One of the biggest changes in TV programming in the last 20 years has been the rise of programs collectively known as “Reality TV.” The primary stylistic device in nearly all of these shows consists of cross cutting between “real” moments that the participants are engaged in and their direct address to the audience via the camera during which they comment on the experiences they are having. Whether it’s Mafia Wives or one of the Real Housewives spin offs or a home make over effort, we are meant to believe that the arguments, conversations, redecorating efforts or struggles to survive in the wild are actual, unstaged events that the camera has happened to capture in a documentary kind of moment. The commentary that the participants provide is intended to help the viewers comprehend the motives and inner feelings of the “characters” and to give them opportunities to add editorial interpretations on each other’s behavior.
Despite the fact that many of the reality shows feature women in intimate situations, very few of them include references to the women’s menstrual cycles. The rare exceptions, such as a single episode of Jersey Shore or Sorority Life, are noteworthy not just for their very existence but, as in both of these cases, because they depict menstruation with a smarmy leer.
A show on The History Channel called American Restoration gives the cycle a different spin by focusing on how freaked out men can be about any contact, no matter how distant or benign, with menstrual products. This show consists of weekly stories about a repair and restoration shop called Rick’s Restoration which specializes in restoring broken or antique objects such as cars, antique toys, or equipment to a pristine condition.
In this episode, a woman named Kelly who is part of the family that owns the business arrives with an old 1940s Kotex dispenser that is dinged and scratched and the mechanical innards are broken. A client wants it repaired and painted pink with a red ribbon to be auctioned off at a charity event.
The men who are given the task are appalled. Rick Dale, the head of the company, responds to the challenge by saying, “You gotta be kidding!” and adds, “It’s the first, and hopefully the last, feminine napkin dispenser we ever have to do.” It goes down hill from there. One man grumbles, “Well, I’m not touchin’ that,” and another carps, “Hell no, I ain’t touchin’ that Kotex machine. Kelly is out of her mind.” Yet he sets about refurbishing the device under full coverage of the camera crew while announcing how shameful it would be if anyone saw him, “I got to get the hell out of this room before anyone finds out I helped Kelly with this one.”
To show just how widespread menstrual contamination can reach, the teenaged son of the owner, a spiked hair youth named Tyler, is sent to the store to buy a variety of products to test out the repaired machine. His take on the assignment is dire, “I hate my life. I don’t know what could be more embarrassing than this [pause] Nothing – NOTH-ING.”
We then see him in a market loading various packages into a shopping cart and wheeling them to the checkout counter while his voice-over says, “I swear, I’m scared for life.” He asks the woman clerk to double bag his purchase before lugging his buys back to the shop.
As the beautifully restored dispenser is revealed, Rick speaks to the camera again, “I got a shop full of guys and getting them to work on something specifically for women was like pulling teeth.”
The show ends on a happy note as the device nets a final bid of $400.00 to go for breast cancer cure and treatment.
Of course, there’s a peculiar contradiction in the arrangements in this show. At the same time that the men protest vociferously that being seen having anything to do with a menstrual product is deeply humiliating they are gladly (we assume) participating in the filming of the show so that potentially thousands of viewers will witness their shame. The moral? Fame Trumps Shame.
(The episode first aired on 10/14/11, Season 1, Episode 27)