Our world is a web of systems and norms which also, unfortunately, drive taboo and stigma. As a result of entrenched gender inequality, periods and menstruation are often surrounded by shame and embarrassment — and it’s an issue that also drives period poverty and menstrual inequity.
In fact, globally, 500 million women and girls don’t have what they need to manage their periods safely, hygienically, and free from embarrassment.
Menstrual stigma has sunk its teeth into society, leaving its mark. Taboos and embarrassment around menstruation prevent women and girls from cooking, attending religious ceremonies, engaging in community activities, going to work, and going to school, among other things.
One Plan International study asked just over 4,000 boys and young men from Brazil, Indonesia, the Netherlands, and Uganda about periods. More than a third said they thought periods should be kept a secret, while 55% said they associate periods with the word “dirty”.
Happily, 92% of those surveyed agreed that periods should be normalized.
Movies and TV shows are a really accessible way to do just this. Yet, in the same breath, menstruation in movies and TV shows is often omitted, concealed, or even mocked and abused. Thankfully not every TV or movie plot has fallen into this hole.
Here are some examples of the shining lights among movies and TV that actually discuss and highlight periods and succeed in showcasing scenes where menstruation isn’t shown as uncomfortable, awkward, or “a girl’s problem”.
1. ‘My Girl’
It's safe to say some of us will remember Anna Chlumsky and Macaulay Culkin starring as tweens Vada Sultenfuss and Thomas J Sennet in My Girl — not to mention the scene when Vada gets her first period. This American movie, produced in 1991 and directed by Howard Zieff, explores the life of a curious and uninhibited girl and her friend, based in Madison, Pennsylvania.
The award-nominated film displayed Vada’s bewildered scream followed by the words, “I’m hemorrhaging” as she gets her first period. In this scene, she is running downstairs asking where her father is, only to be met by her father’s girlfriend, Shelly, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. Vada reluctantly pushes her away, firmly asking where her father is.
Shelly eventually explains to Vada that she's getting her period. After the talk, 11-year-old Vada exclaims: “It’s not fair that it doesn't happen to boys” — a line that'll resonate with many of us who menstruate.
This Bollywood film sheds light on the challenges that women in India and other parts of the world face when it comes to accessing menstrual hygiene products. The film is based on the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a social activist who invented a low-cost machine for manufacturing sanitary pads to help women in rural areas.
In many parts of the world, including India, menstruation is largely considered a taboo subject, and many women lack access to affordable and hygienic menstrual products. This can lead to serious health problems and social exclusion, as many women are forced to stay home from school or work during their periods.
Pad Man tells the story of Lakshmikant Chauhan, a fictional character who becomes aware of the menstrual hygiene challenges faced by his wife and other women in his village. He sets out to create a low-cost sanitary pad-making machine using trial and error, often facing ridicule and opposition from his community.
The film showcases the impact of Lakshmikant's invention on the lives of women in his village and beyond, as they are able to continue their daily routines and pursue education without fear of stigma or health issues. Through the character of Lakshmikant, the film challenges the taboos and stigma surrounding menstruation in many societies, and encourages conversations around menstrual health and hygiene.
It's an inspiring film that raises awareness about the importance of menstrual hygiene and the challenges many face in accessing menstrual hygiene products. It highlights the need for innovation, education, and social change in addressing this issue.
This horror film explores the theme of menstruation and its impact on a teenage girl's life. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Stephen King and was first released in 1976.
The main character of the film, Carrie White, is a shy and socially awkward high school student who gets her first period while taking a shower in the school locker room. However, because of her sheltered upbringing and lack of knowledge about menstruation, she believes she's dying and panics. Her classmates ridicule her and throw tampons and sanitary pads at her, adding to her embarrassment and shame.
Throughout the film, Carrie is ostracized and bullied by her peers, ultimately leading to a devastating climax where she uses her telekinetic powers to wreak havoc on her tormentors during the school prom.
It is notable for its depiction of menstruation as a source of fear and shame for its main character. The film highlights the lack of knowledge and understanding about menstruation in society and the negative impact this can have on girls' self-esteem and mental health.
4. ‘The Queen’s Gambit’
This series depicts the life and times of an orphan named Beth, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is a stellar chess player growing up in the 1950s. The story is based on a novel of the same title by Elizabeth Fremantle.
The series follows the prodigy as she's brought up an orphanage and transitions into an adopted family, also highlighting many other themes such as addiction, feminism, and self-discovery.
