Hollywood's Menopause Problem: "The Silence Around It Perpetuates Silence Among Women"

pamela adlon, marti noxon and candace bushnell - Getty - Split - H 2020
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From L to R: Pamela Adlon, Marti Noxon and Candace Bushnell

While the industry has tended to shy away from discussions of menopause, Gwyneth Paltrow, Taraji P. Henson and Pamela Adlon are (finally) addressing the still-often-taboo topic: "This is probably one of the best times of my life," says 55-year-old 'Sharp Objects' creator Marti Noxon.

Gwyneth Paltrow was feeling moody and would unexpectedly break into a sweat. “Gwyneth was like, ‘Am I having a hot flash?’” recalls Goop chief content officer Elise Loehnen. Indeed, the 47-year-old actress was experiencing what almost 28 million non-famous women — between the ages of 45 and 64 — endure every day: the hormonal tsunami that comes with midlife. Paltrow’s response? “We need to rebrand menopause.”   

Or just talk about it. In this age of fourth-wave feminism, menopause is a surprisingly taboo topic. Sure, headlines shriek “50 is the new 30!” and Jennifer Lopez may bare a ridiculously taut midriff that defies her half-century, but the reality is this: Hardly anyone really wants to talk about the mood swings and slothful libido that comes with this inevitable biological phase. And that includes Hollywood. 

But Melissa McCarthy may move the dial when she co-stars with Nicole Kidman in Nine Perfect Strangers, a Hulu miniseries set to debut next year. The show is based on a 2018 book by the author of Big Little Lies, and McCarthy plays a menopausal, middle-aged romance novelist who checks into a wellness retreat with high hopes for transformation. If nothing else, her dramatic onscreen hot flashes could spark a dialogue that’s long overdue.

“This silence around it in popular culture just perpetuates the horrible silence among women,” says writer-producer Marti Noxon (Sharp Objects), who broached hot flashes on her Bravo show Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. Network execs were skittish, she recalls: “They kind of asked me not to say the word ‘menopause.’ It reminded me of when we did a lesbian kiss on Buffy and the execs said, ‘They can do it once, but not twice — because that means they enjoyed it.’”  

More than two decades later, LGBTQ characters abound on TV. But menopause isn’t getting its due. Better Things, Pamela Adlon’s FX series, is an outlier. On one episode, her character is told “you’re degenerating” by a gynecologist. “I hope I can create a situation where we laugh at it,” says Adlon, who admits she was hesitant, at first, to go there. “Look, I lied about my age for so long that even I was shocked when I realized I turned 50 — the fucking internet told me!”  

More than 20 actresses in midlife declined to be interviewed for this report (though 49-year-old Taraji P. Henson recently spoke out about feeling “low” and “beaten” because of menopausal mood swings). Early symptoms typically start around age 45 and are deemed “perimenopause”; the average age that women reach menopause is 51. 

It makes sense that actresses, who often feel like they face an onscreen expiration date, would be reluctant to engage. As Adlon says, “It’s just not a sexy word.” But certainly TV could eke more humor out of night sweats. Did anyone else expect dewy-skinned Laura Dern or transcendent Nicole Kidman to reveal a peek of an estrogen patch on HBO's Big Little Lies?  

It’s easy to blame the patriarchy for the silence — men clearly aren’t clamoring for storylines about menopause. As Viola Davis once put it on Jimmy Kimmel Live, “When you talk about menopause, men just die … a slow death.” Carrie Bradshaw creator Candace Bushnell, author of the new book Is There Still Sex in the City?, agrees: “If you ask a successful man, ‘What do you think about women over 50?,’ the answer is likely to be, ‘It’s an age group of women I’ve never thought about in my life.’” Many women’s magazines skirt the topic, because their demographic sweet spot hovers around 34.  

Silicon Valley, however, sees an opportunity to monetize an untapped market. Ex-Microsoft exec Jill Angelo launched Gennev.com — an “online clinic for a better menopause” — in January 2019. “The tech world is ahead of Hollywood,” says Angelo, who turned away investors on her second series of funding. “The only thing that’s ever been communicated about menopause are the negatives. And it’s the kickoff to the second half of life.” 

At Goop, Paltrow sells supplements, wryly called Madame Ovary, to ease symptoms. “I feel like even the conversation around anti-aging is shifting to women being like, ‘Screw that. I don’t want to look younger. I’m happy with where I am,’” says Loehnen. 

Millennials, in fact, could make menopause mainstream onscreen. No doubt, Lena Dunham and her cohorts will unflinchingly document what some refer to as “puberty in reverse” when their hormones hit overdrive. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna, who, at 52, calls herself an “honorary millennial” after working with a decades-younger staff on the show, says, “I just don't think people are shying away from anything at this point. I often say, ‘Lord, give me the moxie of a post-menopausal women who gives absolutely no fucks.’”   

Noxon already feels that way. “I’m 55, and this is probably one of the best times in my life,” she says, “Like, it really is the beginning of something. But you have to acknowledge what’s happening first.” 

Below is a list of memorable television scenes and quotes that surround menopause. 

All in the Family (1972)

Edith Bunker gets emotional, with a side of hot flashes. Archie’s response? “If you’re gonna have the change of life, you gotta do it right now! I’m gonna give you just 30 seconds. Now, come on, change!”  

Golden Girls (1986)

Blanche Devereaux think she’s pregnant when she stops getting her period, but realizes that she’s menopausal. Sophia says: “You grow a beard! Believe me, I woke up one morning, I looked like Arafat!”  

The Cosby Show (1990)

When Clair Huxtable realizes that her kids don’t have a clue about menopause, she pranks them by playing on every stereotype, from unexpected breaking into hysterics at dinner to sticking her head in the freezer.  

Ab Fab (2001)

Patsy and Edina hit a “Menopausal Anonymous” meeting in London, where women share their hormonal angst. One attendee snorts and says, “Oh, we don’t have [menopause] in America. We don’t believe in it — certainly not in L.A.!”  

That 70s Show (2002)

“Is it like a lady parts things?” asks Eric Forman, when his mom Kitty shows signs of menopause and loses her temper. “We’ll look it up in the World Book,” says Red. They do, to their credit, and try to learn more.  

Sex in the City (2000)

Samantha’s period is five days late and she sadly assumes she’s pre-menopausal — calling herself “day-old bread.” Conceding a loss of virility, she sleeps with an aging hippie in her building and gets her flow during sex.  

Broad City (2016)

On a plane, Ilana desperately looks for a tampon for Abbi and gets cultural commentary from a middle-aged woman who tells her, “Menopause isn’t represented in mainstream media. No one wants to talk about it.” (The joke is that Ilana disappears before she even finishes her sentence.)  

House of Cards (2016)

Steely Claire Underwood lingers in front of an open fridge; when her friend knowingly brings up hot flashes and night sweats, Claire adroitly changes the subject.   

Fleabag (2019)

In a bracing monologue, guest star Kristin Scott Thomas expounds on the wonder of menopause while swilling a stiff martini. “I was told it was horrendous,” she says to Fleabag. “It is horrendous, but then it’s magnificent.”