The Flying Uterus: From Abjection to Divinity in The Book of Birdie (2016)
by: Valeria Villegas Lindvall , May 23, 2019
by: Valeria Villegas Lindvall , May 23, 2019
Hygiene is not a major concern of mine. At some point, I realised that boys and girls are taught differently about how to keep their intimate regions clean. My mother placed great importance on the hygiene of my pussy but none at all on that of my brother’s penis … One of the first dirty sayings I ever heard, when I was very young, was at a party my parents threw, and I had to ask around a lot before I understood it: ‘It’s okay to swim in the red river as long as you don’t drink the water (Roche 2008: 12).
So says Helen Memel, Charlotte Roche’s hygiene-rejecting, lover-of-all-fluids-abject and main character of the novel Wetlands (2008: 12), which was adapted to film by David Wndent in 2013. This statement by Memel is just one example of her overt dislike of gendered hygienic conventions, a position that stands in direct defiance of her emotionally unavailable and restrictive Catholic mother and society at large. One could say that, through Memel, Roche dares to give much-needed schooling in ‘bad education’ to the reader. Her celebration of menstrual blood during, for example, oral sex, renders the norms that attempt to censor female sexuality as senseless, evoking looming danger by gleefully transgressing the limits of Christian ‘decency’. It is difficult not to fall in love with danger unless it makes us squirm. What if you would drink the water from the red river, then? What if the Jordan was, in fact, red?
The Book of Birdie is a fantasy/horror film written and directed by Elizabeth E. Schuch. It premiered at the Gothenburg International Film Festival in January 2017 and has been screened at several others, such as Fantaspoa in Brazil, Stranger with my Face in Tasmania, Brooklyn Horror Film Festival in the United States, Sitges in Catalonia, Monsters of Film in Stockholm, UnderWire in the UK and Final Girls in Berlin. Schuch’s directorial debut situates us in the life of young Birdie (Ilirida Memedovski), who is sent to a convent in unclear circumstances. Surrounded by brides of Christ, she meets Julia (Kitty Hall), the daughter of the keeper, who smokes, smuggles comic books for Birdie and ultimately, engages in romantic teen love with her. Birdie’s days seem to pass in seemingly uneventful religious rituals and practices, such as praying, singing in the choir or going to mass and talking to what appears to be the cheeky spirit of a dead nun–whose suicide is not spoken about in the convent–while she sits on the bench below the tree from which the ghost of the nun hangs by a noose. These events are framed by Birdie’s experience of what seems to be a never-ending menstrual chapter, which is never as it were, ‘periodized,’ but runs alongside the narrative with no time restriction. A particular incident triggers this. Shortly after her arrival to the convent, she experiences what seems to be a miscarriage, and one might suspect a pregnancy out of wedlock could be the reason why she was sent to the convent in the first place. She baptises the little lifeless fetus as Ignatius; taking it to be a visitation from God, the way the character interprets this event shines a new light on her body’s excretions: that of divine origin and continuity. Her actions invoke profanity in the use of menstrual blood in divine instances–which could very well imply defilement–while also hinting at magical belief in miracles facilitated by saints as mortal intermediaries of divine power, which is a foundational principle of the Catholic faith. The suggestion of celestial intervention on Birdie’s body establishes from very early on the tone of divinity as a possibility for the female body in a condition understood as unclean in this Christian framework, reinforced and facilitated by the film’s alignment with fantasy and magical realism.
Birdie is presented with two intense and formative revelations while she is in the convent: romantic love and the possibility of creating her own meanings around menstruation and corporeality. While the development of teenage queer romance under the roof of a convent is a delightful way of challenging the deeply homophobic undertones of Catholic practice and certainly deserves its own analysis (as do the dynamics of the all-female religious environment), this essay tackles the ways in which the film presents two transgressive views of menstrual blood. First, as an invitation to renegotiate the idea of the menstruating body as dirty in this religious context, and second, as a vehicle to propose an alternative reading of abject waste by discarding the taboo associations historically attached to it to propose new ones. Whether the events on screen can be conceived of as hallucination or as mere heresy outlines the main themes of this essay. That is, I seek to explore the ways in which the established categories that align abjection with menstrual blood may not be as strong as one would assume, and how their arbitrariness can be evidenced via this film, which was written and directed by a woman and explores menstruation through the experience of a female character. 
