beginning of the beginning, for me. I’ve been fortunate not only to witness and participate in stories as they’re told through mediums like this, but to get to travel and meet with policymakers, kids, activists, etcetera all over the world—and, you know, I’m an American. I’ve had this kind of ridiculous sense of American exceptionalism probably my whole life. And to actually experience far more progressive, thoughtful, far-reaching solutions than exist here in this country was really, really eye opening to me. India was one of the first places that I traveled when I started this journey, and I met with the Pad Man, actually, and came back just kind of both depressed and inspired by what we needed to really roll up our sleeves here and do and how we had to open up these conversations.

RS: There’s lots of important things said in this film, but one of the things that is just so key is when Alyssa Stein, the cultural historian who’d written a book about periods and menstruation says, you know, “we just need to talk about it and we need to normalize it, and if we could all just talk about it, like a normal thing, we’d be able to come up with the solutions.” I think that’s it—and that’s what hopefully we’re trying to do with the film. What’s going on with the menstrual movement is normalizing. Something that I would love to see with this film is to see it being shown in schools, and educational institutions, and particularly boys schools. I would love to have classes of boys sit down and watch this film, because I think the idea that it’s a women’s issue needs to be just cast out. It’s not a women’s issue—it’s a gender equality issue. It’s as much men as women who need to talk about this—and, obviously, everyone who menstruates and is non binary as well. To be able to normalize it and talk about this is important.

JWW: Something that I get asked a lot by people is if it’s intimidating or embarrassing or hard to go speak to legislators who are largely men and put this issue before them—and the experience I’ve had is almost the exact opposite. Whatever discomfort or unwillingness to speak about it that they exhibit becomes my instant power, because we are going to speak about it. They’ll usually get maybe a little bit surprised or uncomfortable, and whatever five seconds, 10 seconds, 20 seconds it takes them to compose themselves is when I actually decide how we’re going to talk about it—the vocabulary we’re going to use, the body language we’re going to use, we’re not going to be embarrassed, I’m not going to giggle, I’m not going to shrink back—and they have no choice but to come along because, quite frankly, they’ll look foolish if they don’t. Because who can’t talk about this? This is just part of the human experience. I have to think and hope that that is doing something to advance their ability to be representative and represent all of us, that I forced them to talk about menstruation in an adult way. I don’t want to make anyone purposely uncomfortable—sometimes I do, but you know what I mean. I want them to come along. I don’t want to shut them down. But part of that is actually demonstrating how we’re going to do it. As women and women in the political or public sphere, it’s not very often we actually get that opportunity or that power, so I take it.

CC: I love that. I can relate to that a lot, pioneering a whole new product category. When we were going to the original buyers, almost all of them were gray-haired men that we were going to to say: Hey, check out this new revolutionary eco-friendly menstrual product! I think it does become our power. I got a lot of my guts and confidence from those experiences. To build on what Rebecca was saying: the education is so key. That’s my biggest takeaway. I think that’s where there’s a huge opportunity, and when we were doing the film, we really saw that the lack of education and the lack of understanding is what’s fueling—from a policy standpoint, from an education standpoint—all kinds of issues around the stigmas around periods. It’s just such an important part. So I hope that people will take away how they can contribute: normalizing and educating.

Okay, so: Ms. is published by the Feminist Majority Foundation and we have a high school program called Girls Learn International, which worked on the project behind the film Period. End of Sentence—bringing a pad machine to India so that girls there could continue going to school but also make a living and smash stigma and all really connects the dots between all of these seemingly unique situations. You come to realize that, at the core, there are so many issues that are the same everywhere: it’s the stigma, it’s the accessibility, it’s the humanity and the feminism of it all.

What do you hope—as an advocate, as a filmmaker, as an entrepreneur—the power of this global conversation around menstrual equity can be?

JWW: Well, I mean, of course I hope that it’s actually the start of the revolution. 2020 is a big year for that revolution, and gender equity is long overdue. If we can’t solve this, we’re not going to actually be able to solve the true crises that gender inequality causes—in our entire culture, in our entire economy, in our entire global worldview. What I love about this issue is that it’s important and revelatory in and of itself. It’s mind-blowing. All the things that are in this film blew my mind when I learned them. The piece of the puzzle that I hope to contribute is trying to change policy—but all of it is actually something much bigger. We can solve a small problem and we can solve a huge problem at the same time when we address menstruation.

CC: Going back to the film, and experiencing what girls and all people who bleed are experiencing—there’s over 400 million people that experience period poverty and can’t afford to buy the products that they need, so that’s another way I think that we can really address these issues and contribute. It’s not a difficult fix. I love the story of the Days for Girls group in Africa, and also the excitement and the involvement of the men in that community, and the MP and all the legislators in that community. They are figuring out how to invoke change. I think we can definitely take a lesson from that and continue to build on that work.

RS: You mentioned Period. End of Sentence, the short film that won an Oscar last year, which is amazing. So hopefully this wins an Oscar! No, I’m kidding. No, I’m not kidding. I hope that this film infuriates and inspires people. I think it’s going to shock a lot of people, I think it’s going to surprise people, and I think it’s going to inspire people into action—whether that be signing petitions, writing to their local municipalities to say let’s get free products in schools and colleges and libraries and all sorts of places, or going to our website and working out how they can help. Just anything they can do. And talking about it again—bloody well talking about it.

About

Carmen Rios is a feminist media-maker and movement-builder. She's currently a Consulting Editor at Ms. and the host of Bitch Media's Popaganda podcast, and was previously the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. and the Feminism Editor, Community Director and Social Media Co-Director at Autostraddle. Her work has also been published by outlets like the Atlantic's CityLab, BuzzFeed, ElixHER, Feministing, Girlboss, Mic, MEL and Everyday Feminism; and she is additionally a co-founder of Webby-nominated Argot Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @carmenriosss.