Seeing Red: The Rise of Mensesplaining

With women explaining periods to men, pop culture is finally treating menstruation as a societal issue everyone should care about.

Oriol/Trizz (S.C.P.) / Corbis

In the season-three finale of Broad City, Abbi and Ilana find themselves, via participation in the “Birthmarc” program, on a plane to Israel. Early on in the episode, in mid-air, Abbi gets her period. From there, the rest of the finale’s plot revolves around the pair’s airborne quest to find Abbi a tampon. It’s an effort, Abbi and Ilana being Abbi and Ilana, that comes with many, many jokes about the circumstances they’ve found themselves in thanks to Abbi’s uterus. “Ooof, first day. That’s, like, putting your spoon into a molten lava cake,” Ilana says.

“It’s like the first bite of a jelly donut,” Abbi counters.

“It’s like a side of chutney.”

“It’s like fruit on the bottom.”

The exchange—rapid-fire, unapologetically graphic, unrelentingly hilarious—is yet more evidence that pop culture, which for so long has treated periods as the stuff of shame and taboo, is now insistently de-stigmatizing them. Periods have recently been so popular a topic of cultural exploration that 2015, NPR argued, was “the year of the period”—also known as the year, per Cosmopolitan, that “the period went public.”

But periods have not merely been the subjects of exploration. They have also been the subjects of explanation: women, newly given a voice in the culture at large, explaining to men what it’s like to have a period—jelly donuts and fruit on the bottom and all. Call it mensesplaining: the dynamics of mansplaining (men explaining things to women, usually extremely unnecessarily), reversed. Women enlightening men about something (most) guys will never experience themselves.

Earlier this week, Michelle Wolf—for the evening filling the role of The Daily Show’s “senior period correspondent”—engaged in a long, explanatory segment about periods. The riff was loosely pegged to New York state’s repeal of its tampon tax—one of the many states that has made that move, in response to public outrage about the taxing of those basic health items as “luxury goods”—but it ended up doubling as an exegesis about the odd yet ongoing taboo associated with the thing that is experienced every month by a significant portion of the world’s population. “We’ve cloaked it in such secrecy and shame!” Wolf noted. She added: “It’s like we put menstruation in the witness protection program, and now it goes by the alias ‘periods’ and lives in a small town in Oklahoma.”

Wolf’s riff, tellingly, was aimed at men as much as it was at women. Its purpose was to amuse the ladies, certainly—Wolf got in a great line about a congresswoman’s reference to the vagina as a “very intimate area,” “like it’s a bed and breakfast in Vermont”—but the purpose was also, just as much, to mensesplain. To bring men in on the joke. Throughout the Daily Show segment, Trevor Noah played the role of the Typical Man, supportive but fundamentally mystified. “I want to talk about something that, to be honest, I don’t want to talk about: periods,” he said by way of introducing Wolf to the audience. But as the segment played out, Noah’s position evolved. “Periods are natural!” he observed at one point, triumphantly.

It was an exchange reminiscent of the Key & Peele seminar that attempted to explain periods to guys and otherwise put the “men” in “menstruation.” And of the “Menzies” episode of New Girl, which found Jess’s male roommates suffering sympathy periods and thereby, yep, putting the “men” in “menstruation.”

If the normalization of the period is a feminist issue, then the effort to normalize it for everyone, guys included, reflects a broader feminist realization: that its concerns are matters not just for women to contend with, but also society. Whether it’s wage equity or cultural representation, things will improve more quickly if women’s issues have male supporters. The Daily Show’s and Broad City’s period jokes—which are coming on the heels of similar jokes from Amy Schumer and Jenny Slate and many, many other comedians— are recognizing that. They are treating the de-stigmatization of the period not just a lady thing, but as a culture thing.

“For the first time,” Newsweek noted in a recent cover story on, yep, periods, “Americans are talking about gender equality, feminism, and social change through women’s periods, which, as [Gloria] Steinem puts it, is ‘evidence of women taking their place as half the human race.’” And that place-taking, the newest round of jokes suggest, will involve men—the guys who make laws and policies about women’s bodies; who manufacture tampons whose ingredients don’t currently need to be listed on boxes; who advertise maxi-pads using blue liquid as a sanitized stand-in for menstrual blood.

And so, onto Steinem’s “If Men Could Menstruate” and The Vagina Monologues and Menstruation Barbie and PJ Harvey’s song “Happy and Bleeding” and Ani DiFranco’s “Blood in the Boardroom” and all those period-related quizzes  (“How Metal Is Your Period?” “How YOLO Is Your Period?”) on Buzzfeed—cultural products aimed for the most part at normalizing periods for women—is grafted another kind of message, a message that explains rather than explores: Men, this is what it’s like to have a period. Jazmine Hughes, a writer and editor for The New York Times Magazine, recently wrote a funny and lyrical article about getting her period on her first day working for the venerable brand. One of Hughes’s final lines in her essay, after several fruit on the bottom-y details about blood and “ultra tampons,” is this:

Being a woman is hard. It’s a public fight for equality, to see our sisters in schools and legislatures, to be paid the same amount of money as men, and to secure our jobs if we want to start a family, but it’s also just trying to get through the day without worrying about whether or not there’s a stain on your butt. It is sweaty and gross and often expensive. So dudes: Fuck buying bouquets, and start buying your lady friends tampons.

So dudes: It’s the unspoken upshot of much of the humor and referencing and Tampax transparency that characterize the culture right now. It’s a recognition that, while women’s bodies are their own, their fates will be guided by a collective that will include the other half of the population. And it’s an admission that, as Key & Peele put it to their TED Talk-style audience of guys in the sketch that perfectly married mansplaining and mensesplaining: “It’s worse for them than it is for you to hear about it!”