A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Teaching Taboos: An Annotated Bibliography of Unconventional Resources for the Rhetoric Classroom

Megan Condis and Sarah Alexander, University of Illinois

Enculturation 7 (2010): http://enculturation.net/teaching-taboos

In the course of our never-ending quest to create activities and assignments that will grab and hold the attention of freshman students of composition, we have found ourselves walking down some fairly strange roads. Occasionally, if we are lucky, these roads can lead us to discuss and write about topics that are widely considered taboo. We call such potentially unsettling fields of inquiry “lucky” because they contain within them the possibility to open up brand new areas of rhetorical investigation. Together we have experimented with units on many different taboo topics, from the various kinds of restrictions and cultural practices surrounding food to the history of racial and sexual slurs to the process of menstruation, and during the course of these experiments, we have discovered a number of advantages, both practical and personal, associated with the teaching of taboos in the composition classroom.

In the first place, controversial topics such as taboos are quite productive in terms of allowing students to practice the kinds of skills that we teach in the rhetoric classroom. The challenging nature of a unit on taboos encourages students to learn to apply critical thinking skills to academic processes like reading, composition, argumentation, revision, and research presentation. We base our belief in critical pedagogy in the writing classroom on the work of Paulo Freire, Peter Elbow, and bell hooks, all of whom have argued that the classroom is an important space for students to learn how to grapple with political and social issues, how to effectively question the factual sources they are presented with, and how to communicate with those who might not share their perspective. It is our belief that these talents, which are necessary to the production of good citizens, are also necessary to the production of self-aware, discerning, and effective writers.

Furthermore, by asking students to write and think about subjects that are impolite or even downright offensive, we ask them to move beyond the niches of academic discourse with which they are familiar from their previous English courses. As such, a classroom unit that focuses on the taboo prevents students from re-working those overdone “current events” research paper topics that they relied on to get through high school. They have no template in mind for writing about such subjects, and so they become more aware of their existing writing processes and more open to trying different composition tactics from the ones that they learned before they arrived in the freshman rhetoric classroom.

Also, readings on taboo subject matter are often missing from both the typical rhetoric anthology and the syllabi of our students' other coursework. As any quick perusal of media popular to students (including hip hop and hard rock music and television shows like South Park and Family Guy) will show, subject matter and language that is widely considered taboo is a big part of our students’ everyday lives. Thus, a unit on taboo provides instructors with an opportunity to teach students to academically explore resources that are beyond the scope used for the traditional research paper and to train an academic eye on popular sources that they would usually consider to be outside of the purview of scholarship. For example, in our courses, we have had students peruse primary sources through archival research, create their own scholarly sources by conducting interviews or surveys with their peers, and use traditional reference sources like the Oxford English Dictionary in conversation with popular texts such as YouTube videos.

The subject matter of our particular units on race and gender are also especially suited to the rhetoric classroom because they help to drive home to students that the way in which our words are used, and the manner in which we intellectually frame the objects of our discourse, matter. Language taboos are all about who gets to say what and how they can say it. The rules of verbal etiquette determine the euphemisms that are okay for broad audiences and those that should not be spoken around the dinner table. Students who have been inculcated in the "rules” of a particular taboo tend to think of these proscriptions as “natural” and set in stone, that words and ideas mean the things that they do because “that is just the way things are.” Asking students to research the ways that taboos develop over the course of time, the way that language shifts its meaning as it is deployed by living speakers, can help them to see other cultural issues that they think of as resolved under a new rubric of openness and debate. When investigating the evolution of the word "bitch," for example, students almost invariably find themselves questioning the validity and wisdom of attempts to reclaim the slur. Pitting trendy appropriations of the word (such as Tina Fey's declaration on the February 23, 2008 edition of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update that "bitch is the new black") against centuries of misogyny, they decide for themselves whether the "mainstreaming" of the word has turned it into an empowering feminist buzzword or introduced a new, disturbingly subtle strain of misogyny. An exploration of the taboo awakens students to the proposition that any subject can be analyzed and is subject to critical thinking and re-evaluation, even those subjects that our culture paints as untouchable or unalterable.

