Last year I attended a conference for cultural mythologists like myself. At this conference, Dr. Andrea Slominski pointed out that the Baby Boomer generation is the first generation ever in which the bulk of women have lived well past menopause. The average life expectancy for a woman before this was only 50 years for privileged Western white women, and much less for others: black American women born around 1900 could not expect to live beyond their thirties.
The 21st century has, for the first time in history, a significant population of mature, still healthy women who have lived into their 70s and beyond. There’s an entire generation of active and engaged older women of all backgrounds, and they are having an unprecedented effect on society.
“Grace and Frankie” is exploring this new territory. The premise of the show is that two men, partners in a law firm, have fallen in love and divorced their wives of 40 years so they can be together. Many episodes deal with the themes of lying and betrayal and what it does to a marriage and the family; many others deal with how two men who have been closeted most of their lives handle coming out and building a new life together. But the main focus is on the ex-wives and how they negotiate this abrupt and unexpected destruction of their old lives and slowly begin to build new ones.
Although they are very different people and have never gotten along very well, the ex-wives, Grace and Frankie, end up living together in the beach house that both families owned as a get-away retreat; the women demand that it be signed over to them as compensation for the betrayal. That done, Grace and Frankie start to deal with the loss of their partners—much harder for Frankie, whose husband Sol was truly her best friend, than it is for Grace who has been unhappy in her marriage for many years—as well as the knowledge that these men have been cheating on them and lying to them for half their married life, knowledge that calls into question the entire marriage. The women are not just angry about the betrayal but feel like fools, feel disrespected, and quite reasonably think that their exes have robbed them of 20 years where they could have been reinventing themselves—something that would have been a lot easier to do at 50 than at 70.
But they are not dead yet. They are still vibrantly alive at 73 (in point of fact, the actresses playing them, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, are in their 80s). As they traverse all the stages of grief, they also begin exploring their own needs and inclinations. They begin to speak up for themselves, starting with their own families, their ex-husbands and children. As they do, they uncover some long-smoldering anger and resentments held by everyone in the families, as well as other secrets that need to come to light.
All relationships have their own cultures that are created and solidified over the years. There is a dance to which everyone knows the steps, a dance that is performed constantly whenever two or more in the family interact. But if one person starts changing the steps, says therapist Harriet Lerner, the whole dance is disrupted. Usually the others in the relationship try to make the person go back to the old dance, but if the person persists in dancing in a new way, everyone else has to adjust their steps. As Grace and Frankie change, everyone else in the family changes.
They begin to find a new balance. Romance comes back into their lives, but neither wants to remarry just yet. They are discovering themselves as individuals rather than as wives and mothers, and as hard as the process is, it’s compelling. Frankie’s painting moves from a hobby to a real identity. Grace, who had started and run a successful beauty business for years before handing it off to her daughter, becomes aware that women of her generation represent an untapped market and sets out with Frankie to create new products designed specifically for post-menopausal women.
As Baby Boomers, both women have dealt with sexism all their lives. Now they run slap into ageism, as when they try to get a loan for their new business; the bank officer makes it clear he thinks it’s too risky to give a 10-year-loan to women he thinks have one foot in the grave.
As they speak up more and more, they also uncover how uncomfortable most people are with the idea of older women as sexual beings. We’re still stuck in the old idea of the Maiden-Mother-Crone stages of life for women, which limits women to their fertility: the Maiden is the stage of life before sex/childbearing, the Mother is the sexual, childbearing stage, and the Crone is all used up and not good for either. But as Slominski pointed out in her talk and I do in my book Jane Eyre’s Sisters, now that women are living longer, there’s a new stage of life for women in which they are free of children yet still sexual. Society is still adjusting its ideas about that!
Undaunted, Grace and Frankie break taboos, break new ground, openly talking about the effects of age on vaginal tissues and other issues that make most of their listeners wince and try to wave them away. In one powerful episode, they point out just how dismissive everyone else in the family has been of them ever since they reached a certain age, then link arms and march out, determined to prove that they are more than ever forces to be reckoned with.
Popular shows like “Grace and Frankie” hold up a mirror to the culture so that we can see who we are now. We don’t yet know just how older women are going to change that culture, but if this show is any indication, the effect is going to be revolutionary.
 Author of The Dance of Anger, The Dance of Intimacy, and The Dance of Connection.