TV

How ‘Grace And Frankie’ Made Aging Less Scary

In an effort to heal from failed relationships, two frenemies chill on a beach in the middle of the night while exploring the effects of peyote and a few stray muscle relaxers. No, this isn’t the logline of the latest Euphoria; it’s a pivotal scene in the series premiere of Grace And Frankie.

As a woman who is approaching the big 4-0, I am so very grateful this show exists. I might not qualify for an AARP membership just yet, but in the eyes of Society At Large, I’m already losing currency. Older people, especially older women, tend to become less visible as they age. It’s odd to feel how the shift in how the world has started seeing me differently — or sometimes not at all. But Grace and Frankie give me buoyant hope that, for everyone, the best can be yet to come.

I say this with the utmost seriousness: I want to be Grace and Frankie when I grow up. I never want to believe that aging precludes me from living a life where I can take hallucinogenic journeys on a whim or forge new, meaningful relationships. Or start thoughtful businesses! Or get entangled with the FBI! Grace and Frankie do whatever they want, whenever they want, age be damned.

And I love them so much for it.

The narratives about people Grace and Frankie’s age have traditionally been about dying, illness, or searching for meaning in the face of impending death. When the series begins, both women are in their 70s — two full decades older than Blanche, Dorothy, and Rose were on the Golden Girls. (Yes, Sophia was in her 70s, yes, but she was one of four and even though she was brassy and brazen, she was often treated as the “old” one on the show.)

When Grace and Frankie drops its final episodes later this year, it will depart as the longest-running series on Netflix. It will also leave a legacy of bringing visibility and vibrance to older female characters on television.

Grace Hanson and Frankie Bergstein started off as frenemies, but in real life, the two actresses have been long-time pals. In 1980, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda starred in the raucous workplace comedy 9 to 5 (beside Dolly Parton, of course), and they became fast friends. The two women are staunch climate activists, and Tomlin was even arrested in 2019 as she participated in one of Fonda’s “Fire Drill Friday” protests in Washington D.C. The two women prove — both on-screen and off — that life definitely does not have to slow down after reaching a certain age.

As A-list Hollywood royalty, Fonda and Tomlin may have enjoyed several sensational acts in their lives, but many women, especially older women, have been relegated by society to feel as if they are not essential past a certain age. The third episode of Grace and Frankie demonstrates this concept in spectacular fashion as Grace accompanies Frankie to a mini-mart to buy cigarettes. The doofus clerk ignores the duo so he can chat with a buxom young blonde instead. Grace goes apoplectic, screaming, “Do we not exist?!” The clerk turns to look but doesn’t apologize or even move to help these two women. Moments later in the parking lot, Frankie calms Grace down by showing her the pack of cigarettes she stole. “If they can’t see me, they can’t stop me,” she smiles.

Grace and Frankie is about eschewing the societal norms that have been placed upon women of a certain age while twisting those preconceived notions to their advantage as benefits. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? Instead of fading into the background, the women dare to dream big. They come up with multiple business schemes that fill an invisible demand for products for women just like them: Yam lube for vaginal dryness, a dildo with an arthritis-friendly grip, and the “Rise Up,” a toilet that helps lift older bodies up so that they can go about their day with dignity.

While it revels in the concept of living life with no regrets, the show doesn’t ignore the obvious. Narratives of aging and ageism wind stealthily through Grace and Frankie like a funeral procession creeping through a foggy cemetery. With characters at this age, there’s just no avoiding it. Grace had knee surgery, Frankie had a stroke, and their ex-husbands Robert and Sol (who fell in love with one another) had a heart attack and received a cancer diagnosis respectively. They represent a grab bag of maladies that just eventually happen to older bodies. And in telling these stories, the series dares us to confront our looming mortality (all of our looming mortality) in a bold and unabashed, yet comedic manner. Will there be a main character death before the end of the series? It’s very possible. (But hopefully not. Don’t do it to us, Netflix. Please? We’ve had a tough few years.)

Family and love are also constants throughout the series. Both Grace and Frankie seek out and nurture important relationships, most importantly with one another. When their familiar family constructs were shaken by Robert and Sol’s bombshell, they had to rebuild. The Brady Bunch-esque mixture of two fiercely nuclear families into one chaotic whole helps propel the spontaneity of the narrative, but the real treat at the core of the series is how these two women have realized that they can find soulmates in the most unlikely of places.

Grace and Frankie are the embodiment of the Odd Couple. They’re two women who could’ve easily written each other off — and they have, many times! — but they always come back together. And the duo is nothing short of perfection. As the two are pretty far apart on the personality trait spectrum — Frankie is full of childlike wonder and impulsivity while Grace is often a rule-follower with an anger streak that is glorious to behold — we can easily picture ourselves doing the things they do. Case in point, I’m more of a Frankie than a Grace, but I do truly love it when Grace lets it rip on some unsuspecting person. Also, Jane Fonda is an unimpeachable goddess on earth and I would do literally anything for her. Samesies with Lily Tomlin, actually.

The embrace of anger and rage in older women on the show is also striking. Whenever these ladies have Feelings with a capital F, they let people know about it, even if those feelings might be unpleasant to others. One of the highest-rated episodes of the show on IMDb is the season 2 finale in which Grace and Frankie ruin Bud’s (Frankie and Sol’s son) birthday party as they spectacularly air grievances against their ex-husbands. It’s always refreshing to watch them buck the system, declaring that they aren’t going to simply settle for silence or stagnation anymore.

Last, but not least, Grace and Frankie serves as a delightful reminder that no one has it together at any age. Even though the two friends have followed their respective paths, taken chances, and often leaped into the unknown, they still don’t have it all together. No one has it all together. Not at 16, not at 40, and not even at 82. Age might make us wiser, but absolutely no one has life all figured out. Figuring things out is overrated; the business of living is far too complex to have a singular answer. Until death do we part this world, Grace and Frankie have taught us that there’s always the possibility for new loves, exciting adventures, and peyote-fueled trips on the beach with friends.

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