They Shoot Old Film Stars on TV, Don’t They?




MY INTRODUCTION to Jane Fonda came long before ever seeing her on the big screen.

I’d heard her name in my childhood, when my mother would swan around the house in bright leotards clutching a cassette that bared Fonda’s luminous name. I never paid much attention to my mother’s midlife crisis enacted with fluorescent sportswear in our living room, but I remember her repeated declarations of Fonda’s encouraging aphorisms as she jogged around the couches.

It was only after reading an essay on Jane Fonda some years later in Richard Dyer’s seminal study on Hollywood stars, aptly entitled Stars, that I began to see the strange cultural currency Jane Fonda had as a celebrity, model, and exercise guru. Published in 1979, Stars examines Fonda’s transition from fashion model to sex symbol (via the B-grade sci-fi flick Barbarella [1968]), and then into the serious dramatic actor whose string of Oscar nominations went unmatched in the 1970s.

After her enormous success in that decade, Fonda began to move away from films and into the home-video fitness market of the 1980s. This was my true introduction. Her workout tapes — staples of many white middle-class households in America — became the go-to source for female fitness. Who else but Jane Fonda to teach our menopausal mothers that weight loss was best achieved through florescent colors and rounds of Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”? These tapes reconstituted Fonda’s image, and she soon became less film star — serious or otherwise — than public vehicle for articulating the repressed anxieties about women’s aging, health, and beauty.

Fonda also championed feminist causes and, alongside Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, brought her activism to bear in the 1980 comedy Nine to Five, about three women working in an insurance office who decide to exact revenge on their misogynistic boss Franklin Hart Jr. (played by Dabney Coleman). Part of the camp pleasure of the film is seeing Fonda outside her usual acting ambit in a role as an exaggeratedly docile and meek housewife entering the workforce after a messy divorce.

The story dramatizes the individual struggles of the women’s movement (of which Fonda and Tomlin were outspoken proponents), in which women like Karen Nussbaum (who founded 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, on which Nine to Five is based) fought for fair pay, flexible hours, promotion, and other work-related benefits awarded to their male counterparts. Her reunion with Tomlin in the recently released Netflix series Grace and Frankie continues this trend of intertextuality. In a decidedly camp way, the show harnesses the history of queer and feminist meanings attached to the pair.

Historically, Tomlin has often played the heterosexual housewife who is completely unraveled by the domestic world — whether it be the husband, the children, or once more the boss — to return somewhat defeated but ultimately more confident in her femininity, motherhood, or self-worth back to the center of the home and narrative. The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), for instance, can be read as Tomlin’s struggle to perform heterosexuality in her public life, a woman literally “shrinking” from the responsibility of traditional heterosexuality and motherhood. 

Similarly, in Big Business (1988), the problem of a “double life” (“double identity”?) features centrally in Tomlin’s role as a twin separated at birth. On an allegorical level, Big Business offers a story about Tomlin’s inability to reconcile her queer identity with the cyclical performance of the heterosexual characters she plays. Tomlin’s “splitting” of herself and her character in the film is perhaps coincidence, but an instructive one, for it is endemic to Tomlin’s star image and Tomlin’s struggle to negotiate the terrain of heterosexuality and domestic motherhood, against the larger energies of her queer sexuality, which cannot be voiced or mentioned (as queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick might say) on the big screen. 

Grace and Frankie, like Fonda and Tomlin’s previous work, is a lot queerer than its plot summary might suggest. Their portrayal of two women whose straight marriages are compromised by their husbands’ recently materialized gay nuptials is dramatic irony at its finest, since we know full well that Tomlin is gay and an advocate of gay marriage, and Fonda anything but the poster girl of straight marriage, having walked down the aisle three times. Largely because of the intertextual irony at play, the show’s decision to shift the focus from the gay marriage and onto the two women proves to be a very pleasurable queer project, normalizing the traditionally “queer” couple while allowing for the show to open on other, perhaps overlooked, opportunities for queer kinship. In Cruel Optimism, American queer theorist Lauren Berlant argues the power of queer readings lies in their ability “to focus on patterns of attachment we hadn’t even yet known to notice, patterns in which sexuality and intimacy are enacted in a broad field of social relations that anchor us to life.” Applied to Grace and Frankie, this could not be truer.

Given that our cultural zeitgeist favors representing younger people entering and exploring the dating world, the idea that two women in their 70s might enter the same territory as those using Tinder or OkCupid is a carnivalesque idea — it transgresses traditional ideas of women, aging, and, of course, heterosexual marriage. Berlant goes on: “Being a friend, a regular, a neighbor, a part-time lover, an ex-lover, an intimate; being gender dysphoric, or just plain gay or straight — all of it is seen as an effect of many causes and a complex, intimate practice of world-building.” In the world of Grace and Frankie shared between the two women — and indeed its two stars — the kinship they form is a powerful, disruptive, and unconventional bond that, ironically, is really only formed by way of society’s changing “new norms” (i.e., same-sex marriage). 

Marta Kauffman, best known as the executive producer of Friends (1994–2004), created the series and is a talent when it comes to harnessing such intertextuality. (Who could forget when she wheeled Brad Pitt onto Friends to play Jennifer Aniston’s male nemesis?) Kauffman capitalizes on Tomlin’s sexuality, Fonda’s history of failed marriages (Ted Turner, anyone?), and the long-standing close friendship between the two women, yes, but more ambitiously, Grace and Frankie acts as an attempt to initiate a new phase in these women’s acting and activist trajectories. As Fonda said in a recent interview, she decided to do the TV series because she “wanted to give a cultural face to older women.”

