Jane Fonda and Tomlin in ‘Grace and Frankie.’ (Photo: Netflix/Lionsgate)
Dear Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda,
Congratulations, Lily and Jane! And thank you for setting in motion what I hope will be a new era of comedy. For the first time in my adult life, I’ve watched four seasons of a television series that portrays older women as engaging, funny, thoughtful, and, yes, sexy. Grace and Frankie is a new moment in the history of comedy.
Although there have been comedies about older women—Golden Girls or Maude comes to mind—or starring older women (the ubiquitous Betty White), invariably, these women are the butt of jokes. The audience laughs at them, not with them. They are Grumpy Old Women and not people we might emulate. No one watching them is invited to think differently about aging or our society’s dysfunctional attitudes toward wrinkles and gray hair.
Grace and Frankie manages to captivate us using real situations. In the third episode (Season 1, “The Dinner”) Grace and Frankie go to the store together, where a clerk is so busy fawning over a young and beautiful customer that he ignores their potential purchase. After trying for a long time to get the young man’s attention, Grace (Jane Fonda) loses her patience and yells angrily, “Are we invisible?” Every woman over 50 can relate to this experience, but in the parking lot Frankie (Lily Tomlin) offers revenge: “We have a superpower,” she says, holding up a pack of cigarettes she’s pilfered. “You can’t see me, you can’t stop me.”
Even the set-up for the show is funny. Grace and Frankie’s husbands—Sol and Robert, played by Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen—leave their wives for each other. Grace is a businesswoman who never had time for her children; Frankie is an aging flower child who teaches a painting class to former convicts. Thrown together by their husbands, they are the Odd Couple with a unique twist: their husbands of 50 years turned out to be gay.
Great humor is more than a setup, though, it also nudges us into uncomfortable subjects. Taking her somewhat stoned daughter, Brianna, (June Diane Raphael) and Frankie to the frozen yogurt store, Grace slips on the floor and confronts the fear that haunts every older person: an injury that might limit their ability to live a normal life (Season 1, “The Fall”). She ends up seeing how much she needs her friend, Frankie, whom she so often criticizes. “I’m just like you,” quips Frankie, “except with a better personality.”
Different responses to the impending death from cancer of their dearest friend, Babe, separates Grace and Frankie, as they grapple with end-of-life issues. “I don’t need a miracle, Sugar,” Babe explains to them both. “I’ve had a really good ride.” (Season 2, “The Party”) Babe attempts dark humor in a way that is real and funny and not funny. Negotiating the roller coaster set in motion by Babe, the two friends don’t agree, but they see each other and Babe in a new light.
And, yes, older women can be sexy. In the first season, a stranger tells Grace she is “smokin’ hot,” and anyone watching the show can believe that this is possible. Single women over 50 worry about whether or not they should put an ad on a singles website, and then what that ad should say. They use vibrators, and they are interested in potions that improve lubrication. Grace and Frankie explores the humor in all of these situations. And they reveal the true risk that it takes to be vulnerable. It was worth watching all four seasons to see how Grace finally allows herself to be vulnerable to a younger man, Nick. As she pulls off her fake eyelashes and washes off her make-up, she says: “You want the real me, well this is what you get. And it’s all downhill from here.” (Season 4, “The Expiration Date.”)
You may remember some four decades ago, Grey Panther Maggie Kuhn blasted the media for not including normal images of older adults. Old white women accounted for less than 1% of the major characters on television, and old black women, she charged, “were only depicted as victims or corpses.” In 1975, the Gray Panthers successfully persuaded the National Association of Broadcasters to amend the Television Code of Ethics to include “age” along with race and sex as an area where the media needed to be more sensitive. Despite the best efforts of Maggie and the Gray Panthers, little has really changed on television for older women.
Maggie appeared on Donohue and The Tonight Show, and she was so charming nobody cared if she was critiquing the show and the entire media to boot. I remember as a child, thinking she was funny but also really thinking about what she said. We are living in a future where facelifts and botox are commonplace; hair coloring, mundane. I don’t plan to confess what I spend on wrinkle cream, but none of us have to guess what Maggie Kuhn would think about of all that.
Still, one night, in between episodes of Grace and Frankie, I thought I heard her laugh out loud.
- S. to Readers: Grace & Frankie is a Netflix Series, and it enters Season 5 in 2019. For more on Maggie Kuhn, see the Gray Panthers Archives at Temple University.