Indeed, Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) has provided a fruitful example to address how monstrosity is conflated with the female body’s sexuality and fertility in horror film remembered in great part due to the infamous ‘plug it up!’ shaming sequence–a pop culture moment in its own right, echoed in remakes of Carrie (2013, dir. Kimberly Peirce), and parodic accounts such as Troma’s Return To Nuke Em’ HighVol. 2 (2017, dir. Lloyd Kaufman). The foundational ground for this line of analysis includes Carol Clover’s influential account of menstruation as a useful device that enables identification (1992), which is echoed by works such as Aviva Breifel’s article Monster Pains: Masochism, Menstruation and Identification in the Horror Film (2005). Her stance articulates this in comparison to the masochistic mechanisms associated with the male monster and integrates an assessment of the ways in which Ginger Snaps (2000, dir. John Fawcett), written by Karen Walton, and sets forth the masochistic female monster that comes alive with menarche, while binding sexual awakening, masochism, sadism and the outcome of female monstrosity together. As Briefel notes, this resonates with Shelley Stamp Lindsay’s argument about the way in which sexual difference is highlighted and depicted not only with the intention of enabling the identification of the viewer with the female monster but also works to reinforce the association of monster and woman, thus highlighting the purportedly abhorrent nature of the non-human – where ‘nonhuman and nonmale are confused as equivalent threats to human identity; bodily difference becomes, in both cases, the locus of the nonhuman’ (Stamp Lindsay 1993: 283).
It is particularly provocative that popular portrayals of connection between menstruating women and monstrosity or the supernatural are choreographed through the lens of male directors. The Exorcist (1973, dir. William Friedkin), Excision (2012, dir. Richard Bates Jr.); Tonight She Comes (2016, dir. Matt Stuertz); It (2017, dir. Andy Muschietti), Verónica (2017, dir. Paco Plaza) and Ghostland (2018, dir. Pascal Laugier) are just a few of the features that evidence this tendency. This builds upon the almost inescapable male gaze that has characterised the depiction of female corporeality on screen, as discussed by the authors mentioned earlier. Thus, femaleness assumes the characteristics of the monster and becomes a threatening other that defines normalcy and reinforces it by proxy, as its unclean nature defies categorisation and reasserts the possibility of binaries as human/beast, taking after categories such as self/other, male/female, clean/unclean (Grosz 1994: 3-4): all of them symbolically aligned, reproduced and reinforced through representation.
The notion of threat attached to menstruation is also reinforced through humour, as conveyed in the outrageous Alien Tampon (2015, dir. Jan Zenkner), as well as in Tampoon (2015, dir. Jeanne Jo). These two short films revolve around a penetrative method of containing menstrual blood which, interestingly enough, keeps it out of sight until that moment of removing the foreign object makes it visible again. Remarkably, menstrual blood as such is never shown in these short films. By choosing satirical portrayal as a means to convey the myth of female monstrosity in concrete ways – the first makes a mutant out of an unsuspecting woman that inserts an alien blood-soaked tampon by mistake, and the second follows the trope of the voracious vagina – both films underscore the construction of menstrual monstrosity as a comedic device, which for a long time has been an undeniable cornerstone of sexist humour. Siding with Briefel’s re-reading of Stamp Lindsey, one could argue that predictability is then the paramount characteristic of menstruation’s presence in horror film, as a marker of the correlation between sexual maturity and monstrosity.
