(spoilers ahead, on Netflix and in life)
It’s early on Monday morning. I’m sitting in a coffee shop, staring into a blank screen, tasked with writing but not knowing where to start. It’s hard not to listen to the two women sitting at the table next to me, one of them having recently gone through a breakup. They talk of lost love, the fear of being alone forever, and everything that was wrong with their now ex-girlfriend. We’ve all been there, whether it love or loss of another kind, going through the litany of struggles post-breakup, except when one of the women calls out “the aging stuff.” What I failed to mention is that these women are in their 70s: “Women of a certain age.” There’s an issue summarized in the phrase itself, the glossing over and generalizing of anyone over a certain age, and mostly, the invisibility that comes with it.
“They’re just so old,” was one response I got when recommending Grace and Frankie to a friend. The Netflix original series, my current favorite show, has been said to “turn ageism on its head.” It’s the story of uptight entrepreneur Grace (Jane Fonda) and free-spirited painter Frankie (Lily Tomlin) who bond after their husbands leave them for each other. It could be considered The Odd Couple of the modern age, but that remake is already thriving on CBS, and Grace and Frankie is so much more than that. There are a lot of taboo themes in the show—divorce, coming out, addiction recovery, assisted suicide—but it’s the friendship between two women, the conversations around sex, love and romance in the wake of divorce, that make the show what it is, along with the quick-witted, often dark and misanthropic social commentary.
Media outlets that praise Grace and Frankie often highlight their dating younger men as the real triumph, as if conquering both men and youth are crowning accomplishments. When talking about the lead actors sex appeal and vibrancy, the qualifier “still” is often used, or worse, “spry.” Ageism often takes a backseat to the rest of the –isms, but just so happens to be the most universal: We’re all going to get “old.”
In the third episode of season one, “The Dinner,” Grace and Frankie decide to go back to work in the wake of their divorces. Grace has since retired and handed her cosmetics company over to her daughter, Brianna, and goes to see if there is still a place for her. Brianna tells her that they’ve taken Grace’s picture off of the box explaining: “See, we’re going for a more youthful customer and she’s urban and she’s active.” “I’ve been erased,” Grace realizes. Brianna explains further that if Grace were to come back, no one would take her, Brianna, seriously as the new boss. “If you came back here I’d be completely invisible, I don’t think you know what that feels like,” Brianna tells her mother. Grace responds, “I think I’m beginning to.”
In season two, after a year of feeling dismissed by their ex-husbands, children, and grocery clerks, Grace and Frankie deliver an empowered speech about sexuality. “Oh grow up, older women masturbate too,“ Grace says, met with groans from her family. “And we have vaginas,” Frankie adds. Grace goes on to explain the finer points of getting off when you get older, “our blood doesn’t flow as easily and our genital tissue is more delicate. The more effort it takes to orgasm, the more you irritate it, the more it inflames your arthritis. And I mean, shouldn’t older women have it better than that?”
The answer is a resounding yes.
Online dating, vibrators, and lube aside, the crux of the show isn’t just sex. With societal pressure telling us which milestones we need to hit in order to be considered successful human beings, and facing judgment when not married or having kids or whatever is expected of us at the right times, the show gives us two women dealing with uncertainties, insecurities and hitting rock bottom later in life. Grace admits defeat after the loss of a friend who devoured life, never settled for anything and always knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to go out and get it saying, “I still don’t know what I want.”
I’m currently dating someone I’m unsure about while my own insecurities getting in the way of “sex in the vagina” (S2E11); I’ve lost the love of my best friend; I stop myself from texting her everyday; and I too believe that “corgis are the preferred mode of transportation for woodland fairies” (S1E12). I’m basically Frankie. Truth is, I don’t know what I want either, and all this time I thought that I did. Then again, I can convince myself of anything. I understand Grace too. Who cares how old someone is, struggle is struggle is human and I hope to find a Grace to my Frankie for the end of the world, or maybe the Frankie to my Grace. Maybe a little of both. And until I do, I will continue to watch this show.
The women behind me agree saying, “If that is where you are stuck, fucking own it.” I have to assume Grace and Frankie would offer the same sage advice.