Whiteness, Jewishness, and Class on “Grace and Frankie”

Turns out that the Ma’yan staff has all been binge watching the new Netflix series, Grace and Frankie. And we have a lot to say! Straight from our email thread, here are our thoughts on what the show reveals about whiteness, Judaism, age and class.

Beth:  Okay, I’m really interested to hear what you all have been thinking about Grace and Frankie!  I’ve found much to think about, both to celebrate and to question, so I’m going to start our conversation by one of my favorite and least favorite aspects of the show. 

Fave:

1) By featuring an all-star cast in their 70s, and by focusing the narrative not on their health problems or their lives as parents and grandparents, the show sends a powerful anti-ageist message.  These are adults faced with major life changes (some chosen, some not) and adapting to new circumstances by engaging complexity, challenging themselves, and growing.  They adjust to new living arrangements, try out new drugs and new technology, negotiate fidelity and renegotiate boundaries.  They try to make amends for past mistakes and occasionally make new ones. They talk about bad sex and vaginal dryness!  They also have good sex, mourn losses and changes (some chosen, some not), and build new relationships. Name me another show that grants that level of depth and continuing development to older adults.  Okay, Transparent–ha, I beat you to it.  But Maura Pfefferman is a single character, not a foursome.  Even the Golden Girlswhich was similarly groundbreaking in its day–didn’t have that kind of rich narrative arc. 

UnFave:

1) Everyone is stupid rich!  They fight over who gets to keep the beach house!  But even as they trade living quarters, every set looks like it was ripped straight out of Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware (well, okay, not Frankie’s hippie-dippy swinging chair, but that doesn’t last long anyway).  In the real world, divorce tends to have major financial consequences, especially for women.  In the show, Grace is retired and Frankie teaches art to ex-convicts — are we just supposed to assume they’ve got generous alimony settlements?  That they came into their marriages independently wealthy?  That they’re so rich there’s enough to go around even after the marriages are dissolved?

Okay, have at it!  I can’t wait to hear what you think.

Talia: I agree: the show is both awesomely anti-ageist and also troubling in its normative portryal of wealth and whiteness. That makes sense in the trajectory of how media works. I imagine the execs saying, “It’s cool if we have a show about older people just doing their thing, or about a happy, loving gay couple. But we can’t get weirder than that, okay guys?! They gotta be rich and white and skinny–that’ll help even things out!” 

Andrea: I agree that it is revolutionary to have this depth of older characters. I suspect that it’s possible on Netflix. I highly doubt it would ever make it to network TV.

Shayna: I have a question for everyone: what do you think of the show’s depiction of Sol and Robert’s relationship? It seemed to me like the actors have absolutely no chemistry!

Talia: I think that’s a good point. I often find myself cringing every time they call each other “sweetheart” because it feels so lacking in authentic connection.  I tend to find Sol and Frankie’s chemistry much more believable (though I do also appreciate them showing the complexities of exes still loving each other!).

Beth: I’m mixed, Shayna. There were moments where I just didn’t see it. Plus those actors are so familiar and beloved to me from other roles that I did a bunch of double takes at seeing, say, Jed Bartlet kissing Charlie Skinner. (Come to think of it, THAT would have been hot.)  But I didn’t really believe the chemistry between Grace and Guy either (though maybe I was just scarred by the bad first sex scene?).  Like Talia, I was going to say that Sol and Frankie were the only really believable couple–I cried when they shared a bed the night before he moved out–but I actually totally believe Grace and Robert as a pair who have been unhappily married for a very long time; their lack of chemistry felt true to who they had become as a couple.  Honestly, I had a hard time imagining anybody having chemistry with Robert, who was really a giant pill (he even calls himself an a%*hole).

Andrea: I also found the chemistry between the men hard to buy at first. I think Beth raises a good point  that Robert’s character is cold and repressed – as we see in the last episode. His most clearly expressed emotions are with his older daughter. So it made me wonder if heteronormativity is playing a role in our not being able to buy the relationship between them. We take it for granted that Grace and Robert are a couple even when they don’t have chemisty. But when we have two men together we have more trouble buying it. I’m wondering if this also has something to do with the roles we expect men or women to play. That isn’t to say that there aren’t gay and lesbian couples in popular culture that are more believable but that the impact of heteronormativity has an extra burden when we see two male actors portraying a couple. 