As originally conceptualised by Julia Kristeva (1982) and recuperated within Barbara Creed’s landmark The Monstrous Feminine (1993), menstrual blood is categorised as excretion and thus linked to the abject (though, curiously, as Grosz discusses by introducing Douglas (1966) and Irigaray (1985), semen is often removed from the fluidity and viscosity that invites horror regarding other bodily fluids (Grosz 1994: 192-202) and is thus heavily embedded within meanings woven around religious abomination and the notions of purification or defilement that stem from this framework. The female body is then characterised in a special relation with the abject, where menstrual blood as the excretion is associated with pollution, as it brings forth the border between the clean and proper body and the abject body and thus highlights the seeming inherence of the abject written on female flesh. It is both the omen of monstrosity and the cheerful announcement of fertility. Erin Harrington’s acknowledgement and update of Creed, Kristeva and Clover’s contributions incorporates Elizabeth Grosz’s take on corporeal feminism, ushering in the notions of seepage and fluidity within the female body coupled with the Deleuzian concept of becoming (2018). Her approach to the conflation of monstrosity and female sexuality in reproductive horror film makes a case for the transgressive female body as a corporeality in constant change, an unfinished state that enables the construction of what she refers to as gynaehorror–where the horrific female presence is presented both in terms of embodiment and conjured via other narrative resources to convey monstrosity even in absence. Although this term addresses a broader range of representations of female corporeality and how its sexuality and its mutability can be constructed as monstrous in horror film, I shall concentrate on her assessment of the menstruating body to discuss a case in point. By integrating Harrington’s account, one could highlight the potentially radical possibilities championed in the film by the depiction of menstrual blood as omnipresent, engulfing life more so than disrupting it as a temporary occurrence. Much like the Christian god, menstrual blood in Schuch’s film is everywhere and seeps into every event, letting Birdie overflow by adopting an attitude of lavish abandonment to her version of divinity in a rapture of sorts, always through a lens of wonder that eschews the sobriety that defines consecrated life. These instances take various forms: joyful episodes like disguising the saints in the chapel in crimson to resemble comic book heroes; in visualizations of herself in full saint halo regalia–as the character develops affinity for St. Philomena, virgin martyr and saint patron of infants, babies, and youth–or even picturing how it would be to take the habit in a blood-stained gown, a gesture that could very well vindicate Carrie’s legacy, as Birdie stains the garment voluntarily. This in-betweenness, where menstruation is both productive and unproductive, does not only underscore the mutability of the female body but also ushers in the category of taboo, as a continuous but non-permanent stage of the body. Siding with the notion of becoming, we could very well associate Edmund Leach’s linguistic take on taboo as a notion that stands between fixed, arbitrary categories. In a constant state of change, the female body is perpetually between stillness and its inevitable continuity, making evident the artificial anchorage that these categories represent in the first place (Van Ooijen 2017).
Here, what appears as expelled evidence of the purported abject nature of the female body is played with, examined and cherished as a way to anoint oneself and other saints, even, as equivalent to holy water. What is constituted as abject and reinforced by Biblical instances of cleanliness regarding vaginal bleeding–which I discuss below–is kept within plain view, touch and taste. This does not only evidence how permeable the boundary between self and other is in its presence, but almost disregards the existence of such a boundary, seemingly rejecting the suggestion that the subject is fascinated by the abject, but actively rejects it as a way to avoid a form of self-annihilation. What could be read as a perverse embrace of menstrual blood contests its very classification as waste, re-imagining it as a marker of divinity instead of as one of impurity?
