Media, Young People and Messages About Menstruation

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Since Emily Gold Waldman (Pace) and I embarked on researching and writing about the intersections of law and menstruation for our book Menstruation Matters: Challenging the Law’s Silence on Periods, I’ve become newly attuned to the ways that menstruation is relevant to many of the topics I teach. Apart from the tampon tax, there are issues of access to menstrual products in schools, workplaces, prisons, jails, and detention facilities, issues of corporate social responsibility, environmental issues, consumer health and safety, human rights.  The list goes on.

This past semester, I found myself integrating discussion of menstruation into class, in places where there seemed like a fit. For example, the sales tax on menstrual products is a powerful example when talking about the regressive nature of sales taxes or even the expressive value of taxation.

Knowing my interest in the subject, several students also began to send me ads or video clips of TV shows, etc. where menstruation is discussed. One student had fantastic reflections on the new Disney movie, Turning Red.  The student wrote up their thoughts which I share here with permission, but without attribution, at the student’s request.

The messaging that young people receive regarding menstruation is complex and contradictory. Persistent, self-perpetuating stigma and the barriers to menstrual equity associated with it has historically led to a loss of dignity and autonomy for girls, women, and all who menstruate. Lack of access to period products caused by period poverty or embarrassment and shame combine to deny opportunities to menstruators.   Perhaps the most critical arena in which to make progress for menstrual equity is our schools, where negative stereotypes myths are propagated, and this manifests in absences and under-performance in class.  The second most critical arena, I think, is the media young people view. 

Young people have consistently been subjected to negative stereotyping of menstruation.  They are taught to perceive menstruation as “dirty” and something to be ashamed of, instead of a natural biological process that is part of our everyday life. Cis girls as well as transgender or non-binary identifying children as young as seven years old can be confronted with the onset of menarche without warning and without any preparation.  They may be terrified that they are ill or even dying, and will not be prepared to practice the appropriate hygiene necessary to stay healthy.  Because they are scared or embarrassed, they often skip school in anticipation of or during a period. They may be subject to harassment. The CDC has identified a link between early onset of menstruation and dangerous behaviors, such as teen pregnancy and alcohol use.  This may be due to the lack of education young menstruators receive when educational programming is not sufficiently early, or also due to these children appearing older or more mature, being stigmatized by their peers, and associating with older kids socially. In Menstruation Matters, Bridget Crawford and Emily Waldman have illustrated the benefits of increased public awareness about and acceptance of menstruation. Along with the provision of period products in schools and public spaces, the institution of menstruation as an accepted, normal part of life leads to a loss of stigma, increased autonomy, and more positive outcomes for schoolchildren.   

We can find occasions of “period talk” or the appearance of menstruation in adult conversation and in the very recent media.  Since reading Menstruation Matters, I have been noticing that although there is still a general lack of open conversation about menstruation, and the ways in which we still hide the realities of it by making allusions to “Aunt Flo” or “that time,” and using euphemisms and avoiding factual recitations of our experiences, there has been some progress.  For example, there is a small increase in advertising for organic menstrual products, a proliferation of provisions in public spaces for menstrual products. Just as importantly, there a few mentionable–and hysterical–occasions of comedians making use of the stigma, and turning it to their advantage.

The “oldest” forthright comedy I find where comedians speak openly about periods is in Michelle Wolf’s skits about how differently men would handle periods if it happened to them, as “far” back as 2017.

There is the “shocking” revelation by Amy Schumer that she was actually out in public–on the red carpet no less, while on her period. In September of 2016, when asked by Giuliana Rancic what she was wearing, she answered (while dancing it up), “Vivienne Westwood, Tom Ford shoes, and an O.B. tampon!” What is really interesting, looking back at this event, is that headlines read things like “Schumer Admits Wearing a Tampon.”  The article goes on to note “Host Giuliana was clearly taken aback by Amy’s comment, and looked to move away from the actress as soon she processed what Amy had revealed. . . .It’s not catching, Giuliana.” Some called her quip a “joke.” Others claimed “TMI” for them.  The viewers, however, were not all averse to the revelation.  Some headlines were, frankly, nothing short of awesome, for example:  “Amy Schumer Wears Stunning Tampon to the Emmys,” citing posts and tweets commending Amy for “breaking taboo,” and “Amy Schumer Smashes Period Stigma.”

Schumer has been a somewhat lone voice talking about her period as well as other “taboo” subjects like her endometriosis and her subsequent hysterectomy in other mainstream media that can reach young people. Check out this exciting interview from July, 2020 for Glamour where she recalls her first period, and also gives her forthright opinion about “period sex” to boot. 

Following her hysterectomy, Schumer dressed up as a tampon for Halloween 2021, killing it on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.  Schumer had also been part of the “Time to Tampax” ad campaign initiated in 2020, where she “actually” shows us how to insert a tampon–but don’t freak out, she uses a jelly donut, not her own vagina. 

