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Artillery Row

The menopause is no joke

It is time to stop being so facetious about women’s health

Men’s health, as you may be aware, is a very sensitive issue. Men are less likely to discuss it or ask for help in case this makes them less masculine. This is why all health campaigns directed at men must flatter the male ego. Great care must be taken with language to avoid making those in need of support feel humiliated or erased. 

With women, though, it’s a different matter. You can say any old crap about them. Men might worry that caring about their health will make them more like women, but women … well, they’re women already. It’s not as though they’ve got any further to fall.

This, I imagine, is what the train company Avanti West Coast were thinking when they provided “menopause bags” at a staff training session. The bags included a fan (“handy for hot sweats”), a jelly baby (“in case you feel like biting someone’s head off”), a tissue (“if you’re feeling a bit emotional”) and a paperclip (“to help you keep it all together”). 

Avanti insists there were no complaints from staff members themselves. I bet there weren’t. If my employer was insinuating I was a hormone-crazed Karen who needed to calm down with a jelly baby, I wouldn’t complain, either. Something that is rarely acknowledged, in all this talk of middle-aged women’s rage, is just how much we are holding back. Biting heads off? Seriously, Avanti, you have no idea.

That the packs were designed by the firm’s support group, “made up of women who were themselves going through the menopause”, does, I suppose, make it a little less terrible. Or rather, it shifts the message from outright misogyny to something else: women belittling and ridiculing the problem first, before anyone else can have a go.

It reinforces the message that deep down, you’re still one of the boys

This is a common feature of any discussion relating to the female lifecycle and its irritating habit of intruding on male-default understandings of how bodies work. Even now, workplaces do not simply have male and female employees; they have ‘normal’ ones, plus those for whom they make ‘concessions’ and ‘allowances’ due to their propensity to have periods, pregnancies, hot flushes and the like. If you are one of the latter, you may well be tempted to make your ‘deficiencies’ into a bit of a joke. It reinforces the message that deep down, you’re still one of the boys. Even if hot sweats are in fact a big deal — not least a potential indicator for future Alzheimer’s disease — at least you can show everyone that you see the funny side. 

Only the distinction between “laughing with” and “laughing at” is not altogether clear. In Flash Count Diary, her 2019 menopause memoir, Darcey Steinke argues that the popular culture portrayal of hot flushes contributes to the way in which menopause is “often filtered through male bafflement and repugnance”:

On TV and in film, if they are shown at all, hot flashes are comedic bits akin to a man slipping on a banana peel. As a child, I remember watching Edith Bunker on All in the Family redden, fan herself, get discombobulated, and dash into the kitchen as the laugh track roared. […] In Mrs. Doubtfire, Robin Williams catches his fake breasts on fire and, using two pan lids, eventually puts out the flames. He stands disheveled, his chest smoking. ‘My first day as a woman,’ he says, ‘and I am already having hot flashes.’

Her own hot flushes, Steinke notes, were “desperate, uncomfortable, sometimes even sublime, but never funny”. 

There is no question that some women are hurt by the treatment of menopause as a joke. However, when it comes to the realities of the female body — particularly the ageing female body — there is a feeling that no one need bother with being kind. This is striking in an age where another train company, Network Rail, is too anxious about ‘offence’ to even name the people who experience menopause (unless they happen to be biological males – who do not, in fact, experience menopause). Language can be actual violence, unless you’re dealing with those leaky, bleedy vagina people, in which case, say whatever you like. Amidst all their “please don’t cancel me” apologies for Little Britain, I’ve yet to see Matt Lucas or David Walliams acknowledge the cruelty of the Mrs Emery sketches, in which late-life incontinence is the entire punchline. In his bestseller This Is Going To Hurt, Adam Kay describes a urogynaecology clinic populated by “a bunch of nans with pelvic floors like quicksand and their uteri stalactite-ing into their thermals”. Aren’t women disgusting? (Or, in the words of Ricky Gervais, “the old-fashioned women, you know, the ones with wombs. Those f—ing dinosaurs”.) 

Sometimes it seems to me that we talk about female embodied experiences more than ever. Yet the price we are expected to pay for this is in giving a free pass to some very old-fashioned sexism. Embedded in the “progressive” idea that it is reductive and biologically essentialist to conflate “women” with “female-bodied people” is the persistent belief that female people are inferior. Let’s liberate women by no longer associating them with the crazy, hormonal, malfunctioning other! Yet still we exist. 

We’re not supposed to kick up a fuss at sitcom-style mockery of menopause. We’re not supposed to feel hurt. No one will be cancelled for thinking a menopausal woman is a bit of a joke. We are meant to be so, so grateful to have our difference acknowledged at all that it would be greedy to expect to be treated with dignity, too. Who do we think we are? Men?

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