Normative behaviours around sexuality and the prescriptions that come alongside these are, of course, introduced in the Bible, and account for a well-rounded vision of female ‘pollution’ and alleged fallibility. It is worth pointing out, however, that conceptions of the female sexual body as polluted and polluting are rendered in some accounts as being also present in pre and non-Christian contexts; as Eudaldo Casanova and María Ángeles Larumbe note (2015), the beliefs that stemmed from the gendered division of work in pre-modern societies fostered ground for the later normalised idea of the female body as a key means of production in capitalism. Far back, the analogies between agriculture and the body (as Miriam López (2013-2014) explains in relation to the views of the fertile and hostile capabilities of the vagina in pre-colonial Mexico) shaped this understanding of female sexuality as both generative and destructive, and have indeed rendered it a perpetual, cultural in-between. Moreover, the seeming impossibility to contain or grasp the female body has been interpreted in Christian tradition–as Per Faxneld notes in Satanic Feminism (2014)–not only as an ultimate proof of its instability and imperfection but as its weak spot, a literal and figurative slit into which evil can creep. Remarkably, the Levitical conception of defilement and the statement of menstrual blood being responsible for pollution is accompanied by the prescription of incest, adultery and homosexuality in the same passage. As Mary Douglas’ influential Purity and Danger (2002 ) points out, these guidelines towards containment work wonders as disciplinary aides, where holiness is effectively bound to cleanliness, an association that helps to shape not only the dualistic notion of the body as opposed to divine transcendence, but also provides and stresses the ways in which it can attain said transcendence throughout earthly existence: moderation, cleanliness and containment are paramount to handle what comes in and out of the body. Under those estimations, the possibility of cleanliness as godliness is impossible to attain for the menstruating body, and in the face of transgression, perversion brings danger about. As the notion of hygiene becomes unequivocally attached to vaginal bleeding in this context, its conception is woven around its quality as abject fluid meant to elicit disgust and thus kept away, as a presence only tolerable in absence. Around it, the practices and rituals to keep danger at bay reinforce an order that determines a place where menstruation should happen, as a reminder of impurity that must be kept private. Douglas’ conception of dirt as an event that is only so by virtue of its transgression of an order is germane here. As dirt is understood as something out of place–the presence of a ‘rejected element’ (2002 : 44)–its conception entails the acceptance and compliance of a given system of rules and rituals to be observed; disobedience of said codes and conventions thus becomes taboo. Blood in your veins: okay; blood on a mattress: not great; blood used for drinking, collecting or anointing saints: a decidedly heretic act of trespassing.
However, the character’s normalcy is predicated on the lack of unbreakable rules around menstruation. The weight of context that Douglas offers is significant in order to define what for the viewer might be a sense of transgression of the Judeo-Christian understandings of menstrual blood and what in this portrayal is suggested as a condition of the character’s own reality. There seems to be no oppositional value in divinity or godliness pitted against menstruation, as both are constructed as one within the context created and lived out by Birdie. Paradoxically, while the character embraces the guidelines of faith and complies by its rituals, her habits constantly bypass the patriarchal imaginary that justifies the need for containment of the female body and legitimizes it by means of religious discourse. Instead, an alternative reading of sainthood and divinity is offered, where the character places a new menstrual order: maybe holy water was lacking a bit of colour.
The instance that gives the title to this essay may best illustrate the ways in which Schuch’s portrayal manages to write a different version of an institutional set of truths that skewers realities to fit into the discourse of religious belief and practice as one that legitimizes female submission, foregrounding the possibility of physical knowledge and divinity to be articulated and located within the female body. In this sequence, Birdie’s uterus and ovaries fly from her body in an oneiric animated passage that culminates in a rendering of a chalice receiving a bleeding uterus as a form of host. This wondrous rapture, coupled with the central role of menstrual blood in this narrative, resonates with Harrington’s assessment of the ways in which menstruation is regarded as simultaneously productive and unproductive (2018: 228-229). Religious association with menstrual blood as dejection (and as evidence of unproductivity) in this context also supports the idea of female reproductive capabilities as central to social life; and, as Silvia Federici (2004) and others would suggest, to the overall permanence of capitalism since the body is celebrated in its reproductive capacity, but reviled when it fails to comply by those terms. That is, by shedding blood at the failure to conceive a baby. As the female body is said to be abject from both within and without in this assessment, the film’s depiction of the runaway uterus suggests a more edifying approach to the restraints imposed on both the female body and its secretions. This approach is best explained by Harrington’s discussion about menstruation and mutability:
Thinking about menstruation as something productive, cyclical and generative, and even as a mode of refreshment instead of an act of defilement, is a powerful way of turning the script that the female body is one that is in a perpetual state of dissolution and decay and thus in need of purification and containment. It also situates the conceptually barren as a space of potential regeneration, and not simply as an expression of loss, a deadening, or an end. Menstruation, then, troubles the notion of the closed, self-contained body, for it is both leaky and cyclical (Harrington 2018: 228).
