Last month, proposed Florida legislation meant to curb discussion of human sexuality and sexual health in elementary schools made national news when its author, state Rep. Stan McClain, confirmed that this would include prohibiting younger children from discussing topics such as menstruation among themselves on school property.
Outrage poured in on social media. One of the most prominent detractors was Judy Blume. The 85-year-old author and Florida resident tweeted “Sorry, Margaret” — a reference to her seminal young adult novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” about a tween protagonist who questions (among other things) when she’ll go through puberty.
If the bill does eventually become law, it might end up proving the old adage that what kids don’t learn in school, they will learn from movies and TV.
A film adaptation of “Margaret,” which stars Abby Ryder Fortson as the inquisitive Margaret Simon, will be released April 28. “Judy Blume Forever,” a documentary about the writer that also looks at the effect her books have on readers, hits theaters and Prime Video on Friday after premiering in January at the Sundance Film Festival.
Last year gave audiences “Turning Red,” a Pixar movie that frankly discusses a girl’s first period.
On TV, the subject been covered on recent shows that range from adult dramas (AMC and AMC+’s “Dark Winds”) and animated series (FXX’s “Little Demon,” Netflix’s “Big Mouth”) to the FX dramedy “Better Things” and Netflix’s adaptation of the young-adult book series “The Baby-Sitters Club.” HBO’s post-apocalyptic hit “The Last of Us” may not specifically show Bella Ramsey’s 14-year-old Ellie getting her first period, but it has depicted her curiosity in period products such as tampons and a menstrual cup.
The examples above signal a change from films and TV series of yore, where the focus traditionally was on an adult’s response to a girl’s first period (HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”; FX’s “Nip/Tuck”) or filling the young character experiencing the change with feelings of confusion and fear (the movie “My Girl”) or embarrassment (AMC’s “Mad Men”).
The intransigence of that trope makes the new wave of depictions all the more important to reducing stigma. Even for those most dedicated to tackling the subject of first menstruation candidly, though, old habits die hard.
Kelly Fremon Craig, the writer and director of the “Margaret” film adaptation, says she had to “beat it out of myself” when she obtained the rights to the book in 2018.
“I would sit down with groups of people, [including] a bunch of men in suits, and I felt myself feel a little embarrassed saying ‘period’ out loud,” she says. “Why is this thing that half of us go through still weird and embarrassing, in some ways? It shouldn’t be. Part of what was exciting about making the movie was filming some of these things. [In my movie], Margaret puts a [sanitary] pad in her underwear, something that I’ve never seen another human being do.” (The filmmaker did choose not to show any menstrual blood in the film, both to keep the focus on the emotional experience and for the practical reason that “everyone’s looks a little different.”)
Such stories represent a sea change in the representation of first menstruation, a topic that has been largely absent in even the most inclusive of material. Rachel Shukert, creator of Netflix’s beloved-but-canceled adaptation of “The Baby-Sitters Club,” notes that the original Ann M. Martin-created book series might have discussed bras and physical development but never periods — something she felt was lacking in a tale about junior-high girls.
The first episode of her TV series finds Claudia (Momona Tamada) nonchalantly mention menstruation, and the Season 1 finale ends with Kristy (Sophie Grace) getting her first period at her mom’s wedding. Kristy’s friends, who have all already experienced this monumental life event, teach her how to use a pad.
Shukert says showing Kristy’s journey was meant to “normalize” the experience.
“On the one hand, it’s obviously a milestone in your body,” she says. “But it also was just a thing that you need a pad for. That it was coming on this day [of her mom’s wedding], where there was this big milestone and a day of much change for everybody, was a way to show it that [both] didn’t short-change it and act like it’s no big deal at all. It isn’t scary and it isn’t secret and it isn’t mysterious.”
Shukert says the audience response from younger viewers was generally positive.
“In a good way, it seems like this generation of girls is better educated about their bodies,” she says. (Though some in the adult audience did grumble about having to discuss periods with their 9-year-olds, Shukert also heard from parents appreciative that the show offered a way into the conversation with their kids, she says.)
