The University of Sunderland is advertising ‘masterclasses’ in ‘Menopause in the Workplace.’ The ad has been running on Smooth Radio, a station under the umbrella of Global – one of the alarmingly few corporate megaliths with increasing command over our airwaves, our money flows and our veins.
The ad is voiced in an on-the-brink-of-laughter style that is growing ubiquitous in public delivery of all kinds. In more rational times, it would connote a teetering on the edge of reason. Now it is the default tone no matter how grave the agenda it serves. Listen to Kate Garraway or to Myleene Klass, two Global stalwarts, and you will hear it.
So-called ‘vocal fry’ captured young women’s voices about ten or fifteen years ago, remaking them as barely discernible drawls with overtones of whiskey-soaked inertia. Now, having been through this prism of jadedness, women are speaking of the little that remains to be animated about as if it is the most exciting, the most hilarious event or experience ever, to be touted in declamatory joy and couched in a small variety of vacuous phrases – ‘I love that!’; ‘How amazing!’
But back to the ‘masterclasses’ in ‘Menopause in the Workplace,’ brayed about with nothing-to-see-here-folks inanity in the airspace of cartoon-villain, Global.
Women in all workplaces are defiled by this ad, by the ‘masterclasses’ that it describes, and by the milieux in which such possibilities are abroad as not only acceptable but at the vanguard of progressiveness and inclusivity.
The concept of ‘Menopause in the Workplace’ plays an old trick. It takes the name of one aspect of a cohort of human beings and uses it to stand in for the whole of that cohort of human beings. Menopause cannot go to work. Menopause does not log on or clock in or set to. Menopause is not in the workplace. Women are.
Perhaps some of these women are going through menopause. But one does not refer to and administer ‘Menopause in the Workplace’ without effacing the women to whom this experience might or does apply and substituting their humanness with one of their characteristics.
This old trick has a name: metonymy, naming a part to refer to the whole. And it has a dubious history, most infamously in the use of ‘hands’ to designate industrial workers. Its effect is to undermine the complex wholeness that constitutes humanness and thereby to clear the way for attitudes and behaviour that would be less easy to adopt towards fully realized human beings.
The University of Sunderland’s ‘masterclass’ in ‘Menopause in the Workplace’ is an exercise in the dehumanization of women.metop
What is more, ‘Menopause in the Workplace’ exceeds the dehumanizing effect of using ‘hands’ to refer to workers, and in ways that are revealing of fundamental aspects of the mode of control of people that defines those societies such as ours that are fast becoming dystopian technocracies.
Our hands at least are our own and make things our own. They are like those of others around us, yes, and not infinitely capable of course. But we do not have the expression, ‘It’s in your hands,’ for no reason: our hands offer to each of us the means of determining aspects of our lives in fundamental ways, of shaping our lives, of bringing ourselves to bear on the world and those in it. Many hands make light work, but a single pair of hands makes the world in an important sense ours. When our hands are tied, it is this autonomy that is scandalously in abeyance.
For this reason, the dehumanizing programme that referred to workers as ‘hands’ contained within it the ingredients of its defeat – for all that the conditions to which it consigned people were degrading, it also suggested a powerful mode of their release. Stop working. Down tools. Idle hands. The reduction of human beings to factory and farm ‘hands’ implied the means of forcing the admission that ‘hands’ are human beings after all.
Not so with our updated version of metonymy, which substitutes one or other health category for a set of human beings and of which The University of Sunderland’s use of ‘menopause’ is quite typical:
Firstly, ‘menopause’ is pegged, in ways that are almost atmospheric, to the most banal of human experiences, such as tiredness and irritability. In this way, it is everywhere and nowhere, the most familiar of conditions it seems that can be talked about with almost anyone and yet not to be isolated, monitored, pinned down. Our hands, by contrast, while also quite ordinary and everyday are right before our eyes, as plain as the nose on our face, not mysterious, not amorphous, and therefore not in the mode of permanent escape.
Secondly, ‘menopause’ is characterised as a biochemical phenomenon that happens to us and is beyond our control, to be understood and administered only by institutions and their professionals. For this reason, its common-or-garden familiarity is accompanied by a rarefied scientific technicality, the very opposite of familiar, outside of the understanding of any but those initiated into the relevant processes and products. ‘Menopause’ is for this reason essentially beyond our grasp (a metaphor that is tellingly reliant on the understanding available to us through our hands).
Thirdly, ‘menopause’ collectivises, coursing through us in a manner that does not aggregate our individuality as ‘hands’ does but dissolves it, disappearing each and every woman between the ages of 25 and 60 into the mound of data that comprises what we call ‘populations,’ the dominant object of state-sponsored programmes of all kinds, including health programmes.
‘Menopause,’ like all its health-label kind, is not in our hands. Quite the contrary. It works to erase possibilities for autonomy, self-direction, understanding.
There is one last thing to be noticed about the use of health-labels to substitute for humans, which shows it to have a vital role in the encroaching paradigm of our troubling times. While ‘factory hands’ addressed the human body as potent and requiring to be harnessed, ‘Menopause in the Workplace’ addresses the human body as weak and requiring to be managed.
This framing of the human body as ailing and in need of being bolstered fits the epochal shift that we are living through, from the discipline and exploitation of human beings as workers to the control and pacification of human beings as users, productive of nothing, implicitly surplus, useless.
