If you’ve ever spent a few minutes perusing Quora (or its equally chaotic predecessor, Yahoo! Answers) on the topics of sex and bodily functions, you know that there are a frightening number of people who genuinely don’t understand a single aspect of how reproductive organs work. What’s worse, many people believe full-on myths — like that someone can get pregnant from being in a hot tub that someone has ejaculated in, or that tampons are only for women who have had sex.
I often wonder how someone could be so deeply misinformed about topics that are literally essential to human survival, but then it becomes clear: Not only do many people receive inadequate education about these things in school, they’re raised by parents who know just as little as they do. Sometimes, they even actively discourage their children from becoming properly educated, sentencing them to years of misinformation and shame.
With the recent release of Disney’s Turning Red and its mention of periods, these types of parents have been on a full-on rampage. Cries of “inappropriate” subject matter have echoed across the land, and fans have melted down over its main character essentially being a protracted metaphor for a giant first menses.
For the uninitiated, Turning Red is a Pixar movie about a 13-year-old girl named Mei Lee who struggles to balance the pressures of being an obedient daughter and the turbulence of puberty. But she also has a more unique problem to contend with: transforming into a giant red panda whenever she’s too excited. When this happens the first time, she’s in the bathroom, and she starts screaming and panicking. Her mother assumes that she must be having her first period, and asks, “Did the red peony bloom?”
As Mei Lee hides in the shower, her mom brings in an arsenal of supplies. “I have Ibuprofen, vitamin B, a hot water bottle and… pads. Regular, overnight, scented, unscented, thin, ultra-thin, ultra-thin with wings,” the mom says, rifling through her supply. Later in the movie, Mei Lee’s mom embarrasses her by bringing her pads while she’s at school.
The period references are basically limited to these scenes, but this was apparently far too salacious for some parents to handle. “PSA — I watched Turning Red with my boys this weekend. Boys ages nine and 13. They had tons of questions regarding girls and their periods. I wish there had been a warning before watching it with them. Anyone else?” one mom posted in the “Official Peloton Mom Group” on Facebook.
“I did not like that the whole movie is about defying your mom and doing whatever you want [because] you’re 13,” another mom wrote on the Common Sense Media page for the movie. “Way too mature with subject material such as periods, ‘sexy’ images drawn about a crush, mom becomes the monster, ‘my body my choice’ is said, sneaking out… not suitable for kids younger than high school, in my opinion.”
Parents of daughters seem to be upset about the film, too, but mothers of sons are particularly vocal about it — after all, many of them probably thought they could cruise through the whole parenting thing without that illuminating conversation.
But while perhaps wishing you were better prepared to discuss periods with your sons or disliking themes of sneaking out in the film might be reasonable, assuming that periods are “too mature” for kids ages nine and up is preposterous. Some people begin menstruating as early as eight years old, and the average age of onset is between the ages of 10 and 15. Having such discussions with kids around those ages isn’t only relevant, it’s responsible.
More than that, there’s nothing inherently “mature” about the topic of periods — they’re a basic bodily phenomenon that happens to half the population. As OB/GYN Diane Horvath explains, parents ought to use Turning Red as a welcome opportunity to introduce the conversation of periods to their kids of all genders in a safe, lighthearted way. “One of the loveliest things [about the period references in the movie] is that they’re done sensitively,” she tells me. “They didn’t make periods seem awful — it wasn’t framed as this terrible thing that you’re going to have every month, or something that’s going to cause you misery. It was just a matter-of-fact: ‘This means your body is changing.’” Likewise, the references are hardly explicit — kids are far likelier to encounter more revealing depictions of periods in school or online than they are in Turning Red.
Moreover, she adds, “It’s an opportunity to raise feminist boys who know periods aren’t something to be embarrassed about or make fun of someone for. Once you normalize it, then it’s not weird, and you also can’t weaponize it.”
Of course, you also prevent kids from developing some truly batshit beliefs about periods. On Twitter, people are generally skewering these bad reviews, and pointing out the ridiculous stories and beliefs they’ve heard from people who don’t understand menstruation. For example, someone highlighted a post on a parenting forum that claimed that bleaching your hair when you’re on your period would kill you, while another recalled an adult boyfriend who apparently believed periods were the equivalent of laying an egg and that pads were used to catch it. One guy also mentioned believing that doing headstands would stop a woman from bleeding on her period because tilting your head back stops a bloody nose, and then further assumed that’s why women do yoga.
These pearl-clutching reviews obviously speak more to the stigmas and shortcomings of the parents themselves than they do the film. “It’s important that parents check their own opinion about periods and puberty,” says period activist and educator Candice Chiwa. “There are all sorts of words such as ‘curse’ and ‘sickness,’ as well as period myths that could be passed down to the child; so it’s important to check in with themselves about their own viewpoints, then verify with actual fact.” More importantly, to echo Horvath, sheltering children from this topic isn’t helpful — after all, what good does it do young boys to believe myths like swimming in the ocean with someone on their period will attract sharks? “Instead of keeping them in the dark, we should enlighten, equip and empower them with the right information so that they can make informed decisions,” Chiwa says.
Whether or not parents were ready for the period talk when they watched Turning Red, it’s a conversation that needs to happen, and both Chiwa and Horvath agree that keeping your child away from Turning Red because of its period content is only prolonging the inevitable. “That there are a lot of people who aren’t having these discussions, and they feel called out by this film,” says Horvath.
They can either deal with the problem head-on and talk about puberty with their kids, or leave them to learn about it elsewhere, probably inaccurately. That said, living in a world where you can stop your period with a headstand does sound kind of nice.