TV's changing view of the change: The menopause conversation is getting better, finally

At last, women have a real, comforting view into menopause by way of TV shows like "Fleabag" and "Better Things"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 12, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)

Nearly two full decades ago, when I was in glow of my 20s, television provided me with my first extensive education about menopause via the British sitcom "Absolutely Fabulous." Never one to be coy about her subject matter, series creator and star Jennifer Saunders titled the episode after its subject, making it easy for a person to find years later.

The jaunt features a menopausal support group that terrifies its two potentially newest members, Patsy and Edina, as individuals "share a few horrors," as one woman puts it. She stands at regular intervals and launches into a list of menopausal woes that includes having three heart attacks a day, "and my skin thinks it's in the Congo. Otherwise I'm fine!"

When self help/life coaching addict and recurring idiot Bo Chrysalis greets the group to ask what the meeting is for, and they tell her, she replies, "Oh! We don't have that in America. We don't believe in it. Certainly not in L.A.!"

Arguably this is the most candid and depressing commentary in this episode, because she's right. American culture devotes entire educational plans to the birds and the bees and menstruation, but what lies on the other side of that crimson wave is a mystery largely left to the individual to discover on her own, and quietly. "Broad City" even joked about it in its "Jews on a Plane" episode when Abbi, in need of a tampon, asks a nearby woman if she has one, and the woman tells her no because she doesn't need them anymore.

"Menopause isn't represented in mainstream media," the woman says. "No one wants to talk about it." The joke is, neither does Abbi. She's already walked away mid-sentence.

Despite the media trend that spilled out a few years ago touting 40 as the new 20, that loving embrace of maturity hasn't been extended to the so-called "change of life." But we can joke about it, obliquely, via interludes like the famous "Last F**kable Day" skit on "Inside Amy Schumer" that, among other things, warns younger women that they may one day grow a beard — a detail Wanda Sykes builds an entire bit around in her latest Netflix comedy special "Not Normal."

And this is why Kristin Scott Thomas' guest star appearance in the second season of the Amazon series "Fleabag," and the beloved third season "Better Things" episode titled "Show Me the Magic," are basically postcards from deep within the mists of Avalon. Following years and years of TV series kicking the subject into the bushes just for funsies or dancing around it, here are two recent instances in shows created by women and featuring women that wade deeply into the experience.

("Fleabag" is streaming on Amazon Prime, while the latest season of "Better Things" can be streamed via FX+ or by signing in with a cable subscription on the channel's official site.)

Thomas doesn't appear in "Fleabag" for very long, but she makes her time count — and then some — in  a flirtatious bar scene between her Belinda Frears, a successful 58-year-old business woman, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge's eponymous character. When Fleabag shares with Belinda that she's 33, Belinda gives her an assurance you don't usually see an older woman giving to a younger one that society deems to be in her sexual prime: "It gets better," Belinda says.

Then Belinda launches into a monologue designed to be remembered, not just at awards season but for all time:

"I've been longing to say this out loud: Women are born with pain built in. It's our physical destiny: period pain, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it with ourselves throughout our lives. Men don't. They have to seek it out. They invent all these gods and demons and things so they can feel guilty about things, which is something we do very well on our own.

"And then they create wars so they can feel things and touch each other, and when there aren't any wars, they can play rugby. And we have it all going on in here! Inside! We have pain on a cycle for years and years and years.

"And then, just when you feel you're making peace with it, what happens? The menopause comes, the f**king menopause comes, and it is the most wonderful f**king thing in the world. And yes, your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get f**king hot and no one cares. But then — you're free! No longer a slave, no longer a machine with parts. You're just a person, in business."

The speech leaves the viewer and Fleabag awestruck, and she probably speaks for a number of women watching when she says, "I was told it was horrendous."

"It is horrendous," Belinda admits, "but then it's magnificent. Something to look forward to."

For many decades television's default portrayal of menopausal and perimenopausal women is to sculpt them as grapes on the verge of raisin-hood, making punchlines out of it or creating one-episode B-plots informed by a character's experience with "the change," as viewers may have witnessed on episodes of "That '70s Show" or "All in the Family."

Samantha contends with her fears on an episode of "Sex and the City" way back in 2000, but — phew! — the late arrival of Aunt Flo announces it as a false alarm. That character is an apt example for the conundrum women face on the edge of maturity, actually.

We've been conditioned to keep our true chronological number a secret until we absolutely must produce our driver's license. Inequitable conditions in the workplace provide good reasons for this, of course, but societal taboos surrounding female aging demand for us to pay ample tolls to the beauty industry, to hold the signs of aging at bay until the absolute last moment.

Then, when nothing else can be done, we are encouraged to don loose fitting floral fabrics and defiantly announce that we shall wear purple while male counterparts are dubbed silver foxes and grand lions.

All of this only applies to the aesthetic ramifications of aging. Openly discussing the biological trial that cisgender women are destined to confront is another matter altogether, and many of us have been taught, by television and other sources, that to admit you're in the throes of it is not only an admittance of aging but also irrelevance and decreasing sexual viability.

The "Absolutely Fabulous" menopause episode opens with Eddy going to ludicrous lengths in the hopes of being noticed by Madonna and Guy Ritchie (talk about a series dating itself) in the hopes that she can join Madge's inner circle and somehow be reborn into relevancy. And it's interesting to watch that now, about a week after the New York Times published "Madonna at Sixty," a long profile examining the performer's lasting impact on popular culture and the passion she still inspires among her fans.

