How Mary Queen of Scots exposed the media’s squeamishness about periods

Posted by
Moya Crockett
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You’d think the world was getting over its problem with menstruation – but the response to Josie Rourke’s film suggests otherwise.     

Last week, I went to a screening of Josie Rourke’s new film Mary Queen of Scots. It’s a beautiful, brutal movie, featuring sweeping shots of the Scottish Highlands and astonishing, complex performances by Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. As Mary, Ronan is luminous and steely, while Robbie’s Elizabeth I is obstinate, insular and surprisingly sympathetic.

Many scenes in Mary Queen of Scots made an impression on me, from the shocking death of one of Mary’s closest friends to Elizabeth’s candid explanation of why she’ll never take a husband. One scene that barely registered in my mind, however, was the brief moment in which we see a spot of menstrual blood on Mary’s nightgown. Rourke’s vision of 16th century Scotland is believably cold, muddy and cruel – so it didn’t surprise me that she was also committed to showing the reality of women’s physical lives.

Yet this fleeting glimpse of red on white cloth, and a subsequent scene in which Mary’s ladies-in-waiting are seen rinsing blood off her inner thighs, have become something of a talking point in media coverage of the film. In a recent interview with the Press Association, Rourke revealed that she was asked about the scene while promoting Mary Queen of Scots in the US. 

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“In America, I was asked ‘how difficult was it to shoot that menstrual blood scene?’” she said. “But it was probably one of the most straightforward scenes that we shot because there were six women there and we all know what happens and we all know what to do.”

Rourke explained that she fought to include the menstruation scene in the film – in part to help normalise periods, which are rarely referenced in Hollywood movies. The scene also illustrates how Mary’s body – specifically, her fertility – was perceived as crucial to her power. Whereas Mary took a husband and gave birth to a son (James, who went on to rule over both Scotland and England), Elizabeth steadfastly refused to marry and referred to herself as “barren”, prompting panic over who would succeed her.

The poster for Mary Queen of Scots

In other words, it makes perfect sense that periods appear in Mary Queen of Scots. But the media’s response highlights the fact that many people still find it shocking when women discuss the realities of menstruation. Naïvely, I had hoped that – in the UK and the US, at least – we were moving away from a world in which periods are seen as scandalous. I believed that anti-period poverty organisations like Gabby Edlin’s Bloody Good Period and Amika George’s Free Periods, not to mention the campaign against the tampon tax, had helped bring the subject into the mainstream. 

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But apparently, some journalists still assume it must be “difficult” to shoot a scene involving a bit of fake blood on a woman’s inner thigh. (You have to wonder if they were similarly concerned about the violent gore elsewhere in Mary Queen of Scots, or if blood is only anxiety-inducing when connected to the female reproductive system.) Similarly, when reporting Rourke’s interview with the Press Association, multiple national news organisations claimed the director had “defended” the menstruation scene in her film – suggesting that it somehow needed accounting for.

On Twitter, Rourke criticised this choice of phrasing. “I was not ‘defending’ this menstruation scene,” she wrote. “It requires no defence.”

Mary Queen of Scots director Josie Rourke with stars Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan 

Stigma and shame around periods is a very real problem. One of the reasons period poverty is such a pervasive problem in the UK is that many women and girls without the funds for sanitary products are too ashamed to ask for help. Even teenagers who can afford tampons and pads report feeling deeply embarrassed when buying them, while many adult women still feel awkward about their monthly bleed.

Further afield, in countries such as India and Nepal, women can be ostracised while menstruating due to deep-rooted myths and taboos. Nepal is now moving to try and eradicate the practice of chhaupadi, or banishing women and girls to isolated huts during their periods. But too many women have already lost their lives after enduring snake bites, smoke inhalation and fire while confined to outhouses.

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Against this backdrop, it seems only right that films which deal explicitly with the realities of womanhood don’t shy away from showing menstruation. The period scene in Mary Queen of Scots is not provocative or gratuitous. It simply tells us that women bled in the 16th century, as they do now. Quiet, understated cinematic moments like this have the power to chip away at stigma, dismantling the idea that periods must always be hidden away.

What won’t reduce stigma, however, is the media suggesting that menstruation in movies is inherently shocking. One day, a director like Rourke will be able to show a smudge of blood on a nightdress without it becoming the subject of debate. And when that happens, we’ll know we’ve truly made progress. 

Images: Focus Features / Getty Images 


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Moya Crockett

Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.

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