Since Anne Shirley—better known as Anne of Green Gables—burst into popular culture in 1908 with the publication of Lucy Maud Montgomery's book of the same name, the curious, clever, ginger-haired orphan from Prince Edward Island has had no shortage of onscreen depictions. She's been featured in a 1919 silent film, a 1985 Canadian television adaptation, and a 1979 anime film, among others. It's safe to say Netflix's new retelling Anne With an E, though, is the first to depict Anne—11 years old in the book, 13 in the new series—getting her period.
In fact, Anne's education in menstruation is a central plot point in the fifth episode of the first season. At the beginning of the episode, Anne wakes up in the middle of the night, peeks under her bedcovers, then bolts downstairs. As she scrubs the bright red blood stain out of her bed linens, one of Anne's new guardians, Marilla Cuthbert, has to explain that menstruation is perfectly normal. Like so many young women before her, Anne thinks she's dying when she gets her first period.
For Anne With an E creator Moira Walley-Beckett, the period episode was essential for the coming-of-age story she wanted to tell. "Suddenly changing from a young girl to a young woman is a pivotal life moment," she says. "So there was no question in my mind that it should be included."
And yet, on the whole, periods still aren't frequently mentioned—let alone seen—on mainstream film and TV. Despite the fact that half the population experiences menstruation for a significant portion of their lives, only in 2016 did periods become de rigueur for a few TV shows, Refinery29 noted last year. When they do make a crimson cameo, they tend to do so in a way that validates keeping menstruation under wraps. In her 2012 book Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television, Lauren Rosenwarne argues onscreen instances of menstruation overwhelmingly present periods as "a pretty awful plight for everybody"—they are often depicted as the source of women's bad moods, mediocre sex lives, and hassles for men.
Anne With an E is a welcome rejoinder to this history. In the show, Anne's first period isn't a quick reference, or a source of conflict for all characters. Instead, the series shows the messy details of menstruation and the emotional highs and lows that come along with it to deepen its portrait of a girl.
Though periods are rare in general on TV, this particular episode of Anne With an E is an especially uncommon example of a period period piece. Periods have made an appearance on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Mad Men, and The Handmaid's Tale (historical fiction of a kind—the story draws on past societies to depict its future setting). But antiquated sanitary products hardly ever turn up on TV's most popular period pieces: Ever remember seeing a sanitary cloth on Downton Abbey?
Actor Mag Ruffman is no stranger to the sanitized norms of period dramas and, specifically, the Anne universe. She appeared in Kevin Sullivan's 1985 CBC adaptation and the 1987 sequel as Alice Lawson (a clerk in Avonlea's general store), as well as the follow-up series Avonlea (1990–96) as the proto-feminist journalist Olivia King-Dale. During her tenure in the fictional town of Avonlea, Ruffman says the show stayed away from any plot points involving women's bodily functions.
"We didn't go near that stuff in Avonlea," she says. "I honestly don't think the context would have worked in the early '90s." In fact, when her character gives birth onscreen, she says it was quiet and largely clean, with just a bit of "smoothie blood" dropped on the newborn baby's head.
In 2017, however, Ruffman says audiences are ready for a more realistic approach. "I think it's encouraging that [Anne With an E] goes in a direction of more spherical representation of what that period of time what was like, not just a thin little slice of the good bits," Ruffman says.
In Laura Fingerson's 2006 book Girls in Power: Gender, Body and Menstruation in Adolescence, she notes that many young girls—and boys—learn about periods through advertisements and the media, including TV and films. Many of these depictions are biased or inaccurate, she argues, painting menstruating women as hysterical maniacs incapable of rational thought, or, conversely, so nonchalant about periods that they reinforce the taboo of talking about it.
In contrast, Anne With an E removes the usual tropes and narrative shortcuts that so often allow TV writers to reference periods without addressing the details. The episode lingers on a shot of stain the period makes on Anne's sheets, the color a vibrant red—as opposed to the blue liquids that so often substitute for period blood in pad and tampon commercials.