Tampax runs a series of these ads where people ask questions about tampon use that they might not want to ask their parents or educators.  This is super important, as many young people who do not have appropriate menstrual education in school or at home, can learn facts about menstruation and how to use products this way.  Although these internet clips can make a difference, we must also be aware that they are being produced by a company that is trying to sell something. They have a corporate agenda and are really advertisements.  What would be more helpful would be the proliferation of open talk about menstruation on television in movies, and other spaces appropriate for and accessible to young people.

Amy Schumer’s new show, “Life and Beth,” features (warning: SPOILER ALERT) a very funny but also emotionally touching scene in its first episode, where we see the main character, after vehemently denying her mother’s annoying assertion she must be on her period, watch bright red period blood wash down the shower drain.  Personally, I cannot recall ANY prior scene in television or movies where we have been privy to the actual onscreen appearance of the flow of real-looking menstrual blood.  Although this show is on Hulu, and therefore somewhat accessible to younger viewers, it is really entirely inappropriate for an underage audience.  Where honest and realistic presentation of menstruation would really make an impact is where younger viewers could see it.

Enter Disney. In March of 2022, the company released the animated movie “Turning Red” in America on Disney Plus (plans to have it in theaters didn’t work out). In the film, 13-year-old Meilin is a well-behaved, excellent student and a dutiful daughter whose experience with the strong emotions that accompany puberty turns rather wild and unique, although remaining relatable. She struggles to maintain her relationship with her parents and her friends as she strives for autonomy and identity, just like the average teenager. The only difference is when she loses control of her emotions, she turns into a large red panda.   The NYT review, out the day before the Disney+ release, notes simply that the changes the protagonist experiences are “not the period variety, but the panda kind.” There is no other mention of menstruation in that review, and what the reviewer finds more “sticky” is the issue of Chinese cultural stereotypes in the film.   

Complicate this by the fact that some Chinese-American viewers (see here and here, for example) have celebrated the depiction of modern Chinese culture, a Chinese protagonist; some have embraced some of the “stereotypes,” such as how the parents dressed and the food and things. This has also been celebrated as Disney/Pixar’s most “inclusive” and “diverse” film to date. Not just racially.  If you know to look for them, there are things like a diabetic kid at school with an insulin pump.

About a week after the movie came out, however, it was clear it had spiked more than one battle in contemporary “culture wars.” The film confronts stereotypes about Asians as students and in both children and adults in family dynamics. As Meilin enters puberty and wants to break free from the constraints her overprotective mother has placed on her, conflict ensues. As one review noted, “The conversation about disobedience is explicitly tied to Mei having autonomy over her own body, mental health, and spiritual nature.” While many readers were glad to see issues of puberty and inter-generational struggles openly depicted, others claimed Disney violated their trust by “tricking” them into letting younger viewers get an early glimpse of these changes and robbing them of parenting responsibilities and opportunities. While some were also glad to see Asian stereotypes deconstructed, others questioned if instead Disney was negatively reinforcing them.

The backlash continues, as the complaints have been taken up and repurposed nationwide by the right-wing parent brigade, which has recently attacked curriculum standards in our public schools as well as library books and access children have to issues they consider outside the domain of public education.  The real goal of these movements, unfortunately, is to deprive children of information and resources that allow them to understand how we have constructed the socio-political dynamics we face today.  This includes, somewhat especially, sex education. (Racism is obviously the other big-ticket item in question regarding the curriculum battles.)  While some parents welcomed frank discussion about the  experiencing the onset of hormones and everything that comes with them, and appreciated the “casual mention” of menstruation, others warned “Don’t watch if you don’t want your kids learning about menstruation from a Disney movie,” and, “It encourages rebellion, discourages the idea that parents are often wise and caring and seems kinda anti-family.” Other posts claimed you are saying you “don’t love your children” if you let them watch it.  Wow, that seemed extreme.

I myself experienced another shock when I witnessed the movie’s foray into puberty intersect with the parent brigade myself.  I have a family member who is a fourth grade teacher in a small public school in a suburban town. I had read excerpts from the Menstruation Matters; the chapter about menstruation in schools piqued my interest. Were his students experiencing any of the issues illuminated in the book? Yes, he was aware of the stigma faced by the children menstruating as early as the fourth grade.  Was he aware of any children in his class who already had their periods? Yes. There were at least three that he knew about and one of those had just had her first period this week. They did not have classroom education to prepare these students when they got their first periods in the third or fourth grade.  This sort of programming would not begin until fifth grade.  Did he (the only male teacher in the school) keep a supply of pads or tampons in his desk? No. And he didn’t want to.  His school, he said, was so small that a trip to the nurse’s office was not so inconvenient.  He also, interestingly, had some reservations about the solutions provided by menstrual equity advocates, such as free and available supplies of menstrual hygiene products in all bathrooms.  That was appropriate for teens, but not, he felt, for his 9 and 10-year-olds.  

