By Emma Dooney
A new Netflix series has hit headlines for its authentic portrayal of menopause - an issue that often goes undiscussed in fictional female characters.
Bombay Begums, which was released on the streaming platform earlier this month, aims to expand public awareness of its symptoms and to challenge the stereotypes surrounding the transition.
The eight-part series follows five women as they navigate their different stages of life in the Indian city of Mumbai. Its pilot episode introduces viewers to Rani, a passionate CEO attempting to cover up her bank’s underlying problems - as well as the onset of her menopause.
From hot flushes to night sweats, the symptoms that are usually shelved to the periphery of society are placed front and center in this refreshingly honest exploration of women’s middle age in the modern era.
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Like many working women, Rani, played by Pooja Bhatt, goes to great lengths to conceal her menopause from her colleagues. In one scene, the newly-appointed banking executive abruptly excuses herself from a board meeting to dry her armpits in the bathroom. She struggles to accept the reality of her body changing, outright refusing to acknowledge the sweats as a symptom of menopause when questioned by a female coworker.
As one of the few women holding a leadership position in her industry, Rani knows she must project a facade of infallibility to secure the respect of her staff.
“There's the stereotype of a typical menopausal female boss - irrational, irritable, screechy - and she's a professional and doesn't want her colleagues to know,” Namita Bhandare, the gender editor for Article 14, told the BBC.
Rani’s treatment of her menopause isn’t uncommon. Research has found that up to one-third of women hide their menopausal symptoms at work, while those who experienced the change before the age of 45 were less likely to ask their employer for help.
This reluctance is often fueled by embarrassment surrounding the menopause or a fear that it will cause coworkers to undermine women’s capability. Unfortunately, the transition phase is often wrongfully interpreted as an expiration date - a red flag that brandishes us as defunct cogs of our patriarchal society. Pooja’s character upends this gravely inaccurate understanding, revealing the full complexities of an urban woman in her middle age.
“Women are made to believe that this means the end of their life, the end of desire and the end of sexuality. But to be able to play a woman who is in the throes of that and still has her impulses and follows them through is something that is a rarity,” Pooja said.
The release of Bombay Begums comes amidst a recent surge in public discourse on menopause. A number of high profile celebrities have spoken out about their experience with the change, including Davina McCall and Andrea McLean. Michelle Obama also discussed going through the menopause as First Lady on her podcast, recounting a particular incident in which she was struck by an intense hot flash on the presidential helicopter.
"It was like somebody put a furnace in my core and turned it on high. And then everything started melting. And I thought, 'Well this is crazy, I can't, I can't, I can't do this,'" she said.
"What a woman's body is taking her through is important information. It's an important thing to take up space in a society, because half of us are going through this but we're living like it's not happening.”
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