Bodies that Bleed

Bodies that Bleed:
Sex as Fiction in Janice Galloway's "Blood"

by Agnieszka Morusiewicz
University of Silesia, Poland

Agnieszka Morusiewicz studies English and American literature at the University of Silesia, Poland. Janice Galloway, born in Scotland in 1956, won the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994. The New York Times named "Blood,"a collection of short stories (1991), a Notable Book of the Year.


Her girlhood's hopeless years through cycles long

Had been a martyrdom of sexual wrong.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme (1893)

The "Cosmo woman" either does not bleed at all, or her menstrual blood is blue. Her body does not grow hair, except on her head. She never sweats, has no cellulite or rough skin, her cuticles always pushed back, eye-brows plucked, skin free from chemical interference. The "Cosmo woman's" body is not so much a platonic ideal as it is a norm, with which "real" women are supposed to comply. Only they always fail. The main cause of the failure is the one which, unlike hair or cellulite, they cannot get rid of and that is menstrual bleeding. Paradoxically, popular culture both reduces woman to a body and somehow deprives her of its physicality. This essay tries to examine the ways in which the bleeding body has functioned in popular culture as well as to present Janice Galloway's "menstrual narrative" in "Blood."

One of the common truths about menstruation is that it is a sickness, a cyclic physical disorder exclusive to women. Moreover, because it is connected to blood and bleeding, it has often been associated with the feminine vampire, menstruation being the cause of monstrosity. It does not occur among other mammals or animals, at least not cyclically. Medicine does not explain the exact cause of the monthly bleeding, but it assures that menstrual flow is a primary sex feature, or, in simple terms, it is precisely the thing which defines male sex against female. "Women bleed and men don't" is an irrefutable absolute truth, which seems to be impossible to question. Moreover, because it is thought of as a mysterious regular illness, it is immediately categorized as "the abnormal."

However, according to the French historian Thomas Laquer, the idea of inborn differences between biological sexes is quite a recent invention. It was not until the seventeenth century that the popular thinking acknowledged two distinct sexes. The categories of male and female did exist, but not in terms of biological or genital difference as such. Instead, Laquer speaks of the "one-sex model" as having dominated scientific and medical discourses for centuries: "[a]natomy in the context of sexual difference was a representational strategy that illuminated a more stable extracorporeal reality. There existed many genders, but only one adaptable sex." Moreover, what appears to be a scientific status quo in modern times did not necessarily mean the same thing four hundred years ago. Referring to the substances the body produces, Laquer claims that

In the blood, semen, milk and other fluids of the one-sex body, there is no female and no sharp boundary between the sexes. Instead, a physiology of fungible fluids and corporeal flux represents in a different register the absence of specifically genital sex. Endless mutations, a cacophonous ringing of changes, become possible where modern physiology would see distinct and often sexually specific entities.

What this implies is basically that contemporary western scientific thought sees sex as a set of distinguishable, isolated, clearly specified features, menstruation being one of the prime examples. The shift of perspectives on sexual difference took place in the nineteenth century. To proclaim the menses as a specifically female illness served promoting the view that women's lack of control over their bodies is what disables them to take part in public life. This was when scientists began to describe menstruation as "a severe, devastating, periodic action" which makes women "wounded in the most sensitive spot in their organisms." From that moment on, the menstruating female body has functioned as impure, weak and corrupted.

The character of Janice Galloway's "Blood" is doubtlessly conscious of this fact. The short story begins with the girl's visit to the dentist, which starts the core of the plot, namely the abundant blood flow. The account of tooth removal - frightening and grotesque at the same time - is a clear allusion to the act of sexual initiation. The imagery Galloway applies makes it look almost like a rape: the character being immobilized, the dentist invasive and using power, "his knee up on her chest," "her spine lifting, arching from the seat." Finally, the nurse gives her a sanitary pad to absorb the blood, which however ridiculous, suggests that the situation at the dentist's is a symbolic one. The moment the bleeding starts, the character is determined to forget about it, to pretend it does not happen. From the very beginning of the story, the girl makes it clear that her body - and in this case - the body which bleeds, is a burden she has to bear. It becomes a problem she cannot cope with, a cause of her shame, guilt and sense of inferiority. Her strategy of "forgetting the body" includes avoiding places which remind her of the "weakness" she is experiencing. In this sense, the girls' toilet becomes a room of tortures:

It was always horrible coming here. She could usually manage to get through the days without having to, waiting till she got home and drinking nothing. Most of the girls did the same, even just to avoid the felt-tip drawings on the girls' door mostly things like split melons only they weren't. All that pretending you couldn't see them on the way in and what went with them, GIRLS ARE A BUNCH OF CUNTS . . . impossible to argue against so you made out it wasn't there. . .

