First: You should watch Grace & Frankie. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are the titular stars of the new Netflix original series and it is a pleasure to watch them at work. Grace and Frankie are two women in a fix: the show begins as their husbands, played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, confess that they’ve been having an affair with each other for 20 years. Officially out of the closet, the husbands leave their wives in order to finally marry each other. This could be the stuff of heart-wrenching drama, but instead Grace & Frankie is comedy. Case in point: someone rides a mechanical bull in the front yard, but instead of a bull it’s an enormous plastic penis. For all its modern subject matter, the show can sometimes feel as cliched as any sitcom; the jokes trod well-worn joke paths. Most critics have reserved their enthusiasm. And yet, somehow, there are generous portions of this show that are surprisingly insightful and timely. In a world of procedural shows and singing competitions, I haven’t seen anything quite like Grace & Frankie.
Some critics have been quick to compare it to to Transparent, with its coming out later in life plot, bratty and troubled older children, and depiction of southern California life - but they are only distant relatives, separated by tone and look, never mind the difference between sexual and gender identities. The ill comparisons that were forced together in reviews could be its own piece about how we talk about the LGBTQ spectrum, but I digress.
I shouldn’t be surprised, though, that I haven’t seen it before. If they’re visible at all onscreen, older women are more likely to be a supporting character on a show about younger people, not the protagonists and antagonists at the center of the story. In one episode, Grace and Frankie go out to buy cigarettes on a rebellious whim and cannot get anyone’s attention at the supermarket, eventually getting a brief look from a store clerk before being passed over for a younger female customer. Grace throws a histrionic fit, shouting, “Do you not see me? Do I not exist? Do you think it’s alright to ignore us?” It’s an over-the-top moment, but it still reads as an honest commentary on what it is to be invisible in our culture as someone no longer valued for their sexuality or youth.
On Grace & Frankie, these women are valued and multi-dimensional. Their hopes and fears form the emotional core of their show, as does their friendship. They dance on bar counters. They talk frankly about sex, delving into orgasms and the more technical aspects of vaginal dryness (hint: Frankie suggests preparing your own organic lube made from yams). They also confront the hardship of being alone and reshaping one’s life unexpectedly with great aplomb. This has some grounding in the real world, with the divorce rate of women 65 and older rising to 12 percent in 2008. While Grace and Frankie are well-supported by their successful lawyer ex-husbands (and less so on their own income as a former business owner and art teacher, repsectively), many women confront economic hardship when suddenly thrust out there on their own, needing hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover health care costs alone.
Staying offscreen, it’s worth visiting the genesis of this idea. Co-creator Marta Kauffman, also a co-creator of Friends, first began working on this idea because she heard Fonda and Tomlin wanted to do a series - and that was all she’d needed to go off and running. Barring The Golden Girls and Murder She Wrote, and perhaps Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, shows are not based around older women. Perhaps it’s Kauffman’s feminism, and that of Fonda and Tomlin, that pushed the ball forward to great results - to make the show but to also have female directors and writers of all ages involved in helming the ship, making its presentation more authentic.
All the realness of the show is meant to be entertaining, but is also meant to speak honestly to the experience of aging, as Kauffman puts it. Since the series debuted on May 8, I’ve read hundreds of Netflix member reviews about Grace & Frankie, and though not a scientific study, all who identified themselves as an older viewer were in love with the show, speaking poignantly of what it meant to be represented. Here are a few:
“Finally a show about people my age that doesn’t portray us as sitting in wheelchairs in a nursing home!”
“It is wonderful to see women ‘of a certain age’ (whatever that means) showing us that we are still vibrant and alive with emotions and opinions ranging from loss and love to laughter, intimacy, and addiction. We are wise with a lot to offer and a lot to learn. The fact that this comedy steps out of the ‘comfort zone’ and into a new era is so refreshing and funny.”
“So many things to smile and laugh about as a “mature” women. Yes, to one reviewer: there are 70 year old women who like martinis, a little weed and wish they had the chutzpah to dance on bars again! We’re not all dead.”
Clearly, Grace & Frankie is a necessary addition, maybe even an intervention, in the lives of older women. We also have the opportunity, those of us who are not older women, to get a peek into someone else’s lived experience. In the same way, I turn to the husbands, Martin Sheen’s Robert and Sam Waterston’s Sol. For as much heartbreak as these two men caused their wives and families, and as difficult as it can be to accept two characters embroiled in infidelity, it’s their ebullience that serves as a counterpoint to the deep questions posed about loneliness and age. After spilling their twenty year secret and are able to live openly, Robert and Sol are as giddy as teenagers. There is something beautiful about their pure, newly constraint-free love.
In the first episode, Robert says they’re getting married because “we can do that now,” his face aglow. Perhaps in a different era these men would stay closeted and continue their affair in perpetuity, but in a moment when full marriage equality is at our doorstep, it makes for a less enticing option to stay hidden. To make such a leap and have protection is paramount, maybe more so for older queer people as they deal with the tougher life and death challenges of making healthcare decisions, fighting for survivor benefits, or inheriting property, as Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders recently highlighted in their amicus brief to the Supreme Court. For this cohort, having access to marriage is not only a privilege but a necessary need.
This widening of our culture is even reflected in the language used on the show, which includes a mix of different identity politics. In the first scene, Frankie incredulously asks her husband Sol, “You’re gay and this is who you’re gay with?” He corrects her by saying, “This is who I’m in love with.” Sol and Robert’s journey isn’t shown as two men who stayed in heterosexual marriages for 40 years despite their true sexual orientation. In fact, all signs point towards them simply falling in love with each other; not necessarily predisposed to men and women but led by their hearts. In a time when we are obsessed with labeling ourselves, letting orientation be more fluid is a welcome change, especially when brought to us by men in their seventies, newly out to the world exactly as they are.
A television show cannot fix any of our major social issues, but it can provide us with new frameworks and different ways of seeing ourselves. And, every once in a while, provide the world a brand-new recipe for yam lube.
Related Reading: Beyond Betty White — Three Other Amazing Older Women on TV.
Emily U. Hashimoto is putting her binge watching to good use once again. When she’s not doing that, she’s working on her novel and other writing projects. Follow her at @emilyhash or books-feminism-everything else to read queer and feminist ramblings on a somewhat regular basis.