Grace and Frankie’s New Season Pushes New Boundaries
| June 6, 2016
Note: contains spoilers for Season 2 of Grace and Frankie.
A woman’s right to choose takes on new meaning in the second season of the Netflix series Grace and Frankie.
The two penultimate episodes include a story arc about a beloved friend’s right to die. Babe, played fantastically by Estelle Parsons, has discovered that her cancer has returned, and that it’s terminal. Instead of suffering, she chooses to die, and asks for the help of her neighbors, Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin). Free-spirit Frankie agrees to help, but the more conservative Grace refuses, saying that she “can’t be party to it” because it “goes against everything [she] believe[s].”
The story arc of episodes 11 and 12 explores the most significant tenet of feminism: the right of an individual to control her body and to make choices that pertain to both the life and death of her body. Historically, women have been denied the right to control our bodies. In today’s feminist discourse, the question about control over one’s body largely circulates around reproductive rights and specifically access to abortion. Grace and Frankie, however, illustrates that the question of bodily agency is one that affects women throughout our entire lives. If we are forbidden to control how we live and how we die, then what kind of power do we have?
The right to die is a feminist issue.
It’s also an issue with increasingly popular support: according to Gallup's Values and Beliefs survey conducted in 2015, nearly 7 in 10 Americans polled support physician-assisted dying. In March, California—the state in which the show is set—passed the End of Life Option Act, which effectively becomes law on June 9. While the right to die has become more socially accepted, physician-assisted dying is legal in only four other states: Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.
Babe has not chosen the conditions under which she must choose. But she still has the power to decide which choice she will make. “The cancer’s come back; it’s everywhere,” she confides. “I’m refusing treatment this time.” Grace, in shock, pleads with Babe to reconsider—there must be other treatment, other things she has yet to do and life goals she has yet to fulfill, like making out with Sting. But Babe does not relent. “This is the sanest decision I have ever made,” she insists.
The contemporary moral debate concerning the right to choose death is represented in the dialogue in episode 12, condensed below:
Grace: “No, this can't be happening. You can't do this.”
Frankie: “She is doing it. She made her choice.”
Grace: “It's not her choice to make.”
Babe: “Actually, it kind of is.”
Frankie: “Of course it is. Her life. Her death. Her choice.”
Grace: “It's not right. Only God can make that decision.” [To Frankie] “How could you go along with this?”
Frankie: “It’s not my choice, but if Babe wants to end her life tonight, then, yes, I would help her. I will help her do anything that supports her decision.”
Grace: “I'm sorry, Babe. I love you dearly, but this thing that you want to do, that you want me to support your doing, goes against everything that I believe. I can't be party to it.”
The dialogue, reflective of the comedic tenor of the show, blends gravity with levity. While they prepare for Babe’s farewell party and go over the night’s plans, for example, Frankie quips, “Let’s get you dead.” At the same time, Frankie’s dedication to her friend is tempered by the very real fear of helping her friend die. When Babe sends her home to fetch the pudding with the drugs in it, Frankie freezes at the sight of the sweet treat inside the refrigerator. “Babe sent me to get the pudding, and now that I see it, my body won't let me move,” she tells Grace, who wonders what she’s doing standing in front of an open fridge. Frankie’s internal conflict, of ethically agreeing in principle but hesitating in action, is an honest portrayal of the difficultly of this choice not only for those planning to die, but for those loved ones who assist in death. It is Grace who, recalling aloud the ethical principle behind the action, then gives Frankie the courage to take the pudding to Babe. And then Grace, too, shows up to the party to offer her support to her friend.
Death is a part of life. For ages, philosophers from the pre-Socratics to skeptics like Montaigne to feminists like Audre Lorde in her Cancer Journals have pondered the meaning of death in life. “He who should teach men to die, would at the same time teach them to live,” Montaigne wrote in his essay “That to Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die” (1580). “There is nothing of evil in life, for him who rightly comprehends that the privation of life is no evil: to know how to die, delivers us from all subjection and constraint.”
In The Cancer Journals (1980), Lorde’s language imparts how structural sexism infringes upon women’s bodies: “Even in the face of our own deaths and dignity, we are not allowed to define our needs nor our feelings nor our lives,” she remarked specifically about the social condition of the queer black female body. Nevertheless, Lorde found solace and power in the choice she could make to accept death: “Once I accept the existence of dying, as a life process, who can ever have power over me again?”
Expanding feminism’s politics of choice beyond reproductive justice to include the right to die establishes a broader, more powerful coalition movement, and breathes new life into the movement. Grace and Frankie’s inclusion of this still-sensitive social issue highlights the contemporary debate while taking a firm feminist stance: “Her life. Her death. Her choice.”
The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.
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