When I say Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is “bloodless,” I don’t mean it’s lacking in emotion or humanity. I mean it literally doesn’t have blood in it. The long-anticipated film adaptation of everyone’s favorite book about periods, which was released in theaters last week, doesn’t show any period blood on screen.
This shouldn’t take away from the loveliness and warmth of the movie, which I think will resonate with anyone who’s ever gotten their period. Slate movie critic Dana Stevens declared it “frank, funny, and tender,” and if its underperformance at the box office discourages movie executives from making more films like it, that would be a shame. I just think it’s odd that the only time the audience sees blood in this movie—adapted from a book that’s practically synonymous with menstruation (though it’s also so much more)—is when Margaret’s father hurts his hand mowing the lawn.
Almost like a horror movie that goes out of its way not to show the monster at the center of it, Margaret is deliberate about not training the camera on blood in the scenes in which one might expect to see it. If you look at the source material, the novel’s depiction of Margaret’s first period, toward the very end of the book, isn’t detailed, but it is matter-of-fact: “I looked down at my underpants and I couldn’t believe it. There was blood on them. Not a lot—but enough.” It would be a pretty standard adaptation choice to represent this important moment visually, one would think, even if briefly. But in the movie, while we do see characters sitting on toilets—and at one point, the camera even inhabits a toilet’s point of view as characters peer down at us—that’s as close as we get. As easy and obvious a choice as including some blood might seem, I also can’t say I’m surprised it was left out, given a political environment where reproductive functions are treated as a controversial issue rather than an everyday biological fact.
Just ask the Florida legislators who want to ban all discussion of menstruation in elementary schools. Lauren Rosewarne, a professor at the University of Melbourne, has written about this archaic line of thinking in her book Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television. “When blood is connected to violence, it’s all over our screens, but when it is connected to menstruation there still remains sensitivities around it,” she wrote to me in an email. “While there’s a range of explanations, most of this connects to taboo about genitals and menstruation being widely deemed a private bathroom event that should be tended to in private. I think the fact that menstruation is something disproportionately happening to women furthers the taboo and associated stereotypes.”
This begins to explain all those commercials for menstrual pads that feature a mysterious blue liquid standing in for blood. Period blood has occasionally served as the butt of jokes in movies, but as a 2017 piece in the Wrap recounts, it’s only in fairly recent memory that shows like Orange Is the New Black, GLOW, and Broad City have dared to show it in different contexts. Rosewarne has noticed this wave of progress. “The rise of streaming services means that there are simply more places to take edgier content that would once have been deemed inappropriate for broadcast television,” she said. She pointed to a scene in 2020’s The Queen’s Gambit as another notable recent example. The main character gets her first period, and she’s shown with blood running down her leg. “It’s not gratuitous—arguably it’s not even particularly explicit—but it is menstrual blood on screen in a way that still remains a rarity,” Rosewarne said. A few drops of blood on underwear might even seem tame in comparison. Then again, unlike Margaret, all of these are shows for adults. If we’ve only just started to show period blood in select programs for adults, maybe it’s a lot to ask in a movie aimed at younger audiences.
Do I think young people need to see period blood on screen? Certainly, generations of us have managed to muddle through puberty with only the visuals of blue liquid to go off of. But no one really needs to see anything on screen. As with the debate about whether sex scenes deserve a place in TV and films, sometimes art doesn’t need to have a point beyond reflecting the full range of the human experience. Everything to do with having a body is part of that. I don’t think movies need to follow characters every time they go to the bathroom, but I also don’t think they should avoid it and build it into this completely verboten thing.
That said, Margaret director and screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig can’t be blamed for approaching this topic with caution. Realistic coming-of-age dramas are few and far between at movie theaters these days, and a movie like Margaret already faces an uphill battle by dint of its lack of superheroes and franchise potential. As Rosewarne pointed out, it’s not out of the ordinary for filmmakers to defer to hypothetical critics: “Historically these things have definitely been a means by which filmmakers have self-censored,” she said. Any pressure around Margaret may have felt even stronger after last year’s Pixar movie Turning Red sparked controversy with parents who were upset that it broached mature topics like puberty, even though it only did so metaphorically: The movie is about a girl who, at 13, starts to turn into a red panda when she gets too emotional.
One might think that an animated movie would provide the perfect venue for depicting period blood—you couldn’t accuse it of being gory, after all—but Turning Red didn’t go there. Even so, it was criticized for its PG rating, which might have factored into the Motion Picture Association’s choice to give Margaret a PG-13, a decision outlets like the Mary Sue have called into question, asking why periods would be considered a “mature” topic best suited to those over the age of 13. (A representative from the MPA declined to comment on the record for this story.) The MPA guidelines are surprisingly vague on this matter—they don’t mention blood at all, period or otherwise, and there’s no hard-and-fast rule that dictates that showing period blood will result in a certain rating. “Graphic” content can result in an R rating, but again, what counts as “graphic” is subjective, and up to the MPA’s panel of parent raters to determine.
There are legitimate arguments for not showing menstrual blood in the movie, ones that have nothing to do with fears of limiting its potential audience. In the film, characters repeatedly demand answers about what it’s really like to get your period, but not showing the actual blood might emphasize the truth that it’s a private experience, one you can’t really understand the feeling of until you go through it. It’s the entire topic of the movie, so it’s almost too big to reduce to a little moment. Maybe it’s right in the same way Air, a movie about Nike signing Michael Jordan, goes out of its way to never show Michael Jordan on screen. Or maybe it’s right in the same way this movie’s other big question mark is never revealed: We are granted sight of neither periods nor God.
Still, it would have been something to see, and a radical tribute to the legacy of a radical book. I hope there’s a screenwriter or director out there who does it one day, giving the world the coming-of-age menstrual-blood scene of my dreams and Ron DeSantis’ nightmares. Period.