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Debra Goldman's Consumer Republic

  • April 8, 2002, 12:00 AM EDT
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It doesn't take long for Menopause the Musical, a revue that opened off-Broadway in New York last week, to get to the point. No sooner do its four main characters—all middle-aged women—meet in the underwear department at Bloomingdale's than they are talking trash about The Change. "You mean the silent passage?" one asks, to which her sister replies, "It isn't the silent passage anymore."

She's got that right. Cue the band as the girls, shaking their size-12-and-up booties, break into a chorus of "Change, change, change" to the tune of "Chain of Fools." For the next 90 minutes, Menopause, a cross between The Vagina Monologues and Nunsense, gives full throat to all the miseries of woman's midlife.

Golden oldies that ring in boomer ears like Pavlov's bell, instantly evoking youth, are commandeered to parody the perils of aging: night sweats, mood swings, memory lapses, weight gain, wrinkles, hot flashes, sagging skin, sexual re adjustments and more. The audience—erstwhile bra-burners, curious and sympa thetic Gen-X gals, and a sprinkling of middle-aged male fellow travelers—cheer and applaud each comic kvetch like worshippers at a revivalist meeting, and then join the cast on stage for a rousing chorus of "This Is Your Day" ("YMCA").

Welcome to the Unsilent Passage of the baby boomers. In what may be the most predictable cultural trend ever, menopause has gone mainstream. Someone in America turns 50 every seven seconds, and the more than half of them who are women are talking, reading and now singing about The Change.

In the process, The Change has changed, receiving a face-lift in the baby boomer's image. The makeover is a perfect demonstration of boomer logic. Thesis: Menopause is a milestone in the process of growing old. Antithesis: Baby boomers cannot grow old. Synthesis: Menopause is not about growing old after all. Rather, it is a process of renewal and rebirth from which women emerge wiser, better, happier and, most important, younger in spirit. The new, improved menopause is not an ending but a beginning.

The title of Christiane Northrup's best-seller, The Wisdom of Meno pause, says it all. Northrup, a New Age physician whose writings touting women's spiritual powers of self-healing won her a guru slot on PBS, has hit a sweet spot in her demo's psyche with her message of "listen to your body." The meno pausal woman's body, Northrup claims, is urging her to break free, change direction, re-evaluate, start anew. Hormonal changes are "rewiring the brain" and sending "wake-up calls." The result of the process, the jacket blurb promises, is "a mind-body revolution that brings the greatest opportunity for growth since adolescence."

Northrup, as it happens, got divorced while going through menopause, which may account for her somewhat unorthodox prescription to dump one's husband as a cure for hot flashes. But most of the book's happy talk would be familiar to any Oprah fan, with upbeat chapter headings featuring words like healing, power, healthy, beauty, passion and joy. The problem comes in the fine print. No amount of sunny New Age packaging can disguise the fact that the vast majority of this tome's 589 pages are devoted to detailing and forestalling every kind of decline, loss and decay.

Unfortunately, this kind of the rapeutic doublespeak—decline is growth, decay is renewal—is nothing new to women. Last fall, social critic Barbara Ehrenreich created a stir with her "Welcome to Cancerland" essay in Harper's. A survivor of breast cancer, she recounted her experience in what she called the breast-cancer cult, with its infantilizing pink ribbons and cuddly teddy bears, awareness groups and corporate-sponsored runs for the cure. In this cult, treatments that Ehrenreich characterized as primitive and barbaric have been repackaged as part of the self-help process. Some sufferers, she reported, declare that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to them—that it changed them for the better, and made them stronger and wiser. Disease as self-improvement.

This recasting of a physical killer as a spiritual life-giver, Ehrenreich noted, not only appeals to women who perhaps could not other wise withstand the ordeal of cancer treatment. It also suits the agenda of many corporations that turned breast cancer into a mar keting partner during the '90s. Mortality is a bummer, but strength, growth and spiritual awareness are guaranteed to turn on any focus group.

If an often-fatal disease can be thus transformed, imagine the possibilities for menopause, which is not going to kill you and has a far vaster demographic reach. Sure enough, Menopause the Musical is "presented by" Novavax, a "specialty biopharmaceutical company committed to the advancing of women's healthcare."

While watching the spirited performers of Menopause the Musical urge the audience to "celebrate" soaking perspiration, sleepless nights and spreading thighs, I had to wonder: If menopause is making women so damn wise, how come this wisdom never includes accepting the inevitability of getting old? Why does this wisdom so closely resemble self-delusion? What's next for off-Broadway? Alzheimer's the Celebration, a hilarious tribute to the spiritual wisdom gained from losing your mind?

Fortunately, I don't think even the boomers could pull that one off.