Note: Inspiration for the following observation came from research and writing done by a former student of mine, Bob Newman, whose thorough analysis of the menstrual elements in adult TV cartoons is the source of the critique.
It is likely, at least for women who grew up from 1970 onward, that the most widely known menstrual reference in popular culture is Judy Blume’s path breaking 1970 kid-lit novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. (For men and the general public the most widely known is probably the 1974 novel by Stephen King, Carrie, and its several film adaptations.)
More recently, the venue in which menstrual details appear most frequently is surely the long-running TV series, South Park. As befits a program whose very raison d’être is the evisceration of social taboos, received wisdom, cant, and established beliefs (not to mention a random selection of celebrities and customs), menstruation has repeatedly come in for its share of attention. So it is no surprise that Trey Parker, one of the series’ creators, would write a script that brings together the well known Judy Blume novel with menstrual taboos and ignorance in the Season 3, Episode 16 show titled Are you there God? It’s me, Jesus.
Readers familiar with the famous novel will recall that, among the many pubescent concerns they have, the girls in the book are anxious to the point of competitiveness about getting their periods, the crucially important indication that they are becoming women. They gossip and even fib about who “got it” first, and important story elements concern their school viewing of a menstrual education film and shopping for menstrual products. With this in mind, the South Park episode offers what might be seen as a raunchy version of Gloria Steinem’s essay, If Men Could Menstruate. It starts off this way (script slightly edited for length):
CARTMAN: You guys! You guys! Guess what?
KYLE: What, fatass!?
CARTMAN: I’ve become a man! I started puberty, you guys!
STAN: No you didn’t!
CARTMAN: Yes! I really did.
STAN: How do you know?
CARTMAN: Well, because yesterday I got my period.
KYLE: You got your what?
CARTMAN: My period, you guys. You see, there comes a time in every child’s life when they grow up and nature takes its course by having you bleed out your ass for a few days every month.
STN: You’re making that up! (women enter from behind Eric) Miss Aliton, what’s it mean to get a period?
MISS ALITON: Well boys, ah-I don’t think I can tell you. Ah-
STAN: Please, it’s important.
MISS ALITON: It’s when puberty hits and you bleed, you know, down there.
KYLE: Holy shit, dude! Cartman’s right!
CARTMAN: Well guys, I’m afraid I won’t be able to hang out with you on New Year’s Eve. I have to hang out with the older crowd because now, I’m ma-ture. I got my period, and you guys didn’t. I got my period, and you guys didn’t.
STAN: Dude, Cartman can’t hit puberty before us.
KYLE: Well, maybe we’ll get ours soon, too. I’m gonna go and see if I’m bleeding out my ass.
It turns out that the reason for Eric Cartman’s condition is a stomach virus that causes rectal bleeding; however, all of the boys are so envious of Cartman’s new status as a pubescent young man that the rest of the episode is spent charting their anxiety at not also having blood coming from the ass and trying to find out what a period is and how to deal with it. One of the boys, Kyle, even lies about bleeding so he can have the status that it bestows. And the “Margaret” of the show becomes Stan who goes about his days asking adults to explain to him what “getting your period” means, only to be met with confusing or evasive answers. The adult who is usually the most helpful in explaining the mysteries of adulthood to them, Chef, sings a song about the period but it is of no help in dealing with Stan’s fear of being left behind his menstruating friends.
Again echoing a scene in Are You There God?, the boys go shopping for menstrual products only to become even more confused when faced with the plethora of products that line the shelves of the store. Kenny, the boy who gets killed in every episode, tries to follow the directions for tampon use and inserts it in his anus, causing him to eventually explode as he fills up with feces.
Finally, Stan becomes so frustrated in trying to get an explanation of what the period is and why he has not yet gotten one himself that he prays to Jesus for an answer. But Jesus, being a man after all, is of no help either. Finally, God intervenes and answers Stan’s questions as well as telling him that Cartman really has a virus and Kyle is faking.
The program accomplishes several of its satiric intentions by creating a parody of Judy Blume’s novel and at the same time laying out the various ways the menstrual cycle continues to be a taboo topic that children have a natural curiosity about but that adults turn into a dark mystery, particularly for boys. I wonder how the designers of health education curricula and lesson plans would feel about showing this piece in tandem with the usual corporate sponsored “Becoming A Woman” videos that are the major source of sex education in most schools.