When Pixar’s Turning Red debuted on Disney+ in March, much of the anticipated response to the Y2K coming-of-age tale about Mei, a Chinese-Canadian teen who transforms into a red panda as she begins going through puberty, was celebration.
But in the weeks that followed the movie’s release, the conversation around it steered sharply from championing a step forward in inclusive storytelling — the film marked the studio’s first to be solely directed by a Chinese-Canadian woman and featured its first lead Asian character — and devolved into a heated debate. The controversy would ultimately revolve around whether an animated movie targeted at children should be allowed, even metaphorically, to allude to menstruation.
In an interview with Polygon, director and co-writer Domee Shi explained that the Red Panda metaphor spoke not only to puberty, but also to “what we inherit from our moms, and how we deal with the things that we inherit from them.”
“Everybody on the crew was unapologetic in support of having these real conversations about periods and about these moments in girls’ lives,” producer Lindsey Collins said.
That decision didn’t sit well with some parents, who descended on review hubs like Common Sense Media (which focuses on media suitability for children) to charge that the Pixar film had crossed a line for younger viewers with its “multiple mentions of periods and pads,” as one reviewer noted.
“This was extremely disappointing! We’re all set to watch it with friends on a snow day and it’s completely inappropriate for any kids under 13,” another adult reviewer, who had marked the film as having “too much sex,” wrote. “Puberty, boy crazy, lying to parents, sneaking out, and more unhealthy ways of dealing with emotions.”
(Puberty can begin as early as eight, according to the Cleveland Clinic, with menstruation starting around 12.)
For Braceface creator Melissa Clarke, the backlash sounded all too familiar. Her animated series, which ran on the Disney-owned network ABC Family for three seasons, tackled menstruation in 2001 during the show’s first season in “The Worst First Date Ever: Period.”
“I got a lot of letters from pissed-off moms,” the writer and series creator recalled. “One of them said, ‘My 13-year-old daughter and I thought we were sitting down to watch a fun cartoon and then I had to explain to her what a period was.’ We were like, ‘Oh, so that’s a thank you letter, is what you’re saying.’”
Written by showrunner Alyse Rosenberg and “welcomed” by studio Nelvana, the story saw its leading character, “braceface” Sharon, on her first date with a crush when she gets her first period. Ultimately, the episode attempts to provide a look at how tweens can respond — with everything from anxiety to pride — to puberty-related experiences.
“It sort of captured the taboo subjects, which is to say is life,” Clarke said of her series overall. “I really wanted Braceface to be the TV version of a Judy Blume book, to be a landing space for the kind of kid that I was that needed the storytelling.”
Lauren Rosewarne, author of Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television, says negative reaction to these storylines has been an ongoing issue fueled by the perception of menstruation as an “adult” subject.
“There is a tendency for some people — generally conservative people often with strong religious convictions — to think that all sex education should be provided in the home rather than via third parties like schools or media,” Rosewarne told THR. “Menstruation gets bundled together with other perceived ‘adult’ topics — like intercourse or masturbation — considered sensitive, private and often uncomfortable or embarrassing to discuss.”
One result of that position has been historically negative representations of periods, associating them with “embarrassment, bad moods and occasionally even crime,” she said. Additionally, both live-action and animated film and TV have depicted the existence of menstruation as something to be used strategically — a convenient excuse for getting out of gym class or overindulging in food.
But not all shows have taken these kinds of approaches, including the sitcom Roseanne, which treated Darlene’s first period as “something positive” that enabled her to be a parent, Rosewarne told THR. The representational treatment of periods in TV and film can also depend on the genre, with comedies leaning into allusions while teen-oriented media is more likely to have a focus on education, anticipation and even activism.
“I think animation aimed at younger audiences would be more likely to avoid including it unless it was consciously aiming to function as sex education,” Rosewarne said.
That was the case for a 1946 Disney short, The Story of Menstruation, which was produced in partnership with the International Cellucotton Products Company, the marketing arm of Kimberly-Clark, maker of Kotex products. One of the first branded films used in schools and eventually shown to 100 million students, the Walt Disney Company oversaw the first script drafts and the conceptualization of visual material, with the producers bringing in a gynecologist consultant to ensure scientific accuracy.
The emphasis “on biological themes” in the script, which was guided by K-C, helped make its tone objective and unemotional, according to Kotex, Kleenex, Huggies: Kimberly-Clark and the Consumer Revolution in American Business. Along with the short, the ICPC released a supplemental teaching guide, which suggested educators address menstruation informally in fourth grade before a more “systematic” focus in seventh.
This more sanitized approach, shaped in part by a screen test that resulted in major edits, was by design Bob Batchelor, Kotex, Kleenex, Huggies co-author, told THR. “There were many cultural factors that K-C and Disney had to consider when making The Story of Menstruation, like how to show sexual organs and depict blood,” he explained. “They had to be tactful and sensitive, particularly if they wanted to gain wide approval. Then as now, much of the nation was overtly conservative in its views of sexuality and sex education, so the film had to sidestep potential barriers.”
Rosewarne notes that the U.S. TV and film industry historically operated under production codes that made it difficult to present menstruation. The dominance of men in media production, as well as network and classification concerns, were also influences on period representation. “Generally producers want their material seen by as many people as possible, therefore they will often avoid including content that will limit who can see it,” she said.
Released decades apart, The Story of Menstruation, Turning Red and Braceface were ultimately grappling with the same threat of backlash. But unlike its more modern counterparts, the short and its supplemental materials’ broaching of menstruation were accepted as age-appropriate for those under 13. It was lauded during its initial release by teachers, administrators and parents “yearning for high quality educational resources,” Batchelor said. One student even described it as something that could be enjoyed “instead of feeling hush-hush.”
“Schools had a more direct role in preparing youngsters for life, rather than a focus on going to college, so health and sex ed were extremely important,” said Batchelor of sex education being more central in the education system then, compared to present-day.
Despite this mixed reception around menstruation animation, Rosewarne says the stigma around periods onscreen has “absolutely lessened over time,” thanks to the Internet, social media, cable TV and now, streaming services. “They are simply not beholden to the taste or classification concerns that have plagued cinema and broadcast television,” she concluded.
For Clarke, the shift is important as a creative who wants to help those who are seeking answers.
“Looking back as a kid, I was just so full of shame and everything felt icky and weird. I guess because my parents weren’t comfortable with any of it. So I really picked up shame from it, and I feel like there was absolutely no need for that,” Clarke said. “Why is it so loaded for some people when it’s just part of being alive?”