CN Spoilers for Grace and Frankie, NSFW, Discussions of Sex, Consent, Mentions of Rape
Note: The bottom quote does not include some of the text, but has been edited down to contain the relevant parts of the discussion.
Grace: What are we doing? I’ll tell you what we’re doing. We’re We’re making vibrators for women with arthritis.
Frankie: Yes! Vibrators! Brilliant!
Grace: Oh, grow up. Older women masturbate too.
Frankie: And we have vaginas.
Brianna: I highly doubt there’s a vibrator market for geriatric women with arthritis.
Grace: There is. I’m in agony.
Frankie: It takes a lot longer for us to get off, Sol.
Grace: She’s right. Our blood doesn’t flow as easily – and our genital tissue is more delicate. I did some reading. The more effort it takes to orgasm, the more you irritate it, and the more it inflames your arthritis. And I mean shouldn’t older women have it better than that?
Mallory: How do I explain to my children that their grandma makes sex toys for other grandmas?
Grace: I’ll tell you what you can tell them, honey. We’re making things for people like us, because we are sick and tired of being dismissed by people like you.
So ends the second season of Grace and Frankie. The line “We’re making things for people like us, because we are sick and tired of being dismissed by people like you.” Seems to me like a perfect summary of the first two seasons of Grace and Frankie. Nominally the show is about two older women relearning how to live on their own after their husbands leave them for each other.
More than that, the show is about two older women realizing the extent to which they have been taken for granted, and the extent to which women past a certain age get treated as invisible and irrelevant. The level to which women’s identities are subsumed into that of their families and especially their husbands.
One of the first things Grace does after she becomes single suddenly, is attempt to go back to work at the company she founded and then passed on to her daughter. Say Grace was her project, her creation, completely independent of Robert. It shaped her as much as she shaped it and in many ways it acts as a touchstone for her. Proof of her own competency and ability to succeed on her own.
She finds that everything about the business has changed, the offices look completely different and her picture is being taken off the logo. The company around which she built her entire identity is no longer recognizable to her. Worse still is the condescension in her daughter’s voice; the false sincerity as Brianna claims that her mother would overshadow her. Her whole demeanor, including the way in which she explains the fact that “it took capital to go in a different direction” as though the woman who started the business and built it up from the ground up has no understanding of how business works. Brianna gives voice to exactly what she and the rest of society think when she calls her mother, and through her all women like her, irrelevant. You’re old, you don’t matter anymore.
Later on when she moves on to other pursuits, she gives Brianna the idea to look into mass marketing lubrication for older women. The idea is right away dismissed by her daughter, who thinks the whole idea is disgusting. Who wants to think about old women having sex? In her mind, old women are too irrelevant to be desirable or to experience desire. It isn’t until she is stuck in a meeting completely without an idea, with others around her comparing her to her mother, that she repackages the idea as her own. At no point does she acknowledge that her mother had a point. This particular ark also plays a role in Frankie’s development.
When she fails to reclaim her identity through rejoining the workforce at her former company, Grace grasps at the other sources of her identity. She begins serial dating, desperately searching for a man to replace Robert and help her feel grounded once more. Her search is futile as no one can mirror back to her the person she once was. That is, until Phil – the man for whom she almost left Robert.
Phil reminds her of who she thought she was: confident, independent, sexy… a person. In the same way that he “saw her” while she was in a marriage that never quite felt right, she feels like he sees her now that she has become invisible. But Phil comes with complications, when she realizes that he is a touchstone for someone who needs him more than she does.
In her search for her identity, she reaches out to another facet of her previous identity: that of a mother and a granddaughter. Dismissed by Brianna, she reaches out to Mallory, who is dealing with a new pregnancy. She finds herself trying to compete for her grandchildren’s affection with their more playful and lively paternal grandmother. The harder she tries, the worse it goes, culminating in her catching lice while accidentally scaring her grandson. It’s only when she stops trying and acts as herself that she actually managed to connect with him. Meanwhile, her daughter shares with Grace the anxieties that she provoked when she dismissed Mallory’s motherhood as not being her “real life.”
Grace is forced to face the fact that all of the ways she thought others saw her – loved and lucky wife, good mother, talented businesswoman – are a lie.
Frankie’s primary crises during her separation is the extent to which she is mourning her relationship with Sol. Her whole identity was built around this idea that she and her husband we well and truly in love and shared that love with their children. There is something about Frankie that suggests that in many ways she has been dealing with a crises of identity for longer than Grace has, preceding even her separation.
