I still remember the date, and where I was when I got my first period. It was Valentine’s Day 1985, and I was staying overnight at a friend’s house. I was 12, and the arrival of my period wasn’t a particularly shocking event. I benefited from the idea someone had, roughly around 1965 or so, that adolescents should be given some rudimentary education on how their reproductive organs worked, with actual naming of said organs. I had a close enough for horseshoes idea of what periods were, piecemealed through school based sex education, magazines like Seventeen, classmate gossip, and, of course, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, the equivalent of On the Road for 12 year-0ld girls.
While I learned that you couldn’t use tampons if you were a virgin (incorrect), couldn’t swim while on your period (incorrect), and couldn’t get pregnant if you had sex while menstruating (super incorrect), I also learned (correctly), that blood coming from down there was to be expected, and I was not going to hemorrhage to death all over my friend’s white tiled bathroom floor. That didn’t make it any less of a mortifying experience, though, and I briefly considered sneaking out of my friend’s house and walking home. Instead, I frantically scrambled under the bathroom sink looking for supplies, then eventually returned to the living room, feeling embarrassed and a little unclean.
I waited months to tell my mother, hiding used supplies deep in the bathroom wastebasket, because I knew she would turn it into a way to embarrass me, a skill in which she both excelled and took a tremendous amount of pleasure. I had gotten a mixed message about menstruation, in that it was a natural, even beautiful experience that we were discouraged from talking about except in euphemisms. It was well into the 90s before commercials for feminine hygiene products even used the word “period,” and even then they still focused on their “discreet packaging,” because God forbid anyone know you’re on the rag. Menstruating women were shown windsurfing, playing tennis, and horseback riding, as opposed to laying on their couches in a fetal position, two-fisting miniature chocolate peanut butter cups. Sure, it was a natural thing, but, like bowel movements and urination, it was in everyone’s best interest that we just not mention it.
1974’s Linda’s Film on Menstruation is a surprisingly detailed, 95% accurate short film on periods, unfortunately hobbled by a goofy framing device, bizarre animated sequences, and needless comedy bits. The “Linda” of the title isn’t the main character, but rather the never seen writer-director, which gives the film an unnecessary “this is someone’s quirky student film project” feel. The main character is Judy, who introduces herself by way of rattling off her measurements (accompanied by a wolf whistle). Judy is fifteen, and much to her consternation hasn’t started her period yet. She does soon enough, though, and must figure out how to tell her boyfriend, Johnny.
It is here that we see one of the most baffling creative decisions made with this 17 minute educational film. Johnny is played by ubiquitous character actor Jonathan Banks, probably best known as Mike Ehrmantraut, the ex-cop turned hitman in Breaking Bad. Though this is his first credited acting role, Banks was already 27 years old (and, per Wikipedia, already married and divorced), and looks every day of it. He is bested only by Stockard Channing in Grease as the least believable high school student ever committed to film, and no amount of making his voice sound like the nasal whine of a boy in the throes of mid-puberty improves it. He wouldn’t even be convincing as Johnny’s older brother, who drives a van and has a girlfriend in eighth grade.
Judy eventually tells Johnny in the middle of a bowling alley, of all places, and he feigns disinterest, asking “So what’s the big deal?” Judy replies, in an alarmed tone, “It means that blood is falling out of my uterus!” to which Johnny reacts with slack-jawed befuddlement. Johnny reacts to everything with slack-jawed befuddlement. Johnny seems like he’s only just starting to figure out that chocolate milk doesn’t come from brown cows.
In another puzzling moment, a character credited as “Dr. Frank Frank, M.D., ABC, XYZ” (and who looks like Father Guido Sarducci) shows up just long enough to explain that Judy and Johnny, neither of whom appear to have parents, must learn to distinguish between information “learned on street corners,” and the real facts about periods. First, they watch a strange cartoon in which a woman explains to what appears to be a shirtless young girl with Wolverine hair about the menstrual cycle. The childlike drawing style makes for a jarring accompaniment to the anatomically correct diagrams, including one on how to properly insert a tampon. On the other hand, the information provided in the cartoon is accurate, and even–praise Jesus!–mentions birth control, still a bold move in reproductive health information aimed towards young teens.
Speaking of information learned on street corners, Judy talks periods with who appear to be strangers in a park (considering the male protagonist in last week’s Am I Normal?, evidently it used to be perfectly normal for teenagers to talk to random people about sexual health). Again, much of the information she is given is correct, except for one humdinger, when one of the women talking to Judy says that her flow is so heavy that she sometimes uses two tampons at once. Despite her explaining how it’s done, I’m still not sure it’s possible, and while I’m not a doctor, it’s probably something you should never, ever do.
Judy seems to be doing pretty well at processing all this information, gradually becoming comfortable with the magic and the mystery of her cycle. Johnny, on the other hand, seems to be stuck somewhere around “Girls have thing what blood and not pee come out of? I no understand.” He grumbles about how often Judy has to go to the bathroom when she’s having her period (and if you’re a woman you know that answer is “constantly”), and when their plans to go swimming are ruined by bad weather, asks her, with absolute sincerity, “Do you think your period could have caused the rain?”
Presumably troubled by Johnny’s inability to accept that periods don’t exist solely to inconvenience him (though, to be fair, there are a lot of grown men who think that), Judy has a nightmare about appearing on an episode of To Tell the Truth with him, in which the topic is menstruation myths. Nevertheless, the next day Johnny shows up at the local drugstore, where Judy is discussing feminine hygiene products with a cashier in a way that makes it sound as complicated as purchasing a firearm. Suddenly reborn as a sensitive new age man, Johnny is now relaxed enough to purchase sanitary napkins, without requiring six layers of bags before leaving the store. He even cracks period jokes, pointing out the Statue of Liberty in the distance and saying she looks pregnant, but is “probably just bloated.” Good job, Johnny! Now you’re ready to learn that girls poop and grow hair on their bodies too.
The film closes with some [wo]man on the street interviews (and one ponytailed dude who, when asked if he would mind having a period, says “I would dig it, actually”). One woman, while careful to clarify that she’s not involved in “Women’s Lib,” even mentions having sex while on her period, a subject that still verges on taboo even today. Strange creative choices aside (who was Jonathan Banks up against to play Johnny, a nine year-old and Charles Laughton?), the information offered in Linda’s Film About Menstruation is smart, and, more importantly, useful (though again, you should not be trying to use two tampons at the same time), and 12 year-old me would have appreciated it more than the garbled “it’s a miracle of the human body that must never be brought up in polite company” message that I got.
It seems like only just a few years ago that the idea of period sex didn’t immediately make me think of the sex scene in Angel Heart, and that misconception surely came from bad information in my youth, and the distinct message that, while getting your first one is a benchmark moment in a young woman’s life, periods are gross and shameful. Linda’s Film on Menstruation is silly at times, but the message it offers is necessary for girls (and boys): periods are normal, and they’re no big deal. Get over it.
Watch it here