It may come as no surprise that a few of us here at Nursing Clio are big, crazy Mad Men fans (see here). Although I had my early reservations about how the show portrayed women during its first season, I have eventually grown to love the way Matthew Weiner has developed interesting, complex, and strong female characters as the show has matured.
One of my favorite characters on the show is Sally Draper. The preteen daughter of Don and Betty Draper, Sally is a witty, inquisitive, and troubled young girl (a lot like me at that age). In Sally Draper, Weiner has essentially captured the hope and heartache embedded deep within preteen girlhood. Indeed, last season we watched Sally awkwardly navigate between her girlhood and womanhood; a confusing and weird time that we can all probably can relate to. She sometimes throws pouty tantrums with her mother when she doesn’t get her way, yet she yearns to be treated like an adult around her father and his friends.
The penultimate moment in this clumsy stage of Sally’s life occurred late in the season when, on a trip to the Natural History Museum with her friend (boyfriend?) Glen, she suddenly started her period for the first time.
And they showed it. On television. Wow.
With this one small (almost dainty), bright red spot smeared on white cotton underwear, television changed forever. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is this first time period blood has been shown on television. And aside from Stephen King’s, Carrie, I cannot think of any movies that actually show a woman menstruating. Matthew Weiner must have known this. He must have known he was making television history. My historian friends and I certainly did. We hopped on our various social medias and immediately proclaimed: “OMG, Sally started her period! Yes, I know, they showed it!” Of course, the tragic suicide of Lane Pryce stole the show, but still, it was a big moment in television.
It’s groundbreaking because up until very recently, period blood has been a taboo subject in movies and television. Menstruation has a long history of being alluded to or referenced with a wink and a nod (Remember the wedding scene in Sixteen Candles?). In fact, a fun game to play with your friends is to pop open a bottle of wine and try and name as many euphemisms for menstruation that you can think of – Aunt Flow, monthly visitor, on the rag, going to war, etc. (for an extensive and entertaining list, see here).
Although there have always been cryptic references to menstruation in the media, historically, the actual blood part has been absent. Oddly enough, this invisible period syndrome has been most prevalent in advertisements designed to sell products for, well, menstruation. Ads for sanitary napkins in the United States are as old as the American advertising business itself. In the late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century, ads for sanitary products, like all advertisements of the time, were simple black-and-white text featured in newspapers and catalogues.
With the professionalization of the ad business in the early twentieth century, sanitary napkin and tampon advertisements became pictorial, yet mysterious odes to comfort and technology. Although magazine and newspaper advertisements took on a slick, professional look, menstrual product ads were often framed around keeping the secret of menstruation safe – essentially publicizing a private matter in a quiet way. Historian Lynette Finch argues that this visible/invisible advertising strategy could be attributed to the growing medicalization of knowledge. While in previous centuries, women’s bodies and their reproductive systems were largely the domain of midwives and female family members, the advent of the modern medical system in the early-twentieth century, essentially removed women from their own bodies. Aside from information passed from mother to daughter, physicians and medical advice writers now offered medicalized information about menstruation and the reproductive cycle – and emphasized hygiene and morality.
By the time that the 1940s and 50s rolled around, ads for menstruation products could appeal to the practical lady:
or the glamourous woman:
What’s missing from all of these ads is any mention of the word “period” or “menstruation,” or any biological information about the process of a woman’s reproductive system. Of course, this is at a time when Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds on television, so, keep that in mind. In fact, beginning in 1951, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) adopted a set of ethical standards called The Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters. The code tightly regulated television to remain within the “bounds of decency.” Basically, no cussing, no sex, no facial hair, and certainly no explicit talk about lady parts.
So, when did we start actually using medically correct (or approximate language) in the media? Would you believe the 1980s? In 1983, the NAB abolished the Code of Practices and by 1985, the first ad to use the word “period” began airing on TVs across the land. And, oddly enough, the ad featured a very young Courtney Cox uttering the word “period” several times:
But what about the blood? Well, up until very recently, most ads that wanted to tout the absorbent quality of their product, used a blue liquid as a substitute for blood.
Now, the weird blue liquid phenomenon has dominated menstrual product ads for decades (and kind of gave me nightmares as a child), but last year, even before Sally Draper’s momentous debut of her period, Always produced this ad:
One small red dot. Hallelujah.
So, why are we so skeeved out about showing a normal bodily function (or at least talking about it?) I know what you’re thinking, “Well that’s just gross and nobody wants to see that.” But why? Television and movies are full of blood and guts. We’ve seen people disemboweled ten different ways to Sunday and we pay good money to see it! Even poop and pee jokes proliferate throughout the media. Remember the famous Caddyshack scene of the Baby Ruth in the pool? Remember the diarrhea scene in Dumb and Dumber? Hell, even semen jokes are funny now. Remember this:
The thing is, bodily functions can be hilarious and normal! But, somehow menstruation remains taboo. That little red dot in the Always ad and Sally Draper’s period on Mad Men are perhaps ushering in a new era where we aren’t afraid to talk about (and show) menstruating women. Why is this important? Well, maybe if we stop talking about women’s reproductive cycles in hushed tones or in cute euphemisms, we can stop the mystification process of women’s bodies. If we lift the veil of secrecy, maybe people won’t freak out when someone says the word vagina or dares to talk about menstruation as part of a policy discussion on contraception. Then, maybe, just maybe, we can have frank, open, and honest discussions about women’s bodies and perhaps we can start adopting sane and rational policies based on facts, rather than fantasy.
For Further Reading:
Finch, Lynette. The Classing Gaze: Sexuality, Class and Surveillance. St. Leonards, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1993.
Freidenfelds, Lara. The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
Gamman, Lorraine, and Margaret Marshment. The Female Gaze: Women As Viewers of Popular Culture. London: The Women’s press, 1988.
Marchand, Roland. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Stein, Elissa, and Susan Kim. Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009.