Commentary in this post draws on the following videos:
The Office, (no YouTube link) season 3: episodes 11, 21;
30 Rock clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKtGXd_C4EY;
Family Guy clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXGFRCm9XIw; and
Modern Family, (no YouTube link) season 3: episode 17.
Television shows provide a fairly accurate litmus test for its audience’s attitude toward any given subject. In this case, the insertion and implications of references to menstruation in popular T.V. shows elucidate how contemporary American society perceives the reality of menstruation in their lives (most comedies derive their humor from at least some strain of relatability). While these clips do not represent a sample size sufficient enough to draw comprehensive conclusions about the role of menstruation in modern entertainment, they offer a platform on which to postulate the general social perception of menstruation as well as the effect that media has in fortifying such perceptions – whether they be negative or positive.
The Office, which ran seasons from 2005 to 2013, had massive success with their painfully-relatable portrayal of everyday life in an office setting. In an episode entitled, “Women’s Appreciation,” absent-filtered boss Michael Scott ignorantly calls himself a misogynist while trying to make a spectacle of appreciation for the women in the office. But he unwittingly supports his terminology gaffe when one female employee complains: “When we get angry you always ask if we are on our periods,” and he defends, “I have to know if you’re being serious or not!” The women roll their eyes in response to his justification, yet it is ironically eye-opening. His character’s main function is to have no mental filter, so he verbalizes rash thoughts and opinions that may represent some of his more composed male peers. The belief that menstruation nullifies the legitimacy of a woman’s emotions is erroneous, but it clearly is a familiar sentiment for the audience. In another episode, Pam, the receptionist, is shown crying in a hallway after she hears about the romantic success of her long-time office crush with another coworker. Dwight, who is characterized by his domineering tendencies and obliviousness to social norms, immediately recognizes this as an opportunity to act as a vigilante. He soon discovers (to his surprise) she was not crying because of an assault. With that explanation disproven, he attempts to comfort her and then says, “So you’re PMSing pretty bad, huh?” Though Dwight is not designed to be the most relatable character, this rare scene of compassion is intended to humanize him, thus his reference to PMS prompting Pam to be irrationally emotional cannot be dismissed as the comments of a social outlier. The assumption that tears with no other explanation signify menstruation (plus a case of premenstrual syndrome) is not limited to socially-aberrant characters like Dwight Schrute.
The equally acclaimed series, 30 Rock, stages a less realistic comedy show featuring hyperbolic characters and plots. The premise, however, is a satire exposing modern American society’s absurdities and weaknesses. In this clip from a show-within-the-show, The Girly Show, screenwriter Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) presents several scenes of women well-known for their tough nature – Amelia Earhart and Hillary Clinton – utterly losing control at the climaxes of their respective careers, whining, “Oh no, my period!” Amelia Earhart appears possessed by some force and wildly jerks the steering wheel, and Hillary Clinton hysterically screams, “Let’s nuke England!” during a press conference. Liz Lemon, in retrospect, recognizes to her own chagrin that her attempt to “elevate the perception of women” resulted in the opposite. The punchline comes at the height of this epiphany, when she then calls out, “Oh no, my period!” and her tone switches from soft to grating as she suddenly fires everyone. Liz Lemon, the obvious representative of “normal,” on the show, demonstrates how American society as a whole has these momentary visions of portraying women in a positive light, but then fall back to the status quo. It also offers a response to real-life skeptics who believe having a female president is unreasonable because menstruation would dangerously affect her judgment. (TIME recently included an opinion piece that assessed Hillary Clinton as the “perfect” age for a female presidency, owing to the fact that she is in the post-menopausal stage of life.)
Family Guy, the highly-popular adult cartoon, poses a caricature of the modern American family. In the above clip, the family’s arguing pauses for a brief moment to present a “period joke.” The scene opens with the refined Brontë sisters, Emily and Charlotte, enjoying a sophisticated discussion. Suddenly the lesser-known (and clearly inferior) third sister barged in and proclaimed in a crude cadence: “I made blood out me lady parts!” This scene insinuates a disassociation between admirable ladies and menstruation while characterizing discussion of the subject as merely the conduct of unfeminine, boorish women. In addition, the characters of the family involved in this joke are both male, which implies that humor is a safe way for men to talk about menstruation.
Also designed to portray the basic unit of American society, the show Modern Family contributes a more realistic example of the paradigms surrounding menstruation. In one episode, Phil Dunphy, the father of the main family, discovers to his own horror that his wife and two daughters are all enraged by trivial things one minute and devastated by an ASPCA commercial the next. Immediately he knew that their menstrual cycles had aligned. Terrified, he dubbed the incident: “Satan’s trifecta.” Throughout the episode, Phil endeavors to cautiously walk around the subject, because mentioning “it” precipitates a perilous outcome. The exaggerated hysteria and fear (from the women and men, respectively) induced by menstruation visibly distance the genders by victimizing the men and demonizing the women, thereby demonstrating our society’s unfavorable take on women’s monthly experiences.
With different lightings, scripts, and voices, these clips all essentially tell the same story about American social perception of menstruation. It is a story saturated with negative feelings and experiences for both men and women, yet these implications are theoretically mitigated by being couched in humor. Though these are by no means an exhaustive inventory of recent T.V. shows with references to menstruation, I have never seen a show that lends a positive light to this subject. Most often – as illustrated by this survey – menstruation only provides material for comedy sketches because it empathizes with the regrettable collective cultural mindset. The media, especially T.V., has the potential to instill a greater positivity for menstruation in its audience, and that change in perspective could then feed positivity back into our entertainment.
Also referenced: Holland, Julie. “Hillary Clinton Is the Perfect Age to Be President.” TIME, April 3, 2015. Accessed 24 October 2016. http://time.com/3763552/hillary-clinton-age-president/.