Throughout history, ads, TV shows, movies, news, and product packaging have often sent the message that periods make people less capable. It is common for TV shows to have episodes that feature women “going crazy” while they’re on their period. Jokes like these send the message to men (and women) that women who are on their period are out of control, emotional, and irrational.
There is also the problem of the lack of conversation around menstruation on TV, period. In the 10 years of airtime for the hit sitcom Friends, “only once did producers see fit to mention periods — when Chandler and Monica are figuring out the best time to have sex to get pregnant (‘The One Where Rachel Has a Baby’),” writes Chemmie Squier in Grazia. This despite the fact that the “series existed for 3,650 days, and 840 of those days would have involved at least one of them being on their period,” Squier adds, referring to the three main female characters, Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe. This lack of acknowledgment of menstruation as a very natural and routine part of life in a show that is about candid friendships and everyday experiences is problematic (or, at least, very telling) because it advances the taboo, encouraging people to stay silent about menstruation.
I certainly received lots of negative pop-culture messages about periods as a kid. Like most of my classmates, I grew up watching Family Guy, which often treated periods like they’re shameful to have. For example, as Catherine Pearson writes in the Huffington Post, in one episode, “Stewie reads a book about menstruation and calls it ‘the most disgusting thing I’ve seen in my entire life!’”
The good news is that in just the past few years we have seen a wave of media redefine the period experience. Changing media portrayals of menstruators is a crucial aspect of changing public opinion and making menstruation an open conversation, so that menstruators aren’t held back from reaching their full potential. There is no question that menstruation (on a universal and global level) is taboo as a subject of conversation right now — and so the first step toward making progress is to just get people talking about periods.
Elizabeth Yuko, a writer and bioethicist and the health and sex editor of SheKnows Media, says pop culture is a powerful “entry point to discussion” and thus a very powerful tool for changing the way we think and talk about periods. Yuko also teaches a class at Fordham University called Ethics and Pop Culture and makes it a point to devote a few sessions to talking about menstruation in the media. She says the topic always makes some male students visibly uncomfortable. To ease the discomfort, Elizabeth says, the best way for periods to be presented is in a lighthearted fashion and “injected with a bit of humor.”
It is only very recently, though, that media has even been able to mention, much less discuss, menstruation. In an article for SheKnows, Yuko declared that “2017 Was a Big Year for Periods on TV,” and it’s true — from Netflix’s Anne of Green Gables adaptation, where Anne questions having to skip school because of her period, to Netflix’s GLOW episode where two of the main characters engage in period sex and the man holds that up as proof that he really likes the woman. Also in GLOW, the women wrestlers “swap tampons and maxi pads and talk about how ridiculous the diaper-like pads are” when they’re all in the locker room together, writes Carli Velocci in TheWrap. The topic of period sex got some notable airtime in the musical TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend when an entire musical number was dedicated to “period sex.”
ABC’s hit show Black-ish also has a strong period moment, when young “Diane gets her first period at school and all the women in her family try — in their own unique ways — to help her,” Yuko writes. In reality, Diane “knows what she’s doing” and doesn’t really need any help at all. Her mom, Rainbow, tells Diane her own period story of being kept home from school by her mom when she got her period, “because it meant she was ‘dirty.’” This is a powerful portrayal of how ideas around menstruation and the female body are changing, and changing fast.
That episode of Black-ish was broadcast 27 years after the character Rudy Huxtable got her first period in an episode of The Cosby Show. Similar to the Black-ish story, Rudy gets her first period and resists help from her mother, Clair, because she trusts the information she’s already gotten from her friends. Just like Black-ish does, this episode of The Cosby Show highlights the progress society has already made in terms of girls talking about their periods. Clair recounts that when she was growing up, menstruation was treated as “the horror.” Both shows note that “this milestone means something beautiful,” writes Jen Chaney for Vulture, that these young women “can someday have [their] own children.” Unique to Black-ish, though, is that the portrayal of menarche “hints at how this rite of passage can become a gateway to female empowerment,” since the male characters notice that Diane has become “even more fiery than usual,” with a sort of heightened power.
Menarche—a girl’s first period—also got airtime in mainstream media on Netflix’s animated series Big Mouth in 2017. The second episode featured the character Jessi getting her first period while on a field trip to the Statue of Liberty. While hiding in the bathroom because of the bloodstain on her white shorts, Jessi “turns to an animate Statue of Liberty, who moans, ‘Periods are nothing but pain and misery,’” writes Rebecca Farley for Refinery29. As Farley points out, this storyline is a representation of “the female side of puberty humor, comedy real estate that’s sparsely populated. For every 10 jokes about balls dropping and voices cracking, we hear maybe one about the terrors of becoming a woman during adolescence.”
Elizabeth Yuko calls Comedy Central’s Broad City another great example of a TV show that introduces its audience to much-needed conversations about periods. The two comedians behind the show, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, who play imaginary versions of themselves, brilliantly represent the hilarity and absurdity that can come with menstruation, while at the same time pointing out the very real problems of the period stigma.
In season three, Ilana uses her “period pants” — a pair of jeans with a comically large bloodstain on the crotch — “to sneak weed through airport security,” writes Meg Zulch for Bustle. She explains to Abbi that “she wore the pants to prevent further questioning from TSA officials so she could successfully smuggle weed to their vacation destination, stored snugly in her vagina.” And it works. While the TSA dog does start to sniff around her vagina, the officer has the dog back off immediately after he sees the large bloodstain. The scene was relatable, eye-opening, and super funny — all at the same time. I laughed while I watched it, both from the comedy of the scene and also in recalling how I used to do something similar (along with all my friends in middle school). We would get out of gym class every day by telling our older male teacher that we were menstruating — and he never questioned the idea that we were on our periods 24/7 (all of us, at the same time, all the time). He just accepted that it made us unable to participate in physical activity. We totally took advantage of it — which, if anything, accelerates the idea that periods make menstruators less capable. It is angering that the stigma around menstruation is so strong that women can in some instances operate within the taboo to our advantage, and men often will not even engage in conversation because they’re uncomfortable.
All of these period-positive TV depictions come a decade after menarche appeared in the movie Superbad, starring Michael Cera and Jonah Hill. In the movie, “Seth (Jonah Hill) dances with a girl at a party. He’s pleased with this achievement — until she leaves, and Seth discovers a small period blood stain on his jeans,” Farley writes. “He’s disgusted… In laughing at the joke, we sympathize with Seth, who’s grossed out. We should really be empathizing with the girl, though. After all, the joke is at the expense of her exploring her sexuality at a party when her period ruins the whole encounter. It hinges on shame.” There’s a stark contrast between the female-led period comedies and this earlier depiction in a film released only a decade earlier.
So, in 10 years, we have made tremendous progress in redefining the first period experience as something that young women feel prepared for (often to the surprise of their close family members) and something that centers less on shame and more on candor, empathy, humor, and celebration. Of course, away from males and out of the public eye, women and girls have always laughed about menstruation with their friends — because sometimes it’s really funny! It’s fantastic that, finally, this kind of menstrual humor, as opposed to the shaming kind, is making it into the public sphere.