While understanding and agreeing it is critical to provide older middle school or high school students with products readily accessible to them in order to make it to class with a very tight schedule, he warned that leaving a supply of menstrual hygiene products in the bathrooms of a K-5 school, the only unsupervised spaces in the building, they were guaranteed to be subjected to abuse, used for vandalism and to “torture” students.

While we often tell young menstruators (quite inappropriately, and leading to harm, in my opinion)  things like “you are a woman now” when they get their periods and enter this stage of growth, the truth is these going-on-10-year-olds of whom we were speaking are the very same children who had had a grade-wide food fight the very day before my family member and I were having this conversation, wrecking the cafeteria. He did not want to imagine what might occur in the unsupervised spaces, given more ammunition with which to bombard each other.

Further, this family member noted, while older kids and teens deserve privacy, and research shows that providing free and accessible period products in school bathrooms improves attendance and performance, it is actually critical that a very young child not experience a first menstruation at such an early age without adult knowledge and supervision.  A parent, the nurse, or any other school advocate like a social worker should have the opportunity to make sure the child is prepared emotionally and not just leave it to them to grab a product from the restroom and figure it out.  The child who first got a period in my family member’s class last week had told the nurse. The nurse came and informed my family member, so that if the child were in the bathroom multiple times or for longer than usual, he would neither worry and send someone in after her nor reprimand her for missing class time.  If they were unaware of the situation, the child may have been embarrassed by being called out for taking too much time in the bathroom. She might not understand how to use the products or keep herself safe and clean. 

I asked this family member if he had seen the movie Turning Red or if any of his students had been talking about it.  Funny, he said, that you should ask.  When the weather is inclement, you may recall from your own school days, instead of outdoor recess the students stay inside and watch a movie.  The kids are allowed to pick the movie themselves, usually by nomination of a few and voting to elect the most popular choice.  Last month, the kids chose Turning Red.  They had only shown the first 20 minutes or so, the first inside recess period. 

The next day, this family member received a message from a member of the parent brigade.  Why were they showing this “inappropriate” movie that was “about periods”?  They wanted to keep their child out of the showing, and were prepared to voice their objections all over town.  First of all, this family member was not about to stand up to the parent brigade, being new and untenured. Second of all, to show the movie and exclude one or more students would be to subject them to embarrassment (something the parent should have been concerned about, in my opinion) and to send a message to the student body that there was something objectionable about the film, its content, or its characters. This would then undermine the good it was doing in making puberty and all its accoutrements acceptable as a general conversation!

I was curious so I watched the movie.  It is not “about” periods.  In fact, none of the characters gets a period in the film. At one point, when Meilin is scared of her “panda” and hides in the bathroom, her mother assumes that she has gotten her period, although she keeps saying it seemed “too soon.” Since Meilin is 13 and the average age of first period in America is now under age 12, it is not too soon for parents to be prepared.  Meilin’s mom, however, is in fact over-prepared.  She is also extremely over-aggressive in her over-protection, and the most shocking thing about the movie is that Meilin and her father put up with her truly crazy and inappropriate behavior. She really embarrasses Meilin front of the other kids in public and at school. 

There are many pros to a movie like this even mentioning menstruation, as just putting it out there helps to mitigate the stigma, but Meilin’s mom’s behavior, besides perpetuating negative stereotypes about Asian mothers, also reaffirms those about menstruation.  She doesn’t come straight out and ask Mei-Mei if she got her period. Instead, she asks, “Did the red peony bloom?” Along with every type of menstrual pad available (she lists them, regular, thin, ultrathin, scented, unscented, unscented with wings) she also brings ibuprofen, a hot water bottle, and vitamin B, which might suggest that menstruation is an illness, or is meant to be unpleasant, when Mei-Mei has not complained of any symptoms.  She also tells her, “You are a woman now,” although she clearly does not believe that.  The other says there is nothing to be embarrassed about: “You are a beautiful, strong flower” who must “protect your delicate petals and clean them regularly.” So, the mother is uncomfortable with using the actual terms for menstruation or body parts.  She does also suggest “perhaps we should talk about why this is happening,” but Mei-Mei refuses to listen.

Although the movie perpetuates some of the embarrassment and stigma associated with menstruation, for the most part it is a welcome introduction into open conversation about menstruation and other struggles facing children approaching puberty.  Instead of so being afraid of confronting difficult topics that parents leave children vulnerable to misinformation and fears, movies like this should serve as a truce in the culture wars, a time-out for a teachable moment, whether that be at school or at home.  When we arm our young people with information and dispel the stereotypes and stigma associated with puberty and menstruation, we provide them with the tools they need for dignity and autonomy.

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