If, like me, you are starved for media portrayals of older women, you are watching (or should be watching) Grace and Frankie, an American comedy about two women thrust unceremoniously into each others’ lives upon learning that their husbands are leaving them to marry each other. Grace (Jane Fonda) is the uptight founder of a cosmetics company, and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) is the pot-smoking painter who dances in clouds of incense. The show documents the development of Grace and Frankie’s accidental friendship through their trials and triumphs as they remake themselves in their 70s.
There are many reasons to praise Grace and Frankie, which pushes the ticket on multiple fronts, but at the top of the list has to be the show’s insistence on the full humanity of its female leads, including their forays into dating and sexual exploration later in life. Grace enters unchartered territory when a late friend (who passes away through assisted dying) posthumously gifts Grace with a vibrator, which she has never tried before. Although quick to convert to its charms, Grace suffers as the vibrator aggravates the arthritis in her wrist (‘I played through the pain,’ she purrs to Frankie).
Frustrated by the ways they have been ignored and condescended to by their husbands and the world at large, Grace and Frankie end Season 2 by announcing at a family birthday party their intention to create a vibrator designed especially for the older woman. Their crew is predictably discomfited at the news and the revelation that the women masturbate (“I think I just passed out”, says Grace’s daughter (June Diane Raphael)). Some of the family’s unease is arguably a reaction to TMI generally, but to the degree that it stems from the invisibility of aging women and their sexual desires and needs, Grace and Frankie push back hard. They respond not with silence or shame, but data: family members and viewers alike are educated about slower blood flow to genitalia, delicate vaginal tissue, longer lead times to orgasm, and more.
Grace and Frankie thus embark on a mission to serve the forgotten sexual lives of the 60+ woman, and develop a vibrator complete with an arthritis-resistant soft-grip gel sleeve, large print instructions, and glow-in-the-dark buttons that are easier on the eyes. It’s an uphill climb to get older women to even test the product, making their first testimonial from a friend that much more gratifying: “I took one of the vibrators home and love it! There’s no other way to say it. It awakened something in me that I thought was long dead. I never even realized how much I missed, you know, it. Oh! How I missed it.”
As is often the case with sex, moral dilemmas accompany Grace and Frankie’s vibrator. They are initially thrilled when offered the chance to partner with a big sex aids company, but then discover the marketing campaign would feature a heavily photoshopped Grace and Frankie looking decades younger than they are. Grace, the businesswomen who once would have jumped at the opportunity, eventually concedes to Frankie that they must decline the offer: “We can’t play a part in erasing the very women we made this for”.
There’s much more to Grace and Frankie’s sexuality than their masturbatory tools: we see them recover (in very different ways) from their broken marriages, rekindle old flames and ignite new romantic relationships, and suffer the heartbreak that no one who loves gets to miss. And there’s plenty more to Grace and Frankie as people than their sexuality. The show is a probe into unlikely friendship, family dynamics, the potential and limits of aging, and the reinvention of self at a stage when you thought that you could more or less coast on who, what, and where you were.
But we could do worse than hone in on their adventures creating a vibrator which, as it turns out, makes a fine metaphor. Purple and nubbly and brash, Grace and Frankie’s sex toy is difficult to dismiss, much like their makers. The show is a protest against the erasure of the older woman; it demands that you see her and take note. You’ll be laughing alongside this woman soon enough in Grace and Frankie, and wonder why you would ever deprive yourself of her company in the first place.