Nothing Is Off Limits in Comedy - Except For One of the Most Natural Things We Do
On a classic episode of Roseanne, Roseanne sits her prepubescent son DJ down for a heart-to-heart. She opens up to DJ, telling him about getting her first period when she was 13 years old while wearing a new white dress at the school dance. DJ reacts by running out of the room, hands over ears, screaming, "I don't want to hear it." When DJ meets John Goodman on the stairs, the TV father of three sides with his TV son. Both man and boy reduced to uncontrollable embarrassment with the mere mention of a woman's period. The punchline: that periods are unbelievably gross. Just talking about them triggers hysteria.
Comedians break taboos for a living. Racism, sexism and homophobia are all fair game. Periods, on the other hand, a basic bodily function that 50% of the population experiences once a month, are somehow still out of bounds. Slowly, very slowly, those rules are changing. More comedians are approaching the topic of menstruation from vantage points that don't make women on their periods irrational hormonal banshees, or make periods fodder for gross-out taboo. Comedy is finally taking on this topic with a necessary dash of relateable, realistic humor.
Upright Citizens Brigade's (UCB) recent parody of an ad for sanitary napkins made an impact as it directly challenged typical period advertisements. The punchline? Rather than that seemly blue liquid used in actual tampon and pad commercials, they used red liquid in their spoof. Something that looks like blood being used to advertise a product that absorbs it. Revolutionary.
UCB plays the sketch for laughs. The familiar and enragingly unrealistic key points of every tampon or pad commercial are there: the peppy brunette, the white pants, the tennis racket. We hear talk of "confidence," "protection" and "active lifestyle." But there's also blood, lots of it. There's nothing like an apt one-minute sketch to highlight the ridiculousness of society's treatment of this 100% normal monthly occurrence.
The fake blood is squeamish inducing, but a little distance shows the shock is really from seeing periods represented realistically.
Comedian Chella Quint is also working to undo the type of attitude so flagrantly on display in the Roseanne scene. Quint is a menstruation activist, period positive and an educator. In other words, she wants to end the stigma and secrecy surrounding periods and make you laugh in the process.
Quint started a zine called Adventures in Menstruating in 2005, in which she spoofed ads and made fun of marketing campaigns that use shame to sell tampons. She subverted language that denotes periods as dirty and encouraged readers to send in stories of tampon malfunctions that were redemptive rather than humiliating. In Quint's world, the woman isn't the butt of the joke.
Quint sees that periods have a certain comedic value: "Sometimes periods are a pain in the uterus," Quint writes on her site. But her intentions are serious: "Menstruation has historically, socially and culturally been cloaked in fear and shame. Deconstructing menstrual stigmas, with brute force when necessary, is empowering."
Quint isn't alone in her activism. Rachel Kauder Nalebuff was 18 years old when she published My Little Red Book, a collection of stories from women on their first periods.
Then there was Petra Collins' American Apparel T-shirt that showed a menstruating vagina and the Camp Gyno video for Tampon delivery service, Hello Flo. Both went viral last year.
From books to art to Internet comedy and advertisements, people are finally beginning to talk about periods without the shame, euphemisms and cloaking metaphors.
Mainstream entertainment is starting to catch up as well. Take a scene from the eighth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm where a Girl Scout gets her first period while selling Larry David cookies. David isn't hysterical, embarrassed or squeamish. He runs upstairs to find tampons his ex-wife left behind and when the Girl Scout has no idea how to use them, he yells instructions through the bathroom door. This being Larry David, the exchange is awkward, but the joke isn't on the girl who turns out to be un-embarrassed and savvy. It's on the ridiculous tampon instructions that neither one of them can decipher.
Finally, it seems like we're entering an era when periods can be discussed and laughed about without the women who have them being shunned or laughed at. As a recent Flavorwire article puts it, "Menstruation seems to be having a moment — a moment of normalcy."
Periods have been depicted as shameful for too long. We're a long way off from undoing the embarrassment men and women feel about them, but comedians shouldn't be in on the taboo; they should be in on the joke. There's absolutely no need to run from the room at the mere mention of the word "period," hands over your ears, screaming, "I don't want to hear it."