Big Girl: the taboo of menstruation in contemporary Sri Lankan cinema

Perera, L 2019, Big Girl: the taboo of menstruation in contemporary Sri Lankan cinema, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Media and Communication, RMIT University.

Document type: Thesis
Collection: Theses

Title Big Girl: the taboo of menstruation in contemporary Sri Lankan cinema
Author(s) Perera, L
Year 2019
Abstract In Sri Lanka, the Big Girl ritual is a traditional coming-of-age ceremony observed when a girl first menstruates. The custom involves keeping the girl in isolation, away from the male gaze, for a strict period. She is ‘cleansed’ by female elders and presented to male society. Despite this ceremony being commonplace in Sri Lankan society, it has never before been documented by a female or feminist filmmaker.

This practice-led and practice-based study asks: ‘In the contemporary Sri Lankan context, how can a diasporic woman filmmaker explore taboo subjects such as female sexuality and desire?’ This has generated an experimental documentary feature inspired by film theorists, filmmakers and feminist scholars to illustrate the need for debate about rituals that subjugate women.

In formulating this project, I referred to anthropologist Deborah Winslow’s (1980) research into the Big Girl ritual, literature from feminist scholars such as Mary Russo (1986), Mary Douglas (1966) and Maggie Humm (1995, 1997) to explore taboos that impact females. Feminism in Sri Lanka has been understood through Sunila Abeysekera (2008, 2009), Kumari Jayawardane (1986, 2015), Janaki Jayawardena (2002), Malathie de Alwis (1996, 2002, 2015) and Maithree Wickramasinghe (2014). Ultimately the project draws from film scholar Laleen Jayamanne’s (1992, 2001) work about female representation in Sri Lankan film while reiterating Shohini Chaudhuri’s research into confrontational Indian diasporic filmmaker Deepa Mehta.

My research film Big Girl critiques a profoundly personal experience. The film demonstrates new knowledge about the ceremony and a feminist view of the tradition by a female practitioner.

This project outlines the knowledge gained through creative practice-based research, using methods such as reflective practice and collecting qualitative interviews to create an experimental documentary about the traditional custom. The visual journey of this film celebrates and exposes the horrors of becoming a Big Girl from the perspective of a twelveyear-old adjusting to physical, emotional and social change. The project also addresses the complexities of working with the ‘taboo of menstruation’ from the standpoint of a Sri Lankan diasporic female filmmaker. This study initiates a broader discussion of the ritual such that a female interpretation can be heard and examined. As such, I discover the challenges that independent Sri Lankan female practitioners encounter personally and professionally, mainly when working with content that may be considered taboo.
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Institution RMIT University
School, Department or Centre Media and Communication
Subjects Cinema Studies
Film and Television
Keyword(s) Cinema
Sri Lanka
Note Film project related to dissertation under permanent embargo.
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Created: Tue, 12 Nov 2019, 10:41:38 EST by Adam Rivett
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