There are many reasons to praise “Fleabag,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sweetly savage excavation of family and fury, guilt and desire.
Waller-Bridge’s ability to strip baroque emotional crises down to their tragicomic bone is second to none — as both writer and star, she is strategically honest and relentlessly lovable. She is also not afraid to take a sudden hard left onto some seemingly anonymous story line that appears out of nowhere just to see what lies at the end of it.
Treasure, more often than not.
In the second season on Amazon Prime, several hoards are unearthed, but none as unexpected and valuable as a bar-stool soliloquy on the glories of menopause.
Yes, you read that right.
“Fleabag,” both the show and the main character played by Waller-Bridge, is steeped in the perils and pleasures of youth, which makes the paean to midlife that much more powerful. The soliloquy is delivered by Kristin Scott Thomas, a master of thunderbolt musing, who plays Belinda receiving a Woman in Business award at an event hosted by Fleabag’s sister Claire (Sian Clifford) and catered by Fleabag. A mix-up forces Fleabag to track Belinda down, and they wind up in a bar exchanging cocktail confidences.
First, Belinda trashes her award, and all “women’s awards,” as “infantilizing bollocks… ghettoizing, a subsection of success.” Then, Belinda asks Fleabag what’s her favorite “period film,” and Fleabag answers, “Carrie” — Belinda, who is 58, tells Fleabag, who is 33, that “it does get better.”
“I’ve been longing to say this out loud — women are born with pain built in, it’s our physical destiny — period pain, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it with ourselves throughout our lives,” Belinda says. “Men don’t. They have to invent things like gods and demons... they create wars so they can feel things and touch each other… and we have it all going on in here. Inside, we have pain on a cycle for years.”
And then, she continues (occasionally using language we cannot), “just when you feel you’re making peace with it, what happens? The menopause comes, the [expletive] menopause comes, and it is the most wonderful [expletive] thing in the world. And yes, your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get [expletive] hot and no one cares. But then you’re free, no longer a slave, no longer a machine with parts, you’re just a person, in business.”
“I was told it was horrendous,” Fleabag says.
“It is horrendous, but then it’s magnificent,” Belinda replies. “Something to look forward to.”
It may be the best three minutes of television ever; any woman over 45, or under 45, should have it on a loop. When was the last time you heard words like “wonderful” and “magnificent” associated with menopause in any art form?
Actually, when was the last time you heard the word “menopause”?
Male midlife crises, which are based, as far as I can tell, on how men feel about their age, are a subgenre of film, television, music and literature. (Seriously, there are many famous male writers who work in nothing but male midlife crisis.)
Meanwhile, the actual chemical re-ordering of every female adult body throughout history has gone largely unexamined or even remarked upon, save the odd hot-flash or mood-swing joke.
In recent years, plenty of attention has been paid to the looming specter of menopause — the ticking of the “biological clock” has become the metronome of modern womanhood in fiction and fact, as if women were incendiary devices that need to be defused.
But what happens after the clock stops ticking? Well, who wants to talk about that?
Apparently not men, who still control the majority of popular culture and seem to see menopause solely as something that makes the women in their lives crankier than usual, because they have no idea what it really entails.
“There’s no way in the world men would put up with hot flashes,” Wanda Sykes says in her stand-up special “Not Normal,” which recently dropped on Netflix. “I think if a man had two hot flashes, they would blow the sun up. You’d go out, they’d got the missile pointed at the sun.”
To be fair, most women do not like to talk publicly about a long and often painful and frustrating process that many feel marks the end of something — youth, sleep, fertility, desirability, an easily maintained waistline.
Which means one of the richest, most complicated, emotionally charged, socially resonant and universally shared human experiences has been virtually ignored by art of any form.
As Sykes would say, what kind of crap is that?
We keep thinking this will change, is changing. In 2011, Sandra Tsing Loh wrote “The Bitch Is Back,” a scathingly smart and funny piece for the Atlantic in which, among other things, she distilled the information from “The Wisdom of Menopause” into the observation that the real “change” was a woman’s period of fertility. The “craziness” long associated with menopause was in fact a return to sanity.
“A sudden influx of hormones is not what causes 50-year-old Aunt Carol to throw the leg of lamb out the window,” Tsing Loh wrote. “Fertility’s amped-up reproductive hormones helped Aunt Carol 30 years ago to begin her mysterious automatic weekly ritual of roasting lamb just so and laying out 12 settings of silverware with an OCD-like attention to detail while cheerfully washing and folding and ironing the family laundry. No normal person would do that — look at the rest of the family: they are reading the paper and lazing about like rational, sensible people. And now that Aunt Carol’s hormonal cloud is finally wearing off, it’s not a tragedy, or an abnormality, or her going crazy — it just means she can rejoin the rest of the human race.”
The essay was talked about for months: Tsing Loh turned it into a book and a play and for a few years was the voice of menopause.
She was not completely alone. “Menopause: The Musical” debuted in 2001, and it is still going strong in Las Vegas and on tour. Any woman of a certain age in long-running shows, from “All in the Family” to “The Simpsons,” invariably has had a menopause moment or two, though they’re often couched in the horrified shock of realizing that the change is coming.
“Sex and the City” dealt with it both ways; on the TV series, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) had a false alarm, but by the 2010 film “Sex and the City 2,” she was fighting the real thing with a regimen designed to “trick my body into thinking it’s younger.”
So not “wonderful” or “something to look forward to.”
In 2013, Susan Seidelman made what appeared to be a menopausal empowerment movie called, regrettably, “The Hot Flashes,” in which a group of middle-aged former basketball players reunite to raise money for breast cancer. Despite the best efforts of a stellar cast — Sykes, Brooke Shields, Virginia Madsen, Daryl Hannah, Camryn Manheim — it was pretty terrible, and by the way, it didn’t really deal with menopause.
That same year, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) experienced several hot flashes in “House of Cards,” and everyone wondered, once again, whether menopause would get its due.
Female celebrities have slowly begun “coming out” about menopause — Cattrall partnered with Pfizer to encourage women to “Tune in to Menopause,” Emma Thompson made jokes about how her hot flashes kept her warm in cold weather, Oprah Winfrey typically turned it into a personal re-invention opportunity and, more recently, Gillian Anderson and journalist Jennifer Nadel had a conversation about it in the now-defunct Lenny newsletter.
They were invariably applauded for their bravery, which tells you everything you need to know about a physical reality that occurs in more than half the population. Talking about it equals brave.
A few artists, including Helen Redman, Catherine Opie, Rosemarie Trockel and Beverley Carruthers and Jane Woollatt, have created work about or inspired by menopause, and a 2017 film “I Got Life!” also dealt with it in a candid rom-com way (though I am relying solely on British and Irish reviews, as the movie is not available on any major streaming service in the United States.)
In fact, British media appear to have embraced “the change” a bit more ardently than their American counterparts. The television program “BBC Breakfast” recently devoted a full week to the topic, including a segment in which a woman was filmed while experiencing a “hot flush” (prompting at least one columnist to say, “Enough already”). And on May 21, the Scottish Parliament debated over how to increase healthcare funding and end social stigma and discrimination involving menopause.
Here in the States, however, we must content ourselves with a few minutes of Sykes and “Fleabag,” which are being remarked upon because any passing reference to menopause remains remarkable.