Indeed, not all cultures necessarily start from a position of shame or discomfort when it comes to first menstruation. The first season of AMC and AMC+’s “Dark Winds,” a gritty crime drama based on Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn & Chee books and set on a Navajo reservation, covers heavy topics such as murder, cultural genocide and kidnapping. But it also reserves time for a depiction of a Kinaaldá, a female-led ceremony that welcomes a girl into adulthood. In the show’s third episode, Makena Ann Hullinger’s Nanobah giddily tells her Aunt Emma (Deanna Allison) that she’s gotten her first period and the entire community comes together to celebrate it as a rite of passage.
“When the writers of [Season 1] sat down to look at the Leaphorn & Chee books, we quickly noticed a large hole as it related to our experience as Indigenous people. Namely: the central importance of Native women in our communities,” Maya Rose Dittloff and Razelle Benally, the “Dark Winds” staff writers who penned this episode, wrote in an email to The Times.
In writing the episode, they felt “it was important to show the strength of community, and to interrupt the darkness of what is an investigative crime series, [by showing] the beauty and vibrance of this Native community.”
There are a “wide range of traditions, customs and beliefs throughout Indian Country,” the writers added. “[But] very often, colonization has widely changed attitudes toward puberty. Today, we have to work and fight to maintain and keep our traditional customs and values. That’s because very often these values, these beliefs, they’re at odds with Anglo/Western views.”
FXX’s animated comedy “Little Demon” makes the first period’s association with a girl coming into her own literal: The series centers on Chrissy Feinberg (Lucy DeVito), the teen antichrist and child of Satan (voiced by DeVito’s real-life father, Danny) and an unflinching mortal, Laura (Aubrey Plaza), who’s been raising Chrissy on Earth, desperately attempting to outrun her ex. Things are going more or less OK until Chrissy gets her period in the show’s premiere episode, “First Blood.” This is not only a homing beacon to her dad but it also unlocks a lot of the abilities Laura had hoped might skip a generation. (Minutes after the bleeding starts, she’s able to explode two bullies based solely on the power of her internal rage.)
“It’s showing that she has this untethered and uncontrolled strength and anger and emotions inside that she didn’t know that she had. How is she going to go forward with that? How is she going to control that?” says co-creator Darcy Fowler.
She and collaborators Seth Kirschner and Kieran Valla went back and forth about Chrissy’s age when developing the show, finally deciding that it “was important for us to explore a 13-year-old girl who can express emotions like that.”
“We’re using horror metaphors [in this show], and that is the most horrifying time,” Fowler says, adding that it’s a “balance between girlhood and womanhood and all the expectations that come along with it, socially … and what’s going on inside, with the lack of control you have … 13 is exactly the right time.”
Dr. Jen Gunter, a gynecologist known to her legions of fans for her take-downs of religious- or celebrity-based misinformation on reproductive health and the author of the upcoming book “Blood: The Science, Medicine, and Mythology of Menstruation,” stresses that much of the stigma around periods is based on “all these patriarchal ideas about ‘now you’ve got your period, you can be married off and you can reproduce; you’ve now got some value.’”
Gunter cites the example of advertising for period products, which have historically shown “fresh” images, and thus, she says, have made “the implication that you’re filthy, so let our products keep you like a field of flowers.”
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This means that films such as “Margaret” are still fighting much the same cultural messages — and more explicit attempts to censor the discussion, as with McClain’s bill — as Blume was when her book was first published in 1970. Davina Pardo, the co-director of “Judy Blume Forever,” says the principal at the school Blume’s own children attended refused to allow copies of “Margaret” in the library when it was released, calling it “inappropriate.”
As long as there have been tween and teen girls, though, there has been, and will continue to be, talk about periods. Restrictions just keep the conversation coded.
Pardo’s directing partner, Leah Wolchok, says there was an exchange between Blume and her childhood friend Mary Weaver that was cut from the documentary. The women remembered sitting in typing class as one confided to the other using a not-so-subtle euphemism: “I’m having a gusher.”
“Me too,” her friend would respond.