Once students are convinced that taboos are culturally constructed, it is worthwhile to transition to thinking about the consequences that such taboos have for the lives of real people. For example, once a topic such as menstruation is labeled as taboo, we become much less likely as a society to invest attention and resources into the study of that topic. This can lead to the rise of easily preventable disasters.

The U.S. government used to euphemistically label women’s sanitary products like pads and tampons as “cosmetics.” This meant that, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines, companies like Tampax were not required to rigorously test their products or to meet standards that apply to a medical apparatus used internally. This lapse in attention was a huge factor in the controversy over toxic shock syndrome, which killed 38 women in 1980 and affected an estimated 60,000 women by 1990. Many scientists now believe that, had the government properly labeled tampons as a medical device, these deaths could have been avoided (Houppert 28-31).

The relationship between language and physical well-being also plays a central role in discussions of misogynous and ethnic slurs. While researching the controversy surrounding the ubiquity of the word "nigger" in rap and hip hop, one student discovered the slur scrawled across a dorm mate's door. Such raw, unsettling evidence of the connection between verbal and physical violence compelled her to question the degree to which positive and even downright playful appropriations of slurs can rob them of their hateful sting. Clearly, discussions of the taboo drive home for students how the way in which one controls and shapes the terms of a debate can have powerful and far-reaching effects.

Finally, teaching taboos has brought about some personal benefits for our students that we did not expect. For many of our students, writing is a rather scary proposition. Facing the blank page or the empty screen is something they dread. However, students have expressed to us that our taboo units helped them to feel as though they “broke the ice.” Students felt that, once they discovered that they were capable of writing a paper about such uncomfortable subjects, more conventional assignments seemed easier. They tended to feel that, if they could write about menstruation or about curse words, of all things, then they could write about any subject that they come across in their academic careers.

The units also had the unexpected benefit of encouraging minority, female, and LGBTQ students to take on the role of the “expert” in the classroom. For example, during a unit on menstruation, we noticed that many of our female students set aside such equivocal, self-diminishing hedges as, “It might just be me but…,” and, “I don’t know for sure, but maybe…,” in order to voice their thoughts and opinions assertively for the first time. Over the course of the unit, these students began to feel as though they had within themselves the ability to teach their peers something new, to see themselves and their thoughts as legitimate and worthy of being shared. Such an attitude of confidence is vitally necessary if we as composition instructors hope to get these students to see themselves as academic authorities through their research and writing.

Of course, there are those who have argued that politics and controversy have no place in the classroom. One worry is that a class that is focused on such issues will morph into a platform from which teachers can instill their own political beliefs into their students. We agree that such a classroom structure in which the teacher “resolves” contentious issues by telling students what they should or should not think is both totally inappropriate and contrary to the mission of rhetoric instruction. It is our belief that this potential problem can be avoided if proper care is taken to frame out for students the purpose for which the taboo is being evoked. So long as we continually and consistently attach every reading and every activity to a particular scholarly practice that we expect the students to attempt, we can escape the trap of inculcating our students with our own viewpoints.

We have found that one good way to “warm students up" to the idea that we will be spending time discussing taboos in the classroom is to start off with a taboo that seems less threatening and controversial. The various rules and practices that surround food are a good example of this type of taboo. Most students do not realize that they have painstakingly absorbed a number of rules from their culture about which kinds of edible matter are “food” and which are disgusting and vile. Oftentimes, these distinctions are phrased in the language of morality. For example, to eat the parts of an animal that Western middle class individuals usually do not eat, like the eyes or the genitals, or to eat species that their cultures do not usually raise for food, like horses, cats, or dogs, is “wrong.” We have especially enjoyed classroom discussions about whether or not of cannibalism can or should be condemned as immoral. Asking students to come to see their relationship with food as culturally constructed is an excellent way to open up a conceptual crack into the matrix of morality, manners, and taboos that they think of as natural and universal, which in turn might short-circuit feelings of discomfort when more dearly held assumptions are challenged.

