Depictions of Menstruation in Mainstream Media
From traumatising and distressing depictions of characters’ first periods, to the use of menstruation as a derogatory punchline, it’s safe to say to that periods aren’t exactly well-represented in mainstream media. The power of these negative portrayals of menstruation can’t be underestimated – society’s understanding and perception of the world is increasingly shaped by the TV, film and other media we consume. Let’s take a closer look at the ways in which menstruation is portrayed on screen – and the impact of this OFF screen.
The shower scene in the original Carrie movie was the first depiction of menstrual blood on the big screen but honestly, it probably did more harm than good. When Carrie gets her period for the first time in the locker room, her classmates descend upon her, shouting ‘plug it up!’ and throwing tampons at her. This distressing – and frankly traumatic – depiction of Carrie’s first period feeds into the narrative that your period is something to fear.
When periods aren’t being depicted in a shameful or distressing way, they’re used as a comedic tool that mocks and ridicules a normal biological process. Superbad is one of the leading examples of this. After dancing with a girl, the main character identifies a period stain on his jeans. He proceeds to gag and retch while complaining about being ‘perioded on’. At the time, a feminist magazine proclaimed the scene as a ‘small victory for feminism’, but we have to (respectfully) disagree. Simply acknowledging periods exist is not ground-breaking or stigma-smashing – it’s the bare minimum.
This is not to say that any depiction of menstruation has to be devoid of humour. Take Broad City, for example. One of the characters, Ilana, wears jeans with fake period blood to smuggle marijuana through airport security and later attempts to hunt down a tampon on the airplane in what culminates in a hilarious season finale. New Girl also tackles PMS in a light-hearted yet respectful way in an episode titled ‘Menzies’. So don’t get me wrong, periods can make for a pretty hilarious punchline, but this can be done without sensationalising or shaming.
A character’s first period is often used as a tool to signal their coming-of age or transition to ‘womanhood’. We can’t help but feel this is overdone, and in 2023, a tad lazy. Examples of this include The Blue Lagoon, Game of Thrones, and, more recently, The Queen’s Gambit. While not particularly offensive or harmful, we feel as though it’s time we move away from using periods as unsubtle coming-of-age devices.
The period scene in I May Destroy You sets a high bar for how we portray periods on-screen and acts as an exemplar for other depictions of menstruation. It’s raw, realistic and one of very few (if not the only) portrayals of period sex in mainstream media. However, periods don’t need to be seen as sexy or empowering – sometimes, scenes that capture the awkwardness and discomfort of menstruation are just as powerful. Big Mouth has not one, but two, episodes that are centred around one of the character’s periods. Both episodes are refreshingly authentic and relatable, and tackle a wide range of period-related issues, like blood clots and wearing pads.
It's scenes like this that give us hope for the future of film and TV. Mainstream media may act as the first impression of menstruation for many, and has such a profound impact on societal attitudes towards periods. Periods being accurately and tastefully represented in TV and film will only further help break down stigma and smash the taboos that exist around reproductive health.