This visual and literal representation of the rejection of boundaries highlights the importance of questioning such boundaries and acknowledges the fluidity that Grosz and Harrington both allude to as an inescapable presence via the menstrual blood that colours every crevice of the screen in Schuch’s film (as well as every single crevice of the character’s life). Moreover, this underscores Luce Irigaray’s (1985: 106-118) criticism of the female as articulated by means of a language that legitimizes its constraint and containment in order to ‘keep them from spreading to infinity’ (1985: 106); this is a possibility that would in itself pose a threat to the whole system of articulation that establishes a male universal subject as a point of reference. She writes:
‘Fluid–like that other, inside/outside of philosophical discourse–is, by nature, unstable. Unless it is subordinated to geometrism, or (?) idealized. Woman never speaks in the same way. What she emits is flowing, fluctuating. Blurring. And she is not listened to unless proper meaning (meaning of the proper) is lost. Whence the resistances to that voice that overflows the ‘subject.’ Which the ‘subject’ then congeals, freezes, in its categories until it paralyzes the voice in its flow’ (Irigaray 1985: 112).
The depiction of this menstrual experience without end, accompanied by the ultimate challenge to corporeal boundaries by means of the flying uterus, is articulated from a female vantage point that resonates with Irigaray’s discussion about the convenient theological ambiguity with which patriarchal languages–intimately tied to the mechanics of solids that bind and define everything else–have perpetuated the neglect with which this fluidity is left to the margins in order to advance the alleged pertinence of this system. It is in the excess and the abandon with which the flying uterus becomes the host itself that divinity is expressed from a perspective that raises the possibility of utilising new languages that centre female experience and corporeality. In this instance, experience stands on its own as valid, rather than being articulated as a complement to the male experience, a staple in Christian dogma that is best exemplified in beliefs such the passage of immaculate conception.
Interestingly, both the physical imprisonment of the convent and the figurative imprisonment of the Catholic faith are challenged continuously while making use of their own languages and discursive devices: the blood and the body of the Christ are reimagined and displayed as incarnate within a female body, tangible and no longer conveniently abstract as dogma. The conflation of the body as deemed impure – all the more in the case of the menstruating body–and the soul as one overlapping with ease stands both in contradiction and in compliance to the tenets of Christian faith. Here, body and soul are no longer dissociated, there is no desire for transcendence of the corporeal as a mortal coil to the eternal soul, and for a moment the alleged imperfection of the mutable body becomes the incarnation of wholeness, underscoring the need to understand the rules and particularities of its in-betweenness beyond the languages that have for so long constrained it by vehemently trying to force it into solidity.
Schuch’s flying uterus also constitutes a remarkable sight that seems to recuperate and redefine the notion of the wandering womb.  However distant the figure might seem, its trivialization of feminine corporeality, subjectivities and ways of producing knowledge survives. By rendering all experience from Birdie’s point of view and affording the spectator a privileged sight into some of the most meaningful events in her coming of age–namely, the exploration and interpretation of her menstrual cycle and the development of a bond of intimacy with Julia–Schuch raises the captivating possibility of reinterpreting the roaming womb as a claim to other ways of creating and claiming knowledge. The flying uterus momentarily vindicates the purported horror of mutability that the female body as fluid entails for languages and representations that constrain its existence. By denying the existence of boundaries and re-evaluating the meaning of the historically maligned womb, the freedom of movement of the flying uterus embarks on a different mission. This sequence, which begins with the uterus finding its way out of Birdie by transgressing the literal boundary of the skin is neatly bookended by the view of the chalice consecrating it as divine host, which works to reformulate the Eucharist as re-inscription of the feminine divine within menstruation. The recuperation of mutability as a point of departure to understand female corporeality as deserving of its own vocabularies is heralded by the flying uterus and its capability of soaring here.