Frankie’s character is rife with appropriation. She claims to be 1/16th Chippewa, worships Frig, goes on soul quests with peyote, is an artist, is a witch, is a sleuth, has an inner jackal, she is desperately searching for some meaning to her life. I have a hypothesis that this is in part a response to her infertility, which gets thrown in her face more than once. She exults in Mallory’s pregnancies, desperate to play some role in the “bringing of life.” In many ways, the various identities she shifts through reflect her desperate desire to be a mother in the biological sense – to host life. If she can’t be a physical mother, she will be a spiritual one.
This is in response to the pressure that is put on women to be mothers. Women who decide not to have kids are treated as though they are emotionally lacking. Women are prevented by doctors from being able to make permanent reproductive choices about their bodies like by having their tubes tied, or a hysterectomy, on the chance that they might “change their mind”. Women who can’t have children for assorted reasons are treated with pity and as though they are somehow lacking – and many of us may even feel that way ourselves.
Meanwhile, she actually is a mother to two boys – Coyote and Nwabudike. Yes, they are adopted, but she is their mommy. She is who raised them, and taught them, and loved them.
She faces a crises on this point when she meets the woman who birthed Coyote and sees resemblances in small quirks like the way they tug their ears. She becomes awkward and stilted, coming off as unfriendly and hostile. It is only when her child is hurt by this newcomer that she forgets her own fears and rises to the defense of her cub.
Because of her participation in a lot of different woo practices, many of the people around her respond to her already as if she is incompetent, but she believes she at least has the respect of her husband, her children, and Grace’s children that she sees as having helped raise. Her belief in their respect, however, is shattered as one by one they show her their true colours.
When Sol cuts off her credit card, they are able to excuse away the behavior by reminding everyone of Frankie’s flightiness. Remember the Yurt she bought?
When she struggles with passing her driving exam, the immediate assumption is that she is too old to drive. Her own sons turn her into “a little old lady who’s losing her mind and shouldn’t even be allowed to drive.” He is prepared to dismiss her without looking into other possible causes of the problem. It is Frankie who finally deduces that her problem has to do with state dependent memory. When she takes the test high, she passes with no problems.
((As a brief aside, I’ve actually used state dependent memory before. I had come up with a great idea one of the few times that I actually got high off of my meds. However, later while sober, I couldn’t remember a particularly salient detail. On a lark, I decided to recreate the state I was in when I had the idea, and lo and behold, I actually managed to remember it and write it down.))
When Brianna takes her mother’s idea to mass market lubrication, it is Frankie’s recipe for lube that is used as the basis for this new product. Her entire interaction with Frankie is ridiculously condescending, treating her as if she is a nuisance rather than the creator of the product she is hoping to make money off of. If this had been any other person, Brianna would have felt compelled to at least pretend respect. With Frankie, she treats the whole idea of Frankie as a legitimate business partner as ridiculous. Frankie’s demands, while presented in over-the-top and unprofessional ways, are not unreasonable, and yet she completely dismisses them. She agrees to involve Frankie in the creation process, an agreement that I believe is in their contract as well, and yet acts as though this was a favor being granted. She doesn’t consult with her at all with regards to her changes in the recipe, making a decision she knows Frankie will disagree with then claiming that it would be too expensive to fix things now. The fact that this entire venture would not exist without Frankie’s recipe never enters the picture. Once again Brianna makes it clear that she considers Frankie irrelevant.
While Frankie seeks herself in her past selves, she is able to cling throughout some part of this whole process, to her art. No matter what, no matter if her children decide they don’t need her, her husband is actually gay and doesn’t love her, no matter what, she can cling to the idea that she is an artist. She finds particular validation in the fact that she sold a painting to Kenny Loggins. The carpet is finally completely pulled out from under her when she learns that this treasured story was actually a lie created by her ex. In this final moment, not only is doubt cast on her artistic ability right at the moment when she needs to channel all her energy into organizing a gallery show, she realizes that the husband on whom she had leaned for so many years, didn’t actually respect her. It’s the final straw that breaks her back and her patience.
At one point, both Grace and Frankie are faced with being treated as though they are literally invisible. They go to the store, and try for long minutes to get a store clerks, any store clerks, attention so they can make their purchase. Meanwhile, various employees ignore them when they call out. Finally, just as a clerk approaches a check out, it turns out that he is there to serve an attractive young woman who just showed up.
