"We're making things for people like us, because we're sick and tired of being dismissed by people like you." So goes a climactic speech in the second season of Netflix’s Grace And Frankie. (Yes, some very mild spoilers lie ahead.) Those words were so on the nail that when they emerged from Jane Fonda’s (or Grace's) mouth, I actually cheered. She may as well have looked fiercely into the camera while saying them, because this accusation – that our culture ignores and dismisses older women – is one that she and her co-star, Lily Tomlin, could level at the entire TV and film industry.
Grace And Frankie, the comedy drama about two divorcees whose husbands ran off with each other, is the only show I’m aware of, other than The Golden Girls, that focuses on a glorious generation of women over 70. It unashamedly talks about their ambitions, their sex lives, their bodies and their opinions with an honesty that I have never seen elsewhere – plus a humour and matter-of-factness that entirely normalises the conversation. It is, without hyperbole, ground-breaking television.
So, what was Grace actually talking about, when she referred to “making things for people like us”? Not TV shows, actually, but vibrators – designed for women with arthritis, who might find it uncomfortable to grip something for a long period of time, or struggle to read the small print on the instructions. (“Dishwasher-safe!” reads Grace, eventually. “Well, that’s something.”) That’s right, it was a masturbation sub-plot for the over-seventies – not played solely for laughs (though there was a bit of that), but just acknowledging, as though it’s something we talk about every day, that older women might still be interested in having orgasms from time to time.
It’s a vision of the future that doesn’t involve quietening down or tidying my ambitions away; it’s a world that isn’t squeamish about women’s bodies, and doesn’t cast us on to the 'nobody cares' scrapheap as soon as we cease to be fertile
In many ways, the show is wildly overdue – it’s been a good few decades, after all, since the term “little old lady” started to feel wildly inappropriate. Gone are the days when people hit retirement age and immediately took to their armchairs, shrinking away in front of daytime television. Last week, my mother, who recently delayed her retirement, stopped by to see me on her way home from work, looking as glamorous and energetic as I’ve ever seen her. If this is 70, I thought, I feel fine about ageing.
But where are these examples in popular culture? Post-menopausal women are usually shown as cuddly grandmothers or crotchety matriarchs. Rarely are they three-dimensional human beings with their own character traits, concerns and plot lines. Though Tomlin is 76 and Fonda is 78, they’re never reduced or simplified in this way. Frankie (Tomlin) is a weed-smoking, wind-chime-loving hippy, who paints self-portraits of her vagina and makes organic lube out of yams; Grace (Fonda) is a highly successful businesswoman, who prefers martinis to children and does an admirable line in withering criticisms (when confronted with one of Frankie’s flowing hemp outfits: “Are you returning a ring to Middle Earth?”).
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And then there’s the sex. To say that the series doesn’t shy away from the topic would be an understatement – it runs towards it, clutching a bottle of yam lube. In the second season, there is even a lingering sex scene, featuring Fonda and 71-year-old moustache-owner Sam Elliott; it’s tastefully, hazily shot, but there is no questioning that they’re both naked and all over each other like a very passionate rash. There’s no irony or coyness about showing them like this – it’s not treated as a joke. They have as much right to a sex scene as any other characters on our screens.
Beyond the sexuality, Grace And Frankie is also a masterclass in nailing the Bechdel test. Yes, they talk about men and sex, but they also talk about money, grandchildren, business, friendship, personal reinvention, palm oil, cheese, chess, deafness and nasal congestion – a frank cocktail of some topics that concern us all, and others that get more relevant as we age.
I’m in my thirties. I don’t worry yet about arthritis or dryness or funerals – but some or all of these things inevitably lie ahead of me, and watching this show feels as liberating and empowering to me now as I think it would if I were 75. It’s a vision of the future that doesn’t involve quietening down or tidying my ambitions away; it’s a world that isn’t squeamish about women’s bodies, and doesn’t cast us on to the “nobody cares” scrapheap as soon as we cease to be fertile. It is unapologetically feminist and it’s a small but meaningful step towards a more enlightened pop culture. Little old ladies? To quote Frankie: “‘Bullshit’ comes to mind.” Fonda and Tomlin are bringing a revolution for us all.