The Period Pieces: Period Dramas Need to Include Menstruation Scenes

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Ariana Duckett

Copy Editor & Senior Staff Writer

Since the 2010s, period drama shows have maintained a steady presence in streaming services’ offerings. Oprah Daily ranks “Bridgerton,” “Downton Abbey,” and “The Gilded Age” as some of the best of all time. The list includes shows taking place anywhere from the Georgian era to the Roaring Twenties. Their plots are influenced by the protagonists’ social class — old money New Yorkers, aristocrats in the English countryside, telephone operators, and much more — and the struggles related to their social status. Some sensationalize childhood adventure, while others demonstrate the realities of racism, sexism, and worker’s rights.

Many center on female characters with personal ambitions afflicted by their lack of rights, who must work hard to achieve their goals and sustain their independence. For example, “Harlots” highlights the struggle of a brothel owner to raise her daughters by herself in 1760s England. Her business allows her a financial independence that few women had at that time, lending a new perspective to history: that of women who must come to terms with their only means of acquiring profit — sex work — for freedom and mobility. 

Though this female-centered narrative depicts some of women’s leading struggles, it leaves out key portions of women’s bodily functions: menstruation and menopause. Including scenes which portray how menstruators dealt with periods, cramps, staining clothing, and other anatomical functions that mark growing older can help destigmatize the menstruation that billions of people experience. Nevertheless, many top-ranking period dramas otherwise committed to portraying well-developed female characters exclude them.

Current television can help increase awareness of what menstruators go through by portraying periods in normal, everyday life, rather than making them seem scary, ominous, and intimidating. “Dickinson,” an Apple TV series about the poet Emily Dickinson, is one of a few shows that portrays menstruation, and it does so for one whole minute. In the scene, Emily Dickinson runs into a private room, tosses up her dresses and groans when she sees a red stain on her undergarments. Though staining is irritating, there are more positive ways to show menstruation on TV. “Anne With an E” also features the main protagonist’s period, but Anne views it with fear and confusion, according to The Washington Post. Given it is a natural bodily process which happens for decades to menstruators, portraying it as an intimidating event fuels negative connotations of women’s bodies, both to themselves and others, by only associating menstruation with fear. It is no drama — just possible cleaning at the sink for a bit, installing a menstrual product in the bleeding area, maybe taking measures for cramps/back pain, and going on with the day.

Shows do not have to immediately devote themselves to educating the public about periods, but they can easily drop in more scenes that include pads, tampons, and other devices used to prevent staining. Already, a great deal of people know almost nothing about menstruation. Happiful led a study on men’s knowledge of periods, and reported that “men [were] asked to record whether they believed a number of statements around menstruation to be true or not: 14 percent of men reported believing tampons and pads can get lost in the vagina, and nearly one in 10 (eight percent) believe that menstruation attracts sharks in the sea.” 

To clarify, tampons are thin, absorbing devices that soak up blood once inserted inside the vagina. They stay in very easily and can be worn when swimming, unlike pads. Some prefer wearing them during their period, even when they’re not swimming, because they stay in so well. Pads can absorb heavier flows and be more comfortable, though they are also more visible. Additionally, blood tends to dissipate in the presence of water, hence why menstruators do not actively bleed during a shower. It would not be possible for them to attract a shark.

Increased education about menstruation in general would greatly benefit period-having people. Particularly, historicizing menstruation would characterize it as a more integrated part of society because it would be made clear that it’s been around forever and treated forever. Just because people do not know about menstruation, or choose to ignore its occurrence, does not mean menstruation is not happening.

For centuries, women found ways to absorb their leakage before the invention of modern pads, tampons, and menstrual cups. According to National Geographic, ancient Egyptians used softened papyrus, but other traces of ancient period products can be difficult to find due to the stigma regarding it, and period products also would have withered over time if organic. Cloth strips were pinned to clothing and reused after being regularly washed. Western fashion allowed menstruators to freely bleed onto their many layers of skirts and undergarments. The earliest pad came at the end of the 1800s — an elastic waistband with a rag clipped on which could stay in place easily

Many of today’s period dramas could exhibit someone sliding their rag into their clothing, or cleaning one for fresh reuse. Shows are not afraid to feature blood, but only do so in scenes of violence and fighting. If showrunners are willing to film these gory events, they should be able to portray scenes where women casually change their menstruation products, like we’ve always done.

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