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Menstruation Needs Better Representation

June 11 | Written by Madi Hanaka (She/Her)

In the 1974 film Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a family of killer cannibals torment a group of travelling teenagers. In the groundbreaking 1980s horror film Jaws, a vicious shark preys on beach-goers, tearing them apart limb from limb. In the 2000s, Saw stole the spotlight, a twisted serial killer who tortures his victims in creative, chilling ways… but none of these notorious villains stand a fighting chance against Hollywood’s most feared enemy: the period. 

Menstruation’s varied depictions throughout film and television history have very rarely been positive or accurate representations of women’s authentic experiences. In Hollywood, periods are the cherry on top - no pun intended - of any “quality comedic scene, and the ultimate source of horror for its witnesses. In order to explore period representation, we’ve rounded up a few examples of how menstruation has been shown on-screen. Through analyzing these scenes, we hope to expose past period-related content for what it is - a bloody mess - and draw attention to a few other contemporary examples that are doing it right. 

One particularly distasteful period scene comes from 2013 comedy Movie 43. Middle schooler Amanda has the unfortunate luck of experiencing her period for the first time while visiting a male friend. As she bleeds through her jeans, the friend and his teenage brother react in absolute shock and horror. Even their father displays his discomfort as he describes her act of bleeding as “disgusting”.

Another memorable scene comes from late-night comedy Superbad. After dancing closely with a woman, main character Seth is ridiculed by his male friends for the period stain on his jeans. Soon enough, he becomes the laughing stock of the party, and flees the scene - gagging at the thought of the menstrual fluid on his leg. 

In some cases, not a single drop of menstrual blood has to be shown on screen in order to have an impact. Claire, Hailey and Alex - main female characters in the popular sitcom Modern Family - are the center of a joke in one opening scene: All the women in the house are shown to have “synced up” their menstrual cycles, employing the classic trope of the erratic PMS-ing female. By linking menstruation to extreme irritability, this trope invalidates women’s emotions and influences the audience to believe that whenever a woman is on her period, she should be expected to exhibit volatile and unstable behaviour.

Though easy to see these examples as harmless jokes, through a more critical lens they aren’t as lighthearted as they seem. In order to present menstruation in a digestible way - likely with the hopes of appealing to a male audience -  these scenes reinforce false generalizations about menstruation. By playing into the taboo-nature of the topic for the sake of a joke, period-related scenes in media work to further perpetuate a negative stigma around what should be considered a normal bodily function.  

If menstrual bleeding is routinely depicted in terrifying, embarrassing, and distressing ways, then of course female audiences would believe that getting your period is exactly that: an absolute horror show. 

Thankfully, there has been a slight shift in a more accepting, period-positive direction. One example of this new wave of menstruation representation can be seen in this clip from the hit web series Broad City, where main character Ilana not only acknowledges period stigma, but also reclaims her power by using it to her advantage. 

Netflix’s animated series Big Mouth also tackles the conversation of menstruation through comedy. The show highlights the importance of maintaining open discourse with children around these “taboo” topics by exemplifying conversations between a mother and daughter and between male friends. This scene addresses some of the fear and reluctance that young people can experience when talking about menstruation.

Another excellent example of period-positivity can be seen in the 2016 film 20th Century Women. Main character Abbie has an extremely candid conversation about her menstrual cycle at the dinner table. Met with some hesitation from family members, she directly addresses period stigma; Abbie firmly states the importance of understanding women’s experiences and becoming comfortable talking about menstruation.

When telling personal stories about menstruation, film and television content creators cannot use a one size fits all approach. Media can be a useful tool for sharing information about women’s bodies, but this information needs to be accurate. As more media creators rise to the challenge of representing menstruation in a positive way, audiences will not only see their own realities reflected on-screen, but learn from each other’s diverse experiences.