10 bloody important onscreen moments about menstruation
The TV and movie scenes giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘period drama’.
Periods: half the world has one, and yet they barely get a mention in film and TV. When they are, they’re mostly used as a means of shaming female characters. In one particularly charming episode of Family Guy, for example, Stewie tells Meg to “pop in couple of tampons” because she “must be PMSing”. Or it’s used as a trope to rinse male characters, like in The Departed when Leo orders a cranberry juice at the bar and the guy next to him asks whether he’s on his period. At its worst, periods are just used to gross the audience out, like in the 2005 classic Dirty Love, in which Jenny McCarthy (lol, remember her?) goes on a tampon run and starts bleeding on the floor of the supermarket, causing some old lady to slip and go flying.
So yeah, onscreen representations of menstruation have historically been very negative. When you think about how periods are natural bodily functions, that are weaponised as a way of demeaning women….well you can see how that might be a bit problematic.
Periods have sadly been taboo since early days: Christian texts uphold the idea that menstruation was Eve’s “curse”, her punishment for defying God in the Garden of eden. As Leviticus 18:19 states, “And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean.” Across other religions, periods have been stigmatised too, and then there’s the fact that even in 2018, 53% of UK adults describe themselves as having no religious affiliation, but still the taboo remains.
So what’s the solution? The more casually and frequently periods can be referenced in popular culture, and, more importantly framed within a positive light, the closer we will come to shaking off centuries of indoctrinated disgust. In this spirit, here are some of the most important movie and TV menstruation moments that demonstrate society’s slowly changing attitudes towards periods.
Carrie was the first film to graphically show period blood. It didn’t help remove any stigma, rather it cemented it. A truly traumatic moment in cinematic history, when the titular Carrie White, discovers her period and screams to her classmates for help -- as she believes she is bleeding to death -- her classmates taunt her mercilessly and thus begins Carrie’s unstoppable telekinetic rampage.
It has been 24 years since the first episode of the cult TV show aired and 14 years since the finale. While its celebration of casual sex, messy relationships and anything but straight career paths was groundbreaking at the time, the show let us down in many other ways. Diversity, casual homophobia and -- surprise! -- menstruation. Friends brings up periods in just one episode over its entire 10 seasons, very clinically in The One Where Rachel Has a Baby when Chandler and Monica are figuring out the best time to have sex to get pregnant, and there's no mention of period sex, syncing or cramps.
“This is disgusting”, “Let me get a picture of that” and “I have to go and get Phil” are just a few of the comments made when Seth (Jonah Hill) discovers a girl he has been dancing with at a party has stained his jeans with period blood. He wretches dramatically, whilst the onlooking ‘lads’ laugh hysterically. Essentially, every girl’s worst-nightmare growing up. This is period shaming at its worst, and undoubtedly a experience anyone who menstruates has at some point been close to -- whether it be at a party, a taxi home or a friend’s house.
The Runaways, 2010
In The Runaways -- a biographic about the band of the same name -- periods take centre stage in a glorious opening scene that sees Cherie Currie's (Dakota Fanning) period blood hit the pavement, while she and her sister run to a petrol station bathroom to grab some toilet paper to create a makeshift sanitary towel. The scene not only shows relatable improvisation, but should act as a reminder of the measures many women subjected to period poverty take daily.
Kick Ass 2, 2013
“Oh, take your tampon out, Dave,” male producer, Jeff Wadlow, writes for character Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) in 2013 superhero action comedy Kick Ass 2, after she beats up a Aaron Taylor-Johnson's character. Hopefully this joke would go down like a soggy tampon in 2018, but five years ago it held pride of place -- 30 seconds into the film trailer. While this could easily viewed as an example of a woman reclaiming a classic example of male misogyny, one must assume it was meant as a cheap joke; made by a man -- the ultimate slight against a man’s masculinity. Jokes like this prove that, while Hollywood has become more accepting of female protagonists, they are still uncomfortable having one who’s proud and confident in her femininity.
“What if I forget to flush the toilet and there’s a tampon in there? And not like a cute, oh, it’s a tampon, it’s the last day. I’m talking like a crime scene tampon. Like Red Wedding, Game of Thrones. Like a Quentin Tarantino, like a real motherf*cker of a tampon. Like there’s an ear on it. You know what I mean?” says Amy Schumer in her rom-com, Trainwreck. While concern over her new boyfriend seeing her bloody tampon isn’t so liberating, the fact that she describes periods as more than just a few dainty droplets could be considered modest progress.
Broad City, 2016
We all used our period to a rare advantage back in school, to get out of swimming lessons, but few have thought to maximise on men’s discomfort surrounding them since. In the penultimate episode of Broad City season three, Ilana puts on her “period pants” (jeans with a blood stain on) to smuggle weed through airport security. Other than being hysterical, it highlights how uncomfortable a man is with a woman’s period, and produces one of the realest period images to be shown on TV -- one that is quite radical when you remember that only one year before, Instagram censored Rupi Kaur’s image of a period stained bed.
Orange Is the New Black, 2017
The show first broaches the frustrating realities of getting your period in prison in season four when there is a tampon and maxi pad shortage in Litchfield prison, shedding light on the outrageous view of sanitary products as “inessentials”. However, it is the role periods play in season five that is more noteworthy. There is a small scene in which Gina -- in order to get the attention of a prison guard -- sticks her hand down her pants to get a handful of period blood. She paints it on her face to imply that she’s injured and in doing so smashes the “unclean” taboo that is repeatedly reinforced. A casual but defiant and empowering ownership of her monthly cycle.
Big Mouth, 2017
Big Mouth -- a new animated series for Netflix created by the comedian Nick Kroll -- portrays the most blunt and relatable discovery of one young girl’s first period during a field trip to the Statue of Liberty. Wearing white shorts, Jessi finds herself in a bathroom with no sanitary products or toilet paper to absorb. The classic worst-case scenario. When she later tells her mum, instead of the milestone turning into the obvious “You’re a woman now!” scene, the writers choose to highlight the sense of injustice associated. “You know, if men got their period, it’d be an Olympic sport. They’d give out medals for the heaviest flow”. Thank God someone said it!
Pad Man, 2018
In the UK, one in 10 disadvantaged girls below the age of 21 cannot afford sanitary products, according to charity Plan International UK. Period poverty is a global problem that, in less developed countries such as India, Kenya and Cambodia, in some cases prohibits girls from attending school. Mattress stuffing and leaves are often used instead of sanitary towels in these countries, something highlighted in Bollywood film, Pad Man, released this January. The film (based on a true story) tackles the taboo surrounding menstruation and follows one man’s ambition to provide a cheaper alternative to sanitary towels for his wife, and the whole of India.