The Last of Us apocalypse’s most underrated tool? A menstrual cup

Maria (Rutina Wesley) looking down

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Tampons and pads were banned by the National Association of Broadcasters from TV advertisements until 1972 — TV was deemed an unsuitable place to talk about a product essential for all people who menstruate. It took years for people on TV to even talk about what tampons were used for — saying the word “period” — and longer for any major companies to stop using the mysterious blue liquid to demonstrate absorbency. Even that is a new phenomenon: Kotex only switched to red for an ad in 2020.

Half of the population menstruates, and yet there’s a deep discomfort in talking about it — so much that we’re still trying to normalize periods. It’s taboo to talk about, and stigmatized as if it were a problem that must be fixed, something dirty that needs to be purified. It’s rare when someone speaks openly about menstruating, let alone on TV. That’s why it’s so significant that The Last of Us does so in small ways; finding a box of Tampax Pearls — which first hit the market in 2002 — is a celebration for Ellie. (And with good reason: Tampax Pearls were a revelation, and used plastic instead of cardboard for the applicator, which is much more comfortable!) The Last of Us writers take things a step further in episode 6, when Ellie gets a DivaCup. DivaCup was the only major manufacturer of menstrual cups at the time, but they certainly weren’t mainstream. Maria, Tommy’s wife, must have been shopping at crunchy health food stores before the pandemic.

I feel like most people who menstruate have had the thought, How do you handle your period in an apocalypse? It’s rare to see a show mention periods, let alone how to deal with them. It’s probably annoying, having to scavenge for materials for a makeshift pad or tampon, and that’s why it’s a celebration when Ellie stumbles on the box of tampons in a Cumberland Farms in Massachusetts — her response is a big ol’ Fuck yeah! before she stuffs her box of tampons in her backpack and moves on.

Maria (Rutina Wesley) looking down

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

It doesn’t come up again until episode 6, and again, it’s in a nonchalant, normalized way. After Ellie and Joel arrive at the Jackson compound, Maria lays out some new clothes and supplies for the teenager. One of those items is a menstrual cup. It’s likely a rare find in the apocalyptic world, and a priceless gift from Maria. For those who don’t know, a menstrual cup is a cup made of silicone that’s inserted into the vagina to collect period blood. It’s reusable, unlike tampons and pads, so in today’s world, it saves money (a one-every-few-years buy!) and is better for the environment. DivaCup International, the company that makes DivaCups, started up in 2003, which means the products were just entering the market when the infection hit the world.

In an apocalyptic world where tampons are regarded as a trophy, a menstrual cup is a lifesaver — the most underrated apocalypse tool. Menstrual cups can be kept in for longer than tampons, up to 12 hours before they needs to be emptied and cleaned. It’s a boon in the apocalypse, where life can be unpredictable and chaotic. No one has time to change a tampon every few hours while fighting mushroom-headed infected!

Of course, DivaCups, like other menstrual cups, can expire. DivaCup suggests replacing them every few years, because it won’t last forever. But Ellie’s was presumably unused, which gives her some runway. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on how long the silicone product will keep for; with proper care, some say 10 years. We’ve reached out to DivaCup to ask how one of their products would fare 20 years into the apocalypse and will update this story when we hear back.

Tampons, on the other hand, expire after five years, even unopened and in the box. Even if they look fine, they could be harboring bacteria or mold, which could lead to toxic shock syndrome. Ellie’s survived The Last of Us’ infected and non-infected dangers for more than 14 years, and I wouldn’t want to see her go out from a tampon. (Toxic shock syndrome is rare, but life-threatening. It’s a risk when using old tampons, but also when keeping them in for too long, since bacteria can get into the bloodstream and spread from there.)

These are such small details for such high praise, but the portrayal of periods in media has mostly been abysmal — at best, it’s a joke about why a woman might be cranky, and at worse, it’s a gross-out trope. But most often, it’s just rote: a symbol for a person’s coming of age, a girl growing into a woman. In reality, a period is just something that happens to some people. It can be annoying and painful (some more painful than others!), but it’s normal and shouldn’t be taboo. The Last of Us’ portrayal underlines that, normalizing it as Ellie squishes her DivaCup in her hand.

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