Well, we’ve reached that time when a sitcom goes from being just a young delicate show to a blossoming, developed series. It’s the seminal moment in every sitcom’s life when the middle school-aged female character becomes a woman. Yes– this is the episode where Darlene Conner gets her period.
Okay, but in all seriousness, this is well-worn territory in sitcom world. Frankly I’m surprised there isn’t a TV Tropes page just for all the special episodes where young women first got their periods. I’m certainly not condemning the show for having this plotline, particularly because it seems like every show handles it a little differently.
Blossom used Blossom’s first period both for comedic effect and to explore her mother’s absence:
The Cosby Show handled the issue in much the same way Roseanne did, examining its effect both on the affected character and on the adults around her. (That AV Club review says a lot of things about Cosby that I would say apply equally to Roseanne, particularly regarding the consistency of the parent characters and the titular characters’ approaches as stand-ups playing versions of themselves.)
And then there’s this insanity from my frequent punching bag reference, 7th Heaven.
There’s a lot to unpack there. Ignoring the creepiness of their father now that the actor’s criminal history has come to light, Lucy and Mary’s reaction to Lucy’s period is to yell and scream and jump for joy. To a degree I can get this, in the context that being the last girl in your group of friends to get it is hard, but (as often happens with this show) it just gets taken to a weird new level. Then there’s this awkward fatherly speech about how she’s a woman now and yadda yadda and good god it’s so uncomfortable, yet Lucy is grinning like a maniac. Dude even tears up over his daughter menstruating. Your little girl growing up is emotional, sure, but a period is not a poignant affair.
Oh, and by the way, that clip is from the pilot of that show. What a way to start.
Back to Roseanne. In comparison to the above, the show handles the topic much like Cosby (though it’s worth noting that this episode aired at least a year or two before Cosby tackled it) in that the young girl (Darlene/Rudy) is dreading what this change will bring, and unsure how to feel about the whole topic. Meanwhile, the adults in her life have their own reactions, and while Cosby seems to indicate that these are important reactions and explores them, Roseanne plays them for laughs. It’s not a big, emotional, fraught thing that’s happening– it’s life, and it’s awkward, and it’s something every woman has funny stories about.
The episode begins with the gang getting ready to watch a scary movie. Roseanne is concerned that DJ is going to get scared and want to sleep with her and Dan for weeks on end if Dan allows him to watch. It turns out that it’s not DJ who comes into their room late that night (after all, he slept through the whole movie) but Darlene.
Roseanne comforts her, assuming it was a nightmare and telling Darlene not to be afraid, that it’s just a part of her brain telling stories during the night. The exchange drags on for a while, but it’s sweet. Roseanne and Darlene are snuggled into bed, and, as always, Roseanne shows very genuine affection for her TV children in a way a lot of sitcom actresses could never sell.
To calm her back to sleep, Roseanne tells the story of how she and Dan met, much to Darlene’s chagrin. “So, it was the spring of 1971…”
The next morning, Becky is going on about how fantastically gory the movie was, which sort of reminded me– I often point out how little Becky has in common with her family, but she definitely shares their love of Halloween, gore, and fright. It seems uncharacteristic given her polished, girly persona, but it speaks to her roots in this family.
Roseanne comes to suspect that it wasn’t a nightmare that set Darlene off, but can’t put her finger on the problem. Dan, helpful as always, regales her with the tale of his childhood nightmare, wherein the plane on his cup would fly up his nose.
Dan tries to comfort Darlene, prompting her outburst that she didn’t have a nightmare: she got her period. The audience reaction cracks me up, as they simultaneously said, “Ohhhh,” as they all collectively understood what Darlene was going through.
Jackie comes over, ostensibly to do Becky’s hair but seemingly only so that she and Roseanne can describe what their first periods were like with their nightmare mother. She, like many mothers of her era, did not deal with the topic head-on, but referred them to the school nurse and supplied them with pamphlets from the Red Cross.
