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Grace and Frankie: The Complexity of Gay Identity

4.26.17_Features_Catie Byrne_Grace and Frankie_Netflix

Grace and Frankie/ Netflix

 

Catie Byrne
Features Editor

The relationship of Jane Fonda’s Grace Hanson and Lily Tomlin’s Frankie Bergstein in the Netflix Original series, “Grace and Frankie,” begins with an ending. The two discover that their husbands, Robert Hanson and Sol Bergstein, played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, not only want a divorce, but are gay, and want to be together.

The 2015 premiere season of “Grace and Frankie” revolved around the shock of Grace and Frankie’s divorces and entertaining clash of personalities, as the two set out to stake a new life as single senior citizens in their shared, Southern California beach house home.

Season two of “Grace and Frankie” took a turn from its first season of dramatic comedy to a drama with comedic moments, as the show put more focus to the struggles of Robert and Sol’s new life together as gay men. In the midst of infidelity, failed relationships, death, marriage and reconciliation, Robert and Sol grow and develop in their relationship and gay identities, while the formerly clashing Grace and Frankie develop a strong bond of friendship with one another.

It is in the third season, however, that this friendship begins to shift.

Slowly but steadily throughout each season, the dynamic opposites of the vain and neurotic Grace, and the eccentric and whimsical Frankie that was an initial cause for humor, evolve into a genuine love and affection for one another. It is in the third season of “Grace and Frankie” that a tremendous amount of romantic tension between Grace and Frankie emerges.

Frankie, Tomlin is a lesbian in real life, frequently makes lesbian sexual innuendos to  Fonda’s Grace that is received with an understated fluster. Aware of this tension, the show also postures the two in all but explicitly romantic and sexual situations, and even frequently refers to the two as married or as each other’s wife.

It is the intensity of this romantic tension that serves as a springboard of conflict throughout the season. Writers of the show, perhaps backpedaling at the realization that they had created a perfectly nuanced depiction of two women slowly falling in love, establish conflict through the forced heterosexual relationship of Frankie and Jacob.

While Grace and Frankie and Frankie and Jacob is never explicitly stated to be a romantic love triangle, the show ultimately situates Frankie as making the choice between spending the rest of her life with Jacob or with Grace.

Ironically, as the show began to establish that Frankie and Jacob are in a serious relationship, the more the relationship between the two fell flat. It was difficult, as a viewer, to believe that Jacob, who, in essence, was an entirely flawless character and boyfriend, could put up with Frankie’s bizarre brand of silly, and at times, insufferable, quirks.

It was painfully apparent that Jacob and Frankie had little to nothing in common, and conversely, little to no significant conflict or tension in their relationship at all. It was hard to understand why exactly the two were even together at all outside of a plotline, when there was no chemistry, no push, no pull, no challenge and ultimately, no depth.

That the show even attempted to equate the incredible depth of Grace and Frankie’s love for one another to the tepid and blasé relationship between Frankie and Jacob, speaks to the lengths with which media — even gay media — will work to downplay and undercut the possibility and strength of romantic love between two women.

The complexity of gay identity, however, is shown explicitly in the growth of Robert and Sol’s relationship and their conceptualizations of themselves as gay men. One of the most powerful scenes of this development was — after being spurred by Sol to unabashedly embrace his past and gay identity — when Robert decided to come out to his mother.

The resigned and casually brutal homophobia with which his mother displayed in reaction to Robert’s coming out, was among one of the most heartbreakingly realistic depictions of what it is often really like to come out. It is Sheen’s impeccable acting that represented the tears, sadness and often haunting reality of what it is like to live with the homophobic disappointment and disapproval of a parent.

It is in season three of “Grace and Frankie,” unlike season two, that the conflicts Robert and Sol face in their relationship are easily fixed. Additionally, Robert and Sol do not emerge as the primary source of gay tension throughout the season.

As romantic conflict between Grace and Frankie intensifies towards the end of the series, there are an uncountable amount of moments in which it appears that Grace nor Frankie will break from their pre-destined script and say: “I love you,” “I want to be with you” and “I don’t want you to leave me because I’m in love with you.”

These love confessions are palpably unspoken through the magnetic chemistry between Tomlin and Fonda. And though the show offered no definitive answer to Frankie’s dilemma, the ending scene of the two holding each other in tears on a hot air balloon signified a deep love that is rarely explored between women in the media, and so rarely seen without exploitative intention in lesbian media.

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3 replies »

  1. can two women be devoted friends and truly care and love one another without them being lesbians? Not that it doesn’t happen but it would be nice to depict a wonderful heterosexual friendship between two elderly women living out their life happily as good friends. We already have the marriage of Robert and Sol and watch through their struggles. No problem with that. I was truly relating to Grace until lesbian relationship was implied.

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    • They certainly can, and I agree that those stories are important (I think we need more stories about elderly women in general). But the thing is, there are plenty of shows, stories, etc., with close female friendships, and very few that show the development of a lesbian relationship (especially involving older women). This is not just because there are more straight people than LGBT+ people, but because there’s a history of censorship surrounding lesbian relationships. It is still taboo to depict them onscreen. If you are straight, maybe this is a good opportunity for you to explore what it’s like not to see yourself represented, to have your biases challenged. You may find that you can relate to Grace in other ways, that you don’t have to ‘relate’ to her sexuality to empathize with her. Have you ever, like Grace, tried your hardest at something and realized it wasn’t enough? Have you ever ‘started over’ and realized you don’t ever want to go back? Have you ever concealed your feelings for someone because your main priority is making them happy even if you’re heartbroken? Watching the first two seasons, I really enjoyed Grace and Frankie’s friendship, and I am now just as happy (and excited, as a bisexual person who doesn’t see herself represented much in the media) to see them move in a more romantic direction.

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    • Can’t Frankie and Jacob be devoted friends and truly care and love one a other without them being a couple? Not that it doesn’t happen but it would be nice to depict a wonderful heterosexual friendship between two elderly people living out their life happily as good friends. We already have lots of straight couples – Bree and Barry, Mallory and her husband, Bud and his girlfriend, Cayote and the girl from the AA – and watch through their struggles. No problem with that. I was truly relating to Frankie until heterosexual relationship was implied.

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