TV Critic Jade Matlock praises Grace and Frankie for pushing back against archaic stereotypes
Whether it be the caring but clueless Granny from Looney Tunes or the tenacious but tactless Sophia from Golden Girls, an ageist undertone has always existed in the television that we consume so avidly. Grace and Frankie, the Netflix phenomenon that was greenlit for a seventh and final season in September 2019, seeks to bring older people to the forefront of the narrative. They are given space to explore modern issues in a way that is derogatory to neither the subject matter nor the people involved; great care is taken in highlighting the essential nature of representing the older generation as people who should be respected and understood with the same attention as their younger peers.
Sitcoms are a powerful kind of television. They represent realistic-looking families in situations that anyone could seemingly find themselves in. As of late, we have seen a rise in more accurate representation to match up to the diversity of modern life, with otherwise marginalised groups being brought into the spotlight and explored in ways that divert from their typical stereotypes. One category that seems to deviate from this vital change is age. Television has seemingly become dependent on utilising older people only as something to be laughed at – it is a phenomenon that transcends genre. Animated comedies such as The Simpsons and Futurama appear to, in some instances, cling to senile older men such as Abe Simpson and Professor Farnsworth to further their plots with their ‘forgetful’ behaviour and generally grumpy life attitudes. Even refreshingly unique older characters such as Katherine Avery in the drama Grey’s Anatomy are ultimately seen as negative, with every casual mention of her sex life as an older woman being met with disgust and hostility by other characters in the show. Whether it is acknowledged or not, there is a bias towards representing older people in a light that is both negative and demeaning to a demographic that makes up approximately one in every five people of the UK population. Netflix appears to be leading the charge in trying to change these stereotypes, with Grace and Frankie acting as a revolutionary for more accurate and well-rounded age representation.
Each of the central characters in Grace and Frankie add an extra dimension to the way that older generations are viewed in television. Grace (Jane Fonda) is a savvy, screwed on businesswoman with a sharp tongue and even sharper wit. Frankie (Lily Tomlin) is gentle and caring as well as a believer in New Age medicine. Both are unafraid to speak their minds and stand up for themselves. They are two women who live incredibly different lives, brought together by the mutual pain of their failed marriages, and they just so happen to be older. Age is not the focal point of who they are.
Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), lawyers and former husbands to Grace and Frankie respectively, reveal their love affair in the opening scenes of the series. Their love story is handled with the natural trepidation expected when trying to work out where you belong with added exposure to the anxiety of older LGBTQIA+ individuals trying to fit into the newly established culture. Characters found companies, join theatre groups and tackle adversities such as living at home alone and debilitating mental health strains while maintaining a hilariously witty sense of comedy throughout their narratives.
The characters of the show are not merely a plot device or the punchline of a joke, but people with thoughts, emotions and other basic human qualities such as a sex drive. The types of representation that we take for granted as a younger audience. Of course, Grace and Frankie is by no means a perfect show. It does lean on some elements of ‘old age comedy’ but does so nowhere near to the extent of the television shows that have come before it. It creates a universally positive viewing experience that provides both comedy and heart-wrenching reality for anyone, regardless of their age. Grace and Frankie is one of the leading television shows to take a stance on age – it is time to start laughing with the older generation, instead of laughing at them.