These days, we’ve got a handful of strong, female characters in our fictional arsenal— but many are still rooted in sexual plot devices or expounding on child-producing woes. Sometimes they are gifted with a plot that doesn’t directly pertain to their relative sex appeal, but even then it’s often because they are one of many “She’s an odd girl and that’s what makes her beautiful” tropes (see: Manic Pixie Dream Girl).
Of all the things about women on TV that could grind my gears, what really irks me is that none of these women seem to menstruate.
I mean, many of them get pregnant so therefore they must be having periods…but off-screen, relegated to other acts of womanly witchery that shall never be seen.
It occurs to me that for most women, their periods come and go relatively unnoticed. They’re a minor annoyance that Midol can usually tame. But for many of us (1 in 10 conservatively of we’re talking about endometriosis one of many conditions that causes dysmenorrhea) our monthly —or mostly monthly sometimes bimonthly or 3 weeks in a row, who knows anymore— period impacts our day to day lives in ways that a little Tylenol can’t fix.
In fact for many women, narcotics don’t even touch the pain.
Of all the fictional female characters in circulation, do you mean to tell me that not one of them — is one of us?
We constantly hear the same rhetoric about women on their periods: they’re dysfunctional, emotional, IRRATIONAL. Menstruation is our lot in life, que sera sera.
In reality, we’ve normalized this suffering to the point where women appear to thrive in spite of it. They perform. They mother. They are lovers and bosses and Carpool Queens. They suffer in silence because that’s what they’ve been taught. That’s the expectation.
Having a period makes you inherently weak, but the only thing weaker than menstruating is “complaining about it.”
And all these conveniently amenorrheic female characters just further the cultural perception that we shouldn’t talk about our periods.
That no one cares.
Not even those who are having them.
You know who probably has terrible periods?
Maybe she didn’t always, but with all the stress in her life I would bet serious money that she’s got severe dysmenorrhea that she’s been forced to ignore, despite the fact that she’s a medical professional herself.
Not that I want to saddle her with more misery, since she’s had a pretty miserable fictional life, but somewhere in that alternate universe of Memorial Grey-Sloan there must be scenes of Meredith Grey clutching a hot water bottle to her abdomen while her kids fuss in the next room. Maybe she’s vomiting from the pain. Or having diarrhea in the middle of the night. Maybe she has to lock herself in an on-call room, clutching a cold metal instrument tray as cramps tear through her — as bad as labor pain, but lacking the validation of childbearing.
How many times has she (or Cristina or Izzy or Arizona) bled through their flimsy scrubs? How could one not, standing up in an OR for 12 + hours — !?
(also: how do surgical residents not get TSS?)
All those locker room sequences where they’re openly talking sex could have also been used to discuss menstruation. At the very least I’m sure Cristina and Mer’s cycles had synced up (okay, I admit that the McClinktock Effect hasn’t been vetted in scientific literature, but almost everyone I’ve met has experienced this at one time or another if they’ve lived with other women).
What we didn’t see in the day-to-night-to-day lives of Seattle Grace’s interns, its residents and its promising young doctors, were the exchanges of emergency tampons, the nausea-inducing cramps, the double-pad-and-a-tampon-days of heavy flows that threatened to put the kibosh on McSexytimes.
Sure, we got some pregnancy scares, some “I’m Late” tropes, we had some conversations about women’s health issues in the form of patients, of fertility struggles — and Grey’s Anatomy, being a medical drama, was perfectly positioned to make menstruation second-nature on screen.
Blood + guts being its thing, after all.
What with the six-episode revival of my all-time favorite show, and thus, my all-time favorite fictional female, I couldn’t possibly write a piece like this without theorizing about the state of FBI Agent / Medical Doctor Dana Scully’s uterus.
If you’re even vaguely familiar with the sci-fi drama — either from the original nine seasons or the fresh tenth—you’ll remember that Scully was abducted, rendered barren, then miraculously conceived a child with Fox Mulder, her FBI partner and ~*confirmed BAE*~.
So, yeah. She’s got a pretty interesting reproductive history to begin with. To me, the real conspiracy is how the hell did she spend ten of her most fertile years chasing aliens with Mulder without ever asking him to stop at a rest stop somewhere outside of Tulsa so that she could get tampons — ?
I’m sure it was at least partially to do with the fact that I was *ob-sessed* with this show for practically my entire adolescence, but these were things that I did earnestly think about. Would it have really made Scully less of a badass if she menstruated? In the predominantly male bullpen of the FBI, would her period be just another reason to josh her, to claim she was the weaker sex and therefore couldn’t perform the job as well? Despite the fact that she kept pace with Mulder, doing everything he did and in high heels?
The only thing that would have made me more impressed with Scully would have been to see her tackling government conspiracies, chasing were-monsters through deep woods and keeping herself from strangling Mulder while having killer cramps and trying to find a convenient time to change her tampon during a heated interrogation.
Scully set the stage for fictional badass, crime-fighting gals on TV. One being SVU’s Olivia Benson, who is arguably the best-positioned character on TV to have really stark conversations about menstruation. Often dealing with victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, Benson is the sex-positive character that we need not just in these situations, but in the more global scheme where real women are being victimized every day.
