Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the first episode of Grace and Frankie you may want to hold off on reading this.
As a child of the 80s, a teen of the 90s, and a higher ed student of the 2000s–my growth has largely been paralleled to the identity of queerness on TV. I remember the Ellen sitcom, the Rosie O’Donnell Show, and Will & Grace.
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy came out a season before the premiere of The L Word, a show I watched for the first time with a college girlfriend, sitting crosslegged among a den of women on the floor in a queerish sorority group house–I didn’t start watching Queer As Folk until I was in graduate school, stressing about my first live-in relationship (the year QAF was in its final season). These shows changed my life because they were proof that change was possible. There were many other shows too, that had queer characters. These mentioned shows were a bridge. In some ways they were a disappointment, but they ended up leading us away from the token model (i.e. Ross’s lesbian ex-wife on Friends) and pulled the character center stage. But there was still a long way to go.
Much like the integration of people of color onto the small screen in the mid 20th century, the first TV shows that dealt ‘openly’ with queerness did it in a very particular way. Avenue 1: to show that the minority exists as an element of humor–the odd character that is guessed or thought to be queer but isn’t spoken about. (I acknowledge that for characters of color, there didn’t need to be a reveal–TV is a visual art after all–however, this meant that stereotypes were King.) Friends took Avenue 1.
Avenue 2: the overtly mentioned or understood sassy gay friend or the token character to make the show relevant in a demeaning way–thereby upholding the hierarchy of straightness. The French anti-friend coworker Michelle in Gilmore Girls is a good example, but a little late to the party. Will & Grace is an arguable version of this, but you can see the bridge idea working here. Will is both the sassy gay friend and center stage. And by the addition of the second gay man (so crazy!) the show has a new angle. We can already see that some shows worked with queerness on multiple avenues.
Avenue 3: To have a gay character was to show the plight of a character, to showcase how different (troubled, weird, cool, exotic, fabulous) that person’s life was from the mainstream US population; this was finally a way to make the queerness central to a show’s drama. Ellen did this.
Then came Queer Eye–an ensemble cast completely made up of gay men. So new! But you don’t need to inspect closely to see that the show’s origin is the belief that gay men are different from straight men–that in fact gay men can do some things better than straight men because gay men are more like women than straight men. THING LIKE shop for clothes, groom themselves, prepare meals, be thoughtful. Yes, straight men can have gay best friends too–and this way, they can be better for their wives and girlfriends. The show had a LOT of women viewers. Typing “more like women than straight men” makes my soul gag a little, but the point has to be said. Because without it, I can’t get to why I enjoy the idea of Grace and Frankie so much.
Only yesterday, Netflix unveiled the first season of a half-hour show starring Jane Fonda and Lilly Tomlin as two women in their 70s whose husbands come out later in life as a gay couple. While the drama of the premise and the first episode (the only one I’ve watched so far) has to do with queerness–it isn’t the ONLY thing that the show hinges on. These female characters are complex. While they aren’t happy about their impending divorces, Frankie (Tomlin) is more heart-broken about losing her best friend than anything else. Grace (Fonda) is livid with Robert–but you can see that she’s upset with herself a bit too. She feels betrayed–for good reason, but she feels guilty for not having noticed the relationship her husband was having for twenty years while she was off doing other things. But the most striking drive of the show is simply about the prospect of being alone later in life. Where do these characters go from here? These characters, like so many other people, find themselves single after decades of togetherness.
Now, come Monday morning, there may very well be a lot of media outlets that call this show fantastic and also a bit “same old” when it comes to treating queer issues like capital-D drama, but there is definitely something different here. First, the main characters may be brought together by circumstances regarding queerness, but they are not queer themselves and their troubles are larger than queer/straight–their trouble is loss of an identity. Second, the fact that the queer characters talk differently about themselves–proud, resilient–is a turn. And, finally, it’s the straight characters providing the comic relief this time, and not at the a queer character’s expense.