Although students' responses to our units have largely been quite favorable, we should note that a few students have shown reluctance to explore subject matter they regard as inappropriate, if not immoral. While many students overcame any reservations they may have had as soon as they recognized the project as an opportunity to write academically and authoritatively about unconventional academic topics, a few students have tested our resourcefulness and powers of persuasion. Brainstorming lists of more innocuous-looking slurs--words like "flip," "cracker," and "queen"--is one strategy for putting students who prefer not to use patently offensive language at ease. Asking students to think of situations in which they wouldn't be surprised to hear inappropriate language can also help prepare students to pull taboo language out of the closet. By investigating why offensive language seems "natural" in certain contexts (such as a men's locker room or an episode of Sex and the City), students ultimately circle back to the question of why it seems so unnatural in the classroom; perhaps more importantly, they begin to confront the politics of the distinction between "natural" and "unnatural" language. They begin, in other words, to wonder exactly who decides what is taboo and what is not.

It is important to remember, however, that even those students who resist working with the subject matter of the unit are being exposed to new habits of critical thinking that will be helpful to them in their college careers. For example, during one unit on menstruation, we encountered a student whose religious background discouraged her from discussing topics like menstruation in a mixed gender group. Although she took a back seat in the discussions, she was still given the opportunity to be exposed to new ways of thinking about a subject to which she had never devoted much attention. At the conclusion of the class, this student told us that, while discussing menstruation out in the open made her feel somewhat uncomfortable, she also found it interesting and enlightening to hear what other students had to say. These kinds of conflicting emotions are common in a classroom that deals with taboos, and we tend to believe that such internal dissonances are conducive to intellectual growth.

While our pedagogical forays into the taboo have been confined to "standard" and "remedial" freshmen composition courses, both units lend themselves to other areas of English studies. The taboo language unit, for example, could be repurposed as a cultural studies project that would lead ESL/EAL students to a more intimate understanding of English language taboos and the values and assumptions that shape them. Perhaps even more interesting would be a project that asks non-native English speakers to educate their classmates about the histories and implications of their first language's own taboos. In critical theory courses, the unit on menstruation would lend itself brilliantly to projects ranging from explorations of third-wave feminist critiques of popular culture such as Steven King’s Carrie or Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret or to Foucauldian analyses of the institutions of medicine and science.

Many semesters of trial and error have produced the following annotated bibliography. As we visit and revisit the taboo in our classrooms, our bibliography will naturally continue to evolve. Academic texts that have provided rationales and inspired lesson plans for the unit on menstruation, including Carol A. Bailey's “Equality with a Difference: On Androcentrism and Menstruation," are included, as well as pop culture texts that promise to make for lively and fruitful class discussions. Due to the paucity of scholarly research on the value of studying taboo language in the composition classroom, teachers may find themselves relying on primary sources that use racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs for very specific purposes. An anonymous Rolling Stone article entitled "Skank Wars!," for example, can be used to open a discussion of the popular media's fondness for applying misogynous epithets to celebrities in ways that simultaneously condemn and fetishize "bad girl" behavior. Other resources, like the online Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health, founded and maintained by Harry Finley, can easily be made the starting point of students' research, if not the focus of the unit.

Materials for Students

Cannibalism and Other Food Taboos

  • Alive. Dir. Frank Marshall. Perfs. Ethan Hawke and Vincent Sprano. 1993. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2002. DVD.
  • This film about a stranded rugby team that is forced to resort to cannibalism in the wake of a horrific plane crash is an interesting way to address the idea of situational values and ethics when it comes to the taboo. Ask students to come up with other scenarios in which practices that are normally under strict, unquestionable taboos can become acceptable or at least debatable.

  • Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern: Collection 1. Perf. Andrew Zimmern. 2007. Discovery Channel. 2008. DVD.
  • Andrew Zimmern hosts a television series in which he travels the world sampling cuisine that many would consider strange and unappealing. This collection is especially interesting because it does not limit itself to the “exotic” or “foreign.” Zimmern is also interested in local cuisines within the United States. For example, in an episode about America’s Gulf Coast, Zimmern eats foods that students from other regions might find disgusting or bizarre like raccoon meat and pig’s intestines. It might also be productive to ask students why this new genre of television about “eating weird foods,” including game shows like Fear Factor, gross-out comedies like Jackass, and other documentary-style programs like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, are so exciting to viewers.