Benson’s seemingly contrarian empathy + toughness is one of the things that makes her one of the most compelling, and realistically complex, female characters on television. The struggle is real for women everywhere who feel that getting emotionally invested in situations is mutually exclusive to being “a tough nut to crack”. Olivia Benson is proof that these traits coexist, often in a symbiosis of emotional resiliency.
Something tells me that if asked, Benson wouldn’t hesitate to talk about her preference for the Diva Cup — all the while advocating for young women to explore their menstrual sanitation (though I loathe that word) options and realizing that they don’t necessarily have to be committed to one for their entire life. Their lives will change and so too will their period needs.
Give me a five minute sequence with Benson explaining to a young woman who is recovering from sexual abuse and isn’t comfortable with tampons anymore that she has every right to start using menstrual pads, cups or whatever she discovers she’s most comfortable with.
Maybe she’s interviewing a young woman who, upon taking a break, realizes she’s started her period and she’s unprepared. You can’t tell me that Benson wouldn’t take a tampon from her personal stash to give to the girl. In fact, she’s probably got a stash of all nature of period products and she’d ask the girl what her preferences are first.
When Downton starts, it’s 1912 — so, end of the Victorian era (but only just) and the beginning of the Edwardian era which was defined by Rose DeWitt Bukater-esque hats. The fashion of the era was, for upperclass women anyway, lavish and extraordinary.
1914 marked the end of La Belle Epoque, but many of those styles continued on a few more years — and the corset persisted even longer, continuing to evolve seemingly of its own volition.
The truth about these gorgeous gowns, though, was that the women who wore them routinely bled straight into their petticoats and chemises.
Rural women, and those who worked for a living, did often attempt to pad up their underthings to absorb menstrual blood — and the only demographic of women who were actually using rudimentary menstrual pads were those employed as actresses, dancers and performers.
Still, upperclass women and socialites wandered through their grand manor homes and ballrooms in their finest jewels, all the while having bled into their chemises for days in a row without changing them. And when they did? Well, they certainly weren’t going to be the ones to clean it up. That would have been tasked to their Lady’s Maid.
It makes sense that at least in the upstairs scenes of Downton, anything as scandalous as menstruation would never have be spoken of. But I’d think, especially in the earlier seasons when sharp-tongued Lady’s Maid Sarah O’Brien ruled the roost downstairs, we could have been treated to at least a few gripes and groans about Her Ladyship’s soiled bloomers.
In later seasons, the relationship between Lady-and-Lady’s-Maid is further defined as a conspiring one when Mary requests that Anna procure her some birth control, — which was far more scandalous than getting her period!
Actually, it would have been far more interesting to talk about how the women in service handled their menstrual cycles. Often working 14+ hour days —in shared living quarters, no less — the menstrual lives of those women would have been far more varied and complex.
In fact, many young girls entered service as scullery maids when they were eleven, twelve or thirteen and the average age for starting your period was much older than it is today — closer to fifteen, sixteen and seventeen.
Many of the young women working downstairs at Downton probably started their periods during their employment there and may never have received “the talk.” More than likely it would have fallen to an older maid or even the housekeeper to make sure the girl knew not just about proper hygiene, but the implications of menstruating: namely, that she’d become a fertile being seemingly overnight and that getting pregnant would most certainly end with her employment being terminated.
On Downton, the one maid who experienced this fate became a “fallen woman” (read: a prostitute) as a direct result of her unintended pregnancy.
Although, during this period in history Germ Theory was gaining significant traction and many doctors assumed that periods were gross and potentially disease-spreading. The early models of menstrual sanitation — the closest thing that the Crawley ladies would have had — were cumbersome devices that were probably intimidating enough to adult women, let alone young girls who were often working long hours in factories or manor homes.
When you look at the options, it’s really not all that surprising that most women opted to use nothing at all. Especially if they had a Lady’s Maid.
Perhaps the tome of sexuality in the Downton Abbey age was Marie Stopes’ Married Love, which makes brief mention of menstruation as it pertains to a woman’s fertility, and to differentiate between “menstruation” and “period of desire”:
“The whole subject is so complex and so little studied that it is difficult to enter upon it at all without going into many details which may seem remote or dull to the general reader. Even a question which we must all have asked, and over which we have probably pondered in vain — namely, what is menstruation? — cannot yet be answered. To the lay mind it would seem that this question should be answerable at once by any doctor; but many medical men are still far from being able to reply to it even approximately correctly.”
Of course, even if the ladies of Downton Abbey were to discuss menstruation, it would have been shrouded in euphemisms (as most things were at that time in history) Or, used to warrant a proper diagnosis of hysteria, since menstruation was directly linked to a woman’s mental wellness.
Lady Mary, then, may have avoided a trip to a “nice Swiss sanitarium” by making no qualms about her period — or, in the hush-hush of her room, merely mention in passing to Anna that she’s “Not Quite Well” on account of her “Monthlies” lest she wind up with the nickname Bloody Mary.