This essay examines the rhetoric of choice as it is used by direct-to-consumer campaigns to persuade women to limit menstruation through the consumption of oral contraceptives. Using the tools of feminist rhetorical criticism, I trace how choice is rhetorically constructed to suggest that menstrual suppression is a path to individual empowerment while co-opting second and post-second-wave rhetorics. Finally, I explore the meaning of these constructions of choice and suggest broader implications for ongoing feminist movements.
Keywords biomedicine, choice, direct-to-consumer advertisements, feminism, menstruation, pharmaceuticals, rhetoric
Choice, or the illusion of choice, is central to contemporary feminism. Easily aligned with activism aimed at empowering women to make decisions about their own lives and bodies, choice is ubiquitous, rhetorically powerful, and highly portable. Beyond its long and storied history within debates about reproductive rights, choice has gradually emerged as a key term to characterize a whole host of gendered issues, from conception to work-life balance. (1) As such, it presents a rhetorical paradox: It holds the promise of individual agency but can also be co-opted to promote controversial choices that reinforce sexist stereotypes. What are the implications of the rhetoric of choice for ongoing feminist movements? How has choice been deployed in fresh discursive terrains? This essay explores these questions in the context of menstrual suppression, a topic that has only recently emerged in public discourse.
Our starting point is simple: Should menstruation be a choice? Not long ago, the idea that it could be a choice would have seemed absurd. Menstruation was not a decision to be pondered; it was a reality to be dealt with. Yet twenty-first century advances have introduced pharmaceuticals that make this issue increasingly relevant. (2) Oral contraceptives have been specifically developed and marketed to limit menstruation. When posited as a needless reminder of biological difference, the decision to suppress menstruation may seem like an uncontroversial personal choice. For example, in the advertising campaign for Seasonique, an oral contraceptive that limits menstruation to four times a year, Duramed Pharmaceuticals implicitly argues that menstruation is an unnecessary event with the slogan "Repunctuate your life with fewer periods." Here, the magic of modern biomedical technology presents a simple and yet potentially liberating option: Consume a pill and take control of your life.
But what does it really mean to repunctuate one's life? To punctuate has a double meaning--it can designate a periodic interruption (to punctuate a silence with sound; a punctuation mark interrupts or divides a sentence from another), or it can mean to accentuate (to emphasize or intensify). Seasonique's campaign plays on menstrual periods as punctuation and promises to correct for the way they interrupt women's lives. On the other hand, some scholars see menstruation as an important part of gendered identity. Beyond its physiological purposes, those who promote this perspective believe that menstruation can be significant to individuals and as a collective experience for women. Feminist political philosopher Iris Marion Young gives voice to the value of menstruation in both senses. Her essay "Menstrual Meditations" in On Female Body Experience does not deny that menstrual periods disrupt everyday routines but instead argues that disruptions can be valuable reminders to take time out: "Because the event returns monthly, it affords an experienced discontinuity that prompts one to look back and forward.... Because menstrual moments punctuate our lives, they easily orient our self-narrative" (120-21; emphasis added). If embraced for its reflective possibilities, menstruation can allow for a productive indulgence in one's affective states.
In other work, Young offers a way to understand the relationship between menstruating individuals and collective gendered identity. …