  • Delicatessen. Special Edition. Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Perfs. Eric Averlant and Robert Baud. 1991. Lions Gate. 2008. DVD.
  • A black comedy about a post-apocalyptic world in which food is difficult to come by. A young clown looks for work in an apartment building above a delicatessen only to discover that his landlord wants to put him on the menu. The clown and his landlord's daughter team up with a group of renegade vegetarians to put the butcher out of business. Classes discuss the way the film seems to put the eating of meat onto a continuum with the horrors of cannibalism. How does the movie suggest that such a continuum is appropriate? Do students agree?

  • “Food Taboos: It’s All a Matter of Taste.” National Geographic News. 19 April 2004. Web. 22 May 2009. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/04/0419_040419_TVfoodtaboo.html.
  • This short piece is an excellent introductory article for students interested in the taboos surrounding food and eating practices. The article, which is also an advertisement for a television program on the National Geographic cable television network, describes several conflicting mores about individual foodstuffs and outlines one theory about why cultures develop such elaborate rules about food: because food will eventually be made into a part of our very bodies.

  • Hartwell, Sarah. “Cats: Friend or Food.” May 2007. Web. 22 May 2009. http://www.messybeast.com/eat-cats.htm.
  • Sarah Hartwell details the revulsion felt by many Westerners when they encounter news programs about the eating of cats. She compares the actual butchering practices that are castigated as disgusting and cruel to the butchering practices used on livestock in the United States, pointing out that our treatment of some animals seems just as unthinkable to individuals in other cultures. For example, Hindus are appalled at our treatment of cows, which they consider to be sacred. She also points out that, in medieval Europe, cats were eaten regularly. Finally, she discusses the way that the practice of eating cats and dogs is used as a racial slur to attack Asians.

  • Klitzman, Robert. The Trembling Mountain: A Personal Account of Kuru, Cannibals, and Mad Cow Disease. New York: De Capo Press, 2001. Print.
  • This Western doctor’s account of his attempts to treat an epidemic among the Fore of New Guinea caused by mortuary cannibalism provides an interesting picture of a scientist attempting to wrestle with the cultural biases that inform his methods. It is helpful to students in that it mirrors some of their own difficulties stepping outside of the conceptual boundaries that they are used to inhabiting.

  • Parasecoli, Fabio. Bite Me: Food in Popular Culture. Oxford: Berg, 2008. Print.
  • This student-accessible survey of the relationship between food and politics contains two chapters that we have found particularly useful when discussing food taboos. “Of Breasts and Beasts: Vampires and Other Voracious Monsters” attempts to explain the popularity of cannibalistic horrors from Dracula to Sweeney Todd. “Tourism and Taste: Exploring Identities” explains how foods act as a cultural touchstone, which explains why such an important part of tourism is sampling the local cuisine.

  • Singer, Peter. “All Animals are Equal…or why the ethical principle on which human equality rests requires us to extend equal consideration to animals too.” Animal Liberation. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001. 1-24. Print.
  • Peter Singer argues that a practice that many students find perfectly acceptable, the eating of meat, should be considered immoral by comparing discrimination against animals to discrimination of human beings on the basis of race, gender, or ability. Although this article does not deal with taboos explicitly, it does call attention to the fact that not all individuals understand culture in the same way. What one individual thinks is morally abhorrent, another individual thinks is perfectly benign. In our experience, the feelings of defensiveness about their own choices that students have following a discussion of this article makes them more generous about the choices of others that they might have previously seen as bizarre or just plain wrong.

  • Stoneking, Mark. “Widespread prehistoric human cannibalism: easier to swallow?” Trends in Ecology 18.10 (2003): 489-490. Print.
  • This article argues that human cannibalism is actually a lot more common amongst our prehistoric ancestors than was previously believed. We might ask our students: how else have taboos changed over time? Are there any taboos today that were once perfectly acceptable? Any run-of-the-mill practices that were once off limits?

  • Soylent Green. Dir. Richard Fleischer. Perfs.Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson. 1973. Warner Home Video. 2008. DVD.
  • This film's famous twist ending uses the spectre of cannibalism to drive home to viewers the consequences of pollution and overpopulation. One of the most enduring motifs in the film is the vast difference between the rich, who are able to afford luxuries like meat and produce, and the poor, who are forced to subsist on wafers of soylent green which, as we learn at the conclusion of the film, is made from the dead of their own population. Students might be asked to think about the symbolic work that cannibalism is being asked to perform in order to impart a message about class.

