In Josie Rourke’s glorious Mary Queen of Scots film, one scene is supposedly wildly shocking. It’s not the harrowing segment that portrays a savage, gory murder – nor one of the grisly battle shots. Instead, it is a quiet, candlelit moment in Mary’s bedchamber when, with her marmalade hair loose to her waist and clad in a creamy nightgown, she is washed by her giggly coven of gentlewomen. One of them remarks that she’s early getting her period, and a bit of blood splashes into a bowl. So. Not quite one for the smelling salts. It is about as shocking as a Calippo.
Yet, as is de rigueur when the conversation turns to lady things (because talking about this stuff without employing euphemism is punishable by death), some people have been working valiantly hard to be scandalised. While promoting the film, Rourke has been treated to questions about how difficult it was to shoot the scene. (A fair enquiry. Come on, it must be nail-bitingly tricky to capture Saoirse Ronan – who plays Mary and who is, let’s face it, quite good at acting – standing in her bedroom accompanied by minimal other cast members.) The BBC also published a news story with the (now edited) headline “Mary Queen of Scots director Josie Rourke defends menstrual blood scene.” This was confusing. Perhaps they meant to replace the words “menstrual blood” with “real life kitten execution”? As Rourke tweeted, the scene “requires no defence”.
Of course it doesn’t. Aside from being a so-normal-as-to-be-boring part of life for half of the population, depicting Mary’s fertility makes perfect sense in a film whose storyline hinges on the continuation of dynasties. After all, royal bodies weren’t (and still aren’t) just personal: the queen’s cycle was of colossal political importance, too. All eyes at court – and at courts across the land – would have been trained on whether she was going to produce an heir. In the movie, Elizabeth I, Mary’s presumed rival, wonders about it. And there is so much chatter about it in the Scottish court that Mary has to host a kind of flower-laden medieval baby shower to stop tongues wagging. To not include Mary’s period would have been like omitting the apples in a film about fruit bowls. It is central to the story, and therefore it should be seen.
Granted, most women’s periods don’t carry the political significance of Mary’s – but this is nevertheless a lesson that applies to films and TV in general. Periods are a key thread in the fabric of women’s lives, yet the scaredy-cat screen world doggedly refuses to reflect this. Portrayals that ring true (Girls showing Jessa realising she’s bleeding in the middle of a make-out session) are far outweighed by negative, brain-dead ones (side eyes to Carrie’s stigma-cementing depiction). Both of these categories are, of course, trumped by the number of times periods aren’t mentioned at all: the lengthy memory-jogging Googling required to come up with the examples in the previous sentence is testament to this point.
The squeamishness of the screen world no doubt mirrors society’s attitudes as a whole. Until Bodyform’s #bloodnormal advert in 2017, advertising for period products was profoundly bonkers, with menstruating women displaying a baffling fondness for standing in fields, smiling, and blue gunk deemed a logical stand in for blood. Meanwhile, the shame around periods – along with a hefty dose of poverty – means girls in the UK are missing school because they cannot afford sanitary towels. And last month, I fell over in a branch of Sainsbury’s after diving compulsively to retrieve a tampon that had fallen out of my bag, lest it burn out the eyes of an innocent passer-by.
Above all, Mary Queen of Scots excels at showing how women’s bodies are so often weaponised against them. Mary’s physicality – her sexuality, her fertility – is wrapped up in her femininity, and this is what ultimately bites her on the bum in the man’s world of the 16th century court. Depressingly, this resonates today, in a landscape where women are still undermined by references to their appearances – and putting a period on screen can spark such a fuss. Happily, though, the film subverts stigma just as much as it exposes it. Its depiction of female bodies may not be shocking – but its normalising stance might just jolt us into altering our reaction towards them.
Gwen Smith is a freelance arts journalist, and was formerly a feature writer for the Mail on Sunday’s culture supplement, Event.