Periods have always been a very hush topic in society, even more so in India. Men often have zero ideas about the nuances and the very natural aspect of it, and internalised misogyny often forces younger women to be embarrassed. A worldwide survey found that 37% of people have never actually seen a reference to periods on TV.
One writer points out how “Female characters are much more likely to be sliced in half by a chainsaw than shown asking their friends for a tampon or towel because they forgot one.”
Another study found over 5,000 euphemisms in 190 countries for periods. It ranges from Alarmstufe Rot (Code red alarm) in Germany to Kommunister i lysthuset (Communists in the gazebo) in Denmark. No wonder around 50% of women feel there is a stigma attached to periods. A lot of the taboo around periods can be done away with if we have a more active conversation around periods in pop culture.
Hollywood has been progressively getting better at its portrayal and discussions around periods on screen. One of the first portrayals on-screen was the Stephen King horror, Carrie (1976). The titular protagonist is shamed for getting her period in the shower and then she goes on to take revenge.
From this being used as an origin story for a serial killer, Hollywood has grown by leaps and bounds. Black-ish, a sitcom that started in 2014, had one of its characters deal with her first period.
There is still a lot to be done though. The on-screen portrayal is usually about the apexes of menstruation and is usually always made into some ‘big’ event. It’s usually made into a plot point and more often than not isn’t depicted as a normal routine event.
We have had so many scenes in movies or TV shows of men peeing into urinals and even talking throughout the entire scene. It’s a normal bodily function, and its portrayal is treated as such. Why can’t we have more shows with characters just discussing the pain that accompanies periods? Discussion about periods has been one of the cornerstones of female friendships, and on-screen portrayal of just this discussion can help the discourse a lot.
Bollywood isn’t exactly known for its positive portrayals of women. More often than not, I would say it has been infamous for misogyny and sexism that comes across in all aspects of the movies, be it the plotline, dialogues, music numbers, etc. A study by IBM, IIIT-D, and DTU quantified this rampant sexism and had a range of conclusions. They ranged from the words used to describe women (attractive, beautiful) versus the ones used for men (strong, rich), to the fact that women were always introduced as a relative of a male member as opposed to men who are introduced with their profession.
This entrenched misogyny results in absolutely zero mentions of periods across Bollywood whatsoever. The first proper portrayal of periods on-screen was Pad Man, a biopic on an entrepreneur who made low-cost pads after realising the struggles his wife went through. An Akshay Kumar-starrer, it’s another in a long line of inspired-from-true-stories-but-actually-having-zero-substance movies that seems to have become his forte.
While the very existence of this movie must be lauded, the fact that it’s more of an inspirational story than one which aims to destigmatise periods should be kept in mind. Myths and misconceptions are still widespread across the country with only around 20% of women having access to sanitary hygiene in India. Around 70% of girls aren’t aware of menstruation or menstrual health until they get their first period.
Media and pop-culture shape how society thinks. Movies drive conversations and can have an actual effect on what people believe and how they think about the world. Filmmakers and screenwriters thus have an immense responsibility towards normalising taboos, especially ones that can directly influence policies around menstruation, and also around the opinions that women have about their bodies.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.