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Jane Fonda’s body is used by Grace and Frankie to not only joke about the star’s long history as a beauty and fitness brand, but to show how age hits older women and often renders them invisible figures. In the first episode, we see Grace sit before her vanity mirror, staring blankly into the camera just after learning of her husband’s sexuality. She removes her false eyelashes, takes off a plump hair extension, and unravels two concealed suction plugs holding her forehead tightly back. It is a moment of complete vulnerability, as the artifice of Grace’s clean-cut sanitized WASP image is exposed. We see that in spite of Grace’s many privileges, she, like everyone else, is vulnerable to loneliness and aging. She is facing the crisis of identity that attends all beauties: what to be when one is no longer “beautiful,” an inevitability both forbidding and, as Grace and Frankie suggests, potentially liberating.

Fonda’s association with beauty and makeup is exploited for several jokes, including one scene in which Grace walks down an aisle at the supermarket and is spotted by another shopper as the face of the hair care range “Say Grace.” “Is that you?” the shopper asks. “Used to be!” Grace snaps back as she races down the aisle and out the store. Seeing Fonda’s beauty brand cheekily mocked is one of the show’s stronger comedic strategies, literalizing the way in which older women are often shunned from screen time and more often than not used as the mouthpiece for their husbands, or families, or children, and not offered a platform to talk introspectively or intimately about themselves. This exchange, occurring right after we see her remove her makeup and beauty face accessories, plays up the irony of this invisibility. Grace might be spotted at supermarkets across America, but she is a woman who has been defined by her good looks and beauty brand, not her emotional life. But the show is doing something radical in not only prioritizing Grace’s burgeoning companionship with Frankie but being about it and allowing both women to give voice to their emotional scars, their fears and doubts.

The show is also interested in putting a face to older gay men on television. Grace and Frankie uses its newly “outed” protagonists, and their burgeoning interest in contemporary queer culture, as its vehicle — if only briefly. One early scene sees Grace unwrap a package that has arrived at the family home — a wooden dinner chair with Ryan Gosling’s face printed on the seat cushion that husband Robert has ordered. This, along with a litany of other “gay jokes,” are attempts — albeit contrived ones — to show the sometimes alien and intimidating world of gay culture for the uninitiated, especially for two older gay men seeking not only approval from straight family members and friends but acceptance by the larger gay community.

Thankfully, Grace and Frankie’s emphasis on giving agency and voice to two older women in the aftermath of their dead marriages redeems these failings, and further intimates that the true queer project at work in the show has less to do with the gay couple than the friendship between two women at its center. The very fact that we see Grace and Frankie move around so much — especially physically in their scenes and in their storylines (compared to their husbands, who are mostly immobile or sitting in the first season) — demonstrates that the show is really about giving these older women an autonomy they’ve traditionally lacked.

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Their kinship is formed in the aftermath of the “failures” of a heterosexual marriage; it is found through emotional and spiritual bonding that a gay union brought about; and it is ultimately a nonsexual and unsaid connection that is marked by both women’s breaking of cultural conventions concerning aging, sex, and relationships. As someone who does not benefit from the institution of marriage (gay marriage is illegal in Australia, as it is in many parts of America), it’s rewarding to watch Grace and Frankie’s bond prove to be the most unconventional as the gay couple becomes the staple monogamous “normal” relationship in the show.

In other TV contexts, gay marriage is often seen as the “alternative” against which heterosexual partnerships are presented as the familiar “center” (e.g., Modern Family, Brothers & Sisters, Friends). But Grace and Frankie shows the issues faced by the new gay couple who, both well into their 70s, have mostly enjoyed their relationship through secrecy and subterfuge. Now that they are out and no longer married to their wives, they, in some sense, will bear the burden of proving that they can make it as a queer monogamous couple.

Though not without some faults, television is fast becoming an important and necessary platform to revise the problematic absence of out characters in mainstream media representations. Grace and Frankie is exceptional however in that the story is purportedly presented as the struggles of two older women reeling from the end of their marriage (comically, through the “gay marriage” both women fundraised for! Oh irony!) but is also an exploration of the way an openly gay relationship is navigated after decades of it being closeted and “unseen.”

The famous queer reader of silences and the “unseen” in literature and culture, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, said that more than paying attention to what is said, we must be attuned to what is not. In Grace and Frankie, while we are encouraged to follow the story of the newly “outed” gay couple Sol and Robert (perhaps the only explicit sign of “queerness” in the show), this pairing is more of a red herring. As valuable and productive as representing older gay men is today, the intimacy and sisterly kinship between Grace and Frankie is actually the more fruitful queer site in the television show. Because Rob and Sol’s relationship becomes an “open secret” in Grace and Frankie — they were having an affair for 20 years before outing themselves in the first episode — Grace and Frankie’s actual friendship becomes the more meaningful queer bond. It transcends narratives about women, friendship, and age. As their friendship becomes increasingly mediated by their husbands’ marriage nuptials, Grace and Frankie’s platonic-but-queer kinship, although one often marked by constant tension and conflict, remains the show’s most important queer pairing.

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Nathan Smith is a freelance writer and graduate student at the University of Melbourne, Australia, specializing in queer and cultural studies.


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