Beth’s period scene is a vivid one, that shows her running to the bathroom in the middle of a tournament as blood runs down her legs. It becomes a sister-sister moment when another chess player kindly offers her a pad in the bathroom.
5. ‘Period. End of Sentence’
When it comes to confronting and changing the status quo, this Oscar-winning documentary is a champion. This Indian documentary, directed by Rayka Zehtabchi and released in 2018 on Netflix, takes us through rural Delhi, where women make their own pads using a manufacturing machine.
Period. End of Sentence documents, start to finish, the process of The Pad Project — a youth-driven campaign of students and educators to tackle period poverty. Their mission is to create and cultivate local and global partnerships to end period stigma and to empower women and all menstruators worldwide.
This documentary shows us how women in this village didn't have pads for decades, and how this led to health complications — yet, when they are able to manufacture their own period products, we're shown how this transforms the women, their communities, and their lives.
6. ‘Turning Red’
Have you heard about Turning Red? It's a captivating animated film that's been making waves for its bold approach to menstruation. Directed by Domee Shi, who won an Academy Award for her brilliant short film Bao, this movie dives headfirst into the challenges of adolescence, including that infamous stage of puberty and the onset of periods.
Domee Shi infuses the film with her own personal experiences and a commitment to authenticity. She wanted to bring a genuine representation of menstruation to the screen — and boy, does she succeed. The story revolves around Meiling "Mei" Lee, who undergoes a magical transformation into a red panda when she experiences intense emotions. It's a metaphorical journey that beautifully captures the challenges and emotions young girls face during puberty and the arrival of their first periods.
Turning Red is a groundbreaking film for Pixar. It's the first movie released by the company that is solely directed by a woman. Domee Shi's vision and storytelling prowess shine through, creating a narrative that's not only relatable but also entertaining for audiences of all ages. The film effortlessly weaves humor, heart, and relatable characters into its captivating storytelling.
But Turning Red goes beyond just entertainment. It provides an educational opportunity, a chance to have open conversations about periods and break down those societal taboos. By normalizing discussions around menstruation, the film promotes understanding, empathy, and inclusivity. It creates a safe and relatable space for young viewers to explore their own experiences and feel more comfortable talking about menstruation openly.
Turning Red is an absolute must-watch. It fearlessly addresses menstruation and adolescence with nuance, bringing a refreshing perspective to a topic that has often been silenced. So, grab some popcorn, gather your friends and family, and get ready to embark on a captivating journey with Turning Red.
7. ‘Blue Is The Warmest Color’
Blue is the Warmest Color is a critically-acclaimed French film that explores themes of love, identity, and sexuality. While menstruation is not a central focus of the movie, it does play a role in one of the intimate scenes between the main characters.
The film follows the story of Adèle, a young woman discovering her sexuality and embarking on a passionate relationship with an older artist named Emma. Throughout the narrative, Adèle's journey of self-discovery is depicted with raw honesty and emotional depth.
In one particular scene, Adèle and Emma share an intimate moment that includes a depiction of menstruation. This portrayal is notable for its realistic and unapologetic approach to depicting a natural bodily function that is often stigmatized or overlooked in mainstream cinema.
By including this scene, Blue is the Warmest Color helps challenge societal taboos surrounding menstruation and embraces a more authentic representation. It adds a layer of complexity to Adèle's character, highlighting her body's natural processes and emphasizing the film's commitment to exploring the realities of womanhood.
8. ‘The Moon Inside You’
The Moon Inside You is an extraordinary documentary that takes viewers on an eye-opening journey into the world of menstruation. Directed by Diana Fabiánová, this captivating film dares to challenge taboos and break down barriers.
The film dives into the heart of this natural bodily process, exploring the myths, cultural attitudes, and societal stigmas that surround it. Through interviews with activists, researchers, and real-life experiences, the documentary unveils the untold stories and challenges faced by women across the globe.
It exposes the impact of menstrual taboos, delves into the portrayal of menstruation in the media, and confronts the environmental implications of traditional menstrual products. It's an unfiltered and compelling exploration that demands attention and sparks vital conversations.
Through powerful storytelling and thought-provoking interviews, The Moon Inside You aims to dismantle the shame and silence that often shroud menstruation. It embraces the voices of women and girls who navigate the complex terrain of menstruation in various cultural contexts, shedding light on their triumphs and struggles.
This documentary ignites a call to action, urging us all to join the global movement for menstrual equity and inclusivity. It’s a film that reminds us that together, we can create a world where menstruation is embraced with dignity, respect, and compassion.