Don’t Fail me Now Grace and Frankie!

CN: Mentions of sex toys, female ’empowerment’ emotionally abusive relationships, coercion.

I have loved virtually every minute of the first two seasons of Grace and Frankie. I’ll admit that at first I was skeptical- a new show starring two of my favourite actors (Tomlin and Sheen) from the West Wing, and the excellent Jane Fonda and Sam Waterston which was meant to be funny, emotional and queer?! I feared that watching would only bring heartbreak and disappointment, but right from the off the show has been on point.

‘Older’ women not only visible on television but discussing vaginal dryness, vibrators for arthritic hands and so much more in a way which actually passes the Bechdel test? Gay characters who show deep, meaningful, emotional and physical affection? Whose relationship although initially, serves as a plot device, comes to exist in its own right outside of the major narratives? Heaven for feminist queers like me!  With the notable exception of Frankie’s racist ‘Jamaican’ accent which is finally called out in S3 I had very little to complain about… and that is something in itself!

S3 spoilers to follow…

I’ve even used clips from the show in my teaching. The episode where Grace and Frankie resort to shoplifting cigarettes after realising that as older women they are invisible to the store attendant was perfect for a class I taught last semester on ‘the ageing body’ because it not only illustrated the point about the invisibility of older women, but showed these women behaving ‘badly’ which created space for us to discuss what this means in a feminist context.

I have waited and waited with baited breath for the new season to start and thanks in part to being struck down by the flu, managed to devour it all over the weekend. For the most part it is as good as I remembered. The vibrators have arrived and damn I want one! But there’s a worry looming.

Grace’s new potential love interest Steve. By all accounts a nasty selfish caricature of big business who manipulates Grace by agreeing to drop his company’s counter law suit and patten infringements if she agrees to go out with him. This abusive behaviour is apparently mitigated by showing that he has a genuine attraction to her, he pulls out all the stops for their ‘date’ and even allows Grace to gift the hot air balloon ride he’d planned for them to Frankie- so he’s not such a bad guy after all right? Wrong! This man literally holds Grace’s livelihood over her head when she rebuffs his romantic advances. Not only does this mean that any relationship they go on to have is now founded on a non-consensual act, the vibrator business is not just about money and a earning a living for Grace, it is deeply linked to her self esteem and confidence in what she is capable of as an independent businesswoman. To threaten this business is thus an economic and emotional manipulation and as S3 draws to an end it is starting appear that Grace is flattered by Steve’s ‘charm’, that he is wearing her down. Not my idea of romance and not good enough for Grace.

I beg of the writers not to allow all the work that this character has done in finding herself post marriage breakdown, to be undone. Please, don’t take one of the scarce and precious fiercely independent, sexually experimental, older female badasses from our screen and write her back into the straight jacket she has liberated herself from. Frankie of course too is considering making major changes for the man in her life, but this reads much more like the kind of consensual, thought out and difficult compromises that we make in meaningful relationships, and her ongoing tussle with whether to move away with Jacob is gut-wrenching and tender. It would be nice to see him offer to stay for her, but perhaps her dilemma is more poignant, more profound this way. When the show does such good work on the biggots picketing the theatre (and how we should respond to them) and the romance between Sol and Robert, when it gives us these amazing, empowered female heroines it would be devastating to lose them now.

Yes, it’s only TV, but its such good TV, and it matters. It matters to all of us marginalised folks who don’t have many heroes to worship in pop culture, it matters to older women who are ignored at the store, and it matters to 30-something women like me who want to age radically and with abandon like Grace and Frankie. It matters.

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