Angelina Jolie’s surgery means Hollywood will finally have to talk about menopause

Opening gambit.
Opening gambit.
Image: Reuters/Paul Hackett
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Angelina Jolie Pitt’s decision in 2013 to have a double mastectomy­—preventative removal of all her breast tissue, after tests and family history pointed to the likelihood of her getting breast cancer—led to a flurry of discussion about body image.

Jolie Pitt revealed today that she had undergone another preventative surgery, the removal of her fallopian tubes and ovaries. At 39, she will experience an early menopause—the raft of hormonal changes that accompany the end of a woman’s fertility.

The glamor-enveloped world of filmmaking hasn’t shown itself able to bear very much reality. Women are required to be beautiful, and to an extent, unchanging. When age alters the physical appearance, there is cosmetic surgery. When appearences cannot be maintained, the usual course is a quiet subsidence into obscurity. Male actors, by contrast, often come into more challenging and fascinating roles as they age­–think Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, or Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.

Jolie’s decision to detail her hereditary cancer risk, the results of her blood tests, the deaths of her mother, aunt and grandmother to cancer is brave and illuminating. Illness and death are not often associated with those who are successful, and especially not those whose success is bound up with turning a (beautiful, healthy) face to the world, over and over again, on a huge screen.

Moreover, it opens up a necessary conversation. Jolie will go through menopause early. But most women will go through it at some point in their lives. Yet the subject is rarely dealt with. Jane Fonda openly discussed it on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show—but only after the intense unhappiness she experienced was over.

Actors like Glenn Close and Patricia Arquette increasingly stand up for equality in Hollywood, where women­—as in other professions—are systemically paid less than men, and where writers and producers concentrate their creativity more or less relentlessly on the young.

Hormonal changes are not the end of a woman’s life. But nor are they negligible. Anyone who has had a contraceptive device fitted­, or who has taken the pill, or, indeed, has had a period, knows that changes in hormone levels can be a big part of life.

Usually they are experienced in private­—with one’s close friends or one’s partner, behind closed doors, away from the workplace or “society.” To an extent, this may be reasonable and useful.

But Hollywood is a way in which people learn more about the human experience: an experience that, hitherto, has been mainly sanitized when it comes to menopause. The “change” is barely mentioned, or only joked about. This universal life event is excised, ignored, unexplored.

Jolie Pitt’s decision to talk openly about it may be a step towards changing—or rather a means of creating—the conversation.