I was watching the last season of Designing Women the other day, and there was an episode where Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter) announces she’s going through menopause. I was pretty struck at how hokey and hoary the menopause jokes were – there was Julia running around fanning herself, and then tearing into everyone for the slighted infraction, then dissolving into blubbery tears, before collapsing into laughter.
Watching this episode, I thought about how menopause is reflected on TV sitcoms. I thought about four shows in particular: All in the Family, Designing Women, Absolutely Fabulous and The Cosby Show. It’s interesting because of the diverse way the shows represented “the change” and how menopause was presented to each show’s distinct audience, in each of its singular voice.
Designing Women is a show that’s known for its female-centered comedy; I was wondering when the menopause episode would finally come around. Of course, by the seventh year, the show overstayed its welcome by about two, three years, so the writing was pretty spotty at that point. Also, menopause is an iffy topic, and writing comedy about menopause requires a skillful hand. The writer of the menopause episode, Norma Safford Vela, doesn’t have the most subtle taste in humor. For starters, the name of the episode is “Screaming Passages.” Screaming passages, and of course Julia screams. Maybe this episode was a way of giving Carter a chance to show off and do something besides her show-stopping (or funny-killing) sermons and speeches. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work, because the jokes are just so corny. I remember thinking, “really?” when Julia started to cry after screaming at her cohorts for keeping a messy office. I remember thinking back to the show’s finest hour, “They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?” which combines some of the show’s trademarks: sentimental, softcore feminism with just-us-girls raunchiness, and remembering just how on point and incisive the jokes were when dealing with weight issues and body image. But by the seventh year of DW, we’re treated to cheap gags that would be looked on with horror at the Catskills.
When looking at DW, I also thought back to The Cosby Show‘s episode about menopause. Yup, that’s right, the Huxtable household was also visited by “the curse.” In the show’s final eight season, Clair (Phylicia Rashad) came home from the doctor’s office and shared with her brood of smiling children that she was going through menopause. The show was called “Clair’s Liberation.” An interesting episode because by the eight season, The Cosby Show became a different show. Perhaps stung by accusations of its hermetically sealed world of affluence and comfort, Bill Cosby started to introduce “grittier” story lines, including having a distant cousin visit from the inner city, who brought along her gaggle of pals that came from the kind of ghetto only dreamed up by a batch of rich writers and possibly a focus group. Also by the eighth season, Rudy got her first period (yeah, you read that correctly – little, gap-toothed, precocious Rudy got her first period), and Clair began menopause.
And while Cosby’s attempts at bringing the world of the Huxtables to the real world were often done with a bit of a clumsy hand, “Clair’s Liberation” was surprisingly well done, considering that its audience is the kind of person who plans his schedule around Must See TV (“I can’t go out and have a life tonight, Friends is on!”).
In the episode, Clair comes into the kitchen and Theo (Malcolm Jamal Warner), Vanessa (Tempest Bledsoe) and cousin Pam (Erika Alexander) are there. She tells the kids she’s going through menopause and leaves the scene. Then the kids start to share some ridiculous stories about people they supposedly know who went through menopause – and all the clichés start: Pam talks of a woman who owns a tropical fish store who is so stricken with hot flashes, she leaves the air conditioning on all winter and freezes all the fish; Theo talks about his friend Cockroach whose mom kept passing out in church, leading everyone to believe she was possessed by the holy ghost (one of the few moments in the show’s history that mines black culture like the black church for humor); Vanessa shares a fictional study that showed women cried so much because of menopause that they injured their tear ducts.
Clair comes back to the kitchen, and she’s treated like a basket case – the kids patronize her and treat her with offensive condescension. She leaves offended and finds Cliff and the two plot revenge. Returning to the kitchen, she turns on all the stereotypes of menopausal women, lashing out at her kids, forgetting their names, feigning confusion, and complaining of oppressive heat, that sends her running to the fridge and jamming her head into the freezer: it’s a great showcase for Rashad, an underrated comedienne, and it’s a cute way of tweaking the kinds of ridiculous clichés that Designing Women treated as truth.
But The Cosby Show isn’t about subversion or genre-busting humor – it’s the epitome of good quality, middle-of-the-road entertainment, so even if there are gentle nudges to the shopworn ideas of menopause, they’re dealt with in a good-natured way. We are led to believe that menopause won’t have any effects on Clair, her marriage, nor are we privy to the different choices she’ll have to make in terms of her health and sexuality. Instead, Clair announces she’s menopausal, and things are back to usual after her kids are taught a lesson. I’m sure Cosby and his crew believed they were pushing buttons with these kinds of plot lines, hoping to silence critics who found the Brooklyn Heights brownstone world of the Huxtables as too genteel to believe; but his address of the issue is a superficial one. We’re not told of the difficulties of menopause – any problems with menopause are muted by comic exaggeration.