Grace revolts at this imposed invisibility, making a scene in calling out the asshole. Meanwhile, Frankie just proves that they’re still invisible, when she steals a carton of cigarettes right in front of him, while the person standing next to her is making a scene, and still no one notices. The clerk flagrantly ignores them and still, as they’re leaving the store, he acts as though he has no idea why they are upset. The feeling from all those witnessing her outburst is not of outrage at how she is being treated, but rather a conviction that this is an old woman throwing a tantrum.
Neither Grace nor Frankie are women that are used to being ignored: Grace the successful and beautiful wife of a successful lawyer, and Frankie the flashy hippie chick with the great hair who is also the wife of a successful lawyer. They are not women who have dealt with invisibility before, and yet suddenly realize that they were never really seen.
This sense of invisibility is not unfamiliar to me. I’ve struggled with this feeling: as a fat woman, as a disabled woman. The only time we are noticed is when we are derided or pitied. Similarly, our sexuality is also treated as though it is disgusting and shameful. We are treated as though we should be without desire, without attraction. Disabled women in particular are treated as though we are incompetent and completely desexualized, sometimes to the point that we are forcefully sterilized by the very people who claim to have our interest at heart.
Even at less severe extremes, we are prevented from accessing our own sexual potential. While accessibility still has a long way to go, there have at least been some efforts at creating at least the impression (as erroneous as that impression might be) that they are trying. This is not the case when it comes to sex. Information on sex and disability are surprisingly lacking. I’ve never had a doctor discuss with me how to engage in sex safely with my disabilities. In fact, the only health professional to even discuss sex with me as though it was a possibility was a nurse, who when I said I had a question immediately asked me “sex?” Other than that, the only way sex comes up is in the reminders that when I’m taking med a or participating in study b, I can’t get pregnant.
People in wheelchairs or who have had spinal injuries are treated as though they cannot have sex at all. They are left to discover by themselves how to experience pleasure and how to generate arousal when they might now have feeling below certain points on their bodies.
When it comes to sex toys and other equipment, accessibility can be hard to find. Much like Grace, I’ve had to deal with pain post masturbation. The angles necessary to get the desired pressure from a vibrator often leaves my hands and fingers stiff and cramping. When I try to compensate by adjusting my lower back, hips, and legs, I end up stiff and in pain, even post orgasm.
What makes this worse, is that orgasm can be a great way to reduce pain overall, but not if I’m left feeling stiff and sore.
I’ve broken multiple vibrators by either pressing on them strangely in an attempt to work with my pain, or by being too rough with them in an attempt to generate as much sensation in the face of my pain imposed numbness. My current vibe, which is the best I’ve ever had with regards to these issues, is currently being held together with electric tape, since the angle and pressure made the malleable supposedly mobile rubber-like neck tear.
I can pretty much forget about using a dildo on myself, unless I can come up with hundreds of dollars to get a fucking machine to do the work for me.
While some kink groups are opening up to discussions about the incorporation of disability and accessibility in kink, there are still not a lot of toys and tools that take these into account. Nor do discussions of how to have sex safely, pleasantly, and consensually, when one partner might be on medication that can have effects on sobriety.
Sex while one person is intoxicated is rape, and yet, many of us take strong medications that may or may not leave us in an altered state. I need to be able to smoke a joint occasionally before engaging in sex play to help my stiff muscles relax and reduce pain, so that I can fully enjoy myself. But doing so, especially if I smoke enough to actually make more of the pain go away, sets a bad precedent regarding consent and sobriety. How do we as a community enforce rules regarding consent, while also granting disabled people the ability to take their meds and enjoy sex? This is complicated even further by existing power dynamics and systemic ableism that make it nearly impossible for disabled rape victims to be believed let alone find justice.
When Brianna (again) dismisses her mother by saying “I highly doubt there’s a vibrator market for geriatric women with arthritis.” I wanted to scream at the screen “Yes! Yes there is!” It’s not just old women. There are women of all ages with arthritis, with carpel tunnel, with damaged wrists, with all sorts of conditions that could benefit from specially tailored vibrators, and the sad truth is that they either don’t exist, or are rare enough to functionally not exist for most of us.
We are not irrelevant. We refuse to be invisible. And We Will Not be Dismissed by People Like You.