period piece

A Brief History of Onscreen Periods

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photos by NBC, United Artists, HBO Max and Columbia Pictures

Until as recently as 1972, pads and tampons couldn’t be advertised on TV. When the ban was finally lifted, the ads were far from accurate — instead of blood, a blue liquid was used to show absorbency. It wasn’t until 13 years later, in 1985, that the word “period” (as a reference to menstruation) was even uttered on TV, by a pre-Friends Courtney Cox in a Tampax commercial.

The evolution of how we think and talk about periods has been both influenced and mirrored by depictions onscreen. While some TV shows and films have taken an empowering plunge into this everyday phenomenon experienced by more than half of the human population, there have been some hard misses along the way. From dramatized hysteria, a gendered approach that shuns the responsibility of male parents, and consistent awkwardness, our idea of what it means to get your period has literally been scripted.

Periods have traditionally been used as symbols in storytelling, usually to signal a character’s coming of age and often accompanied by disgust, fear, or shame. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that narrative, over time it’s built a subconscious image of how menstruation should be orchestrated and perceived. Very rarely is a period portrayed as what it is like for almost everyone who experiences it — mundane. These 11 portrayals of (fictional) periods onscreen show just how far we have come in exploring the full experience of menstruation.

Carrie (1976)

Carrie’s period scene is one of the most well-known in the history of film, and was the first to depict menstrual blood onscreen. Director Brian de Palma’s approach is intentionally gory, traumatic, and horrific. Carrie (Sissy Spacek) believes she’s bleeding to death as blood gushes down her leg in the shower, while her classmates throw tampons at her, screaming, “Plug it up!” The film mirrors the enduring perception of menstruation as something gross and embarrassing. It also has the added effect of alienating Carrie, who soon develops telekinetic abilities and seeks bloody revenge on those bullies.

The Blue Lagoon (1980)

What, exactly, characters in survival movies do about their periods is a classic question among moviegoers, and the 1980 romantic survival drama The Blue Lagoon takes a stab at an answer. Based on the 1908 novel, The Blue Lagoon follows two Victorian children who are shipwrecked on a tropical island in the South Pacific and live there alone, as they grow up together. Eventually Emmeline (Brooke Shields) gets her first period and
panics. When a curious and equally panicked Richard (Christopher Atkins) tries to examine it, she yells at him to go away. Again, a first period is used to symbolize a character’s coming of age, but also to drive a wedge between the two characters, as Richard accuses Emmeline of keeping secrets from him.

My Girl (1991)

In the classic coming-of-age film My Girl, Vada (Anna Chlumsky) mistakes her period for a hemorrhage. (It’s not the worst euphemism for a period I’ve ever heard.) Her dad’s girlfriend, Shelly (Jamie Lee Curtis), calms her down and explains the basics of the birds and the bees to her. She declares it “not fair” that “nothing happens to boys.” While it’s a sweet scene that serves to deepen a skeptical Vada’s bond with Shelly, it also reinforces the idea that sex education is a gendered role. Should single dad Harry (Dan Aykroyd) have talked to Vada about puberty before she got her first period? Absolutely. Would it have been uncomfortable? Probably! But that’s life — something that, incidentally, wouldn’t be possible without periods.

The Cosby Show (1984–1992)

One of the earliest examples of an empowering (and realistic) first period came in 1990 on The Cosby Show. Rudy (Keshia Knight Pulliam), the youngest of the family, gets her period for the first time in the season seven episode, “The Infantry Has Landed (and They’ve Fallen Off the Roof).” Clair (Phylicia Rashad) starts to plan a “Women’s Day” — a tradition in which the female Huxtables turn a family member’s first period into a celebration, rather than something to be ashamed or embarrassed by. But Rudy’s not interested, instead choosing to hang out with her friends, who scare her with urban legends, like a menstruating girl being kicked out of the circus because she was “upsetting the animals.” Clare eventually steps in, reassuring Rudy (and her friends) that periods are normal, natural, and important. (“People should be very happy when women get visits from their aunts, because if they didn’t, there would be no uncles.”) It’s a powerful scene representing the role that Black mothers, in particular, have in guiding their daughters through various aspects of their femininity, countering alternative ideas that they pick up elsewhere.

Braceface (2001–2004)

In one of the only instances of a period being portrayed in a show made explicitly for kids, Braceface’s Sharon gets her period while on a date with her crush, Alden. He mistakes her cramps for appendicitis, and calls an ambulance for her. Sharon returns home, mortified, and her brothers tease her about it, as brothers do. Josh, her younger brother, even wishes he could have periods, too, so he can ride in an ambulance. Ultimately Alden reassures her that he has sisters, so pads and tampons don’t faze him — a sweet conclusion that reassures young viewers that a period is nothing to be embarrassed about.

Friends (1992–2004)

In its ten years on air, while covering topics as mundane and relatable as roommate drama, awkward dates, and annoying bosses, Friends only mentioned periods once: when Monica and Chandler are discussing the best time to have sex to conceive.

Superbad (2007)

A comedy classic, Superbad has a classic period-shaming scene. Seth (Jonah Hill) is dancing with a drunk girl at a party when he notices that she’s bled onto his pants. His response, “I’m going to fucking throw up,” encapsulates the attitudes of disgust and shame associated with periods (especially from people who don’t menstruate) that remain to this day, 15 years after the scene was shot.

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Superheroes have periods too! We haven’t yet seen what Wonder Woman or Black Widow does when it’s her time of the month — the closest the menstrual cycle has come to being discussed in superhero movies is in Jeff Wadlow’s Kick-Ass 2. Appearing in both the film and its trailer, Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) beats up Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). While he’s moaning in pain, she quips, “Oh, take your tampon out, Dave.” It’s an attempt to demascluinize him — she’s implying that he’s a girl, and therefore weak. Surely superheroes can embrace their full powers without resorting to dated gender stereotypes.

Pad Man (2018)

Most of our portrayals of periods onscreen have focused on communities where period products are easily accessible and relatively cheap. But Padman, R. Balki’s film inspired by the life of entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham, provides a glimpse into the lives of people around the world whose access to period products is more tenuous. Akshay Kumar plays a fictionalized version of Muruganantham, who, after his wife tells him not to buy period products because they’re too expensive, invents a machine that can manufacture pads at a fraction of the cost of commercial brands. Along the way, he also learns about how stigmatized periods are, when his
friends and family ostracize him for being so “obsessed” with menstruation.

The Queen’s Gambit (2020)

The Queen’s Gambit’s period scene, in which chess prodigy Beth (Anya Taylor Joy) runs to the bathroom, blood streaming down her leg, while competing in a championship game, is yet another example of a first period being used to symbolize a character’s growth. As some critics have pointed out, at this point, in the year 2020, it’s ubiquitous to the point of being lazy.

I May Destroy You (2020)

Moving away from periods being used as unsubtle coming-of-age devices, I May Destroy You presents a much more empowering — and even sexy — take on periods. A take in which period blood is not sensationalized, it’s just portrayed as it is. Arabella (Michaela Coel) is about to hook up with Biagio (Marouane Zotti), and informs him that she’s on her period. He replies that it’s no problem, and after they put down a towel, he nonchalantly pulls a tampon, and then a blood clot, out of her. He reacts with curiosity rather than disgust, examining the blood and asking her questions about it. The casual rawness, authenticity, and relatability has earned its title as one of the
best period scenes on TV.

A Brief History of Onscreen Periods