  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Dir. Tim Burton. Perfs. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. 2007. Dreamworks Video. 2008. DVD.
  • A popular musical about a barber who kills his clients and serves them to unsuspecting customers in meat pies. Students always enjoy exploring what exactly causes them to thrill and gag at such unintentional cannibalism. What does it mean to cast the cannibal in the role of the hero, to make him into a somewhat sympathetic figure?

  • Titus. Dir. Julie Taymor. Perfs. Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. 2000. 20th Century Fox. 2006. DVD.
  • Julie Taymor's adaptation of Titus Andronicus casts Anthony Hopkins (famous for his performance as a cannibal in Silence of the Lambs) in the titular role. Hopkins hosts a dinner party at the conclusion of the film where he serves his enemy's children to their mother baked into a pie crust. Students might be asked to think about the way in which taboos are sometimes deliberately evoked as spectacles in order to shock. Can they think of other examples within art or popular culture that seem to be primarily about their shock value?

Language Taboos

  • Bechdel, Alison. The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008. Print.
  • These selections from Bechdel's comic strip/soap opera about the "dykes to watch out for" chronicle the struggles of a tight-knit group of friends to make lives for themselves in an often unsympathetic midsize American city.

  • Clark-Flory, Tracy. "Tina Fey: Bitch Is the New Black." Salon.com. 25 February 2008. Web. 22 May 2009. http://www.salon.com/mwt/broadsheet/2008/02/25/fey/.
  • Clark-Flory's brief report of Tina Fey's return to Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update includes a video clip of Fey's remark that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a bitch who will "get stuff done." Students may find Fey's suggestion that bitchiness has become fashionable worth investigating.

  • Fortini, Amanda. "The 'Bitch' and the 'Ditz.'" New York. 24 November 2008: 30-34. Print.
  • Dubbing 2008 "The Year of the Woman," Fortini argues that media representations of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin reinforced "two of the most pernicious stereotypes that are applied to women: the bitch and the ditz." The essay may provoke students to rethink their assumptions about the "reclaimability" of "bitch."

  • Gross, Beverly. "Bitch." Salmagundi Quarterly Summer 1994: 146-56. Print.
  • Citing sources ranging from the Oxford English Dictionary to The Advocate's interview with Madonna, Gross traces the history of "bitch" and ponders how the word came to be synonymous with "ball-buster." Students can take their cue from Gross in putting the OED in dialogue with pop culture texts.

  • Irvine, Martha. "The Evolution of the Word 'Queer.'" The Ledger. 7 Nov. 2003. Web. 22 May 2009. http://www.theledger.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20031107/NEWS/311070315/1021.
  • Irvine investigates the GLBT community's response to the "mainstreaming" of the word "queer." Coupled with Bechdel's Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Irvine's 2003 essay can be used to open discussions about attempts to reclaim homophobic slurs.

  • Luu, Young. I Chink. Canadian Theatre Review. Spring 2002: 83-87. Print.
  • Luu's one-man play depicts the struggles of a hardworking Chinese immigrant whose children want to belong to a "normal Canadian family." The play's provocative title alone prompts students to investigate the value of reclaiming racist epithets.

  • Naylor, Gloria. "The Meanings of a Word." 22 May 2009. Web. http://www.sebsteph.com/Professional/Bart%27s%20class/Readings/naylor.htm.
  • Writing with the conviction that "words themselves are innocuous," Naylor investigates the multi-layered meaning of "nigger" by recalling the various contexts in which she encountered the word as a child. The essay invites students to consider how and why words become weapons.

  • Ridley, John. "The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger." Esquire. December 2006: 108-27. Print.
  • Ridley, who has "no qualm about using the word 'nigger,'" draws a distinction between "ascended blacks" and "those who disdain actual ascendancy gained by way of intellectual expansion and physical toil--who instead value the posture of an 'urban,' a 'street,' a 'real' existence, no matter that such a culture threatens to render them extinct." Ridley's argument may prove too inflammatory for some classrooms but could serve as a companion piece to Naylor's "The Meanings of a Word."

