Menopause Has Been a Punchline for Too Long — Now, Film & TV Storylines Are Entering 'The Change'

Thanks to women behind the scenes, there are finally more nuanced takes on menopause onscreen.

Samantha Jones Sex and the City Side Bangs
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Everything I thought I needed to know about menopause I learned from television.

CBS’s All In the Family taught me that it’s about hot flashes, mood swings and a chance to talk back to your emotionally abusive husband. The British series Absolutely Fabulous brought up the horrors of osteoporosis and that women hate to talk about it so much that they’ll create an anonymous support group. NBC’s Golden Girls and HBO’s Sex and the City episodes were triggers for anyone who either had a fear of aging or death or who worried that post-menopause meant that you would no longer be deemed attractive according to societal norms.

This isn’t to say that my own mother didn’t broach the subject. One of the last lucid comments my grandmother made to her before cancer completely took over was the assurance that her menopausal experience wasn’t that big of a deal (the other was that she looked fat. But that’s for another conversation). 

Sitting with my elders on a bench outside of my grandmother’s care facility, I stared into space and didn’t pay much attention to their conversation beyond that. I was 20 and — like Abbi Jacobson’s character on Broad City who comically ignores a senior woman’s commentary on media representation of menopause — I was preoccupied with some more immediate life problem and didn’t want to engage with the olds on this topic. 

Now, at nearly 43, I would like more specifics. 

Menopause has been stigmatized for too long. With Flash Forward, we turn it into an open conversation and celebrate the people making that possible. Scroll to the bottom for more from this special issue.

“I think we can agree that, across the board, Hollywood doesn't do an incredible job at capturing those pivotal moments in a woman's life that revolve around her reproductive health,” says TV creator and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna. “If you look at the way sex is portrayed, it’s quite male-gazy. And so things like menstruation and birth control and abortion and menopause don't really subject themselves to the male gaze very readily. These are not foxy subjects.”

And so the minutiae of women’s health has, traditionally, been taboo for television. That All in the Family episode? It was a ratings hit and certainly helped to reduce the stigma around menopause. But the title of the episode was called “Edith’s Problem” and the word “menopause” is only mentioned to crusty patriarch Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) instead of to the one actually experiencing it: his wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton). When their daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) attempts to discuss the matter with her mother she uses coded language like “The Change.”

This also ties back into representation. 

“This is a thing that I somehow didn't totally notice — I'm sorry — until I was in my 40s, but all of a sudden, I was like, where did we go?” says Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, a journalist and author of biographical books like When Women Invented Television and Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love

She points to a research article from the Journal of Geriatrics that discusses how exposure to stereotypes about aging affect mental health and adds that “there's plenty of material [about middle-age and older women]. But we really are only interested in women of prime childbearing age and, then, there's not that much.”


Courteney Cox Smoking Cigarette in Shining Vale
Courteney Cox in Shining Vale.

STARZ

Menopause can also be a hard story to tell because its symptoms are both unique and common. Shining Vale creators Sharon Horgan and Jeff Astrof partially based their Starz horror series about a depressed woman’s spiritual possession on a New York magazine article on menopausal schizophrenia. And the series’ star, Courteney Cox, took to Instagram to expound on her own experiences with menopause (“plus, you get the added bonus of drier skin!”). 


In one episode of Brosh McKenna’s The CW dramedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which she co-created with Rachel Bloom, the overworked Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) realizes almost too late that some of the symptoms of perimenopause are the same as those for a heart attack. 

“When you're a kid, someone hands you a book about menstruation or tries to orient you, but we kind of let older women deal with it on their own,” Brosh McKenna says. “It happens at different ages for different women and in different ways and maybe with different treatments or no treatment. So it's a little bit more challenging to depict, I think, in a consistent way. But, particularly, if you're not interested in it, it makes it very hard to depict.” (Incidentally, she adds, one of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend writers, Jack Dolgen, wrote a book about menopause with his mother Ellen entitled Menopause Mondays: The Girlfriend's Guide to Surviving and Thriving During Perimenopause and Menopause).

And, also unlike periods, it’s not something that can start and stop on a predictable cycle.

“If women don’t support women, no one else is going to do it. If we don’t support people with other points of view and all walks of life, no one else is going to do it.” — Tribeca Film Festival Co-Founder Jane Rosenthal

In the five seasons of FX’s Better Things, Pamela Adlon’s semi-autobiographical heroine Sam Fox charts a journey from asking her gynecologist to “please tell me I’m close to being a man” during the first season, through the embarrassment of explaining the experiences of menopause to a female TSA agent too young to understand why she’s wearing such a large sanitary pad, to ending the series with breakthrough spotting and realizing none of her friends have tampons because they’ve all completed menopause.

Adlon was traveling and unable to comment for this story, but she told Los Angeles Times in April that, in writing the show, she’d ask friends for stories of menopause and that they’d respond “I’ll talk to you, but you can’t use my name. I don’t want anybody to know what I went through.”

“I was like, ‘Jesus, well, I want to know how to keep my bones strong and to keep from growing a beard and do I need to do more sit-ups?’” Adlon tells the Times

She illustrates her point in the show when Sam can’t fit into pants she’d just bought a few weeks prior. They were actually Adlon’s pants. And they actually did just fit.

Pamela Adlon Better Things Yoga Scene

FX Networks

But programs have also highlighted what’s to gain with the pain. In the Netflix comedy Grace & Frankie, the titular leads played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin sell sex toys geared toward seniors; and cover star Naomi Watts says indeed post-meno has been the sexiest time of her life. In the Sarah Lancashire-starring HBO Max program Julia about Julia Child, we see the chef and cookbook author’s career soar in her later years, too.

At an event for Through Her Lens this fall, the Tribeca and Chanel partnership to foster female filmmaking, Tribeca Film Festival co-founder (and prolific producer) Jane Rosenthal told InStyle there’s one way to be sure we continue to turn this tide: “By having more amazing stories about women of a certain age.” 

She adds, “If women don’t support women, no one else is going to do it. If we don’t support people with other points of view and all walks of life, no one else is going to do it.” And she sees this need as urgent, well beyond our desire for more relatable entertainment. “We look at what’s going on in this country: There is a war against women and minorities. And the only way I know how to do it, the only way Tribeca knows how to do it, the only way [co-founder Robert] De Niro knows how to do it is with our voices, with our art and our passions.”

Fleabag Menopause Scene With Kristin Scott Thomas
Kristin Scott Thomas delivering her searing meno-monologue on 'Fleabag.'.

Amazon

At the same event, director-of-the-moment Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (Do Revenge starring fall cover star Camila Mendes) shared that she had written a movie about abortion and sees an industry finally opening its eyes. “I think the landscape is changing, and the studios are more apt to greenlight things about women, about reproductive rights. But I think we have a long way to go [for better representation of menopause] because there’s not enough stories onscreen.”

But there are some, and they’re not all Golden Girls or even Samantha Jones sobbing over drying up. In one indelible scene from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Prime Video series Fleabag, guest star Kristin Scott Thomas’ powerful business exec expounds on “fucking menopause.” She calls it “the most wonderful thing in the world” despite the hot flashes and the crumbling pelvic floor.

Why?

“Because then, you’re free.”



With additional reporting by Tess Petak






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