From time to time menstrual references show up in TV programs, mostly on situation comedies and, unsurprisingly, they are usually played for laughs. The most common inclusions have had to do with menarche with menopause coming in second. First periods have provided laughs and plot material for the writers of DeGrassi, Roseanne, Californication, Seventh Heaven, The Cosby Show, Beverly Hills 90210, King of the Hill, and others. In nearly every one of these episodes the humor and plot tension derives, at least in part, from an exploration of male response to unwelcome exposure to the cycle: close encounters of the menstrual kind.
The most recent, and most daring, occurrence appeared in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 8, Episode 1) involving a girl selling Girl Scout cookies getting her first period standing in the foyer of Larry David’s home while writing up a cookie order. Rather than dashing off to find a woman to “take care” of the situation, as depicted, for example, in King of the Hill and Beverly Hills 90210, the protagonist rushes upstairs to get a box of tampons, left behind by his wife who has left him, and stands outside a bathroom door shouting instructions to the bewildered girl inside. Apparently she knows what the period is but has never been told how to use a tampon.
The episode is extraordinarily daring. Even the simple detail of having an older man hand a young girl he just met a tampon is startling, given the depth of social taboos requiring strict gender separation in matters menstrual. But to have him stand outside the bathroom door shouting instructions and reading the sheet packed in the box about placing the tampon in the vagina while the girl inside responds with confusion and frustration is risky indeed. But the most striking thing of all is that while both characters find the situation awkward, neither one is overly embarrassed, particularly the girl who calmly announces, “I think I just got my period for the first time.” Though she has apparently received little education about the technology, she is fully aware of what is happening in her body and accepts the fact that the adult she happens to be with when it happens is able to help her out. The fact that it’s a male, and a quirky older one at that, seems not to matter at all.
This indifference on their parts is both a source of the humor and, perhaps, an indication of a watershed in menstrual decorum. Or is that too optimistic a reading?