In Hollywood, older women are still an afterthought. In ‘Julia,’ they’re a revelation
“I can’t wait for menopause so all that creative energy can be channeled back into my art,” said a middle-aged writer I once met at a workshop. Here was a woman who’d figured out how to flip the script: “The change” heralded her most productive years yet.
I recalled her remark as I watched “Julia,” which concludes its first season Thursday. The HBO Max series, starring Sarah Lancashire as cookbook author and public television pioneer Julia Child, shows that a woman’s purpose can actually expand in midlife, and Child’s surging career is a splendid example.
Just as Child applied her full force toward the goal of bringing French cooking into American homes, the series’ revolutionary depiction of menopause is a matter of disposition: It meets the subject head-on, without apology. In “Julia,” series creator Daniel Goldfarb and his team approach Child’s transformation not as a punchline but as a real and complex issue in a woman’s life. It’s rare to see menopause handled onscreen with that degree of sensitivity.
Child is not the only locus of attention in the series for older women, a category long overlooked by Hollywood. The characters of Avis DeVoto (Bebe Neuwirth), Child’s best friend, and Blanche Knopf (Judith Light), Child’s publisher, have emotional heft, gravitas and heapings of snappy dialogue. Both women are fiercely intelligent, formidable and in their primes.
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In many ways, after all, women get better as we age. It turns out there are unexpected and empowering benefits to the end of fertility. Neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, M.D., author of “The Upgrade: How the Female Brain Gets Stronger and Better in Midlife and Beyond,” finds that women’s brains are essentially reshaped and “upgraded” during this period. She tells women, “You need to realize how much power you hold to shape the second half of your life. This is the time for creating the map for women in the post-fertile, post-reproductive phase of human development. The second half of a woman’s life is a revelation.”
But Hollywood has too often missed this key plot point: What we tend to see onscreen instead are reminders that “the change” is generally viewed in our culture as a form of death or at best a comedic device. As an older female detective warns a young bank robber in the hit Netflix series “Money Heist,” by the time she finishes her prison sentence, she’ll have gone into the dreaded menopause: “I’m talking about feeling like you lost something important, something deeply yours. Vanished forever,” she says. “Your life.”
I stopped watching after that.
Similarly, the recent “Sex and the City” reboot, “And Just Like That,” didn’t exactly give being in your 50s the hard sell. The series brings up a string of aging complaints (hip surgery, gray hair, colonoscopy), but the M-word only comes up briefly and is later used as a sight gag. You never grasp the impact hormonal changes can create in a woman’s life, or the sense of loss that comes with them. Instead, the show continues the old narrative that it’s something to keep quiet about.
There are exceptions, of course, like Pamela Adlon, fighting the good fight and openly discussing her struggles on the recently concluded “Better Things,” or “Fleabag’s” Kristin Scott Thomas, who delivers a uniquely freeing take on menopause that The Times’ own Mary McNamara called “the best three minutes of TV ever.”
But “Julia” doesn’t just avoid skirting the subject; the series leads with it. Eighteen minutes into the pilot episode, Child starts having hot flashes and goes to see her doctor. She tells him she’s having night sweats and isn’t feeling as “frisky” as usual. He dismissively tells her she’s absolutely fine and that she’s in menopause. Her immediate reaction is one of shame — the camera stays on her face as it crumbles. “Of course,” she says. “How embarrassing.”
Decades later, not much has changed. I lived the exact same scene. Blindsided when I began to experience hot flashes in my mid-40s, I sought my gynecologist’s advice. She didn’t offer much in the way of answers or guidance. It’s not just Hollywood that has scant interest in menopausal women: Even OB-GYNs receive very limited training on the subject. I felt humiliated and didn’t want anyone to know because menopause is still packaged with a patina of failure, as if any of us can escape it. For me, it felt as if a door I loved was closing and there was nothing I could do about it. There was loss and grief, and I just wanted to feel like my old self again.
In “Julia,” the scene that follows the doctor’s office takes place in a phone booth, where Child calls her husband, Paul, struggles to tell him about her diagnosis and finally can’t. Instead, she asks him if he has any requests for dinner. It’s one of the most poignant moments in the series, highlighting Lancashire’s adept skills as an actor — every anguished emotion is visible on her face, and I recognized them all. In Episode 2, when she tells Paul what’s happening with her body — that “the change” is taking hold of her — she reveals true vulnerability when she asks, “You’ll still love me?”
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As Child walks forlornly to the butcher, she encounters a friend who has seen her guest appearance on an educational talk show, “I’ve Been Reading,” and tells her how wonderful she was. In that moment, you can see a path through her despair opening — she chooses to pivot and create a TV show of her own, which will soon become “The French Chef.” Her next act! She refuses to accept the cultural diagnosis that she should be put out to pasture and instead is unstoppable in bringing her TV show to air.
Later in “Julia,” in her rallying cry, Child tells her book editor, Judith Jones (another woman hungry for more than what society expects of her), “At this stage of my life, I don’t want to feel invisible. I want to feel relevant. I want to be relevant.”
Watching Child battle and surmount all the obstacles she faced, including how she looked and sounded, only solidifies her status as a menopause maverick. We need more empowering messages that reflect that midlife is not the end but a new beginning. In Child’s case, “the change” alchemized into the birth of home cooking as we know it and introduced the flair of French cuisine to American families. What will you do with yours?
Perhaps the best midlife advice comes from Child herself. “Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.”
Where: HBO Max
When: Anytime, new episodes released Thursdays
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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