For two weeks I thought I was having a national disaster!”
Frankly I’d recount more of their conversation except that I was completely distracted by the oddity of the prop situation in this scene. First of all, as Jackie pours them each a mug of coffee, Roseanne retrieves the creamer from the fridge and brings it over. She gesticulates with it, they chuckle about their periods, and then she puts it straight back in the fridge.
Then, despite just seeing a shot of Jackie pouring coffee (or some dark liquid, at least) into those mugs, in the shot of them at the table, both mugs have only water in them– which would be fine, except that it’s super obvious that it’s water.
And the reason that it’s super obvious that it’s water is that Jackie’s mug is overflowing. It spills out on the table as she mixes sugar into it, and she has to sip at it with her spoon to get it down to a level where she can pick the mug up and simulate drinking from it.
I guess all of that is to say– use water, sure, but why didn’t anyone stop rolling and pour out some of that water?? It was so distracting, I forgot what else they talked about in that scene before Darlene storms out again, embarrassed that Aunt Jackie knows about her period.
Darlene retreats to the garage, where Dan trips all over himself in his bumbling-man-who-is-grossed-out-by-periods way, commending her on her period by remarking “Good going!” For a show that deals with a lot of women’s issues, it feels backward to have the patriarch be squicked out by periods. Uncomfortable advising his daughter on the topic, sure. I imagine very few young women have had the beaming, haloed exchange our pals at 7th Heaven had above. But after Darlene leaves, he actually shudders, displaying that he is grossed out at having touched her? Talked to her? Been near her? in her state. I know this is a comedy show, so this was written just for the jokes, but it’s a frustrating element for them to include when, on the other hand, Roseanne is telling Darlene what a beautiful thing she’s going through.
The only redemption, however, is that Dan acknowledges that he has nothing to say on this topic, settling instead for “I love you.” Darlene replies, “I love you too, Daddy.” His squickiness aside, part of what’s freaking him out is that his second daughter is growing up. Darlene reminds him that she’s still his little girl by replying in this way, and he takes visible delight in it.
Darlene then proceeds up to her bedroom to pack up all her sports equipment, which she can no longer use because she’s turning into a woman. She imagines that after this change she’ll be just like Becky, focused only on boys and makeup– “My life is over,” she says.
I definitely shower Roseanne and her genuine parenting scenes with compliments, so it should come as no surprise that I have good things to say about this, but this is a little different– often moments like these are a mixture of the sweet, genuine, loving stuff undercut with sarcastic, snarky hilarity that we know and love from this character. But even though the topic here isn’t very heavy (certainly not arising to A Very Special Episode status), Roseanne cuts the jokes and the snark and is frank and loving with her daughter during a time that, right now, feels tumultuous and frightening and life-changing.
She tells Darlene that her sports stuff is girl stuff if a girl uses it. She loves those things, so that’s reason enough to keep them. She tells her that it’s pretty cool to become part of the cycle of things, the moon and the earth and whatnot (whatever your thoughts on all that, it’s a sweet moment).
This is the beginning of a lot of really wonderful things in your life!” “Yeah, cramps.”
For all the bad things menstruation brings, Roseanne reminds her, it also brings wonderful things: namely, Becky, DJ, and Darlene. Surprisingly this comforts Darlene the tomboy, but maybe she does harbor a little interest in having kids down the road. Either way, she’ll be the first of her siblings to have a child.
The episode closes with some more sweet family time as Dan and Roseanne put the girls to bed. Becky, who surprisingly has factored very little into this episode given that there’s a well of possible plotlines and character development between two sisters in an episode like this, has returned from her date with Chip, who kissed her goodnight. Both girls are growing up quickly, so it’s comforting to both their parents and the audience to see them still indulge in little things like getting tucked in. Plus, there’s some wonderful affection between Becky and her parents, which is refreshing given how few and far between it will become over the course of the series.
– This is what Becky has chosen to wear on her rollerskating date with Chip the wunderkind: