Michaela Coel’s bloody tampon scene is disrupting the period-sex narrative

Ita O'Brien, an intimacy co-ordinator who worked on both I May Destroy You and Normal People, breaks down why the stigma around menstruation on-screen is finally disappearing.

by Rosie Humphrey
24 June 2020, 2:00pm

For too long, periods have been largely erased from broadcasting. When they do exist on screen it's often as a gruesome, cheap gag that yields sexist and misogynistic tropes -- as if our media is wholly grossed out by the normal reality of menstruation. That's one of the reasons why Michaela Coel’s biting new HBO comedy-drama series, I May Destroy You, has felt so historic since its release earlier this month. The series, which navigates stripped-down accounts of sexual assault, consent, female agency and victimhood, is also stripping away our unhealthy societal relationship with menstruation.

Episode three navigates pleasure and menstruation through a period-sex scene. The scene is intimate and realistic, and a million miles away from the crude and sensationalised TV shagging we're used to. Michaela's character Arabella engages in foreplay with Biagio (Marouane Zotti) before he sensitively asks if he can “take this thing out”, referring to a bloody tampon which, upon Arabella's confirmation, he removes with more nonchalance than most people exhibit buying a pint of milk. Innocent and inquisitive, Biagio plays with a blood clot on Arabella’s bedsheets without an ounce of repulsion which, unless we’ve been watching different programmes, is a first for TV. With a cult-like following, 'The Clot', as it’s been named by some fans on Twitter, has become a catalyst for a frank discussion around sex and a questioning of the collective narrative with which we approach period-sex. This blasé portrayal of what, even for many people who menstruate, might be a stomach-churning lesson in human biology is a huge step for women on screen and, hopefully, wider social discourse.

Working behind the scenes on achieving this realism is Ita O'Brien, an intimacy co-ordinator who recently worked on the similarly-acclaimed Normal People. Over Zoom she broke down what made the scene so very powerful and disruptive. "When you look for intimate scenes that feature menstruation, I haven’t found any where you can actually see the journey through to intercourse, with all the paraphernalia, the pads, the tampons and the clot being acted out," Ita says. “I have to thank Michaela for writing this for all the women in the world. What I love about the scene is that it’s not a big deal. She mentions it, it’s not sensationalised, it’s not horrific. In fact, the character of Biagio, his curiosity and interest is just so ground-breaking."

The scene was not just groundbreaking or educational for audiences either. "In my preparation with Marouane, who plays Biago, he was asking 'really, really does this happen?', and we were having a laugh about it", says Ita. "I said to Marouane, who is just the most beautiful soul, the madness is that half of the population in the world spend on average 40 years of their lives menstruating. That’s roughly 480 weeks in the lives of every person who menstruates and of course, that’s going to include our love-making and our sexual expression within some of those 480 weeks -- and when have we seen that on screen?"

Ita’s right. With options ranging from the scene in Superbad, which shows Jonah Hill’s character repeatedly gagging after finding period blood on his trousers, to the “heavy flow and a wide-set vagina” classic in Mean Girls, relatable period-sex content is hard to come by. This is why, as Ita explains, “it was very clearly written that, as the pants are coming off, Michaela wanted the pad to be seen. And then, as she's sat on the toilet, she’s seen putting the pad in [her pants], so again all of that paraphernalia that women go through is written as part of the fabric of Arabella’s everyday life and then in her intimate content. That is so important.”

Perhaps it’s the fact that Biagio is a drop-dead gorgeous drug dealer, a bonafide bad boy, that makes his sensitivity towards her bloody tampon so refreshing. In a moment that feels quietly revolutionary, he picks up the clot, playing with it in his fingers and commenting: “Wow, it’s so soft. When it comes out can you feel it?” It's an image that is visceral and confronting to an unsuspecting audience. Young people are often told that periods are ‘gross’ and ‘disgusting’ and so while Biagio shows zero repulsion many people will relate to Arabella’s awkwardness and embarrassment.

This disgust fosters a social reticence around discussions of menstruation that's mirrored on-screen, fuelling the unease that keeps menstrual issues out of public discourse. Tackling this lack of transparency, Gabby Edlin, founder of Bloody Good Period, provides period products and menstrual education to those least able to access it. "What is so glaringly brilliant is the neutrality to which menstruation is presented in the scene," she says. "It’s wonderful that some people love and enjoy their periods but not everyone has that luxury. Neutrality is a powerful stance to take.” Michaela's decision to write Biagio’s casual fascination and acceptance creates a shared vulnerability between the two characters and further works towards normalising menstruation and sex.

“One of the reasons why Michaela including the clot was so transformative was because even though her body is spectacular, Black women’s bodies, like women’s bodies but with different nuances, are policed and rarely seen on screen, especially doing normal human body things," explains Sophie Duker, comedian and host of the podcast ‘Obsessed with…’ "Seeing the clot was kind of like a little signal to people that bleed or people that have a body, that their body is recognised as a functioning working thing. That one little clot taught so much about self-acceptance and about acceptance from a lover or a partner.”

Interpretations of sex, gender and identity on-screen often bleed -- no pun intended -- into how we view ourselves in real life. Film and TV performances become our schooling for what is normative or aspirational and so ignoring the presence of periods, especially in sex scenes, helps shroud menstruation with feelings secrecy and shame. It is not a radical act to bleed: it’s the natural function of many bodies and, let’s face it, essential to the life cycle. While the characters of women on-screen are finally beginning to be written to be complex and flawed, their bodies are still too often restricted to one-dimensional performances of femininity. Petite and palatable, women’s bodies can’t simultaneously be sexy and functional. Missing out crucial nuances to some women’s experiences can impact the relationship we have with our own bodies and, ultimately, the sexual and romantic relationships we have with others.

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i may destroy you