Talia: On a different note, I’m thinking about how Frankie reminds me a little of Barbara Streisand’s character in Meet the Fockers. Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but from what I remember, there are definite overlaps:

– both Jewish

– both caricatures of liberalism

– both openly sexually and comfortable talking about sex/bodies

– very feelings/psychology oriented

– artsy

– lots of flowy clothes

I remember I saw Meet the Fockers with a friend of mine in her 60s. She was really mad. She felt that it was anti-Semitic to portray an older Jewish woman in such an obnoxious light. I remember that I agreed with her, but felt that it wasn’t entirely obnoxious. But that movie also plays with the same trope of: chill/weird/liberal Jews vs uptight WASPs. The fact that this is an ongoing theme that we continue to be collectively entertained by points to something we are probably trying to figure out as a society. What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be Protestant? What does it mean to be white? And to have different kinds of whiteness? How do we relate to each other in a Christian dominant society? How do we feel about different kinds of women? About sex? About feelings? How do we identify ourselves? How do we find who our people are?

Two other similarities:

– In both Meet the Fockers and Grace and Frankie everyone has money and mostly everyone is white. Money is a non-issue, which goes back to my earlier point that in the media we only like to deal with so many issues at once (we can talk about age, sexuality, and religion, but that’s it!) 

– Cultural appropriation is a regular part of the lives of the Fockers and Frankie and Sol. They always seem to be engaging in some ambiguously identified native cultural practice, and this is usually used as comic relief. As an activisty Jewish woman who works hard in the fight to end racism, I resent that this is the portrayal of my fellow radical Jewish women. 

And all that said, I’m still enjoying the show. 🙂

Beth: There does definitely seem to be some conflation of hippie and Jewish — and does it seem like this adheres particularly to female characters?  Sol in G&F and Dustin Hoffman’s Fockers character are liberal Jews too, but neither their Jewishness nor their hippie-ness seem quite as pronounced or as defining of their characters.  Or maybe Dustin Hoffman’s Jewishness might be more pronounced than Sam Waterston’s because we know he’s Jewish and Waterston is about as believably Jewish as he is believably hot for Martin Sheen?

I saw Frankie’s dabbling in native traditions as similar to her own idiosyncratic family rituals (like watching the National Spelling Bee or protesting Walmart).  Or maybe more accurately, like her desire to participate somehow in Mallory’s pregnancy in the flashback episode.  Both seem driven by genuine enthusiasm and appreciation…and, at the same time, poor boundaries and over-identification.  This is probably the most benign version of cultural appropriation, but it’s still cultural appropriation, and nobody in Frankie’s world seems to have any awareness that it’s a problem.

Andrea: I agree with Talia – I saw many vestiges of the Streisand character from Meet the Fockers. I found that film much more painful because the POV felt very Christian/White to me. It was framed as going to meet the crazy exotic hippy Jews. They were the butt of the most of the jokes.

 I think Talia is on to something about what our culture is struggling to figure out around whiteness and different kinds of whiteness. The Jewish (read ethnic, unpolished) versus the WASP stereotype. In both this series and the Meet the Parents film series the issue is also that the economic class of both families is the same. It is not just whiteness but a particular class of white people. I’m thinking of the series The Nanny which contrasted the stereotypical ultimate upper-class white person – the British gentleman – with the working class Jewish woman. That show explored cultural differences of two white groups but the class difference was also a key marker. We do see that Fran Drescher’s character like Tomlin’s and Streisand’s is more sexually liberal, open and emotive than her WASPy counterparts. Even the butler in that show – who is presumably of a lower social class than his employer – has more of the uptight, proper, white Christian model of behavior. 

Shayna: Also interesting that blonde, small featured, Jane Fonda plays a liberal, Jewish sex therapist mother in This is Where I leave You.  The character is very assimilated and not at all Jewishly observant—but we’re supposed to understand her liberal attitude towards sex as a vestige of her Jewishness? Susie Essman plays another Jewish mother on Broad City. A loud, New York-accented, sexually frank, compulsive shopper. The opening scene of the episode she appears in actually includes a joke about subtle cultural differences between wealthier “WASPY Jews” and lower middle class Long Island Jews.

Andrea: It makes me wonder if part of what we are seeing with movies like Meet the Fockers and now Grace and Frankie is a new marker of trying to understand what makes Jews white and what continues to mark them as different from other white folks—especially as so many white Jews have moved closer to and inhabited more spaces where power is located. Jewishness here seems synonymous with liberal: a way to differentiate the two families, the two female characters in particular. 

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