MARCH 2020: Emma., Grace, and Frankie
the oxford comma, kids....I can't live without it!
In these uncertain times, you can count on us to go long. Same deal as last month, if you’e reading this in gmail, at the very bottom you’ll see a note that says “[Message clipped] View entire message” and by clicking that link you’ll be able to see the whole thing, and you can also always access the newsletter on the Pop Culture Pen Pals Substack website by clicking on the title. Thanks for reading!
It is 12:05am on…...April 1. I really waited till the last minute with this one. I am weary to the bones, and doing anything other than laying with a book on my couch feels like running a marathon. However, now that we’re in the weird upside-down of self-isolation in our homes, I know y’all can read this whenever you want, so if you don’t…..well, I’m watching. 👀
gif: Mallory in Grace & Frankie popping up from behind a box
This month we decided to talk about two things that could not be more different but are equally delightful: the newest adaptation of Emma, and Grace and Frankie. The only thing these two shows have in common are an unexpected penchant for thirst that is largely intended for the female gaze. The rest is about as different as you can get.
I don’t think the plotline of Emma needs rehashing (if you’re not familiar, I’m sure wikipedia will suffice), thankfully. I’m also not going to do a lot of spoiler alerts here, because the book has been out for like? 150 years? And the Emma movie adaptation with Gwyneth Paltrow has been out for over 20 years, not to mention another famous movie that was another reimagining of the story: Clueless. So if you’re not familiar with the story by now, well, that’s mostly your fault. Sorry.
gif: Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma. pushing open a carriage window with her finger
I didn’t see Clueless until I was in college, but I grew up with the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow Emma. It was my favorite Jane Austen story (yes, even before Pride and Prejudice). I’ve always been a sucker for the “best friends become lovers” trope, and Austen found a way to make it romantic in an era where male-female friendships were unusual, to say the least. So I was tentatively excited when I learned they were making a 2020 remake.
The 2020 version is VERY different from the 1996 version. First of all, the 2020 one is much funnier. For years, I thought I just didn’t have a clever sense of humor because I didn’t understand the jokes in movies like Emma. Now I’ve just come to discover that my sense of humor was not well-suited to period comedies in the 1990s. Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse is absolutely delightful—he brings a dry silliness and tender fatherliness to the role that was missing entirely from the 1996 version. In 1996’s Emma, Mr. Woodhouse is missing almost entirely from any significant emotional role in Emma’s life; in 2020’s Emma, we genuinely understand why Emma refuses to move away from him in order to get married.
gif: Emma and Mr. Woodhouse sitting next to each other in church. Mr. Woodhouse sighs dramatically
1996’s Emma casts Emma and Harriet as the central relationship, where we don’t see Emma express much romantic feeling toward Mr. Knightley at all until nearly the end of the movie. 2020’s Emma puts the romantic and platonic tension between Emma and Knightley at front and center over the course of the movie. I personally found that this shift brought an incisive clarity to the movie that didn’t exist before; we see the romantic buildup in a way that I just don’t remember happening in the 1996 adaptation.
gif: Emma and Mr. Knightley looking at each other while dancing
(Look! At! Them!!)
This movie felt like a who’s who of up-and-coming British actors. Tanya Reynolds and Connor Swindells from Sex Education and Josh O’Connor from The Crown all played prominent roles in the movie, along with British acting veterans Bill Nighy, Miranda Hart, and Rupert Graves. In some ways, it felt like a glimpse into a new era of young protagonists, which felt fun and fresh. (The only reason I didn’t include Johnny Flynn on either of these lists is because I’m not sure whether he fits “up and coming” or veteran.)
gif: Mrs. Elton speaks and puts a hand on her chest
gif: Harriet and Mr. Martin standing in the rain
image: Mr. Elton clasping his hands
(In honor of quarantine realness, I need to pause here and tell you that at 1:25am I was like “I’ll just take a break” and fell asleep on the floor next to my cat. I went to bed shortly after. I am now coming to you LIVE once more at 9:30am the following morning. I embrace my mess.)
