Guest Post by Lauren Rosewarne, University of Melbourne
Exploring missing menstruation on screen
Periods are depicted far more often on screen than I could have ever imagined; perhaps the biggest surprise I got from spending a year researching the topic.
Less surprising however, was that most presentations depict menstruation as the messy, embarrassing, sex-interrupting, mood-swing-inducing week-long hell ride that women have grown to expect from Hollywood.
While 200 scenes were many more than I expected, given that nearly all women will menstruate monthly for some thirty-odd years, 200 scenes actually isn’t all that many.
While most of Periods in Pop Culture focuses on what those scenes themselves reveal about society’s fraught relationship with periods, one chapter in fact explores the why so few portrayals. Given how very common and normal it is, why is the topic so frequently eschewed?
I proposed a handful of reasons including Hollywood’s aversion to telling female stories, narrative distraction, and the show don’t tell nature of the screen. In this post I offer two other explanations: menstruation as a non-event and political correctness.
As one of the millions of girls who got an (albeit long outdated) menstrual education from Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?, I learnt that some girls apparently eagerly await their first period kinda like Christmas. I wasn’t like Margaret. I didn’t pine for it, and when I got it I didn’t look down at my underpants and throw my head back in delight like Debbie (Nell Schofield) in the Australian film Puberty Blues (1981): for me it was a non-event.
The non-event nature of menstruation appears a central explanation for its absence.
In an episode of sitcom The Golden Girls (1985–1992), Sophia (Estelle Getty) reflected on her periods: “I got it, no one told me. I didn’t get it, no one told me. I figured, this is life, and went back to my meatballs.” In this scene, Sophia reflects that many women don’t see any overwhelmingly need to talk about menstruation or complain about it or even to honor it, but that it is simply something that needs to be gotten on with.
Aside from those times when pregnancy is feared or desired, there are few occasions when menstruation is experienced as particularly memorable or gets bestowed with any great significance. I think this fact significantly underpins its absence on screen.
Thinking of menstruation as somehow naturally insignificant or uninteresting however, would be premature. In the film To Sir With Love (1967), there is a scene where teacher Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) reprimanded girls who he believed burnt a menstrual product in his classroom: “A decent woman keeps things private. Only a filthy slut would have done this!” Here, Thackeray refers to the most important rule of menstruation: concealment. On screen, if audiences see menstruation or if a character identifies as bleeding, she has neglected her most important gender burden. By infrequently portraying menstruation, the secrecy imperative is upheld. When women downplay the significant of their periods, when they believe their periods are uninteresting, internalized sexism is highlighted.
Another explanation for missing menstruation is so-called political correctness; that avoiding it reflects the contemporary dictums of liberal feminism: shunning topics which play up differences between men and women.
Given that menstruation is so common and that so many taboos exist surround it, it might be assumed that including it in narratives would be a feminist act. The flipside of this however, is that doing so might do gender equality a disservice; that presenting it reminds audiences of biological inequalities between men and women.
In a scene from the series Californication (2007-), Hank (David Duchovny) is about to have sex with his daughter’s teacher Mrs. Patterson (Justine Bateman). As they undress, Mrs. Patterson says, “Just so you know, I’m on my period.” Mrs. Patterson didn’t – and likely in our culture couldn’t — automatically assume that Hank would be fine and thus gave him an exit strategy. By mentioning menstruation in a sex scene, it existed as a glaring biological power imbalance; that an opportunity was offered for Hank to reject her on the basis of her biology.
By excluding menstruation, a female character can be interpreted as having the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with her male counterpart; that she can be as sexually aggressive as she likes and not have to query whether her partner is bothered by her period. In turn, she doesn’t get limited by her biology.
Predictably, there are some serious limitations to this argument. On screen and off, women’s biology is ever present. Eliminating reference to menstruation certainly doesn’t make female characters any less female; in fact, disproportionate inclusion of, and focus on women who are stereotypically feminine demonstrates that biological differences between men are women continue to be crucially important on screen.
Over 200 scenes of menstruation did indeed surprise me, although admittedly it’s quite a bit sad that it did. Given how common menstruation is, given that the good majority of women cope each month without drama, fanfare or hijinks, one might expect that more presentations – notably more normal presentations – would redden our screens.
Dr Lauren Rosewarne is a political scientist based at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of four books; her newest, Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television, will soon be published by Lexington Books.