"Among my middle-aged peers — my female and gay male peers, mostly — she was still an object of fascination," writes Vanessa Grigoriadis, who follows with an interesting anecdote. "My old crusty punk friends, including an ex-dominatrix who now owned a restaurant, said: 'Madonna's hard-core! I want to know what she thinks about menopause. We need her back in New York.'"

Grigoriadis later "realized I couldn't ask her about anything as personal as menopause, but I had to broach the topic of aging." Needless to say, broaching the topic of aging went over with Madonna about well as one suspects asking her to talk about menopause would have — that is, not well at all.

In another timeline it might have been wonderful for Madonna to provide some insight into her experience with it, or it might not have added anything to the conversation. She's a woman who built her image on symbolism as opposed to the concrete, which may be why she was epically miffed at the writer's lengthy meditations on what it must mean for a woman to spend her life evolving into totems of the feminine ideal and still be standing, dancing and talking tough at 60.

I get where Grigoriadis is coming from; she's a woman in her 40s standing at the edge of a foggy passage who has access to a woman she idolizes and who seems to have survived those badlands. She wants that idol to drop some guiding wisdom upon her; the icon merely wants to sell her new album.

And the writer realizes as much: "I felt a little foolish for thinking that she would want to talk to me about my own concern about aging, like an older sister. She was an icon, not a shoulder to lean on." True. At the same time, where are those shoulders for women of a certain age?

If Madonna can't bring herself to be comfortable with aging, let alone menopause, it can't be shocking that series featuring women in central roles are generally reluctant or unable to grapple with this life state with specificity. Think Claire Underwood leaning into the refrigerator during a dinner party to get some relief on an early episode of "House of Cards." She does this without admitting to a friend, who asks her if she's experiencing symptoms, that she is. Claire being who she is, she pivots to another subject.

Scripted television is at its best when it operates from a place of utter honesty, showing the beauty and the ugliness of a thing. And while fictional depictions of humanity are meant primarily as entertainments, they can also be educational tools. Imperfect ones, sure.

But in this department, for women who see some of themselves in a few "Big Little Lies" characters but aren't quite ready to claim "Grace & Frankie" as contemporaries, these stories are what we've got.

"Better Things," in fact, spends its entire third season exploring what life is like for a woman on the verge of 50, opening with an episode in which Pamela Adlon's character Sam takes her daughter Max (Mikey Madison) to college. Ample time is spent showing Sam comedically drowning Max in contraceptives and other feminine products. But on the other end of the trip, as Sam is heading through airport security, she gives a female TSA agent a glimpse into the future waiting for her when she explains why she keeps setting off the scanners.

"OK. Look. I'm wearing this special underwear. They're, like, super thick and absorbent and kind of, ish, like a diaper," Sam says matter of factly. "But they're underwear. Because . . . I'm having a very heavy, very heavy late-in-life period."

The TSA agent looks stunned.

"You're so young," she says. "Anyway. That's my story." Later Sam giggles at being carded by a bartender before she's informed by the much older people around her that everyone gets carded. And so it goes.

But the great homage to this stage of life awaits in the episode titled "Show Me the Magic,"  the series' "girls' night in" tribute. At the outset Adlon drops viewers into a ladies-only hot tub gathering hosted by Lala (Judy Reyes), a friend of Sam's. The affair feels intimate yet inclusive, as Sam's circle of friends, including Rebecca Metz's Tressa, Cree Summer's Lenny and Rachel True's Pascal, drink cocktails, smoke weed and sigh in the pleasure of doing nothing in the company of sisterhood.

Leaving no doubt as to the opening interlude's theme, Pascal arrives with a call of "Halloooo!" she holds aloft her bottle of wine and shouts, with rebellious joy, "Menopause!"

The important part comes later, in a segment Adlon designed to be largely improvised; the dialogue filmed is what the women answer to questions posed as the camera is rolling. They discuss hormone replacement therapy in ways that aren't alarmist, trading information with one another and revealing along the way how different every woman's situation can be.

For instance, Pascal explains that she has to take a different prescription than the other women since they have children, and the biological process of procreation kicks into gear hormones in a woman's body that women who don't have children don't have. The other women at the table are surprised by this. The more you know!

Now: True is not a doctor, and "Better Things," for all of its realism, is still a fictional series. However, this is one of those passages that childless women might note and perhaps take to their doctors, which as empowering as the emotional aspect of it.

"Can I say the hardest part of going through all this is you realize on top of it all, you no longer exist as a woman?" Pascal says, leading Tressa to respond that she actually embraces her mid-life invisibility.

"But how about that you don't realize how much juice you used to get from it?" Lenny/Summer replies. "That's what freaked me out. You know what I mean? Like that day I walked into Starbucks, and the two cute young chicks were getting all the juice, and then I realized, I like that juice!"

Pascal sums everything up by stating what should be the scene's thesis, aside from reminding everyone watching that women need these escapes as a vital tool for coping. "The problem is that nobody is talking to anybody," she says. "We have to compare notes!"

This rally cry is far more sustaining than Saffy's comedic description of Patsy's osteoporosis diagnosis way back when: "She is just gristle clinging on to bone powder! This is what happens when you have the menopause!" Is it? Maybe, but not necessarily.

More realistic sounding is Belinda's warning in "Fleabag" about "the only really shit thing about getting older, is that people don't flirt with you anymore. Not really. Not with danger. I miss walking into a room and not knowing, and there's a sort of energy. A dare. Do not take that for granted: there is nothing more exciting than a room full of people."

When Fleabag answers this with a misanthropic quip, Belinda knocks it down. "Listen, people are all we've got." People, and stories like these that could represent the beginning of something, or perhaps not. What matters is they exist for women who need them, and that's a more optimistic change than what previous generations had.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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