Similarly, the character is ashamed to ask the nurse for another towel, as she would have to confront "the faces looking out knowing where you were going because it was the only time senior girls went there."

The aura of shame which surrounds menstruation is part of what could be called "sex normativity." In the nineteenth century it was the language of medicine which shaped thinking of menses as abnormality. Today, these rooted scientific ideas find their ally in the discourse of advertisements and Cosmo-like magazines. The way popular culture speaks of the "the female curse" is very specific, but more importantly, it seems that there is no other "menstrual language" available. There are certain words and symbols the advertisements of tampons and sanitary towels never use; menstruation is called "these days," blood "the liquid" or "the fluid," and menstrual discharge is always presented as an unidentified blue substance. The use of hygienic cold blue, as opposed to the unhygienic hot red, immediately evokes a certain normative image in popular imagination. In simple terms, it suggests that blue equals hygienic/ normal, while red, unhygienic/abnormal. Therefore, the actual bleeding is to be forgotten, not talked about and carefully hidden. This idea finds its reflection most visibly in advertisements for teenagers. In this sense, the character of "Blood" is the prime example of the advertising discourse victim. It appears that to pretend that menstruation does not exist is the only possible way to get into "the normal," "the acceptable" and "the right."

To show the workings of sexual difference, Janice Galloway plays with the traditional system of binary oppositions: female/male, feminine/masculine, nature/culture and sex/gender. The functioning of the latter two was introduced by Second Wave Feminists, according to whom sex belongs to the world of intelligible and meaningless nature, while gender is a matter of culture and sociology. What this implies is that sex/nature exists somewhere outside the social and it gets meaning only through culture. It appears that Galloway questions truthfulness of this clearly cut opposition. By emphasizing the character's physicality through the abundant blood flow, the writer shows the girl's constant failure in achieving the expectations of culture. Here the case of menstruation, supposedly belonging to nature, shows the paradox of sex/gender differentiation. The idea finds evidence in Judith Butler's Bodies That Matter. "Sex," as Butler suggests, "is not simply what one has, or a static description of what one is: it will be one of the norms by which the 'one' becomes viable at all, that which qualifies the body for life within the domain of cultural intelligibility." The category of biological sex, therefore, is as much constructed as the idea of cultural gender. This is not to say that menstrual bleeding does not exist as such. The implication that menstruation is a matter of culture is that the moment it is interpreted, marked and evaluated, it can no longer be perceived as meaningless.

The fallacy of the nature/culture opposition can be also found in the final scene of "Blood." Being unable to stop the bleeding (both resulting from tooth removal and menstruation), the girl feels an urge to sooth herself with "fresh and clean" piece of music. Once this will is accomplished, it seems that she manages to forget about the inability to cope with her physicality:

"Mozart, the recent practice. Feeling for the clear, clean lines. Listening. She ignored the pain in her stomach, the scratch of paper towels at her tights, and watched the keys. . ."

However, the symbolic act of placing the removed tooth on top of piano's keyboard suggests that the "soothing" is nothing but a fa├žade. It shows that in fact the differentiation between nature and culture is irrelevant. "Blood" thus takes part in what Butler calls "a reformulation of the materiality of bodies," which among other things assumes "the construal of sex no longer as bodily given on which the construct of gender is artificially imposed, but as cultural norm which governs the materialization of bodies. . ." The final scene, in which the blood spills over the piano - the symbol of art/culture - "before she could remember," symbolically affirms that the boundary between nature and culture, as well as sex and gender, is to a great extent invented and false.

In many ways the female body presented in "Blood" functions as the anti-body of the Cosmo-discourse. "The body which bleeds" is a tool applied to uncover and reformulate the idea of woman's corporeality as invented by both the language of medicine and of advertisement. Not only does Galloway rewrite the notion of sexual difference, but she also questions the working of reality as consisting of a set of distinguishable oppositions, where the category of "sex" serves to consolidate and reinforce heterosexual normativity.

© 2005 Agnieszka Morusiewicz

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