Thursday, August 1, 2013

Guest Post: Camp Gyno: Periods, Knowledge, and Power

If you haven't heard of it by now, you've clearly been without internet access for a few days. A tampon commercial is going viral on social media. Today, I'm happy to present this piece by my friend C.S. Jack who gives a thoughtful analysis of why so many people (especially adult women) are impressed with it.


Camp Gyno, a two-minute promotional video for startup tampon delivery service HelloFlo, has garnered almost three and a half million YouTube views and over nine thousand Facebook shares in the three days since its release.  “Amazing. Hilarious. Perfect. The girl in the commercial is a joy,” gushed Buzzfeed’s Mark Duffy. When I delightedly posted it on Facebook, one of my friends called it “the most awesome thing ever” and others chimed in with declarations of love. That conversation led to this blogpost, which I hope can come near the thoughtful generosity of spirit and intellect that Michelle demonstrates here with such regularity. 

What’s so amazing about this ad? It’s not just its boldness, although Camp Gyno’s dismissal of the euphemistic squeamishness typical of advertising for menstruation-related products is long overdue. For audiences raised on the tampon-ad clich├ęs of blond women being active in white pants, cuddling with boys and frolicking on beaches, it’s a thrill to see preteen Macy McGrail’s portrayal of a summer camp nobody turned tampon-wielding menstrual expert who dares to say words like vagina and dubs her period “the red badge of courage.”

But Camp Gyno isn’t alone in its refusal to shy away from the more visceral aspects of menstruation: last year, British maxipad maker Bodyform issued a snarky video rejoinder to a man’s sarcastic post on the corporate Facebook page. The spot follows a Bodyform executive through a sleek office, while she explains that advertising images of skydiving, rollerblading and mountain-biking are metaphors for “the blood coursing from our uteri like a crimson landslide” and, finally, sips from a glass of blue liquid. (It should tell you something about the pervasiveness with which blue water stands in for unshowable body fluids of all kinds, from the urine of infants and the elderly in diaper ads to menstrual blood in tampon and maxipad ads, that this last detail was the thing that shocked me. She put that stuff to her lips!, I found myself gibbering internally.) Camp Gyno similarly inverts marketers' traditional avoidance of red imagery, especially in a moment where a Dora the Explorer doll strapped to a ketchup bottle is the main teaching aid for a hilariously inaccurate "menstruation demonstration" before a duo of dumbfounded campers. 

 I think there’s something else about Camp Gyno that accounts for its runaway popularity: it gets the details right

The ad captures wonderfully the excitement and fascination that accompanies the anticipation of a cohort’s first periods. HelloFlo founder Naama Bloom, discussing the genesis of the spot, says, “every woman remembers having, or being, that friend who just has all the information—who’s somehow more advanced, and educates everyone else.” She’s right, of course, and those minute and distant details of menarche are part of why the ad delights me and other grown women. The brief shots of McGrail alone on her bed, inspecting a freshly unwrapped tampon and awkwardly winding up the tampon string after the applicator comes to pieces in her hands, was instantly, intimately familiar. But the ad doesn’t play the moment as maudlin, a girl away from the fun and sequestered with the devices that will bring her unruly body under control—no, this is an expert, learning her field. In a later scene, referring to herself as Joan of Arc, McGrail hands another camper a tampon—“this is your sword”—and a hand mirror—“this is your shield” (“the mirror is such an essential part of the learning process,” Bloom notes, and one that male writers would never think to include). The humor in the ketchup-splurting Dora scene comes from this impulse, too; the inaccuracy of the ‘demonstration’ reminds us of both our desire to comprehend something beyond our own experience and our anxieties about unknown but impending physiological changes.

Camp Gyno captures those anxiety provoking aspects of menarche--the frustration and pain--as well. Witness the scene in which her fellow camper curls fetally on her bunk with cramps, and McGrail yells as her to suck it up before crooning sadistically in her ear, this is your life now. It’s a funny moment because it's unexpectedly dark, but also because it expresses something about our embodied experience of femaleness within a patriarchal society. Menarche is among the first of many moments in life when a woman learns to suck it up and deal, whether it’s with the physiological discomfort of menstrual cramps, pregnancy, labor, and menopause, or the emotional and intellectual strain institutionalized sexism throughout our lives.

