Menarche month began at re: Cycling with reference to the brilliant first period talk Roseanne gave her daughter Darlene in a 1989 episode of Roseanne. We’ve chosen to end it with another TV reference from the beloved Canadian series of series named for the fictional street near which it is set–Degrassi.
The word “menarche” is commonly defined with reference to the biological changes that occur within a female’s reproductive system at the point when the menstrual cycle begins to function. However, the onset of menstruation is also a social occurrence that has been layered with significance in every culture and time. In contemporary societies with “advanced” media of communication, menarche has been depicted in a wide variety of ways, sometimes reflecting prevailing taboos and superstitions, and at others in ways that are informative or even liberating. The focus is often on what I have labeled “menstrual transactions,” that is, the way interactions with other individuals, frequently boys or men, structure the meaning of menstruation for both the girl and others in her surroundings. This post explores one example of how this transitional moment in a girl’s life has been represented in a broadcast television series.
One of the most positive and explicit portrayals of a girl’s first period appeared in the popular Canadian series directed at a young audience, DeGrassi: The Next Generation. Emma, the main character in the series, a girl known for her activism and responsible behavior, gets her period while sitting outside of school talking to her best friend. She is wearing a light-colored skirt and in several shots a bright red stain is visible on the back. On this particular day Emma and her friend, Manny, are scheduled to give an oral book report in front of their class and the only thing they can find for Emma to wear is a pair of gym shorts that are much too large for her. As they give the report, two young boys sitting in the front row tease her for her baggy shorts asking, “Has Emma peed her pants?” She silences and stuns them by frankly responding, “No, I just got my period, for the first time.” They shrink in their seats. However, a somewhat more mature boy sitting in the back of the room, one who Emma has a flirtation with, is aroused from his torpor to a state of interest and appreciation for her courage as well as her implicit sexuality.
The DeGrassi clip demonstrates a rich variety of menstrual transactions. Emma’s close girlfriend comes to her rescue and even another girl, who is normally antagonistic toward Emma, gives her a pad and some “womanly” advice. Menstrual needs supersede social competition or status differences–a classic case of menstrual bonding. Perhaps most interesting is the behavior of the boys. The two young kids who tease Emma are silenced and stunned by her blunt assertion. I think of this as an effective use of her WMD–her Weapon of Menstrual Destruction. In contrast, the more mature boy, appreciates her for her assertiveness.
Missing from the four-minute clip of the transaction described above is an earlier scene in which Emma and her mother are seen walking through a shopping mall eating ice cream cones where a leering man says as they pass, “Hmmm, I’d like to lick that.” Emma shrinks away but her mother turns and confronts the man saying, “Don’t you ever talk to a woman that way!” The scene acts as a role modeling moment for Emma who replicates it in her response to the teasing boys.
Unfortunately, not all TV menarche moments are this positive. But let’s hope for more first period talks from moms like Roseanne and more socially significant, self-structured menstrual experiences from girls like Emma.
David Linton is an Emeritus Professor at Marymount Manhattan College. He is also Editor of the SMCR Newsletter and a member of the re: Cycling editorial board. His research focus is on media representations of the menstrual cycle as well as how women and men relate to one another around the presence of menstruation.