Tina Fey, true to her reputation for being feisty and transgressive, tells two amusing menstrual tales in her recent bestselling book, Bossypants.
The first is, appropriately for a “tell all” memoire, about her menarche. The story, familiar to thousands of other women, relates how her mother gave her a “first period” kit from the Modess company that contained two pamphlets, “Growing Up and Liking it” and “How Shall I Tell My Daughter,” and pretty much left her on her own. Fey’s humor derives largely from exaggeration and in this case she compares the Modess box stashed in her closet to a Freddy Krueger nightmare figure lurking in the dark: “Modessssss is coming for you.”
She goes on to describe the moment of the period’s arrival when she was ten years old and performing in a choral concert. She claims that her surprise was not so much that she got her period but that the fluid wasn’t blue as she’d been lead to expect from TV ads.
The second, and more interesting, story is about how as a writer for the long-running TV series, Saturday Night Live, she managed to get the Kotex Classic sketch on the air. Fey refers to it as “my proudest moment as one of the head writers of SNL.” (The anecdote was also published in the March 14, 2011 New Yorker.) The ad parody has become an SNL classic in itself and an indispensible inclusion in any discussion of the history of menstrual references on television.
The Kotex sketch is a send-up of the trend at the time for nostalgia sales pitches such as the Coke Classis campaign. Written by Paula Pell, it features women proudly flaunting their Kotex belts and bulging sanitary napkins, even in a swimming pool and while wearing low cut, tight evening wear. A man in the ad comments approvingly, “Them girls are Old School!”
Fey describes how the men at the studio who had to approve the scripts balked at selecting it. Their resistance was eventually overcome once the women explained the exact nature of the unfamiliar menstrual technology and how it was worn. As Fey puts it, “They didn’t know what a maxi pad belt was. It was the moment I realized that there was no ‘institutional sexism’ at that place. Sometimes they just literally didn’t know what we were talking about.”
Beyond the fascinating behind-the –scenes access that Tina Fey’s book provides to the working of an influential TV show – and lots of other settings as well – she has also offered a glimpse of the menstrual social gap, the chasm of ignorance that separates women and men when it comes to understanding even the most rudimentary details of menstrual management. In this case she was able to educate the men and succeed in producing a memorable – and perhaps even liberating! – piece of TV comedy.