Why Does TV Keep Misrepresenting Menopause?
Menopause has always been a taboo topic. TV shows rarely dramatize it, and when they do, they depict it about as realistically as Donald Trump on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. It’s not television’s job to inform women what “The Change” has in store for them, but what’s out there is misleading to the point of being harmful.
I vividly recalls two portrayals of menopause from my childhood. All in the Family, as it often did, tackled the topic first, in an episode where Edith Bunker discovers she’s going through “The Change.” The episode depicts Edith as erratic and volatile, and “poor Archie” has to deal with her. There’s no mention of other symptoms, or any actual physiology, because it’s the ‘70s, and the ‘70s can’t handle it.
Appropriately, The Golden Girls also did a menopause plot line. In “The End of the Curse,” Rue McClanahan’s character thinks she’s pregnant and then learns she’s in menopause. Blanche goes from feeling despondent about the pregnancy to unable to get out of bed because menopause means her “life is over.” At least the Golden Girls episode tries to drive the message home that nothing specifically links fertility and sexuality, and that menopause doesn’t make a woman worthless, which is a fairly forward-thinking message for the 1980s.
But nowhere does anyone say, “Blanche, this means you never have to worry about getting pregnant again.” You wouldn’t want to point out the biggest upside to menopause, especially not to a sexually-active character of a certain age. We can’t say that, because that would indicate that a loss of fertility is a good thing, and society is very stuck on wanting women to know that their true value lies in their sexuality and fertility.
Fast forward to the late ‘90s, and you’ve got a depiction of menopause on That 70s Show that’s almost identical to All in the Family’s, with a few more physiological details played for laughs. Again, the sympathy lies with the men in the episode, who have to deal with “Crazy Kitty”.
All three episodes contribute to the fallacy that menopause operates like a light switch, and that it happens without warning. None of them mentions perimenopause, the sometimes decade-long transitional phase before menopause. Perimenopause is where the real shit happens: the hot flashes and the night sweats start, the periods get irregular and then irregular-plus crazy heavy, the mood swings start, the exhaustion, the nausea. All that fun AND YOU CAN STILL GET PREGNANT.
The hard truth is that pretty much every woman I know can’t wait to get to the other side of the perimenopausal bullshit. Especially with the Christian right clamping down on reproductive rights, women are more relieved than ever when abortion is no longer a decision that’s ever on their plate. Our wombs haven’t “dried up,” they’ve aged out of legislation, and therefore control, and it’s pretty great. Where are the TV shows telling that side of the story?
I was saddened to tune into an episode of Dead to Me last week that showed an unpartnered Linda Cardellini character devastated to learn that she wasn’t pregnant, but in early menopause. Why that choice? Why are we pandering to the idea that all women must want to reproduce, all the time?
FX’s Better Things takes a more realistic approach. Sam goes to the doctor and asks, “Am I done? Am I all dried up? Am I a man now?” I love that Pamela Adlon’s character wants to be done, that she talks about extra-heavy periods, and that men of all ages find her character hot. In Better Things, perimenopause exists in every episode like microaggressions that don’t necessarily announce themselves, but you can still feel them.
But I don’t love Pam’s question, “Am I a man now?” because the point shouldn’t be that we aren’t women anymore. The point should be that we are women, and we don’t have to live in fear of getting pregnant or bleeding in white pants anymore. I want to see the show that celebrates menopause the way actual women are celebrating it. If we’re going to show the inconvenience, let’s not focus on how it inconveniences men. And please, can we stop with the narrative that being over 50 is shameful and sad? Thank you, Better Things, for leading the way.