But if The Cosby Show and Designing Women were firmly in the mainstream, All in the Family and Absolutely Fabulous were definitely trying to subvert the mainstream. In All in the Family, the Bunker matriarch, Edith (played by the brilliant Jean Stapleton) finds herself going through menopause in “Edith’s Problem.” The writers – Burt Styler and Steve Zacharias – craft a witty way of introducing the difficult subject, and yet remaining true to the characters’ established persona. For example, Archie (Carroll O’Connor) views Edith’s odd behavior with his usual, self-involved ignorance. He also doesn’t know much about women’s health or women’s issues, so he responds with his usual confusion and callousness; Son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner) and daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers) respond with their usual, bleeding-heart liberalism. The comedy, of course, comes from Edith’s erratic behavior – instead of being compliant and docile, she snaps back at Archie, ordering him to “stifle.”
What is important in this episode, and consistent with the kind of writing and comedy that All in the Family features, is that there’s a starkly unsentimental look at menopause – and because it’s a sitcom, there are laughs found in Edith’s sudden shift in demeanor and Archie’s bewildered annoyance – at one point, Archie, driven to his limit, hollers this order to his wife:
“Edith… If you’re going to have the change of life, you’ve got to do it right now! I’m giving ya just 30 seconds; now c’mon, change!”
In the end, what Edith needs is both understanding and normalcy – the kids prod Archie to treat Edith with kid gloves – infantilizing her; this, of course, only enrages Edith more – instead, she appreciates that Archie treats her the way he always treated her: lousy.
There are problems with this episode, too – don’t get me wrong – the show’s writers are only too happy to put Edith on some pills to deal with her mood swings – and because it’s a Norman Lear sitcom, there’s a heavy-handedness to it as well as some preachiness, but there’s a stark realism with the handling of Edith’s menopause. There’s also an understanding that this will be a process that’ll take some time – Edith won’t just magically pop! and be done with it; there are no goofy jokes that run the gamut of the accepted list of menopause symptoms.
And as frank as All in the Family is, Absolutely Fabulous is brutal – we’re introduced to menopause with Patsy (Joanna Lumley), the booze-soaked, promiscuous, debauched fashionista who finds out she has menopause, because of her obscenely-brittle bones. This sends her and her best friend, Edina (show creator and writer, Jennifer Saunders) into panic, because age is something both women try to avoid by throwing lots of money, drugs and alcohol at it. Edina’s sensible daughter, Saffy (Julia Sawalha) organizes a group meeting with a local menopause support group – and this is where the savage comedy really takes flight.
Saunders writes “Menopause” (clever title for the episode, huh?) as an attack on both sides of the argument: those who wish to hide the topic in ignorance, as well as, those soppy folks who wish to attach some nonexistent mystical, mythical energy to it – according to Saunders’ satire, both camps fail to recognize that this is a natural, biological process that has nothing to do with shame or earth goddesses. It appears from the episode, that Saunders finds the touchy-feely approach to menopause highly offensive, as she lobs her sharpest comedic jabs at the group therapy session – especially with its leader, a daft woman, who cannot successfully lead the group without indulging in New Age nonsense.
But there’s some truly insightful comedy. Saunders’ comedy colleague Ruby Wax plays an American woman who has been left completely undone not only by menopause, but by the failure of the medical industry to properly help and inform women of their bodies. The other women in the group all propose different solutions, including patches, hormone replacement therapy, pills – all of which are looked at with a discerning eye by Saunders.
“Menopause” succeeds where the other episodes fail because Saunders avoids any sense of sentimentality for her subject. Even the moments that defy science and reality don’t undermine the feeling of contempt she has for people seeking metaphor and meaning when discussing women’s health. Saunders doesn’t care for those who choose to blithly ignore it – Mo Gaffney plays a broad version of an ugly American who when asked about her change of life, simply retorts, “We don’t have that (menopause) in America.” But her true comedic venom is saved for those who sentimentalize it – this goes back to a recurring theme of making women who face menopause into child-like beings, who need to be somewho placated from the reality of what’s going on in their bodies.
What the shows mentioned in this article are doing is approaching menopause, but defining it for their particular audience as well as tailoring it for various contextual reasons such as:
- What year the show was produced
- What season in the show’s run, the episode aired
- Particular tone of the show
As a result, we’re getting very different takes on a topic that’s often been presented in less-than-helpful ways. What makes All in the Family and AbFab stronger examples than The Cosby Show or Designing Women is that the characters in the first two shows aren’t meant to be heroes, nor is it necessary for the audience to respond warmly to them; with Cosby and Designing we’re given characters with minor flaws (quirks, really), but we’re meant to root for them. With this in mind, even if a slightly milquetoast show like Cosby or Designing takes on a topic like menopause, it’s easy to predict that the way it will be handled with be palpable for a wide audience. By taking on these “issues” the showrunners can pat themselves on the back and feel somehow “revolutionary” but still sit firmly lodged within respectability. And while the comedy may be harsher in the cases of All in the Family and AbFab, in the end, it’s also more satisfying, because there is some heft to the humor – expectations are confused, and more thought-provoking comedy results.
Videos of the episodes discussed: