Menopause: a word many 20-something women may have only heard about in their high school health class, and a topic 40-somethings would prefer to skirt around entirely. Ask Marsha Posner Williams about the biological inevitability, and she’ll take it in stride while whittling it down with humor, as she did while guest-speaking to a room of 19 rapt students at Cal State Long Beach, Wednesday.
And what better place for the two-time Emmy, three-time Golden Globe-winning producer of “The Golden Girls” to speak, than a class dedicated to the 1980’s sitcom she helped usher into existence.
“When I read an article about this amazing class and work being done with ‘The Golden Girls’, I had to reach out to Maria,” William said. “And here I am like a week and a half later.”
Maria is Maria Claver, director of CSULB’s gerontology department who, along with Long Wang, assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics, instructs “Women & Aging: Lessons from the Golden Girls” a novel interdisciplinary course that uses the sitcom—which followed the antics of four older, previously married women—to teach about geriatric issues related to health and aging.
“Even in the 1980s, the ‘Golden Girls’ were challenging stereotypes about older women,” said Claver. “Sadly, our society still holds some of those stereotypes. Characters like Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia showed us that a woman in her older years could still be sexy, active, playful and important.”
And true to the show she created, Williams herself is unafraid to talk about any and all of the issues related to getting older.
“I’m in my probably 16th year of hot flashes and I’m not kidding, we are very close, me and the hot flashes,” Williams said. “We will do anything to relieve that heat. Anything.”
True to her words, Williams broke out a slew of cooling devices, ranging from lace folding fans to paperback books to a deck of cards. One student, 72-year-old Allison Acken, certainly could relate to what Williams was talking about, describing a hot flash as feeling “like you’ve been set on fire.”
Thirty-five years after its premiere, “The Golden Girls” is still very much a hit in syndication and Williams was excited to see her sitcom used as a source that could engage students to open up about subjects they might not feel comfortable talking about otherwise. When the show debuted in 1984, William’s, then 34 and a newlywed, recognized the breakthroughs the sitcom was making, but admits, she’d generally viewed them from an outsider’s perspective.
“I was fascinated at the time with the topics because age never came in my circle of thought,” Williams said. “I had lost both my parents by then, so it was just my sister and me. So I never really thought about ageism or anything that goes along with it. So it’s a completely different take now.”
As the structure of the class dictated, students watched one episode of the sitcom. This week it was “The End of the Curse,” in which Blanche, played by Rue McClanahan, discovers—to her tearful dismay—that she is going through menopause.
“My life is over,” she says. “It means I’m old, that I’m not a real woman anymore.”
While it might seem a tad melodramatic (this is Blanche we’re talking about) the fear regarding menopause deals with deep-seated perceptions about what it means to be a woman.
The lecture and discussion that followed identified how attitudes regarding menopause affect the overall experience a woman may feel. Fourth generation Japanese-American Kelsey Uyeda, 27, related her mother and grandmother’s experience with menopause to her culture, the Japanese view that aging is a natural part of life. They don’t fear it, they embrace it.
“My maternal mother and grandmother had zero symptoms of menopause,” Uyeda said. “Literally zero, my grandma doesn’t even know what a hot flash is.”
Most women are not so fortunate.
“I can tell you that the first year I suffered from hot flashes was the worst year of my life,” Williams said. “I woke up at least five times, from the time I went to sleep until morning, in a pool of sweat and it was horrible.”
Not that you ever felt truly sorry for Williams, with every misgiving she spoke about she dealt out three jokes to accompany them. All of which were met with bellows of laughter.
“When I turned 68, which was just a couple months ago, I said to my friends, I’m not looking at this as the end of my life now, I’m looking at this as the beginning of chronic organ failure,” she joked. “It’s just another phase of life, it’s just how we do it, how we look at it. But I do know that I know I’m getting old because every time I bend down to tie my shoes I wonder what else I can do while I’m down there.”
Before the room exploded into chaos and a slew of selfies when William’s took out one of her Emmys, she clued the class into some privy “Golden Girls” trivia and final words of affirmation.
“I swear to you, you just have to have a sense of humor about everything in life. And also, and I tell this to students all the time, everything in life we do is a choice, everything,” she said. “And when shit happens to us that is out of our control, that happens all the time, how we deal with it is our choice.”
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