Moreover, this instance precipitates the possibility of an exercise in rewriting. Here, the horror entailed in transgressing boundaries of the body as well as those that define social and cultural practice to the benefit of heteronormativity is repurposed. This gesture manages to expose the arbitrariness of borders. Who articulates them and to what end? Is it so dangerous to allow this expansion towards infinity, as Irigaray proposes? How are knowledge and language denied? And more importantly, how do we subvert the languages of constraint to prove that they might not have been applicable in the first place?
It is in light of these questions that I find one of the most promising possibilities of the flying uterus: giving place for woman to write herself, in resonance with the call already issued by Hélène Cixous (1976). By imaging female willfulness  and the overflow conveyed in Schuch’s use of blood–and the roaming of the uterus as a freeing event, more than as a fearful cause for despair, i.e. hysteria–the film seems to underscore the fluidity highlighted in Irigaray, Grosz and Harrington and suggests further a possibility of re-writing the female body so as to suit its own specificities and experiences. Tapping into that dimension, the constraints that have, in some instances, sexualised or victimised female subjects in horror film are turned into possibilities for agency. Here, the mutable body is not constituted as horrific but instead appears as an invitation to ‘seize the occasion to speak’ and enable a ‘return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her’ (Cixous 1976: 880).
Consequently, the depiction of Birdie’s young adulthood seems to propose a careless, almost childlike abandon: where homosexuality is forbidden, Birdie goes on to project her romantic hopes onto Julia. Where the Mother Superior describes menstruation as ‘women’s curse’: Birdie confronts the unspoken notion of menstrual blood to be kept out of sight and touch by experimenting, tasting and smearing. Where Catholic faith displaces dignity and ‘the sanctity of life’ discourse from the mother to the foetus: Birdie reframes the aforementioned foetus’s body as a relic and keeps it in a jar. Where water and fire purify: the character reframes the holy value of blood from its very source, relocating it from the blood that flows as a result of corporeal, unjust punishment of the flesh endured by saints (and ultimately Jesus Christ), to that which flows from the proverbial female wound. While operating within these structures, the reworking of the fixed meaning of menstrual blood illuminates a different reading of female corporeality when it comes to ritualistic behaviours constructed around defilement and purity and this resonates more with fictional characters like Memel than with menstruating foremothers such as Carrie.
Presented with a depiction in which patriarchal meanings around menstruation lose ground, one could find solace in The Book of Birdie, where rituals are rewritten with lavish embrace rather than shame, and overflow rather than operate within restraint. In this renegotiation, this rendering of menstruation as divine seems to echo Annie Clark’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Jesus saves, I spend.’ Maybe it’s time to spend to the high heavens instead of greedily saving. Maybe it’s time to rewrite.
 It is important to mention that while menstruation-centred feminist discourse is susceptible to fall in the trap of trans-exclusionary elaborations, it is not my intention to fall in that line of thought, but merely to point menstruation as a significant line of analysis regarding this film.
I thank Dr Olivia Landry for this particular reflection. During a break from Film-Philosophy 2018 in sunny Gothenburg, a question of hers moved me to consider the alluring possibility of this rewriting of the wandering womb of antiquity as a statement of defiance and as a concretion of female writing.
 After the same conference, Dr Maud Ceuterick’s reflections around the idea of willfulness in Sarah Ahmed’s work were a central part of a conversation that illuminated the ways in which internalized oppression can put a halt to these exercises in one’s everyday practice. What makes this particular essay a more rewarding work is to know that its amendments and growth were greatly a product of interaction with colleagues with whom fate, film and feminist philosophy made me coincide.
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