When I turn on the TV for a little R&R to unwind after a long day, I’m greeted with so much I can relate to. Characters’ bodies are more representative of reality than ever before, there’s more racial diversity, and I can find shows that I connect with pretty easily. But even with all the progress the TV industry has made, one thing still stands out to me as incredibly bizarre—why is barely anyone getting their period?
Yes, periods have been featured more on TV lately, but they usually exist simply as a plot device. One of the biggest moments I can remember is when Emma Simpson, a main character on the teen drama “Degrassi,” gets her period for the first time while wearing a white skirt. Naturally, as the medium of television is wont to do, they dramatize it by having menstrual blood seep through her shorts—a personal childhood nightmare of mine. But the way it’s depicted feels over the top and unrealistic. While the bright-red spot on her crisp-white skirt probably wouldn’t happen quite that way in real life, the scene served the episode and allowed Emma to deliver this killer line: "Menstruation. It happens to about, oh, 50% of the population. Perfectly normal and nothing to be ashamed about."
If I think back to other TV portrayals of getting your period, there’s more of the same. When you look at some of the biggest TV and movie moments in menstruation, the vast majority function only to move the plot forward in some way. Periods bring families together, their timing alerts the lead to a potential pregnancy, and they embarrass characters in front of their peers. Only one of the episodes listed, “Menzies” on “New Girl,” tries to capture what the experience is actually like. But even in that episode, Jess’ period was an obstacle to getting a job as a teacher—not simply a part of her life as a person who menstruates.
We spend an average of 3,000 days of our lifetimes menstruating, so why is its depiction on TV relegated to shock value or momentary setbacks? Lauren Rosewarne, the author behind “Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television,” says that “we don’t tend to show any kind of bathroom event on screen and thus periods are no different.” I respectfully disagree. On more “daring” TV at least, we’ve seen characters peeing and showering without meaningfully moving the plot forward. (“Broad City,” another show that has featured menstruation storylines before, comes to mind.) What’s so different then about periods?
One reason, of course, could be that periods are still so taboo. We’re conditioned to feel awkward about talking about our periods and to conceal any evidence that we menstruate. If menstruation is so stigmatized in real life, it’s no surprise that it trickles (no pun intended) into other areas, like TV programming. Why would TV executives and writers risk lower ratings to more robustly share our experiences? I’m just spitballing here, but maybe showing more accurate depictions of menstruation on TV would have a positive impact on society by normalizing periods and showing young people that they’re a perfectly natural part of life.
Another reason could be that women account for only 31% of behind-the-scenes TV creatives. If the majority of creators, writers, and executives are cis men, then the normalization of menstruation may not be top of mind in TV production. Plus, writing accurately as a gender you aren’t isn’t easy.
When it comes to commercials on TV, accurate depictions of menstruation are also few and far between. Menstrual blood is famously colored blue in advertising to give a “sanitary,” “clean” effect to what’s seen as a dirty bodily fluid. In fact, when a UK brand showed red menstrual blood for the first time, it made headlines.
So how do we fix this? For one, more women, non-binary, and gender-noncomforming people need to be behind the scenes of TV shows. That’s the only way we can ensure that our stories will be told in the most accurate ways. More importantly, we need to do the work to destigmatize menstruation. We need to give everyone equal access to menstrual products, educate children around the globe about menstruation, and stifle our own impulses to hide our periods. Once we get closer to that future existence, we’ll be able to turn on our favorite TV shows and see our beloved characters realistically dealing with the very thing that takes up 3,000 days of our lives.
Sarah duRivage-Jacobs is a writer, editor, and copywriter living in New York City with her creamsicle cat, Jasper.