The motif of bright red returns throughout the episode. It shows up again in the form of a bowl of red berries, a red bow around a white box containing a dress with puffed sleeves that Anne cherishes (it is a gift from her kindred spirit and guardian, Matthew), and, of course, her trademark red hair and the red cliffs and dirt roads of Prince Edward Island. This is also the episode that includes the scene where Anne accidentally serves her best friend Diana currant wine instead of Marilla's famous raspberry cordial, and both girls end up intoxicated. For the second time in the episode, red liquid signals a coming of age; a normal, eventual loss of innocence. "I love bright red drinks, don’t you? They taste twice as good as any other color," Anne tells her friend. Each appearance of these red visual references reminds the viewer that Anne is maturing, and that's not a bad thing; growing up can be as joyous as it can be confusing.
Normalizing the details of menstruation, including the ambivalence many girls feel about getting their period, appears to be the episode's objective. When Marilla assures Anne that she is not dying, but rather is in her "womanly flowering time" and that it's "perfectly normal," Anne says that she doesn't feel ready to be a woman. And though Marilla comforts Anne, she and her neighbor, Rachel Lynde, later express relief at being finished with their cycles as menopausal women: She says that she'd "rather be pregnant than menstruating." Anne With an E doesn't shy away from the idea that just because getting a period is a significant adolescent milestone, it isn't also a major inconvenience.
Then, as they do now, women took steps to reduce the pain and bother of the experience. One of the many reasons why Judy Blume's 1970 book Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret has served as the Period Bible for several generations is not only the frank way it discusses menstruation, but also the practical logistical elements: the supplies you need, how to put them on, and what to do with them.
Anne With an E also hones in on these minutia. Marilla provides Anne with some cotton cloths to pin to her undergarments, instructing her to wash them in cold water first, then hot water. This hit home for me: These were the exact directions I received from my own mother for getting period stains out of fabric; this was likely a hushed conversation taking place over a bathroom sink or wash basin for generations of women. Of course, it's a dated technique—but so was the version of Margaret that I read in the 1990s that described using sanitary napkins with belts and hooks.
Anne With an E ultimately doesn't offer a stock narrative of a girl coming to easy terms with her period. Though Anne starts the day with Marilla's levelheaded explanation of menstruation, she is quickly introduced to the stigma and shame surrounding periods once she arrives at school. Discussing first periods with her female classmates over lunch, Anne loudly exclaims that she finds the whole thing "so inconvenient." The other girls instruct her to keep her voice down because, as one of them puts it, "No one is supposed to know. A woman's cycle is a shameful thing."
Anne doesn't buy that as a viable reason—"We can make a whole person. Where's the shame in that?" she asks. Later in the episode, though, Anne will place her hands strategically behind her back to cover up any possible stains when her teacher calls on her in class, demonstrating that she's not impervious to the fear of standing out among her classmates.
Those of us who grew up repeatedly watching worn VHS copies of the 1985 adaptation spent hours giddily recapping our favorite scenes to our friends, comparing ourselves to Anne and Diana and pining over Gilbert. Anne With an E's creator is hoping this generation's viewers will do the same with a taboo topic. "By including Anne's first period in Anne With an E I truly hope it sparks open conversation on the subject," Walley-Beckett says.
While the show did start a conversation, it may not be the one Walley-Beckett had in mind: Several reviews of the show have included its period episode as an example of the show's gritty, dark perspective. This take hasn't normalized the show's period episode so much as framed it as a feature of highbrow, dark TV—again positioning periods as a source of pain, or a bleak plot twist.
But the reception has been different among other critics and, especially, the general viewership. On Twitter and in some reviews, some women have identified with the episode, lauding it and appreciating its humor. If TV networks are paying attention, perhaps addressing menstruation soon won't be considered a feature of "gritty" TV, but a matter of course.