Why don’t fictional characters ever have their period?

Article by Vivienne Pearson /
March 29, 2018 /
Click here to view original /

My daughter is heading into puberty. We’re both keen readers, so I went in search of books that might help her (and me) with the milestone of menarche – her first period.

Finding quality and up-to-date non-fiction books was straightforward. Hooray for Kaz Cooke, and her two volumes of Girl Stuff (one for 8-12 year olds, one for 13+).

I also found Cycling to Grandma’s House, a gentle and fascinating look at menarche rituals in different cultures, which was self-published by Australian writer Jac Torre-Gomez after successful crowd funding.

My daughter read these and I read these but something was missing. Fiction. Though Cycling to Grandma’s House has a narrative arc, it is essentially non-fiction; a book about menarche, rather than a novel in which menarche happens to feature.

“Books can lead by example to show boys that a period doesn’t have to be a big deal but that it does happen.”

I decided to go on a search – to my daughter’s bookshelf, back to my childhood, to current fiction, and to experts – to gather books for her to read.

Menstruation is decidedly absent from the young fiction books my daughter (and I) are currently reading.

There are no mention of periods in the entire Harry Potter series.

Only two tangential mentions feature in the Tomorrow, When the War Began series.

Harry Potter has no qualms discussing many gruesome methods of killing – why not periods? Given that both  series hardly ever mention other bodily functions, such as going to the toilet, maybe a lack of menstrual blood is not so surprising.

There is also no mention of menstruation in any of the 10 series of Our Australian Girl. This is perhaps unsurprising:these books, with protagonists aged between 10 and 12, are set in historical times, when menarche happened later.

According to Professor George Patton, from Melbourne’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI), since the 19th century, the onset of menstruation has dropped in developed economies (and increasingly in middle income countries) from 16-17 years to around 12.5 years.

As over half of all girls get their first period younger than 13 and a girl starting her period at age nine is no longer rare, this places the topic of menarche firmly in the middle grade fiction category (ages 8-12), rather than young adult (readers aged 13-20).

I turned to an expert to ask whether it is reasonable to look to fiction as one way for young people to understand menarche and menstruation.

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, author of Periods in Pop Culture , focuses on menstruation’s less-than-starring role in art, thinks so.

“Menstruation is often absent in film and television because most experiences of it are thoroughly ordinary,” says Rosewarne.

“Literature can be more introspective, so is well placed to include ordinary menstruation.”“I think as a culture we are learning to attach less shame to periods.”

The only novel from my childhood that didn’t shy away from the ordinariness of menstruation is Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret, by Judy Blume.

Published in 1970, the book speaks honestly about religion, friendships, ostracisation and menstruation.

The characters can’t wait to get their period (eye opening in itself to me, who felt no such interest) and the story describes not just one, but three different experiences of menarche – one ‘ho hum’, one terrified and one relieved and happy.

Blume, whose Twitter bio is ‘Are you there Twitter, it’s me, Judy’, answers the question I have in mind via a Q&A in the 2015 reprint of her iconic book (which has been updated to replace menstrual pads being held in place by a belt to modern sticky-backed pads).

In writing about the realities of growing up, did she set out to be different? “No,” says Blume in her response. “I set out to tell the truth as I knew it.”

I ask the same question of Christine Keighery, a Melbourne-based author of Waiting For It; ‘it’ being the protagonist’s first period. I only discovered this book upon researching this article and is the only Australian novel for young readers I could find that includes menarche.

“There was no hesitation writing about first periods,” Keighery says. “Kids are crying out for knowledge and experience but these books didn’t seem to be available.”

In writing about the realities of growing up, did she set out to be different? “No,” says Blume in her response. “I set out to tell the truth as I knew it.”

The 2012 book is set to be re-released later this year, partly in order to place it more firmly in the category of middle grade fiction. “Though the protagonist is 12-13, readers are younger,” says Keighery.

“There’s no reason an eight year old wouldn’t be able to read this book.”

I ask Keighery’s publisher about whether we can expect to see more menstrual blood in middle grade fiction anytime soon.

“Yes, I think so,” says Marisa Pintado, from Hardie Grant Egmont.

“I think as a culture we are learning to attach less shame to periods.”

Pintado feels that menstruation is something young people will always grapple with. “Which makes it fascinating and intriguing to explore through fiction,” she says.

I am happy to have found one contemporary book that I can share with my daughter, but the fact that most of the books I have found were written in the 1960s and 70s indicates that menstruation is still a long way from being readily explored in fiction, especially in a way that is helpful for young readers.

That we are still, in the main, shying away from the basics, is unfortunate.

We need to move onto more nuanced discussions, such as menstruation being one cause of women’s lack of access to education, women’s pain being taken less seriously than men and the fact that not all who menstruate are women.

Even if we reach a time when periods are less taboo, I wonder whether young boys might also read about menstruation?

“The majority of women feel menstruation is something they need to hide from the men in their life,” says Bec Kavanagh, a PhD student who recently completed a Masters project about the role of men in normalising menstruation in coming of age narratives.

“Books can lead by example to show boys that a period doesn’t have to be a big deal but that it does happen.”

I now have a list of books to delve into and share with my daughter. Despite my research and conversations while writing this article, the list remains surprisingly short.

I honestly hope there other books out there that I have not yet discovered.

Hopefully in another generation’s time, this quest might not be so difficult.