How are periods portrayed in the media?

Portrayal of periods in the media has significant implications for society's perception of menstruation.

November 7, 2023
How are periods portrayed in the media?

Menstruation is the result of hormonal changes in a menstruators body, leading to vaginal bleeding. This process is essential for preparing the uterus for potential pregnancy. During each phase of the menstrual cycle, specific hormones are produced to thicken the uterine lining in anticipation of a fertilized egg implanting.

Initially, menstruation appears to be primarily a biological process. A regular and consistent menstrual cycle signifies the reproductive system's activity and functionality. However, over time, society has added layers of stigma to this subject. In recent years, the media's role in shaping societal perceptions and attitudes towards menstruation has become increasingly important. From television shows to movies, advertisements to social media campaigns, how periods are portrayed in the media can have a profound impact on how they are understood, discussed, and accepted in society. 

Person talking in front of an old TV that has PERIODS IN THE MEDIA written on it, with the PERIODS red and dripping like blood. 

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Historical representations of periods in media

Historical representation of periods in media has often reflected a silence and shame surrounding menstruation. In the 1870s the first advertisements for menstrual supplies appeared. At that time, the first brochures on menstruation were distributed and menstruators were given information on how to talk to their adolescent daughters.

During the 1800s, the prevailing belief among the majority was that menstruators experienced significant difficulties during their menstruation and Dr. James Allen, an influential physician, challenged this perspective in his book- Ladies Guide to Health and Disease, which was published in 1891. He advocated for a more considerate approach, suggesting that menstruators should prioritize rest and avoid strenuous activities during menstruation.

Cartoon depicting two individuals jumping on grass holding up a very large bloody pad on a light brown background. “Menstrual equity refers to equal and easy to menstrual hygiene products. WE BELIEVE IN EQUITY, PERIOD.” is written on the upper half. 

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Even in the 1930s, when the industrial revolution of tampons and pads began, the media was not active. All the advertisements and articles in the newspaper were more discrete.

Until 1972, advertising pads and tampons on TV was prohibited. However, when the ban was lifted, the commercials inaccurately depicted absorbency by using blue liquid instead of blood. The word “period,” referring to menstruation, was not mentioned on TV until 1985. It was Courteney Cox who first uttered this term during a Tampax commercial.

In 1978, American women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem wrote “If Men Could Menstruate” a satirical essay on how society treats men versus women. In that essay, she humorously described the inequalities in the social construction of menstruation when she said that if that was a bodily function assigned to men, it would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event.

Positive shifts and improved representations of menstruation

If Hollywood could dictate our feelings towards menstruation, we would all go about life believing that periods were gross, dangerous, scary, and meant to be kept a secret. Our media has been plagued with “periods are gross” scenes and messages. A few examples of these negative portrayals of periods include: 

The horror film 'Carrie' is well-known for its portrayal of menstruation, but it is also problematic. The main character is portrayed as terrified and ignorant about her menstruation, and it unleashes her telekinetic powers and evil tendencies. In the movie 'Dirty Love,' the lead character goes on a tampon run but starts bleeding before she can pay. She causes a mess in the grocery store, leading to someone slipping and falling. TV shows like 'Entourage' and 'Everybody Loves Raymond' depict men accusing women of being irrational or idiotic while menstruating.

Cartoon of a person sitting at a desk working on a computer, leaving a large trail and pool of blood on a large pad, on a lavender background. “I bleed red, not blue. Sanitary napkins are not diapers. They soak red, not blue, They soak blood, not surf. Periods are normal showing them on the screen should be too” written at the top left. 

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After portraying menstruation as shameful and embarrassing, and perpetuating harmful stereotypes, recent efforts have focused on challenging these stereotypes and presenting menstruation more positively. The media has started to acknowledge that menstruation is a normal bodily function experienced by half of the population and should not be a source of shame and embarrassment. In a 1989 episode of ‘Roseanne’, Roseanne tells her youngest daughter who has begun throwing away all of her sports equipment after getting her period for the first time, that menstruation is a vital part of being a menstruating person, and she can still engage in any activities she wants.

Moreover, numerous examples of media embracing and highlighting positive depictions of periods can be found nowadays. Advertising, for instance, has played a significant role in combating period stigma. Well-known brands have incorporated realistic portrayals of menstruation in their campaigns, moving away from the blue liquid and exaggerated discomfort. By depicting periods realistically, these advertisements contribute to normalizing menstruation and fostering a more accepting society.

Moreover, television shows and movies have also begun to normalize period discussions. Previous portrayals often painted periods as something menstruators should hide or be ashamed of, perpetuating the notion that menstruation is something to be whispered about. However, more recent portrayals have embraced open conversations about periods, emphasizing that it is natural and removing the shame often associated with them. By featuring storylines that tackle menstruation in an honest and relatable manner, media outlets have the power to shape public perception and challenge existing taboos.

Social media platforms have also played a crucial role in destigmatizing periods. Online communities and influencers have used their platforms to initiate honest and open discussions about menstruation. By sharing personal stories, tips, and information about menstrual health, they have helped break down barriers and foster a sense of empowerment among those who menstruate. This online support network has not only provided a safe space for individuals to discuss their experiences but has also served to educate and normalize menstruation for a wider audience.