The rebranding of human beings as ‘useless eaters’ is still a background hum in contemporary rearrangements of social and political life, but it has its more acceptable variants, which are repeated at us often enough for there to be seeded now a general sense that we humans are trespassers on our own land, whose best hope is to be tolerated to remain here.
Talk of our ‘footprint’ is quite usual in the most mainstream channels, although it presents us as clumsy marauders on the earth’s delicate sands and implicitly supports the depopulation agenda that is clearly at stake in the constant stream of data we are exposed to about how much we consume and how much we emit. Add to this the incessant promotion of AI in every aspect of life, and you have the not-yet-explicit growing acceptance that the human body is somehow regrettable and can be done very well without.
It turns out that the figurative move that employs health categories such as ‘menopause’ to refer to the people who experience them works to co-opt us to a battle that is actually being waged against us, encouraging us to hold our bodies in contempt, to be troubled by our corporeal nature, and to agree, to demand even, that our bodies be managed, boosted, reengineered, atoned for, taken out of play altogether.
This advancing contempt for human bodies is quite obviously not a ‘women’s issue,’ impacting as it does upon women and men and children in equal measure.
Take the recent example of health-metonymy to which we were all outrageously subject, when human beings everywhere, young and old, healthy and infirm, were reclassified as ‘Covid cases.’ This dehumanized every one of us in precisely the manner that ‘Menopause in the Workplace’ dehumanizes adult women.
Like ‘menopause,’ Covid captured in its net a seemingly infinite range of the most innocuous experiences, reinterpreted as symptoms and therefore made objectionable – tiredness, aches and pains, coughing, sneezing, and, best of all, nothing at all (‘asymptomatic Covid’).
Yet, like ‘menopause,’ Covid also required the most elaborate and institutionally sanctioned interventions, from lockdowns to the endless administering of laboratory PCR tests, to ventilators, to experimental MRNA injections. And like ‘menopause,’ Covid collectivized so completely that the trope of the herd became the most appropriate, dissolving the individual into a narrative of togetherness that made people willing participants in the effacement of their own well-being and that of those dearest to them.
Finally, just like ‘menopause,’ Covid reframed the body as so weak, despicable, degraded that it was always and everywhere to be suspected, and masked, distanced, tested, isolated, jabbed and boosted to infinity.
With the waning of the Covid category, others are regaining traction. ‘Neurodiversity’ too is in the workplace, ‘sexuality’ is in schools, and ‘disability’ everywhere we turn, not to mention ‘addiction,’ ‘cancer,’ ‘diabetes,’ and ‘heart disease.’ Metonymy is going from strength to strength in other words, effacing our humanity with our so-called ‘health.’ And the infrastructure is being put in place, as the cobbled street furniture of Covid gives way to a more carefully coordinated vision for ‘healthy high streets’ on which defibrillators are erupting like pustules and screening clinics popping up just where you least expect them.
Nevertheless, for all that there is nothing ‘women’s issue’ about the roll-out of health as an effacement of our humanity, ‘menopause’ is an interesting case. Not only because it is among the loudest being advertised, but because it seamlessly continues a health-crusade against arguably the earliest of the ‘useless eaters’: women in the Victorian home, with the means for servants to keep their house and their children. These women were not ‘hands’ and not ‘suits.’ They were – a new possibility, spawned by the emergence of productivity as the prime metric of industrial societies – simply unproductive, with neither employment nor independence from it.
These early ‘useless eaters’ became the object of a newly expanded range of health categories, bound up with their embodiment in the most mundane ways and yet subject to the ministrations of new fields of expertise. Their pregnancies reclassified as ‘confinements,’ their inevitable ennui at being shut away with Victorian rigour was called ‘hysteria,’ or ‘fatigue,’ or simply ‘nerves,’ for which complete rest was often recommended. Lockdown, by another name.
And there was infrastructure too. Not ‘healthy high streets’ but healthy homes, kept dark and quiet so as not to disturb and generously furnished with what we have since named as the ‘fainting couch,’ for women to collapse upon, or, if still conscious, to recline upon with their lapdog, vial of laudanum within reach.
Jane Austen wrote at the cusp of the appearance of these pitiable women, before they were so fully instated that they lost their salience. Astute as she was, Austen saw how they were being played. Her response is instructive:
“Beware of fainting-fits…A frenzy fit is not one quarter so pernicious; it is an exercise to the body and if not too violent, is, I dare say, conducive to health in its consequences — Run mad as often as you choose; but do not faint.”Love and Friendship, 1790
To women, I would say this: ‘Menopause’ is our fainting couch. We nestle into its comforts when we are in each other’s company, and its anaesthetising effects are palpable. But to enjoy its consolations is to be immunised, not against its so-called symptoms (‘I’m just nuts,’ ‘Such brain-fog’) but against the conditions of our lives that make us nuts and foggy: precariousness everywhere, distanced living, fractured communities…
To rage against these real persecutions is to stand out, to be ‘extreme,’ to run mad, but better that than collapsing onto the dubious supports being readied for us. Run mad as often as you choose; but do not faint.
Sinéad Murphy is author of Effective History (Northwestern, 2010), The Art Kettle (Zero, 2012) and Zombie University (Repeater, 2017), and co-editor of Pandemic Response and the Cost of Lockdowns (Routledge 2022).
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