View Full Version : "It's always got to be blood": Magic, menstruation, and feminism in fantasy

14-12-18, 06:16 PM
Surely the most ignored subject of modern fantasy texts is the implications of magical settings on menstrual taboos. While the supposed power of menstrual blood has played a strong part in maintaining the majority of real-life religions’ gender roles, fantasy works that otherwise accepts the magical importance of sex, blood, and fertility tend to ignore the topic, and I have seldom seen a piece which handles it in a manner both forthright and forward-thinking.

In this post, I will discuss both why I believe most feminist fantasy pieces fail in this regard and why I believe that their failures are not inevitable. First, I will analyze blood and magic in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a typical example of a work which, despite associating blood with magic, ignores the implications for menstruating women. Second, I will discuss Marion Zimmer Bradley’s classic neopagan novel, The Mists of Avalon, which does discuss menstruation, at the cost of promoting misogynist taboos. Third, I will offer my suggestions on how future writers might better handle the “problem” of menstruation in works containing magic.

At first, BtVS is justified in having its young lead ignore the relevance of menstruation to her magic-infused world. After all, Buffy is not a traditional practitioner of the occult. She’s a 16-year-old Californian in the 1990s, who gives little weight to symbolism and tends to disregard traditions that prove inconvenient. When Giles, attempting to convince her that destiny led her to Sunnydale, asks why she thinks she found herself in that town, at that time, she replies, “Because now is when my mom moved here!” (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”). One might expect the women of Sunnydale to ask if vampires (who automatically shift into “aggressor mode” around blood, as Angel does in his spinoff’s pilot, and who have a hypersensitive sense of smell; for example, Spike tracks Buffy by scent, probably hours after her departure from Revello Drive, in “Touched”) are drawn to the smell of their menstrual blood, but perhaps they decide not to worry about something that can’t be helped.

However, the series goes on to establish that blood has potent magical properties that go far beyond sustaining vampires. Dawn’s blood opens an inter-dimenstional portal, which Buffy’s blood closes (“The Gift”). A fawn’s blood proves a key ingredient in the spell that resurrects Buffy (“Bargaining, Part 1”). Willow later casts a spell which turns the blood from Tara’s gunshot wound into a map leading to Warren (“Villains”). In “Conversations with Dead People,” “Sleeper,” and “Chosen,” various characters use blood to break the seal over the Hellmouth. Spike sums up the importance of blood in the Buffyverse in “The Gift”:

“Of course it’s blood, lackbrain. Why do you think we eat it? It’s what keeps you warm, keeps you hard, makes you other than dead. It’s always got to be blood.”

There’s no way around it: Blood, in the Buffyverse, is dangerous.

I like that menstruation doesn’t hold back Buffy or her friends. I like BtVS’s feminist leanings. I’d like them even better if they felt integrated into the show’s worldbuilding– if the show’s system of magic didn’t quietly legitimize, in-universe, one of the most common excuses for discrimination. Unfortunately, despite all the ways in which BtVS broke ground for feminism on TV, it failed to avoid this.

Another attempt at injecting feminism into fantasy occurs in The Mists of Avalon. Priestesses hold ultimate power on their holy island, Avalon. They seem to hold more magical ability than their male counterparts, remember a time when secular political power passed (to men) through the female line, and consider bowing to any man, even the king of Britain, beneath them. Their magic is neither good nor evil on its own; some women use it to help, while others use it to harm.

While the book’s intention seems to be deconstructing the stereotype of the evil female witch, in fact, it winds up reinforcing many of the restrictions placed on women, ranging from menstrual taboos to required virginity. Women possess different ritual roles, depending on which category they fall into: “Maiden,” “mother,” or “crone.” While Morgaine and Viviane inveigh against the Christians’ demand for virgin brides, they seem to have no problems at all insisting that women remain virgin until the unspecified time that their virginity serves a ritual purpose. When Niniane, who has been sexually active, performs a ritual typically assigned to virgins, Morgaine has a terrifying nightmare about this blasphemy. Morgaine herself endured the inspection of her hymen before she participated in the same type of ceremony.

Given the surprisingly ordinary attitude toward sexual activity that The Mists of Avalon displays, it’s perhaps unsurprising that its treatment of menstruating women also lines up nicely with other traditions. The priestesses go into seclusion during the three days of the month in which the moon is dark, an astrological event that they associate with menstruation. To have one’s period during this time is lucky. Whether or not priestesses whose periods arrive at other times of the month are considered less blessed by the Goddess, and what sort of disdain they might face for that, goes unmentioned. Regardless, it seems evident to me that secluding women– regardless of their relationships or interests– for the time they are expected to most heavily menstruate is not a feminist stance.

Here we have an example of a work which treats female bodies as powerful, but upholds the idea that that power requires society’s control, and thus undercuts the reason for writing about powerful women in the first place. Since Morgaine, Viviane, Niniane, Nimue, etc., cannot stand as characters who deserve to exercise their choices no matter how many lovers they have taken and no matter when their uteri bleed, then they do not qualify as liberated women, even within the supposedly-matriarchal world of their old religion.

If the polar-opposite treatments of menstruation in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Mists of Avalon are both problematic, how should fantasy approach the topic? I’m assuming that we want to create worlds with magic, but that don’t validate, in-universe, the same kinds of restrictions that superstitions about menstrual blood cause in real life.

The most obvious approach is to make blood irrelevant to your world’s magic. Star Wars is an example of a very entertaining setting with a magic system in which blood takes no more prominence than flesh or bone: The Force flows through all living things, and can be manipulated by anyone whose cells (apparently all their cells, not just those in the blood) contain a high enough concentration of tiny creatures known as midi-chlorians. While, theoretically, a female Jedi might lose a tiny amount of her power during her period, it wouldn’t be significant, compared to other stresses on her system. More important, since one can only work with the midi-chlorians in one’s one body, and the midi-chlorians have no effect without a mind to manipulate them, her shed blood would not be a usable weapon in the hands of her enemies, nor would it have any adverse effects on those around her. As a result, there would be no reason for menstruation to keep a Jedi knight from fighting her enemies, associating with the public, or disposing of her sanitary products by simply tossing them in the garbage or the wash.

This approach to magic has considerable appeal, because its logic is so clear. It doesn’t require any further explanation; there’s no blood-based issue to go wrong; and it’s clearly divorced from the unfortunate implications of many other magic systems. If you want to write about superheroes and not worry about their periods, something similar to the Force would be ideal.

On the other hand, if you just love you some Gothic symbolism and pretty, shiny gore, you still have options. The Doctrine of Labyrinths implies that a blood-witch requires fresh blood and physical contact, or at least extreme proximity, for a working: Vey Coruscant meets Ginevra in person, has her minions hold Ginevra still so that she can make a cut on her hand, and still fails to work the magic on account of Mildmay helping her to flee the scene. In this circumstance, there would be no reason why facing witches should frighten women more than men: It would be far more practical for a sorcerer to simply stab or slash her hand, as Vey does, than to lift her skirts and dip their fingers in her vagina. In a later scene, Mildmay notices that Vey’s own clothes have stained cuffs as a result of her work. In addition, blood’s power appears to be “locked” until a magician a magician performs a working, meaning that no one can accidentally hex anyone by throwing her panties in the same laundry basket.

It’s absolutely possible to create magic-driven fantasy works in which sexual equality makes more sense than discrimination, but it requires thinking through the influences one puts into them. Many of the magical traditions from which writers draw are entwined with misogyny, and their logic leads to legitimizing fear of and control over women. Feminist authors may have to reject certain traditions, and alter others, to produce works that don’t contradict their professed ideology.