HerStory: The Fresh Hell of a Hot-Flush Noir

HerStory: The Fresh Hell of a Hot-Flush Noir

It cannot be denied that ageing is more cruel to women’s bodies and they do suffer from distressing symptoms that are seldom taken seriously

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Thursday, May 30, 2024, 11:06 PM IST
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Representative Image | Pixabay

These days, when it has become acceptable to air out things that were once considered private or taboo, then it is also about time to bring menopause out of the closet.

As a piece in Ms. Magazine puts it, “A new generation of women are demanding that the next chapter of their lives no longer be ignored, overlooked or squandered. Mobilised by a diverse coalition of doctors and lawyers, social and racial justice activists, CEOs and celebrities, the modern menopause movement is well underway. Some attribute it to generational politics, the estimated 6,000 Gen Xers now entering menopause every day in the United States. The women of Gen X are bookended by their postmenopausal moms and mentors and by millennials, who are already or soon to be in the throes of perimenopause. As Ms. executive director for partnerships and strategy Jennifer Weiss-Wolf writes, “Menopause is not an afterthought for us. Nor can we continue to tolerate being society’s afterthought.”

There have been several medical and non-fiction books written about menopause – in fact, The New Menopause by Mary Claire Haver is currently on the New York Times bestseller list; now the newly released All Fours by Miranda July is being hailed as the first great perimenopause novel.

It may not be the first, but it is the most powerful and poignant so far. Last year, Lisa Allardice, writing in The Guardian, caught the trend of the menopause novel as it sprouted. “Broken Light (by Joanne Harris) is the latest in a run of novels to take on the menopause. Fran Littlewood’s debut, Amazing Grace Adams, which follows a 45-year-old woman on the rampage in north London, was published to much excitement at the beginning of the year. The Change by Kirsten Miller, a magical realist thriller about three midlife women who discover that they have developed special powers, was a big hit last year (part of a trend Guardian critic Laura Wilson dubbed ‘hot-flush noir’). And Marian Keyes, who has long been ‘banging the drum for the idea that we don’t all wither when we are 37’, is in the middle of writing a new novel with the working title Old Dog, New Tricks, about a 49-year-old woman who has to come off HRT when she returns from New York to Ireland.” (In Ireland, they just tell women with gynaecological issues to just “get on with it”.)

Allardice comments, “Back in 1999 when she published her multimillion-selling novel Chocolate, Harris was told that it wouldn’t work because there were far too many old people in it. ‘That basically a book needs to be sexy. And it has to be young people having sex, not old people just being unsightly,’ she says now. ‘Why do we always have to hear about the princesses? Why do we not get to hear more about the wicked witches and the stepmothers because that’s what the princesses will grow into eventually?’ These new novels dare to imagine the lives of women at the point where they have crossed into the abyss of middle age. When, as Victoria Smith puts it in her blistering polemic Hags, they are dealing with “the loss of the Fs that matter most to the patriarchy: fertility, femininity, f***ability.”

Men go through hormonal changes and mid-life crises too, but their solutions — new car or gizmo, youthful wardrobe; if they are rich, a young trophy wife or girlfriend — are admired. While women are mocked for trying to hold on to their youth, because society is so disdainful of older females. Many have given the best years of their lives to looking after their families, but let the first wrinkle or grey hair appear and they are pushed into the oncoming traffic of redundancy. It cannot be denied that ageing is more cruel to women’s bodies and they do suffer from distressing symptoms that are seldom taken seriously. Since talking about “ladies’ problems” is considered shameful, a lot of women are caught unawares when the changes in their bodies — and sometimes minds — take place. (What Fresh Hell Is This? Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, And You was the very apt title of Heather Corinna’s 2021 book, inspired no doubt by Dorothy Parker’s famous quote.)

Miranda July said in an interview to Liam Hess in Vogue, “For the first half of your life, you feel like a young person — for quite a long time as a woman, you’re just young — and then very suddenly, that flips. And instead of looking forward to some kind of open-ended apex, you’re in that place in the middle, and when you look forward the same amount, you’re looking toward death. That’s a very different story, and I wanted to write about what that means sexually, in terms of intimacy. It’s a mapless, unknown, mysterious place… I think, especially for a woman, you’ve just gotten done being a young woman, being so heavily marketed to and represented in this particular way in film and TV and everyone having such involvement in your reproductive life, and then that information kind of abruptly stops — like, you’re actually hunting for basic facts about what happens next.”

The unnamed protagonist of All Fours is in an artistic field and moderately famous. She is married to a record producer and has a bright kid, whom she does not wish to “gender” so uses the pronoun “they.” When she turns 45, she decides to drive from California to New York. She has been busy being a good wife and mother, doing her own work from the garage at home, but the ennui has started to hit. When she wears a tight skirt and sheer blouse and dances with abandon at a party, the only man who notices and winks at her is 80. “Was that how old a person had to be to think I was hot these days?” she wonders.

She never makes it to New York, just holes up in a small-town hotel and lusts after a sexy young man. If this sounds like a cliché, July makes the woman’s sexual adventures funny, sad and subversive. More than the rediscovery of her sexuality, what she enjoys more is a sense of release from domestic drudgery. “‘I was free to do anything I wanted. No one to make breakfast for, no need to pack a five-part bento box lunch, no need to yell Put on your shoes!' Why should she bother getting back on the road to New York?” An alarming visit to the gynaecologist gives her advance notice about her libido falling off a cliff. But this one will not go without clinging as long as possible to the edge of life and desire, unlike her grandmother and aunt who threw themselves out of windows rather than face up to the loss of their looks and the loneliness of ageing.

The title comes from her friend and confidante Jordi, who has just made a sculpture of a headless woman on her hands and knees and explains that the position is actually quite stable: “It’s hard to be knocked down when you’re on all fours.”

But, what if the desirability of a woman is not linked to her reproductive ability, in cultures where childbearing is on the decline? Alejandra Rodriguez wins the Miss Buenos Aires title at age 60! Conventional beauty is still non-negotiable, but at least once, ageism was chucked into the bin.

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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