By Hilary Baxter, March, 2019
The menopause is not sexy.
Searching for open access pictures of menopausal women generates photographs of mainly anxious expressions. Broadly speaking, from this snapshot of instant culture the menopause is often defined by frowny faces; definitely not sexy. This bad mood stereotype might be countered by evidence of non-frowny women on TV programmes, in films and other forms of mass visual culture; except here we note an absence. The 2015 Ofcom report1 on the BBC highlighted that women over the age of 55 were seen less frequently and more negatively than males of the same age. In the top 100 grossing US films of 20172there were 33 female leads or co-leads of which only five were over the age of 45. The erasure of mid-life woman from everyday screen cultures is echoed in newspapers and even museum collections. This invisibility linked to silence about experiences and haphazard information sources renders menopause as a taboo subject.
The menopause is a mid-life experience for all women, usually occurring naturally, between the ages 45 and 55 years. Yet there is currently no mass preparation, no agreed list of symptoms, few remedies, no public discussion and no visible role models.
The taboo surrounding the menopause has led to unfamiliarity with the language, so it is important to clarify terms. The ‘menopause transition’ is a physical change in the body of a woman and has three distinct phases: the first, Peri-menopause describes the experiences and symptoms for women who are still having their periods, but where the level of estrogen in the body is changing. Phase 2, the menopause is exactly one year after a woman’s last ever period, defined after the fact. The third and final phase Post-menopause describes symptoms that continue after menopause. This transition can take more than ten years for some women. In a maximum life span of 110 (ish) years the menopause falls before the mid-point. Additionally 1% of women will experience menopause early either for genetic or medical reasons which is known as Premature Ovarian Insufficiency3. Most women will experience a variety of peri-menopausal symptoms, but as the menopause is unlikely to have been discussed (not even with their own mother) many struggle to piece together advice from different sources to resolve their own healthcare problems. Doctors tend to prescribe Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), if they offer anything at all. Books, websites and TV programmes are all used to find solutions, but the current situation is enough to make any woman frowny.
How will the silence around the menopause taboo (and the problems this creates for many mid-life women) be resolved by a piece of theatre making?
Scenography is a definition used in theatre making which refers to the combination of all elements (including set, costumes, lighting et al) of the performance as they are brought together at the point of experience by the audience. Scenography explicitly considers the spectator as an integral part of the production. Audiences typically operate in two ways, as solo spectators and also as a collective with shared responses; laughter, concentration, tears etc. These shared responses by an audience also allows the individual spectator to think into and around the subject, and make connections with their own existing experiences. This allows for a form of directed learning and reflection to take place. However the use of theatre as a direct means of education is problematic because this arguably interferes with the notions of satisfying theatrical and audience satisfaction and the heritage of didactic forms of drama (e.g. agit-prop5). And there is little evidence that attending the theatre, achieves the ambitious ‘learning goals’ of the theatre makers.
Much of the contemporary new theatre writing in the UK for the past 50 years has been identifiably left-wing, bearing little influence on mainstream politics. But the ways in which applied theatre can be used to articulate experiences or share new languages should not be denied either. A half hour performance can potentially expose an audience to many more ideas than a written paper, largely because in the theatre ideas can be easily layered on top of each other and co-exist in different sensory languages: aural, visual etc. Using Ethnography based theatre with verbatim text from transcribed interviews, allows the spectator to attend to conversations about the menopause, and from their relatively detached position as audience member, they are able to entertain new ideas. Combining this with discussion and elements of Forum6 theatre allows for a deeper understanding of complex issues and here we can see the benefits of arts-based practice and problem solving.
is only one caveat, and here we begin to see the scale of the problem. The
menopause transition is a women’s thing, a phenomenological experience. If
there were easy solutions to dealing with this issue, it would not exist. And
the current situation is liable to make the frowny women very shouty indeed. So,
this research is a way of resolving the menopause problem by staging it. This
taboo can be busted.
1 See https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0023/59333/psb_diversity_report.pdf
2 See Inequality in 1,100 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBT & Disability from 2007 to 2017. http://assets.uscannenberg.org/docs/inequality-in-1100-popular-films.pdf
3 The Daisy Network offers support and information for those who have experienced Premature Ovarian Insufficiency: https://www.daisynetwork.org.uk
5 Agit-prop derives from a term used in Soviet Russia that referred to cultural events promoting communist propaganda, but is now widely used to describe any overtly political cultural production.
6 Forum theatre, most closely associated with the theatre making of Augusto Boal, invites the audience to participate in the performance with the actors, playing out suggested solutions for an issue previously staged.
Hilary Baxter is a candidate for a Drama and Healthcare PhD studentship at St Mary’s University Twickenham. Her cross disciplinary Drama and Healthcare research project brings together different methodologies to begin to resolve the real-life problem of the taboo of Menopause in the UK workplace using Scenography practice-based theatre-making to further an holistic development of ideas. This research project explores the use of Ethnography based drama and Forum theatre methods as a means by which the voices of menopausal women can be more widely shared.