See Sally Menstruate

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.

Sally and Don Draper in season five of AMC's Mad Men. (AMC)
Sally and Don Draper in season five of AMC’s Mad Men. (AMC)

The ultimate 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.

The typical reaction to starting one's period -- in a horror flick. (Carrie/United Artists)
The typical reaction to starting one’s period — in a horror flick. (Carrie/United Artists)

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. ( has collected an extensive and entertaining list).

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.

Turn-of-the-century Kleinert ad for sanitary napkins.
Turn-of-the-century Kleinert ad for sanitary napkins.

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 the 1940s and 50s rolled around, ads for menstruation products could appeal to the practical lady:

or the glamorous 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.

A typical ad for menstrual products, using blue liquid.
A typical ad for menstrual products, using blue liquid.

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 the “hair scene” from There’s Something About Mary?

The "hair scene" from There's Something About Mary (20th Century Fox)
The “hair scene” from There’s Something About Mary (20th Century Fox)

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.

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.

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I remember two or three years ago my mother called me and in the course of the conversation she brought up how angry she was over the depiction of period blood on TV. As it happened, my little brother (about fifteen at the time) was watching some kind of kids comedy drama (on the Disney channel? Nick maybe?) and the plot of the show involved a young man who joined the cheer-leading squad in order to flirt with girls. But in the process of doing a pyramid with his teammates, the girl above him happened to be on her period (or get her period at that moment, I’m not sure), the result of which was him getting a good ole smack of blood on his face from above and being horrified. I remember thinking how fabulous it was that my mother ranted and raved about this for the better part of an hour- not because she thought it was gross or inappropriate to see a period depicted bloody on TV, but because the show had chosen to turn it into the comedic object of horror for the boy and terrifying shame for the girl. “What kind of message are they sending??? Why do they always have to make periods so damn SCARY on TV! Also, that isn’t funny at all! Who is that funny for?!” Thanks, Mom. No idea what the first depiction of period blood is on TV, but I guess in a way Carrie is still reverberating in the mindsets of a lot of writers…

Jacqueline Antonovich

I am so completely fascinated by this show. On one hand, I guess it’s great that they were talking about it, but on the other, what kind of message is that? If you’re a boy, don’t be a cheerleader because you may get exposure to bloody girl cooties?? In my younger days, I actually was a cheerleader and I never remember getting blood on me, unless of course, someone legitimately got injured. You’re mom is brilliant, btw.


Children’s Hospital had an episode in which Dr. Valerie Flame gets a visible period and all of the male doctors act incredibly immature over it. I was compelled to point this out, even though this is a silly comedy without the same level of acclaim or audience.

Carrie P.

A kids’ show on Disney or Nick showed period blood falling on a guy’s face? It must have been something else, no? But your mom’s overall point is apt! Also, there was a scene of period blood in “Super Bad” (awful movie, IMO). One of they guys is dancing with a girl at a party and she rubs her crotch on him, and he ends up with period blood on his jeans. Of course, he and his male friends – and the audience – freak out.

The Sally Draper scene was amazing – not only for showing it, but for showing it from a girl’s perspective, and no one got creeped out (on the show). Thanks!


It’s not the first time showing it on TV – but only by a couple weeks, as far as I know. A few weeks before, the HBO series Game of Thrones aired an episode in which a teenaged girl who hadn’t yet started menstruating woke up to find a bloodstain on her mattress.

This really surprised me, because I’d read the books and been wondering how they’d handle that, and I was betting they’d just change the entire plotline to avoid having to deal with it. But no, we get a nice clear view of the blood and everything.


In the TV movie “Fifteen and Pregnant” ( they show a drop of blood on Kirsten Dunst’s underwear when she thinks her period has started and she relieved. It must have been implantation bleeding though, because the movies plot revolves around her being pregnant.


I don’t watch the show, so when you say this was the “penultimate” moment, my curiosity is aroused as to what the ultimate was?

Jacqueline Antonovich

These are all great examples! Over on our Facebook page (Like us, if you haven’t yet), someone offered The Blue Lagoon as a possible suggestion, and Carrie Adkins said that the HBO show, Girls, recently had a subplot featuring period sex.
Kelly, I meant the penultimate moment in the transition from girlhood to womanhood – starting your period being the penultimate, having sex as the ultimate (which Sally hasn’t had yet). Perhaps not the best word choice on my part.


There was an episode in the first season of Degrassi: Next Gen which had Emma get her period for the first time.

Víkendové surfovanie « life in progress

[…] a ešte o zobrazovaní menštruácie v starých reklamách a nových filmoch 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… 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. […]

Heather Munro Prescott

The film “The Runaways” (2010) begins with Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) getting her first period. The opening scene starts with a splat of blood on the sidewalk then pulls away to Currie’s horror and then a frantic run to a bathroom in a nearby gas station. I think this also indicates Currie wasn’t wearing underwear.


i think a lot of the ‘horror at periods’ stuff is influenced by the writers or tv/film who are often men. It is from their perspective of ignorance about all things menstrual i.e. something to be feared/something gross etc. Also a lot of films do poo/pee/fart jokes and again i believe its male writers who still have junior humour when it comes to bodily noises/functions! Just my opinion.

The Shame of Menstruation | Liberation Collective

[…] . What also stands out is that the presumably male manager accepted that the women would bleed onto the mill floor. This indicates that there was an acceptance amongst both women and men, at least in working class circles, that bleeding openly like this was normal. . Sadly these accounts leave us with many questions that I certainly am currently unable to answer. So for example, when did this attitude to menstrual bleeding change and why? Why has the fact that it was relatively recently acceptable to openly bleed amongst some women, been erased from our history and largely forgotten? And when exactly did this practice die out? Any information or memories are welcome and gratefully received. ___________________ REFERENCES and FURTHER INFORMATION: . . . […]

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