Taboos and challenges in media representations

Taboos and challenges regarding media representation continue to persist about menstruation and the needs of marginalized groups. These challenges are often influenced by cultural norms and religious beliefs, which can shape the portrayal of these subjects in media.

One ongoing challenge lies in overcoming taboos surrounding menstruation. Menstruation, though a natural bodily process experienced by approximately half of the global population, is often stigmatized and considered an uncomfortable topic to discuss openly. This stigma is reflected in media representations where periods are either completely ignored or portrayed through negative stereotypes, creating a sense of shame or embarrassment around menstrual health. By perpetuating the notion that periods are embarrassing or unmentionable, the media greatly hinders efforts to normalize menstruation and educate society about its importance.

Instances of period shaming or adverse reactions projected through the media are all too common. Insensitive comments, jokes, or stereotypes surrounding menstruation perpetuate a culture of shame and ignorance. Whether it is the belittling of menstrual pain or the mocking of period-related emotions, these adverse reactions only serve to further marginalize and silence those who menstruate. This not only deprives individuals of their rights to bodily autonomy and health but also perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes and inequalities.

“End the Stigma” written seven times on a pink screen, the first three and last three written in white, and the fourth one written in red. 

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To overcome these challenges, it is crucial for the media to actively challenge taboos and address the needs of marginalized groups. This can be achieved by promoting inclusive storytelling that accurately represents diverse experiences and voices. By normalizing conversations around menstruation and other stigmatized topics, media can play a pivotal role in debunking myths, educating society, and empowering individuals. Additionally, media organizations should work towards increasing representation and diverse perspectives in their content creation and decision-making processes.

Ultimately, media has the power to shape societal attitudes and break down barriers. By actively addressing and challenging taboos, media representation can become a powerful tool in transforming societal understanding, acceptance, and support for marginalized groups, leading to a more inclusive and equitable world.

Wider cultural impact and public discourse

Wider cultural impact and public discourse surrounding periods have undergone significant changes over the years, largely influenced by the media's role in shaping public opinion and attitudes towards menstruation. Various forms of media, including popular TV shows, movies, and advertisements, have played a crucial role in raising awareness, sparking conversations, and challenging existing taboos related to periods.

Light blue, navy, and teal bubbles of various sizes are placed close to each other with various technology icons (e.g. wifi signal, laptop, phone, CD, etc.) in each bubble.

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One of how the media impacts public perception of periods is through the portrayal of menstruation in popular culture. Television shows, such as "Broad City" and "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," have addressed periods in a candid and relatable manner, normalizing the experience and challenging the notion that menstruation is something to be ashamed of or kept hidden. These shows have helped break down stigmas and create a space for open discussions among viewers.

Similarly, movies have also contributed to shifting public attitudes towards periods. Films like "Pad Man" and "Period. End of Sentence" have shed light on the challenges faced by menstruating individuals, particularly in less privileged areas. By showcasing the struggles and inspiring stories of those affected, these movies have catalyzed empathy and understanding, fostering conversations around menstrual health and hygiene.

Advertisements have also played a significant role in changing public discourse regarding periods. Traditionally, menstrual product commercials depicted periods in a sanitized and almost secretive manner, often resorting to euphemisms. However, in recent years, there has been a shift towards more progressive and realistic portrayals. Advertisements for menstrual products have started addressing period-related concerns openly, showcasing the real experiences of individuals and promoting a wider conversation around menstrual health.

In addition to media portrayals, dedicated campaigns aimed at breaking down period stigma have gained momentum and are making a substantial impact on public discourse. Various organizations and activists have used media platforms to promote menstrual health, challenging misconceptions and advocating for increased access to menstrual products and facilities. These campaigns have utilized social media, videos, and advertisements to create awareness, engage the public, and initiate meaningful dialogue.

Through the collective efforts of the media and campaigns, public discourse surrounding periods has become more inclusive, informed, and accepting. These initiatives have not only dismantled the stigma associated with menstruation but have also highlighted the need for better menstrual health education, policy reform, and improved access to menstrual products. As a result, more people are now engaging in conversations around periods, facilitating significant changes in societal attitudes and leading to a greater sense of understanding and acceptance.

Cartoon of person with long black and white bra and underwear holding a tampon, is standing on a white box with “MENSTRUATION IS A NATURAL AND BIOLOGICAL PROCESS ITS TIME WE STOP SHAMING WOMEN FOR IT” written on it. 

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In conclusion, the portrayal of periods in the media has significant implications for society's understanding and perception of menstruation. Responsible, inclusive, and accurate representations of periods in the media are crucial in combating period stigma and promoting menstrual health. By challenging stereotypes, spreading accurate information, and fostering inclusive narratives, the media can play a pivotal role in shaping a society that embraces and supports menstruation. It is through ongoing conversations, education, and activism that we can work towards a future where periods are no longer a taboo but rather a natural and celebrated part of human existence.



Original article written by: Mushfika Anjum on March 30th, 2023.

Revised and updated by: Niki Oveisi on October 27th, 2023.

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