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Menopause on TV: Does Life Imitate Art?

NAMS staff member Angela did some fun research on sitcom episodes about menopause. What lessons are there, if any, in the way menopause has been portrayed on television? Have sitcoms historically reflected real attitudes about this time in a woman’s life? Or is it simply entertaining to see how our favorite characters deal with a change in their lives? Likely a little bit of both.

Let’s look at a few classic examples:

All in the Family (Episode: Edith’s Problem, 1972)

Edith is having mood swings that are out of character for her and disturbing to the rest of the family.  Her daughter reads a magazine article about menopause and tells Edith that “the change of life” is probably the cause. Edith is aghast — she believes that menopause “turns you into an old woman,” that “Archie ain’t going to love me no more!” and that she’s going to grow a mustache. Her daughter educates and reassures her, and of course Archie still loves her and even buys her hormone therapy (and hormone treatment is portrayed as simple and risk-free — not true!). Then they go to Disney World. All’s well that ends well.

The Golden Girls (Episode: End of the Curse, 1986)

Blanche begins this episode thinking that she’s pregnant. It’s actually menopause, which sends her into a depression because she’s afraid she won’t be sexually attractive anymore. The other Golden Girls reassure her. Their support, plus an escapade with a sexy middle-aged veterinarian, allows Blanche to approach life with her former gusto and passion. Sophia makes jokes about her aunt who grew a beard after menopause — Sophia is so cheeky. Also, I can’t believe how often the mustache/beard trope comes up in these shows!

The Cosby Show (Episode: Clair’s Liberation, 1990)

Clair tells her kids that she’s started menopause and they promptly start treating her like a stupid, emotionally volatile person who must be tiptoed around — really, they treat her as if she were Edith on All in the Family! Very quickly, Clair figures out what is going on and turns the tables. I love Phylicia Rashad’s portrayal of menopause most of all because she gets to outsmart her kids as well as be upfront and unashamed about a change in her body. And it all fits her character (smart, straightforward Clair Huxtable) perfectly. Plus, her husband is in on the joke. Ten points for the writers of The Cosby Show.

Mom (Episode: Estrogen and a Heart Breakfast, 2013)
You know, I hoped that The Cosby Show marked a fundamental change in these portrayals. But CBS’s 2013 sitcom Mom lifted so many plot elements from older shows for their recent menopause episode (which can be viewed here). It starts with Alison Janney (she's great as a bawdier, wilder Blanche) telling her daughter that she’s pregnant. Of course, it’s actually menopause and Janney mourns her sexual attractiveness until a biker hits on her. When she realizes that her sexual function has changed, she tries out a new “loving, crone grandmother” personality until she gets an estrogen patch — again, no warning of side effects — and reverts to her old self, albeit with a few mood swings for comedic effect. Sigh. (Is there a modern-day Clair Huxtable out there? If you know of one, drop us a line here.)

So we do see variety in these characters’ reactions to their own menopause. Of course, they’re all different people to begin with, with varying levels of confidence, comfort with their own sexuality, and beliefs about the ability of their friends, family, and partners to help them cope with change. These are qualities with which we can all identify — and learn from, too.
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