How TV Shapes the Way We Look at Periods
Despite the fact that roughly half the population has a period at some stage in their lives, this normal bodily function doesn't tend to pop up on TV very often.
And here's the thing: Even when menstruation does appear on television, it is treated as a drama, typically used to address a major life change, like a first period or entering menopause. As Dr. Lauren Rosewarne discussed in her 2012 book Periods in Pop Culture, it's traumatic, embarrassing, distressing, offensive, comedic or thoroughly catastrophic for the characters involved.
Here are a few examples of when periods were actually addressed on TV (in chronological order), and the messages they sent the viewing audience.
The Golden Girls, Season 2, Episode 1, "End of the Curse" (1986)
This episode starts with the sexually liberated Blanche Devereaux telling the other women that she lives with that she is pregnant. Turns out she's just going through menopause. Yes, it's completely normal, but for someone like Blanche, whose identity is wrapped up in her sexuality, the news is soul-crushing and she spends several days depressed in bed. A scene later in the episode shows all four women discussing their first periods, PMS and what it was like to go through "the change."
Roseanne, Season 1, Episode 15, "Nightmare on Oak Street" (1989)
Eleven-year-old Darlene is horrified when she gets her first period and is concerned that this means she'll start "throwing like a girl." Her mother (the titular Roseanne) tells her that "it's almost magical" and that she "should be really proud today 'cause this is the beginning of a lot of really wonderful things in your life." But never one to sugarcoat things, Roseanne confirms that the accompanying cramps are no picnic.
Sex and the City, Season 3, Episode 8, "The Big Time" (2000)
Samantha's period is nine weeks late, which makes her assume that's she's "all dried up," prompting her to agree to go on a date with a gross older neighbor (with a fake hip and a RAT TAIL), assuming that no one else would want her. Of course, she's wrong, and she ends up getting her period mid-awkward sex with Fake Hip Rat Tail. Interestingly, this is the only time this otherwise sexually pioneering show dealt with having sex on your period. I couldn't help but wonder: Is period sex so taboo that even Samantha Jones is hesitant to discuss it over brunch?
30 Rock, Season 5, Episode 16, "TGS Hates Women" (2011)
With Tracy Jordan missing, his TGS co-star Jenna Maroney steps in and plays the lead in most of the show's sketches. A flashback shows us that this basically means Jenna playing various famous women like Amelia Earhart and Hillary Clinton, who aren't able to do their jobs because of their period. Of course, this is exactly the stigma that head writer Liz Lemon is trying to lampoon. The scene ends with Liz getting her period and promptly firing everyone around her just to drive home how prevalent this idea of periods being incapacitating for women has truly become.
Girls, Season 1, Episode 2, "Vagina Panic" (2012)
The focus of this show is Jessa's scheduled abortion, but shifts over to periods when she gets hers in a bar before heading over to the clinic. The real gem in this episode is an exchange between Marnie and Hannah while they're waiting for Jessa at the abortion clinic.
Marnie says, "I was just thinking, I've been sexually irresponsible enough in my life thus far that I should have gotten pregnant by now and I never have. Like, I get my period at the same time, on the same day of every monthly cycle, my entire life, like, it's never strayed from that."
To which Hannah responds: "Then you're really lucky. I never know when I'm going to get my period and it's always a surprise and that's why all my underwear are covered in weird stains."
Now that's some real talk.
Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 12, "Commissions and Fees" (2012)
Sally Draper gets her first period on a trip to the Natural History Museum with her creepy/sweet former neighbor Glen. After discovering blood in her underwear in the museum's bathroom, she runs home to her mother, who — in a rare maternal moment from her mother, Betty Francis — tells her that this is normal and means that "everything is working."
This scene may have taken place in 1967, but the non-stigmatizing sentiment is totally 2012.
Broad City, Season 3, Episode 10, "Jews on a Plane" (2016)
This is, in my opinion, hands down the best, most accurate and honest period depiction in all of television. The subject isn't brought up just once or relegated to a punchline, but rears its bloody head throughout the episode, highlighting everything from period stains on your pants (no TSA agent will want to search you then!) to the heaviness of a first-day flow (which Abbi describes as "fruit on the bottom") to forgetting that menopause even exists because it's usually ignored by the media. This episode also shows some of the struggles of getting your period at an inopportune time — like on a trans-Atlantic flight when your tampons are all on your carry-on that you were forced to gate-check. It teeters on being extremely relatable and far-fetched enough to make it entertaining, making it the gold – no, crimson – standard of period cameos.
Other notable TV period appearances include episodes of The Cosby Show (Rudy's first period), Schitt's Creek (a visitor gets her first period on David's bed), Community (Abed charts the menstrual cycles of the women in his study group), Curb Your Enthusiasm (Larry David helps a Girl Scout figure out how to use a tampon) and Friends (Monica and Chandler discuss when to have sex in order to conceive).