Posted on August 12, 2015

Menstruation in Popular Culture: Part 1

Elizabeth

The spectre of menstruation in horror films has long been problematic. From the shameful and mocked first period of the titular character in Carrie (1976) to its role as the trigger that leads Ginger to sexually assault a boy in Ginger Snaps (2000), menstruation in horror is often used as a visual identifier of the threat women and their sexuality pose to society. With that in mind, I have been interested in looking at how this threat plays out on television and whether the perceived horror is any different from that found within horror films.

The penultimate episode of Season 5‘s Mad Men, entitled “Commissions & Fees,” featured the suicide of a popular character in a scene where the viewer was treated to numerous close-up shots of his bruised, rigid body. It was also the episode where Sally started to menstruate. Since I study fandom, I was curious to see how this episode was being read by fans online. The results were surprising. Many a fan expressed sadness over the loss of a favorite character but it was the reaction to Sally I found most intriguing. Numerous posters on Twitter referred to the scene where Sally discovers blood in her underwear as “obscene,” “crossing the line,” and “filthy.” But what really struck me was the word I saw most often used online: gross. It made me wonder what it was about a small drop of blood that caused viewers to react so viscerally. Certainly, the scene of Sally experiencing her first period is par for the course for a show that continually pushes the boundaries.

Sally in Mad Men

Sally in Mad Men

Nor is it the case that the sight of Sally’s bloodied underwear is an anomaly when compared to the network’s other popular fare. This is, after all, the same network where depictions of people being disemboweled (The Walking Dead), mutilated (Breaking Bad), and splashed with blood from their murder victims (The Killing) are routine images.

So what exactly is it in the sight of a small dollop of red blood that causes viewers suddenly to become squeamish?

The answer likely resides in how our culture approaches menstruation.

Ginger in Ginger Snaps

Ginger in Ginger Snaps

Overall, television doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to portraying menstruating young women. All too often, it’s positioned in the show as an opportunity for humor. For example, Beverly Hills 90210, Californication and 7th Heaven all used a character’s first menstruation for comedic effect. One reason for this could be that these shows are the products of the male mind, as they were conceived, written and directed by men. Young girls, who were at first safe from the male gaze, become women and were suddenly cast in the position of the “other,” a position traditionally occupied by women in popular culture.

Emma on Degrassi

Emma on Degrassi

Even shows that presumably should have a female-centric viewpoint fall prey to the trap of menstruation played for comedy. Roseanne and Degrassi, arguably two of the best television shows to portray growing up female on television, used the experience of the first period as a moment of levity. Granted, some would note that these shows are comedies and therefore excuse the narrative by suggesting that menstruation as comedy is perfectly fitting, but this argument ignores the overall nature of the shows cited. Each of the aforementioned shows was successful because they depicted both the comedic and the dramatic moments that make up the human experience. The audience is aware of that track record going in and so when the decision is made to showcase menstruation as straight comedy, the audience reads the moment as not significant, as not deserving a full-bodied treatment like other substantial life moments.

One show that did attempt to illustrate both the humor and the psychology underlining a female’s first experience with menstruation was The Cosby Show. For the Cosby Show’s Rudy, her newfound awkwardness with her father, a gynecologist used to discussing such matters, as well as its positioning as a celebratory moment by both the male and female characters of the show, helped the episode avoid positioning Rudy in the role of “other.” To derive its humor, the show played with the ridiculous old wives tales associated with menstruation rather than mocking the act itself and its psychological ramifications.

Some of the fan reaction suggested that Sally’s reaction to getting her period was melodramatic in that she fled from the museum to return to her mother’s arms. I find this reading baffling. Certainly the time period of Mad Men was one in which menstruation was considered taboo for polite society. The notion of celebrating menstruation or, even worse, involving the father in the discussion is consistent with the late 50s/early 60s mentality. In many ways, Rudy’s reaction to getting her period is a natural evolution to Sally’s reaction made possible by the Women’s Movement.

PicMonkey Collage

Interestingly, quite a few comments made reference to the book Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, Judy Blume’s wonderful coming-of-age young adult book. In one scene that has become such a part of popular culture that the book is now synonymous with menstruation, the main character, Margaret, experiences her first period. The experience is depicted as a victory of sorts for a character who longs to be a woman and “catch up” with her peers. Yet, YA books such as this are few and far between. For every The House on Mango Street and its positive depiction of menstruation, there is a Carrie waiting in the wings.

Unlike television that tends to write off menstruation as a laughable and ultimately forgettable plot device, literature tends to emphasize the looming threat in the shift from girl to woman. Consider Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, in which Pecola’s first experience with menstruation at a younger than average age sets in motion a horrific series of events. Similarly, Cecilia’s first experience with menstruation, also from the same book, proves so traumatic to her that, unable to exist in the space between child and woman, she commits suicide soon after. The messages that popular culture sends to adolescent females straddling the space between childhood and womanhood are, on whole, dismissive and marginalizing—if not outright traumatizing.

Carrie

Carrie

Much is made about horror films vilifying women through their use of menstruation as a curse, or worse, a biological inevitability that leads to certain madness. But with television, young adult novels, and even female-centered publications such as Jezebel emphasizing the “otherness” of menstruation, criticizing horror above all other media makes little sense.

In Part 2, we’ll look at what it is about horror films, and their particular representations of menstruation, which makes them such a target for criticism.

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