Popular culture is rife with representations of periods, from the ridiculous to the downright horrifying. (The shower scene in Carrie, anyone?) Historically, media portrayals of real-life events, especially those involving women, have been grossly inaccurate. And for most of us, it takes a lifetime of IRL experience to discover, “Oh, orgasming in the missionary position after 30 seconds of intercourse isn’t a thing,” before we adjust our expectations. So what about menstrual cramps. Is pop culture lying to us about the one thing almost every woman knows firsthand? Let’s discuss.
John Hughes knew a thing or two about teenage angst, but I’m not so sure about his fluency in menstruation. In this 1986 cult classic, Samantha’s sister, Ginny, gets her period on her wedding day, so her mother gives her muscle relaxers to calm her cramps. Ginny’s loopy walk down the aisle is comedic gold, but I don’t know any woman who would casually pop a muscle relaxer (or four) on her wedding day — I don’t care how bad her cramps are. This kind of narrative definitely plays into the stereotype that menstruating women are crazy, even if it was the drugs talking. Blame it on the fact that it was the 80s, a great decade for shoulder pads, but not so much for political correctness.
“No Strings Attached”
Okay, I have to admit this scene is kind of cute. Adam (Ashton Kutcher) brings his love interest, Emma (Natalie Portman), cupcakes and a “period mix” of songs to listen to, as he says, “calm her womb.” Indeed, it is true that women may crave things like sugar and salty snacks when they’re on their periods, but chances are Ashton Kutcher isn’t going to show up at your door to help you indulge them. If he does, give him my number. What I don’t buy about this scene is that Emma is having what appears to be a cramp party with friends Patrice and Shira, who are all on their periods as well and clutching hot water bottles for dear life. The scene is a somewhat weird and charmingly quirky modern interpretation of the kind of real life banishment some cultures impose on menstruating women, as they are believed to be “unclean.” So let’s get one thing clear, if two women in the same room happen to be menstruating, chances are their cramps aren’t what brought them together.
This crampy moment comes to us from our normally progressive neighbors up north. “Ginger Snaps” is a horror flick that basically conflates a teenage girl’s transition into a werewolf with the onset of her first period. I’m not kidding. After getting bitten by a dog, Ginger Fitzgerald gets her period and promptly goes to the pharmacy with her sister in search of some relief. There’s nothing too out of the ordinary about the cramp narrative here, but for a film made in 2000, the whole turning into monster metaphor for menstruation is much more dated. Oh, and Ginger goes on to have unprotected sex and kill a neighbor’s dog and some other characters. Plenty to unpack there, but I won’t bother. You get the idea. Cramps can kill, but not in that way.
80s adolescents rejoice. There was, in fact, one show that handled the whole cramp situation sans drama and with an appropriate level of snark. In Season 1 of Roseanne, Roseanne’s tomboy daughter Darlene laments the onset of her period, going as far as to joke that she may start “throwing like a girl.” Roseanne pulls a mother-of-the-year move, and assures Darlene that her period is cause for celebration, loathsome cramps and all.
As every woman knows, cramps can be a literal and sometimes debilitating pain. Roseanne excluded, most of these pop-culture favorites fail to capture the unique hell of uterine contractions in realistic way. Nice try, though. Cramps aren’t cause for a murder spree or ruining your own wedding, but they can definitely leave you down for the count. That being said, if you are experiencing excessive pain during your period, it may point to something more serious like endometriosis… not an impending werewolf transition.