SPEAKING OF JOHNNY FLYNN. I have to give the casting team credit for knowing exactly who their audience was when they chose to make Johnny Flynn’s opening scene a shot of him stripping completely naked and showing us his butt. A real power move right there. I respect it. (Another tidbit I learned that fueled my thirst is that he is really playing the violin in the scene where he duets with Jane Fairfax, and since violin is objectively the sexiest instrument, I cannot handle it.) I could not find a gif of his butt, but instead I’ve found an INCREDIBLE gif of his amazing mustard trench coat, which I want immediately.
gif: Mr. Knightley walking across a lawn in a long mustard coat
(GIVE IT TO ME)
gif: Mr. Knightley playing the violin
gif: Mr. Knightley lying on the floor and rubbing his face with his hand
(Moody Knightley. I love.)
TL;DR: The movie was absolutely delightful and I would happily watch it again.
ON TO GRACE AND FRANKIE!
gif: Frankie and Grace sitting on a couch, doing a cheers with Chinese takeout containers
When we decided to write about Grace and Frankie I got the weirdest deja vu, like we’d already written about it? I had to go through our entire newsletter archive to make sure. But I think that’s just a testament to how on-brand Grace and Frankie is for us. I knew as soon as I watched the first season that I had essays to write about this show.
This show marked a modern resurgence of movies and television centering the experiences of middle-aged and elderly women. While stories about older women are not fundamentally feminist, they do fundamentally decenter the male gaze, because the male gaze demands that women always be sexually appealing—something misogynists do not consider older women to be. Having Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin star as your leads—two older women known for their activism over the years, particularly on climate change—is a statement in itself about the political sympathies of the show, not to mention the ways the show discusses queer relationships late in life.
gif: Grace saying “I’ve earned the right to take my sweet fucking time.”
I’m only 25, but in my conversations with my grandparents, they describe the experience of getting old as one filled with trepidation and fear. While the show has moved away from this a little in terms of the primary plot (the early seasons involved discussions among the children about putting their parents in a retirement home, or whether they should be allowed to live alone), the show still centers and amplifies the experiences of fear and loneliness that come with aging in the United States.
It will come as no surprise to any of you that my favorite character is Brianna (played by the absolute motherfucking powerhouse we call June Diane Raphael). I want to steal JDR’s entire wardrobe and move it to my closet. There’s truly nothing I love more than a good pantsuit. And this show has SO MANY. More June Diane Raphael forever, everywhere, always.
gif: Brianna in a leopard pantsuit looking around
gif: Brianna in an orange dress saying, “Boo.”
gif: Brianna in a pink pantsuit opening a box
(SORRY BUT *LOOK* AT WHAT I FOUND WHEN I SEARCHED JUNE DIANE RAPHAEL GIFS. OH MY GOD.)
gif: June Diane Raphael wearing a black shirt, black pants, and a red leather jacket, with a cigarette in her mouth lowering sunglasses
I would let her murder me, tbh.
I absolutely cannot type one more coherent sentence today. This is all I have. It took me all of April 1 to write these last 4 paragraphs. I conclude now with an excellent gif of Sam Elliott, who was only on a few episodes but is just so delicious that it is what we all deserve right now.
gif: Sam Elliott saying, “Hey there”
Thank you, happy April, we made it through March, I love you, ohmygodIcan’ttypeanothersentence,
gif: Frankie and Grace laughing in beach chairs in the wind
I have fully leaned in to the social contract that every conversation with either loved one or complete stranger must include some variant of the phrase, “weird times, huh?” There are so few times in which literally everyone in the world is experiencing and focused on the exact same thing, and while it’s true that there are millions of permutations in how each of us is experiencing it (privilege playing an enormous part) there’s some comfort to be found for me in the fact that most of us (optimistically anyway) are trying our best all at the same time to be compassionate towards each other in big and small ways.
gif: Ewan McGregor on the phone, winking
(for example, to show compassion to me one could simply send me Ewan McGregor gifs, because I am absolutely Not Over It)
image embedded in tweet: Mr. Elton preparing to present an easel
(I wish I could say this is the only time I’m going to cite my own tweets in this email, but…..it’s about to be topical!!!!)
