The Unicorn Scale: Grace and Frankie
I’ve been putting off writing about this show because I’ve enjoyed it so much. I didn’t want to apply my critical lens, because I don’t want to be critical about a show that I also love. So I waited and watched and hoped. I have now watched 4 seasons of “Grace and Frankie” and have decided that it is finally time.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this Netflix sensation, it tells the story of Robert, Grace, Sol, and Frankie. Originally Robert and Grace and Sol and Frankie are each married to each other. They have been for decades, both couples have adult children, and Robert and Sol run a law firm together. Suddenly Robert and Sol disclose to their wives that they are in love with each other, have been having an affair for years, and are divorcing their respective wives. In the fallout of property and divorce, Grace and Frankie, two women who did not historically get along, end up living together in their beach house.
From here on out there are many spoilers, so beware. If you are unfamiliar with The Unicorn Scale, the goal is to look at popular media and its representation of bisexuality. It is totally possible that a show or film I generally enjoy gets a low rating on The Unicorn Scale because it fails to represent bisexuality in the way that it deserves. This doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the show, film, or play, even with its flaws, and hope for better representation in the future.
What I Liked:
On a very basic level I loved the message that sex and sexuality are always a part of our lives. We age, our relationships change, our physical abilities change, we have children, our children have children, and yet we are still sexual beings. “Grace and Frankie” emphasizes that regardless of age, we can and should continue to explore our own sexuality, to open ourselves to new experiences, and to embrace who we are. This may sound obvious, but it is a remarkable message in popular culture.
It is awesome that Grace and Frankie shout this message from the rooftops when they start a business making and marketing vibrators that target older women. I love that they date, that they have sex, that they have sex with a bad knee.
In season 4, Robert and Sol start to talk about consensual non-monogamy. It is left a little ambiguous on whether or not they want to practice some form of consensual non-monogamy, but they talk about it, they talk about their concerns, their desires, their insecurities. I think that this is awesome.
I also love Grace and Frankie’s friendship. They both have other romantic relationships throughout the series, but it becomes increasingly clear that their bond with one another is primary. Each is willing to sacrifice their own romances to be a friend to the other. They have a profound love for each other. Again, it’s just amazing seeing a female friendship given this kind of primacy.
What I Didn’t Like:
This is why I’ve avoided writing this for years. I am happy that Robert and Sol have decided to live their truths. I am delighted that they attempt to so without hurting the other people in their lives, in fact they do so while still truly caring for their respective ex-wives. It might not be as explosive of stomping off and never talking again, but I like the tenderness of it. There is an acknowledgement just because your marriage was a mistake, it wasn’t necessarily a malicious one, nor does your divorce mean that you can erase the past. They still have to negotiate relationships with their wives, their children, their mutual friends and do so in a sane and mature way.
So what’s the problem with all of this? At first, when I heard about the premise of the show, I thought how cool would it be if Sol or Robert were bi. To me it makes sense that one of them would be bi. However, they both identified as gay so I let it go and enjoyed the show. And then I just started yelling at the TV. At one point Sol and Frankie have sex after their divorce, after Sol has moved in with Robert. Sol acknowledges that it’s a mistake, but he also admits that he gave in to sexual desire. He shouldn’t have cheated on his partner, but he doesn’t deny that his feelings for Frankie were real.
In fact, Frankie and Sol’s relationship often causes Robert to be jealous. This would have been a great opportunity for Sol to say. “I’m sorry I cheated, I love you, I am your partner, we have an agreement of monogamy, but you should know that I am bi.” Instead Sol jumps through all kinds of rhetorical hoops to reaffirm his gayness and promise that he is absolutely not interested in women in general or Frankie specifically.
In season 4, Sol once again gets in trouble with Robert, this time for calling Frankie his “soulmate.” Sol and Frankie maintain a close emotional connection throughout the show and clearly still feel real affection for one another. Whenever she’s in trouble, he’s the first person that she calls and he comes rushing to her rescue. Some of this seems to be habit, but some of it is also true affection. His love of Frankie causes Sol real pain and creates a lot of conflict in his relationship with Robert, but Sol steadfastly calls himself gay. I can’t help but think it would be easier to appease Robert and address his jealousy if Sol would acknowledge that still has romantic feelings for Frankie sometimes.
Still there is so much to like about this show that I decided to quit yelling that Sol is bi at the TV and just let myself move on and watch the show. Then it happened all over again.
Robert and Sol meet their new neighbor, Oliver, a young man who loves musical theatre, fashion, and dance. They assume that he is gay and invite him and his partner, Jo, over. The partner shows up and surprise! She is a woman.
Robert and Sol immediately assume that Oliver must be gay and debate whether or not they should save Oliver and Jo from the painful things that they had both gone through. Robert takes Jo aside and tells him about how much regretted not coming out earlier, and how much he regretted the pain that he had caused Grace.
This all ends in a big confrontation where Oliver explains that he isn’t like Robert and Sol, that he would never cheat on Jo. Here was the perfect opportunity for Jo to say, you know what, my partner is bi, I know this, I trust him, and I love him. Instead, the audience is left to wonder if Oliver is just a straight man with stereotypically gay mannerisms or a gay man who is in the closet and leading Jo down a path of heartbreak. Maybe Sol isn’t ready to come out as bi, being in a public relationship with Robert was a big step for him, but here was a chance to educate Robert, Sol, and the audience about bisexuality. Again the show chickened out.
This show does so many things so well when it comes to showing that all of us, regardless of our age, can and should be aware of who we are sexually. This is awesome. I just wish that this universe would acknowledge Sol’s bisexuality or even the existence of bisexuality. Maybe in some future season, they will finally resolve Sol’s sexuality and I can give them all the unicorns.