  • Schubart, Rikke. Super Bitches and Action Babes: The Female Hero in Popular Cinema, 1970–2006. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. Print.
  • Schubart devises a matrix of five archetypes—the dominatrix, the rape-avenger, the mother, the daughter, and the Amazon—to explore the evolution of the late-twentieth-century pop culture heroine. The book works very well with Gross's discussion of the modern-day "bitch" as a "ball-buster."

  • "Skank Wars!" Rolling Stone. 11 December 2008: 75. Print.
  • The antics of British "bad girls" like Amy Winehouse and Kate Moss are pitted against the heavily publicized breakdowns of American celebrities like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. Teachers may wish to approach this article by asking students to brainstorm lists of the various labels the popular media assign to both male and female tabloid regulars.


  • Blume, Judy. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2001. Print.
  • One of the most banned books in the history of the United States, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret sends up the euphemistic, nervously delivered lessons about menstruation that young girls receive in school. It depicts a group of young girls who are curious and excited about the onset of puberty as they navigate a community in which they cannot talk openly about the subject of menstruation. They are forced to go “underground” and create a secret society in order to share information with each other. Teachers might want to focus on campaigns to remove the book from school libraries or on the solidarity shown by the young heroines of the story.

  • Buckley, Thomas and Alma Gottlieb, eds. Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation. Berkley: University of California Press, 1988. Print.
  • Buckley and Gottlieb detail the rites and rituals surrounding menstruation around the world. Excerpts from this book provide an excellent starting point for students who are certain that their attitudes about menstruation (or any other taboo for that matter) are natural or innate rather then culturally shaped.

  • Delany, Janice, Mary Jane Lupton, and Emily Toth. The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation. Expanded edition. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Print.
  • This book is a good starting place for a discussion of the history of the taboos surrounding menstruation. Of special interest may be the chapters on the marketing and advertising of sanitary products, the many euphemisms used to replace the word “menstruation,” and the jokes that are often made about menstruation (i.e.: telling an angry woman that she must be “on the rag”). The book also contains an interesting discussion on the induction of PMS into the DSM-IV and the debate currently being conducted by feminists on whether such a step is a victory for women, because it legitimizes their experiences, or a failure because it casts such a large net as to potentially label all or most women as “pathological.”

  • Finley, Harry. Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health. 22 May 2009. Web. http://www.mum.org.
  • This online archive of everything menstruation contains dozens of examples of everything from advertisements for menstrual products to menstrual art to educational materials used in schools, including digitized versions of those old film strips that they would only show once the boys had left the room.

  • Houppert, Karen. The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000. Print.
  • Karen Houppert’s The Curse is another excellent undergraduate-friendly text which includes an especially helpful history of toxic shock syndrome and of the failures of both government agencies and industrial giants to take women’s health issues seriously and to disseminate vital information about the problem once its existence had finally been confirmed.

  • King, Stephen Carrie. New York: Pocket, 2000. Print.
    Carrie. Dir. Brian De Palma. Perf. Sissy Spacek and John Travolta. 1976. DVD. MGM Video and DVD, 2001.
  • Either version of this text is interesting because both contain vivid portrayals of the damaging effects that the taboo surrounding menstruation has on young girls. Carrie’s mother, Mrs. White, thinks of menstruation as dirty and disgusting because it symbolizes her daughter’s entrance into the world of sex and desire as an adult woman. Carrie is never taught what menstruation is, and she is horrified when it occurs for the first time without warning. Also, the teasing of the other high school girls, screaming “Plug it up!” and pelting her with tampons and sanitary napkins, seems to come directly out of a mental space in which menstruation is the topic of “gross-out” jokes. Such jokes are a coping mechanism used to distance the girls from a process of their own bodies with which they have been trained to be uncomfortable by projecting that process onto the body of a social outcast, Carrie. Finally, the text epitomizes the trope of the powerful but dangerous menstruating woman, a woman who has come into the fullness of her ability but who has trouble controlling that power because of the weakness of her gender.

