10 Pop Culture Moments That Taught Us About Our Periods
How Periods Have Been Portrayed in Iconic Pop Culture
Ever since the 1976 debut of Carrie, the first mainstream film to graphically depict periods, pop culture has been shaping the way we see periods as a collective. Like it or not, pop culture reflects the way that we build our understanding of the world around us, including the way that we see periods. Below, we put together a list of ten iconic pop culture moments that made us rethink periods altogether, ranging from the good, the bad, and the ugly:
The worst: Superbad (2007)
Socially awkward Seth (Jonah Hill) brags to his friends about dancing with a hot girl. Seth’s friends point out a stain on his paints, clearly repulsed that the hot girl left a period stain on his jeans. It’s baffling that getting the hottest girl in the room to dance with you can be seen as a status symbol, but that she can’t be held in her whole humanity. This scene definitely sent the message that people who menstruate must be able to control their fluids at all time, or else they face social suicide. What if period stains were a badge of honor instead of a mark of impurity?
The ugly: Carrie (1976)
16-year-old Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is the target of mean girls at school. She gets her period for the first time in the girls’ locker room and screams, holding up her blood-stained fingers. Her classmates tease her, chanting, “Plug it up! Plug it up!” Carrie is sent home to an ultra-religious mother Margaret, who condemns her for having a period in the first place. Margaret sees the arrival of Carrie’s period as a manifestation of her lustful sins, and proceeds to lock her in a closet with an altar for hours. Carrie is noted as the first graphic depiction of periods on the big screen, and we’re pretty disappointed. Periods aren’t gross, punishable offenses. They’re a normal, everyday part of human existence.
The relatable: New Girl (2012) — “The Menzies”
The only menstruating roommate in a loft full of different kinds of dudes, Jess (Zooey Deschanel) complains that she has “the menzies” — a state of moodiness and physical discomfort brought on by her period. The boys remind her of her bills and ambitions, but Jess firmly asks for space while she’s bleeding. To add humor to a totally relatable situation, Jess’s roommate Winston declares that he’s also suffering from PMS. The whole punchline rests on the gender binary that enforces that Winston can’t possibly feel the same hormonal shifts as Jess simply because he’s a man. While we appreciate the relatability of Jess’s character, the humor in Winston’s hormonal shift is to be questioned.
The good: My Girl (1991)
“I’m hemorrhaging!” declares a cute little Vada (Anna Chlumsky) upon getting her period. Her future stepmom Shelly graciously explains to Vada why her body is going through the process of menstruation, and Vada replies, “It’s not fair. Nothing happens to boys.” Later in the day, her friend Thomas J (Macaulay Culkin) stops by for a visit, and Vada takes her rage out on him. She pushes him off his feet and says, “Get out of here! And don’t come back for 5-7 days!” The scene shows us that healthy conversations about periods allow menstruators to listen to their bodies and set some boundaries.
The hilarious: Mean Girls (2007)
The cult classic offered us something hilarious to think about when it comes to how we define virginity. When supporting character Bethany Byrd’s virginity is questioned because of her use of jumbo tampons, she declares, “I can’t help it if I’ve got a heavy flow and a wide set vagina!” As a society, we just need to get cool with the fact that everyone has a slightly different definition of virginity instead of believing that there’s one singular definition that everyone needs to live by. Some might consider non-penetrative sexual acts to mean that they’re no longer a virgin, and that’s totally fine! Nonetheless, there’s nothing shameful about using tampons, menstrual discs, or cups — these are all great tools that absorb period blood, not virginity-stealers.
The positive: Sex and the City (1998) — “The Power of the Female Sex”
Balzac is the hottest restaurant in Manhattan, and Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) scores brownie points with the unpleasant hostess. It just so happens that Carrie and the hostess — who Samantha (Kim Catrall) calls the most powerful woman in New York — are at the bathroom at the same time, and the hostess needs a tampon. Carrie gives her one, and afterwards, she and Samantha never have a problem getting a table at Balzac ever again. This scene bookends an episode that didn’t necessarily age well, tbh, but we’re grateful that periods can bring everyone together.
The real: Orange is the New Black (2016) — “We’ll Always Have Baltimore”
This episode of OINTB highlights the shortage of tampons and maxi pads at Litchfield. The shortage forces inmates to get creative with their own period care, even resorting to using tampons as currency. Meanwhile, the episode also follows Linda from Purchasing, who attends a conference with the warden to decide how to spend the state’s budget on the prison. It’s infuriating to see what Linda deems worthy of time, money and energy while clearly dismissing the inmates’ needs. “It’s prison, not the Four Seasons,” Linda jokes evilly, in response to a critic. It’s a good reminder that period struggles for incarcerated menstruators are made worse by the broken prison system.
The cutest: No Strings Attached (2011)
Emma (Natalie Portman) and her friends bleed in unison, and her boyfriend/f-buddy Adam (Ashton Kutcher) brings cupcakes and a specialized period mix. Even though Emma warns Adam that everyone’s mental state is on edge due to their periods, Adam powers through to deliver a cute present. This scene shows men how to appropriately empathize, getting through those bloody days with a little TLC and a good sense of humor.
The outrageous: Broad City (2016) — “Jews on a Plane”
Abbi gets her period while she and Ilana are on a plane, so they hilariously try to make a makeshift tampon with a pita, yarmulke, and a hair tie. Abbi and Ilana continue talking about periods, saying things like, “There’s going to be an explosion” and “There’s going to be blood everywhere.” Ilana spots a package of tampons in the first-class kitchen and plans to steal them, but their plans are side-swiped when two flight attendants assume that Abbi and Ilana are planning a terrorist attack. The whole episode is undoubtedly hilarious, showing us the twists and turns your day could take when you’re unprepared for your period.
The wholesome: Good Girls (2019) — “Thelma and Louise”
While not directly about periods, Good Girls does an incredible job of holding space for Ben, main character Mae Whitman’s son, who comes out as transgender in the show. Then named Sadie, Ben tells his mom that he’s a boy. Mae responds with joy, “I’ve always wanted a boy!” It’s one of the most heartwarming moments of the series that actually follows 14-year-old actor Isaiah Stannard’s own coming out story. Ben tells his mom that he wants to get hormone injections, and Mae fights like hell to raise the money to help him do so. It’s an incredible example of the importance of assisted puberty — the idea that trans, non-binary and gender-nonconforming kids simply need a little help in the puberty department, rather than branding the transition as taboo or burdensome.
- Watch Period. End of Sentence., a documentary by filmmaker Rayka Zehtabchi about the Indian women who are starting a quiet sexual revolution.
- Listen to Stuff Mom Never Told You, a podcast about femininity that touches on period stigmas your mom probably never told you about.
- Watch Big Mouth on Netflix. While not quite educational, it’s definitely an entertaining way to learn about the hormones that flood your body when you first begin menstruating.
- Read Pop Culture in Periods, a history of the depiction of periods in pop culture, by Lauren Rosewarne.
Writer: Leo Aquino (they/them) is a storyteller living in Los Angeles. They love reading books on the beach and eating Filipino food.