This is your life now. There’s a loss of innocence in that phrase, and a sense of resignation, but also a note of resolution: this is my life now, and I will learn how to live it. Remembering a time when that capacity to simply deal was a new skill I had to learn is, paradoxically, a thrilling reminder of the fortitude and grit women enact every day. McGrail’s Camp Gyno is knowledgeable, experienced, and aware, if at times rueful or overbearing; she’s the active opposite of this hangdog moppet who seemed to appear on the inside back cover of every teen magazine of my adolescence, haunting some mildewed back porch in a smear of chambray and soft focus as she hid her face in shame and fretted over the integrity of her hymen.
This is my life now, and I will learn how to live it.
There have been a lot of blogposts in the last few days celebrating Camp Gyno’s frankness about menstruation. There have also been some critiques of the service the spot was created to publicize: while Claire Mysko at The Frisky astutely observes that the ‘discretion’ of HelloFlo’s unlabeled boxes imply a sense of menstrual shame, Ashley Fetters of the Atlantic objects to the sweets in HelloFlo kits and the implication that “women somehow just can’t handle their period without a side of chocolate.” 

But I think Camp Gyno resonates for a reason totally unrelated to the menstrual. This little two-minute ad gives us a remarkably complex character and a full story arc along with the perfectly-right details of the menarche experience. The Camp Gyno is more than a little power hungry, and in the end her strategic cunning and earned expertise are bested by her lust to transcend her status as camp nobody (and, as Michelle pointed out to me, she even seems to have a moment of 'self-reflective remorse' about her own rise and fall). The ad passes the Bechdel test (which is to say that it features two women, talking to one another, about something other than a man)—something that at least thirty percent of current films fail to do. And this may be the greatest advantage of telling the story at hand through preteen girls: the girls are arguably at the point in their lives at which their male counterparts are the least relevant to their identity. 

Part of the joy of the spot is its paradoxical quality: it is a story about female bodies moving toward adulthood, that reminds the woman viewer of a time before the particularities of being an adult woman (in a patriarchal society were fully discernable. I think my enjoyment of Camp Gyno comes less from its invocation of a time before I knew an adult body that bleeds and cramps, than from its invocation of a time before I understood why my culture can label that body as shameful, unruly, and downright unmentionable. The spot invites the adult woman to return, for a moment, to the very different politics of being eleven years old, when our own female physiology inspired a distinctive kind of fascination, expertise, and power.

C.S. Jack is a graduate student and researcher of media, technology, history and ideology.

Credit due Michelle Parrinello-Cason for her invitation to write this post and her feedback and to the Museum of Menstruation and its fabulous archive of advertisement images. 


  1. I love this commercial for many reasons, but I am uncomfortable with the part where the girl tells the other to "suck it up." That is indeed a patriarchal attitude towards menstruation that can have devastating consequences. While some menstrual pain is normal, some is not. When a girl/woman is having debilitating pain, it is disturbing how many women will tell her to "suck it up" as a part of life. Girls need to be taught to listen to their bodies and to know when pain is normal and when it is not. 5 years ago I started having debilitating pain before my period. I was literally bedridden from the pain, but no one believed how bad it was. I suffered for months before I finally went to a doctor and was diagnosed with endometriosis. By the time I had a laproscopic surgery to clear it out, the doctor said it was one of the most advanced cases she had ever seen. My fallopian tubes were destroyed and my ovaries, uterus, and bladder were all severely scarred. I cannot have children partly because of this "suck it up" attitude forced upon women by male and female members of society that insisted I should wait instead of getting help at the first sign of trouble. The next time someone says "suck it up" they need to be told to "fuck off."

  2. Wow! First of all, I'm so sorry about your endometriosis. However, I feel like the context of the video wasn't condoning the "suck it up" attitude but rather poking fun at it, ironically. That's just my interpretation, but perhaps we can give them the benefit of the doubt?

  3. First of all, I love-love-love this ad, for all the reasons listed above, and your article is great. However, I did note that throughout the article you referred to "women" when it was clear that you were speaking specifically about cis women. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is to many trans people and their allies. It's important to keep in mind that not all women have uteri or get their periods, and not all those who have uteri and get their periods are women.