When our Senior Editor Drew asked me if I would review Periodical, MSNBC/Peacock’s new documentary about menstruation and various social/economic/cultural issues surrounding menstruation, I was like “you write one article about harvesting your period blood for witchcraft…” This was a joke, but she affirmed that this was indeed why I was asked. So, you know, as someone who considers themselves to be relatively comfortable with at least the blood aspect of my period, I accepted the task. Before watching the documentary, I was perplexed. What could I possibly have to learn about something that I experience, myself, firsthand, on a monthly basis?
But if this documentary taught me anything, it was that when it came to the physical aspects of my uterus and my menstrual cycle, I only knew like… 50% of what Periodical had to tell me about my own body. Oops!
The documentary weaves together discussions of the physical realities of menstruation and bodies with a group of activists fighting the “tampon tax,” a look at new medical research and tech, glimpses into sexual and menstrual health education, pop culture, historical context, and individual anecdotes. This is done via interviews with health and legal experts, laypeople (and the documentary does include trans and gender expansive people in their interviews), political activists, historians, and celebrities. Along with these interviews there are conversations between people, glimpses into classes, footage of legislative activism, and typical documentary-style animations.
We begin pretty quickly with a discussion of period poverty: the fact that menstrual products — tampons, pads, etc. — cost money and strain already tight or nonexistent budgets. We also meet activists who we’ll follow throughout the documentary who are working to pass legislation banning sales tax on menstrual products. Watching various interviewees share their experiences of receiving less-than-adequate education about their periods growing up hit me hard, bringing up a roiling stew of feelings about the way my mother handled things.
At one point, I was gifted the famous American Girl The Care and Keeping of You. Upon looking this up, I’m realizing I had the original, and that it’s now split into two books, one for “younger girls” and one for “older girls.” Nevertheless, my parents handed me the book and washed their hands of the rest. Between sex ed (called “Project Know” at my school) and The Book, they figured I had what I needed. When I got my first period, much like Stephen King’s Carrie, I was in the gym locker room. Unlike Carrie, I pulled the spare pad the school had gifted each of us out of my locker and went to go use it. Then, I struggled to tell my mom. She’d given me the book and then had never, ever spoken to me further about periods. It would actually be a couple months of secretly stealing her supplies and suffering in silence before I called her while she was at work and pretended that I’d gotten my period for the first time at home. She brought me home a package of pads, told my dad to my embarrassment, and that was it.
But what was there to know? You bleed every month. You plug it up. You take a Midol if you need to. And aside from being absolutely petrified of pregnancy or bleeding through your pants or being caught without supplies, you move on.
However, recently, thanks to none other than the good folks making content over on TikTok, I’ve learned that there might actually be more to it! I’ve started hearing phrases like “luteal phase”… and then this period documentary confirmed for me — there are in fact four phases of the cycle, each with their own names and own unique properties. Who knew? Because I didn’t! Apparently also the window of fertility is relatively small? Y’all. (I am sure those trying to get pregnant know this, but I have yet to find myself in that position.) Even the discussion around PMS was heavily relatable. Who among us who menstruate hasn’t been in the same shoes as the trans guy who told a story about slicing an avocado and bursting into tears when a single slice accidentally fell on the floor? By the time I was a quarter of the way through this documentary, I was fully ready to admit that, yes, indeed, we needed an informational documentary about periods and I am glad this one exists.
As a counterpoint to ignorance, we visit Lakota mother and daughter team Medina Matonis and Ilyana Perez, leaders of the 100 Horses Women’s Society, who discuss “creating historical trauma cycle-breakers” and who host the Isnati Ca Lowanpi Ceremony (Becoming a Woman Ceremony). There are scenes like this throughout the documentary, where we get glimpses into what a society without stigma around menstruation could look like, where we’re given alternative models for the ways that we’ve grown up and been socialized to think of periods.
I’ll admit I’m definitely somewhere in between the people who’ve fully embraced periods and the interviewee who said, of using menstrual cups, “I won’t put a cup inside me because I don’t want to touch my own body.” I’m thinking about her. I hope she’s okay.
From this embrace of acknowledging periods and utilizing traditional plant medicine to manage symptoms, we move forward into a discussion of period pain, followed by three chronic conditions associated with the uterus and menstruation: PCOS, endometriosis, and fibroids. I’m sure that some people reading this, especially on a site like Autostraddle, might be familiar with many of the in’s and out’s of menstrual cycles and the health of reproductive organs. However, I have to admit I went most of my life, up until my 30’s, without learning anything about PCOS, endometriosis, or fibroids. The only way these came into my awareness was through the experiences of people I knew who dealt with these conditions, but they’re alarmingly common! Again, this documentary is about something that over half the population of the planet experiences at some point, so, really, I don’t know why we aren’t all better educated!
Two discussions left me with a desire to conduct further research. First up, we have Megan Rapinoe talking about the work the USWNT did to track their periods and work with their cycles, not against them. As someone who lifts weights, I’d certainly noticed that depending on where I was in my cycle, the weights were moving differently. We’re talking significant differences in terms of what I might be able to bench or squat or what-have-you depending on where I am in the month. But apparently you can eat differently for each phase of the cycle and vary the kinds of exercise you do to best deal with symptoms and maximize your athletic capabilities? Get ready for this to be a new interest of mine. Secondly, the documentary gets into perimenopause… which is the thing before menopause. Again, I’d only heard of this phenomenon relatively recently, but it’s something that I really want to note! Because the symptoms of this pre-menopause time period, from mood swings to sensory overload and more, sound like something I’d want to have a heads up about. You just go through life, and no one hands you the American Them Perimenopause Book, and so if you don’t seek out the information on your own, you won’t know what’s going on.
The documentary culminates with the passing of period tax legislation in the house in Michigan. Thankfully, it notes that political and electoral work like this is just a drop in the menstrual cup (haha) when it comes to reframing the way we as a culture and a country treat menstruation, reproductive health, and women and girls and gender expansive people who get their periods. In terms of drawbacks, it feels like a whirlwind overview, which it is. It’s not a deep dive into any one particular facet, so if you’re curious about anything the documentary touches on, you’ll probably need to do further research on your own. Periodical, also, at times, gets into broad sweeping strokes of simplified history (there’s an animation depicting women going from practicing herbal healing to being burned at the stake, a personal pet peeve of mine) and it also interviews CIA-fave Gloria Steinem without qualifiers. But, overall, if you’re curious, I’d give it a go. Even more so, I think the doc would make a valuable addition to a sex ed curriculum and that it’d be a solid (though, you know, not as fun as other options) pick for movie night with kids who are old enough to get their periods.
At one point, it’s suggested that someone could use period blood as a face mask because of the stem cells it contains. And if you think I’m not trying that… you’re wrong because I’m going to try that.
Periodical is now streaming on Peacock.