Every so often, a film or show grabs the cultural spotlight and wrenches it onto women.
In the 90s, Sex and the City exploded on television screens (and thinkpieces) everywhere, showing four 30-something women unapologetically in charge of their careers and sex lives. Later, the more wholesome Gilmore Girls was driven by three complex and independent characters; a wealthy and indomitable matriarch; her daughter, a single mother; and her grand-daughter, a would-be journalist. Most recently, blockbusters Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Wonder Woman once again sparked the realization that viewers are thirsty for well-written female characters.
Yet these, valuable as they’ve been, exclude a significant subsect of women. The youngest and most attractive women have to fight for their place in Hollywood. Older woman are practically non-existent. A ruthless combination of sexism and ageism in (and behind the scenes of) our media can leave women fearing for their careers, and their self-image, after a certain age.
Pacific Standard points out, it’s not only a lack of visibility; it’s a lack of desirability.
“In 1997, five researchers judging characters in the top 20 highest-grossing movies between 1940 and 1980 found a negative correlation between older female characters and positive character qualities like goodness, socioeconomic status, intelligence, friendliness, and physical attractiveness (physical attractiveness and goodness particularly dropped off as women aged) across all five decades.”
In line with media trends, Netflix’s blockbusters often centre around the young: among its top performers are Stranger Things (which revolves around a group of twelve year olds), Orange is the New Black (whose prisoners are largely under 40 and attractive) and Master of None (Aziz Ansari’s take on an American obsession, surviving your late twenties.) Grace and Frankie is a surprising – and wholly welcome – outlier.
Jane Fonda, 79 and Lily Tomlin, 77, lead the show as the titular Grace Hanson and Frankie Bergstein, whose husbands reveal that they’ve been having an affair – with each other – for years.
The two characters must rebuild their lives at a time when most people assume there isn’t that much left of it. The show doesn’t shy away from the reality of age discrimination for women: a bank declines a loan for the business because they think Grace and Frankie may not be around long enough to repay it. Frankie, at the end of a trying day, throws a fit when a cashier fails to notice her because there’s a younger, attractive woman nearby. In the second season, a major plot point revolves around the idea that it’s still taboo to think of women over 50 as sexually active.
Both Grace and Frankie have to be adaptable, inventive, energetic and resilient to keep their footing during such a massive upheaval (with Fonda and Tomlin at the helm, they’re often funny too). The show touches on myriad problems beyond the women: motherhood, addiction, work, marriage, sexuality – but at its axis are the two matriarchs, who it seems have carried their families for decades, and must now figure out how to reconstruct them.
A lack of representation, or a negative one, can lead older women to feel that they’re invisible or unwanted, and Grace and Frankie is a heartening sign that Hollywood is addressing that.
Tomlin and Fonda remark that the feedback they’ve gotten for the show, across generations, is that it makes viewers less afraid of old age. As Fonda says, what she enjoys about the show is that it sends the message, “you may be old, you may be in your third act, but you can still be vital and sexual and funny … that life isn’t over.“