  • Moore, Alan (w), Stephen Bissette and John Totleben (i). “The Curse.” Swamp Thing Volume 3: The Curse. Eds. Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben. New York: Vertigo, 2000. 120-142. Print.
  • This comic contains a complex portrayal of a menstruating woman figured as a werewolf. It is an excellent introduction to the symbols and mythic tropes surrounding menstruation (swamps, the moon, the inversion of life-giving, birthing power, various examples of cyclicity, etcetera). Note that the characterization of the Native American tradition associated with the “red lodge” endorsed by this comic is inaccurate. The tribe in the comic was invented by Moore. Furthermore, a number of accounts of tribal practices that seemed on the surface to function the way that Moore imagines have been demonstrated to be tainted by racist and sexist practices on the part of anthropologists who first studied puberty and gender in Native cultures. As such, it might be useful to pair this text with a revisionist texts on Native conceptualizations of menstruation such as Buckley and Gottlieb's chapter on Yurok women in Blood Magic.

  • Okorafor-Mbachu, Nnedi. Zahrah the Windseeker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Print.
  • This is a fantasy novel aimed at a young-adult audience that follows a young woman who, like Stephen King’s Carrie, gains magical abilities at the time of her first period.

  • Stein, Elissa and Susan Kim. Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2009.
  • An excellent resource for students. Includes a number of full-color illustrations of advertisements for menstrual products from several decades.

Materials for Instructors

  • Bailey, Carol A. “Equality with a Difference: On Androcentrism and Menstruation.” Teaching Sociology 2.1 (April 1993): 121-129. Print.
  • This foundational article is a guide to the benefits of making women’s bodies central in the classroom in order to correct for androcentrism and the universalization of the masculine in the majority of courses in the college curriculum.

  • Bens, John H. "Taboo or Not Taboo." College Composition and Communication 22.3 (1971): 215-20. Print.
  • Bens suggests that the study of taboo words in the English classroom can bring language "out of hiding" and foster productive discussions about censorship.

  • Brown, H. Douglass. “Some Practical Thoughts about Student-Sensitive Critical Pedagogy.” The Language Teacher 28.7 (July 2004). Web. 5 Apr 2010. http://www.jalt-publications.org/tlt/articles/2004/07/brown.
  • This article is a meditation on the type of teaching persona and classroom rules that need to be in place before a rhetoric classroom can adequately tackle taboo subject matter.

  • Fish, Stanley. “Tip to Professors: Just Do Your Job.” Editorial. The New York Times. 22 Oct 2006. Web. 5 Apr 2010. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2006/10/22/tip-to-professors-just-do-your-job/.
  • A warning to instructors not to turn the rhetoric classroom into a vehicle for political or philosophical indoctrination. Fish recommends “academicizing” controversial topics so as to focus efforts on the academic mechanics of inquiry. The debate occurring in the comments thread attached to the editorial is perhaps even more generative and thought provoking than the editorial itself.

  • Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Seabury Press, 1974.
  • A foundational text for critical pedagogy. Of especial interest to instructors is the second chapter in which Freire contrasts a “banking” model of education in which instructors attempt to deposit information into student/vessels with a more liberatory model that frames students as collaborators and problem-solvers in their own right.

  • hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.
  • This text is an excellent resource for teachers interested in tackling the taboos surrounding issues of race, gender, and sexuality. hooks provides a great deal of food for thought about how we can ensure that our own classrooms are radical and life-altering spaces. Her chapter on black vernacular speech entitled “Language: Teaching New Worlds/New Words” is an approachable introductory text for undergraduate students.

  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “On Race and Voice: Challenges for Liberal Education in the 1990s.” Critical Critique 14 (1989-1990): 179-208. Print.
  • This article for instructors provides a blueprint for using the classroom to foster effective methods of resistance to race and gender-based oppressions.

  • Orner, Mimi. “Interrupting the Calls for Student Voice in ‘Liberatory’ Education: A Feminist Poststructuralist Perspective.” Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy. Eds. C. Luke and J. Gore. New York: Routledge, 1992. 74-89. Print.
  • This article for instructors gives some guidelines for the introduction of confessional narratives into the academic classroom. Such narratives are a vital inroad into taboo topics, which are often intimidating to students at first.

  • Welch, Karen Peterson. “Social Issues in First Year College Writing.” Academic Exchange Quarterly 8.1 (2004). Web. 5 Apr 2010. http://www.rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/mo2538june.htm.
  • This short article argues that controversial social issues are well-suited to the rhetoric classroom because they are vehicles through which students can practice critical thinking, writing, and researching skills.