If it were up to Hollywood to form our feelings about menstruation, women would go through life thinking their periods were icky or scary, one researcher claims.
When political scientist Lauren Rosewarne set out in search of examples of TV shows and movies addressing the subject, she found plenty of periods-are-gross scenes and even menstruation-makes-you-evil sequences, but very few positive portrayals.
And that, she fears, may be sending young women very bad messages about their bodies during a normal biological process.
For her soon-to-be published book "Periods in Pop Culture," the University of Melbourne researcher dug up more than 200 menstruation scenes since the 1970s, culled from films and TV shows ranging from "Annie Hall" to "Mad Men."
Overall, the portrayals were overwhelmingly negative. But a few really stood out in her estimation as being the worst of the worst.
"The horror film 'Carrie' is quite possibly the most famous menstruation example on screen but also one of the most horrible," Rosewarne told The Huffington Post. "A girl is not only shown to be thoroughly terrified -- and uneducated -- about her menstruation, but its onset unleashes her telekinetic powers and, in turn, evil."
Scenes from other films have played up the ick factor.
In the 2005 Jenny McCarthy vehicle "Dirty Love," the lead character goes on a tampon run but starts bleeding before she can get to the checkout line. She floods the supermarket floor, causing an older woman to slip and fall.
TV portrayals have been as negative, Rosewarne told HuffPost, pointing to an episode of "Family Guy" during which Stewie reads a book about menstruation and calls it "the most disgusting thing I've seen in my entire life!"
Episodes of "Entourage" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" show men accusing women of being irrational or stupid because they're menstruating.
"When menstruation does appear [on screen], it is treated as a drama," Rosewarne wrote. "It is either traumatic, embarrassing, distressing, offensive, comedic or thoroughly catastrophic." (In a menstruating woman, the body prepares for a possible pregnancy -- and if it doesn't occur, the uterus sheds its lining, resulting in the flow of blood.)
But while Rosewarne's research shows that Hollywood can be overwhelmingly negative or ridiculous in its portrayals of women's periods, it is not yet clear what effect, if any, that has had on women.
Christina Bobel, an associate professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said that establishing clear causal links between media exposure and women's real-world behavior and attitudes is difficult but research in other areas may provide some insights. "Research has shown that exposure to media -- across types -- depicting very thin models and actors significantly increases women’s own body dissatisfaction and the likelihood of engaging in disordered eating," she said.
Also, psychologists have found that girls tend to have mixed feelings about their periods but support can help them feel more positive.
"When you put these findings together, you can see the potential power of menstrual representations," Bobel told The Huffington Post. "What we say does make a difference. If most of our exposure is 'keep it hidden' and when you fail at that, 'be ashamed,' how can that possibly encourage self-esteem?"
Rosewarne did uncover several examples of what she thinks is Hollywood getting it right.
In a 1989 episode of "Roseanne," Roseanne tells her youngest daughter, who has begun throwing away all her sports supplies after getting her period for the first time, that menstruation is a vital part of being a woman and that she can still be a jock.
"'Californication' also offers a number of interesting and positive examples," Rosewarne said. "In [one] episode, a woman discloses her period to Hank [played by David Duchovny] who says he is not at all bothered by it and continues to have sex with her." In another, a husband is perfectly fine with unblocking a toilet that had been clogged by his wife's tampon.
Rosewarne believes, however, that there are limitations to how much pop culture's depictions -- both good and bad -- inform women's thoughts and opinions about their bodies. Plus, she added, "I don't necessarily think film and television [have] any specific burden to present menstruation in a certain way."
"Nevertheless, the routinely negative way that it is portrayed reminds us that we need to supplement the education of young people -- boys and girls -- with high-quality sex education that fills in the gaps that the screen fails to," Rosewarne said.
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