When Disney Dabbled in Sex Ed
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the Little Mermaid probably got her period, too.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
Once upon a time, there was a damsel in distress waiting for a dashing prince to save her from her dowdy wardrobe. Long before pumpkins turned into carriages, the damsel wept profusely from menstrual pain and her “hollow, pear-shaped organ.” Forget happily ever after; this Disney fairy tale is all about the vagina — a tale as old as time.
Let me tell you, from one girl to another, this is as real as Disney gets: a 10-minute cartoon film titled The Story of Menstruation that helps little girls locate their fallopian tubes and dispels menstruation myths like the “old taboo against bathing during your period.” There are no dancing candlesticks and definitely no magical endings. Instead, this 1946 animated short deploys oh-so-fun diagrams of female sex organs, and tips on staying positive during that time of the month. Advice like “Don’t let it get you down” and “You can do practically everything you normally do” is dispensed by a motherly — and sometimes overbearing — narrator. Though The Story of Menstruation is one of Walt Disney’s more obscure cinematic creations, for more than 30 years he quietly taught an estimated 105 million female American students about what to do when “Aunt Flo” pops into town for a visit. “It was a real eye-opener in many ways,” says Cheryl Warsh, a history professor at the Vancouver Island University and the executive director of the Western Association of Women Historians who was shown the film in her seventh-grade sex ed class. Decades later, Warsh recalls the film as being “tastefully done,” compared with today’s more graphic approaches.
The female body was strategically silhouetted, the menstrual blood was snow white instead of crimson and no mention was made of sex or childbirth.
Looks like ol’ Walt was a pioneer in more ways than one. In fact, a smattering of films that bore Disney’s moniker were not so G-rated. The Story of Menstruation was commissioned by tampon giant Kotex when Disney’s growth stalled after World War II. (Disney’s Fantasia was a commercial failure in 1940; it wasn’t until decades later that the movie gained a cult following.) In need of a production boost, Disney relinquished part of his creative control and dipped into the dark side, teaming up with government agencies and corporations in a last-ditch effort to drive revenue and diversify the Disney brand.
The pragmatic pivot created a whole new class of Disney “edutainment” films, including military training and war propaganda films starring commando Donald Duck (with subtle swastika-shaped clouds); industrial films sponsored by companies like General Motors and Kleenex; and health education films like The Winged Scourge, in which the Seven Dwarfs learn all about mosquito-borne malaria. In the 1960s, Disney created Disney Educational Media, which churned out films and workbooks on a variety of topics for schools. Disney expert Jim Korkis says the endeavor, though radical, fell flat and barely covered costs. “It would have been cheaper to eliminate the entire division and devote that labor and time to something else,” he says. (The Walt Disney Co. declined to comment.)
Menstruation was novel territory for the silver screen in the 1940s. In true Disney fashion, the film took care not to be explicit: The female body was strategically silhouetted, the menstrual blood was snow white instead of crimson and no mention was made of sex or childbirth. The film came with a promotional booklet, Very Personally Yours, to spark safe, constructive discussions at home. Still, the reception was polarizing. “Parents were up in arms,” says Korkis. Rumors that Minnie Mouse had been created specifically to teach girls about their “special time” floated around, and some news outlets lambasted the inappropriate “Donald Duck sex tape.” The American Medical Association, the Library of Congress and Parents magazine, though, lauded the film for its “potential historic significance.”
Whatever camp you fell in, The Story of Menstruation advanced a conversation for girls and young women that hadn’t been happening on-screen before, says Susan Freeman, author of Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education Before the 1960s. Some historians say the film sorely missed the mark with its dated dogma on womanhood. The film plays up the protagonist’s feminine nature: She’s clad in a dress of course, with white stockings covering her legs, her hair tied back with a bow and a dab of lipstick accentuating her mouth. Gender-stereotyping criticisms have continued in more recent years with Frozen, the hit animated film that little girls went gaga over in 2013. Periods are, as the Disney flick said, a “natural part of nature’s eternal plan for passing on the gift of life,” and the final scene shows a lipsticked mother cooing over her baby.
Perhaps Pussy Riot could star in the remake — and Walt Disney could roll over in his grave.