I was excited about Netflix’s Grace and Frankie from the moment I heard about it in late 2014.
If you haven’t watched the show, it is a dramedy featuring Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston playing two men, Robert and Sol, who have fallen in love with each other over the last 20 years as law partners, and their now ex-wives, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as Grace and Frankie, picking up the pieces of their lives together.
You had me from there. That the series really focuses on the two women was an added bonus. Grace and Frankie does a lot of things really well, but there is one thing about the show’s execution that feels lackluster to me — the complete lack of discussion about Sol being bi or pansexual, or bi or panromantic.
In fact, the words have never even been used on the show.
Bisexuality is defined by many bi people as having a sexual attraction to people of two or more genders. Pansexuality is defined by many pan people as having a sexual attraction to people of all genders. Biromanticism and panromanticism are similar to their sexual counterparts, but having a romantic attraction instead of a sexual attraction.
Despite more than half of the queer community identifying as bi or pan, according to the LGBT Movement Advancement Project’s 2017 “Invisibility Report,” bi and pan people have some of the least, and most negative, representation in television.
Bisexual and people are often portrayed as flighty, with a tendency towards infidelity, and as party animals. They’re also often seen in threesomes because it’s tittilating for the viewers. That’s not what being bi or pan is about. When we do get good bi or pan rep, they don’t actually use the words.
It was a problem with Willow’s character in Buffy, and it’s never really been corrected.
A more recent example can be found on another of Netflix’s shows, in the main character of Orange is the New Black. Piper clearly has a sexual attraction to both Larry and Alex, and literally has sex with both of them over the course of the show, but she is referred to either as a lesbian or as a straight woman constantly. When Larry’s parents find out she used to date a woman, she says: “I used to be a lesbian. Now I’m not.”
That really sucks, and is what we refer to in representation discussions as erasure.
Bi and pan make a lot of sense when you look at the context of the three main relationships on the show: Robert’s relationship with Grace, Sol’s relationship with Frankie, and Robert’s relationship with Sol.
Robert and his ex-wife Grace lived a very separated life together and never really had much of a connection. They lived in the same house, but hadn’t shared a bed or even a bedroom for years. Later in the series, they both admit separately that they were never in love with each other. So, it makes sense for Robert to identify as gay.
Sol and Frankie are a completely different story. Frankie is the one hit the hardest emotionally by the divorce, having been completely blindsided by it. Sol keeps questioning his decision throughout the first season, because he does truly love Frankie. She and Sol are best friends, rarely spend a night apart from each other, and would happily spend almost all of their time together even after they’re divorced. He and Frankie struggle to set boundaries with each other even through the latest season when Robert tells their marriage counselor that Sol and Frankie text well into the night on a regular basis. It’s clear to anyone watching the show that Sol has a deep, resonant love for Frankie that she returns for him.
All of these things clearly point to me, and to many other viewers, that Sol is not a homosexual, but may belong somewhere else on the queer spectrum.
Now, there might be some problems with Sol coming out as bi or pan on either the romantic or sexual spectrums, since there are a lot of bi characters that are stereotypical — unable to choose between one partner and another, cheating, et cetera — both things that Sol struggles with. This was noted in an article on btchflicks in 2016.
One way that Grace and Frankie could have countered this stereotype was to add another bi or pan character. They had the perfect opportunity with the newly introduced neighbor with very effeminate behaviors, Oliver, who could be bi or pan.
He sets off many of the characters’ gay-dars, but is planning to marry a woman. He swears he isn’t gay, but also says: “no matter who I’m attracted to, I’m not like you. I wouldn’t cheat on my partner.”
This is a line I’ve said myself many times as a pan woman, and one I’ve heard countless times from bi and pan friends. It’s the truth for so many of us. But we are ignored in so many pieces of media that we’re already in by virtue of the writers’ characterization.
It would have been incredibly easy to do, and since he’s a character that likely won’t be returning next season, it wouldn’t have made a huge difference to the plotline. It would have given Sol a chance to hear the word in a character that he already admitted that he identified with, and it would have meant the world to viewers like me.