So with that in mind…...weird times, huh? A few small things that have been bringing me comfort:
virtual movie dates with friends
French lessons on Duolingo (it turns out I find that ominous owl and the trumpet reward sounds very validating and soothing!)
podcasts like Appointment Television, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Unfriendly Black Hotties, and Overdue, all of which I’ve been listening to long enough that the hosts and frequent guests have started to feel like friends I get to hear talk for an hour a week
four songs from Moulin Rouge! (hint: Ewan McGregor sings in all of them)
this masterpiece edit of movie dancing scenes to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own”
the return of One Day at a Time (and Kathryn VanArendonk’s writing about it)
playing fetch with the cat
texting you the unhinged thoughts and social media habits quarantine has been driving me to
such as writing steamy fanfic about Star Trek’s Dr. Bones McCoy (as portrayed by the incomparably sexy Karl Urban)
gif: Karl Urban as Dr. Bones McCoy in Star Trek saying, “Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.”
(what can I say, I love a hot man who hates space as much as I do)
And then of course, there are the movies and TV we’re talking about today, both of which I found to be total delights!
gif: Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma in a white dress walking towards camera
As mentioned in the preview, I did write an Emma. review, but as much as I enjoy writing those reviews I kind of have to touch a little bit on everything instead of going deep on My Emotional Reaction™ which is kind of our MO here, so I’m very very excited to write about it again.
Adaptations are a particular fascination of mine; I have a lot of opinions about what makes one good or bad, or perhaps more helpfully, work or not work. Any adaptation of a Jane Austen work in particular is an incredibly tricky task, as they’ve all been done nearly to death and require the creators to REALLY THINK about whether their addition to the large catalog is “necessary” and/or an interesting addition. At this point it’s not enough to make a straight-across-the-plate standard issue adaptation, there needs to be something special about it.
gif: Mr. Elton falls against Emma in a carriage
Enter, Emma.!!! The word that keeps coming to mind when I think about this movie is “specific.” This is a first feature for both director Autumn de Wilde (who’s created and photographed a lot of kickass portraits) and screenwriter Eleanor Catton and I can’t say enough how much I admire the bold swing they took in creating and totally committing to a very specific aesthetic and tone. There may be spots in which the tone doesn’t quite work, but overall the consistency and vibrancy of it is so pleasing and thought-provoking that I just can’t bring myself to mind.
Obviously there are spoilers for the book/movie ahead, the book is two hundred years old, etc etc, but also there are some ways that the movie deviates from the book that I’ll be discussing! Cheerio!
gif: Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma. turning towards camera holding a large folder
(it’s not often you get to say the costuming in a Jane Austen adaptation is weird but it is in this one and it’s great!!)
I mean this in the most flattering way possible: the tone they’ve committed to for the movie is beautifully adolescent, not in terms of craft, but in terms of spirit. The movie hangs its many baubled hats on the precise way it feels to be young and bored, to have an unexpected crush and to flirt like a teenager (I mean, not me, I’m just barely learning how to flirt now), to have a nemesis for really no good reason, to have a sleepover with a new best friend, to take yourself by surprise with how cruel you can be. My god, the music during the scene after the ball when Mr. Knightley chases Emma’s carriage — does that not feel EXACTLY like realizing you’re into someone and that they might feel the same way??? (I’m serious, please, someone tell me, I’m currently keeping myself warm with fanfic, so.) (Also, the music was composed by ISOBEL WALLER-BRIDGE, YES, THAT WALLER-BRIDGE!!!)
In the reviews of the movie that I’ve heard/listened to, the way that they’ve handled the ending, specifically the aftermath of the Box Hill outing, has been pretty controversial. [Every time I watch or read an adaptation I think I will be strong enough not to shrivel completely into myself during That Line but I never am, and you know what, it’s probably good for my moral fiber.] One of my other favorite podcasts, Overinvested, made some great points about how the movie softened up a lot of the harsh class dynamics in the book. Unlike some (most) of Austen’s other works, there’s no class fairytale here. At the end everyone marries directly into their own socioeconomic class, which the book suggests may be for the best.
gif: Mr. Knightley and Emma face each other in a doorway, and Mr. Knightley offers Emma a hand
Austen’s perspective on class and romance is extremely fascinating and if I let myself get too into it this will become the dissertation no one LITERALLY NO ONE asked for. I agree that the gentling of Emma and Harriet’s “ending” (in the book when Harriet marries Robert Martin it pretty much is the end of their friendship, as Emma predicts early in the story) maybe doesn’t fall in line with the sharpness of Austen’s observations, but it does fit with de Wilde and Catton’s decision to allow Emma to genuinely make amends and grow as a person, which I found very moving.
Before I wrap up, a hearty “GOD BLESS” to the casting team for giving us Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, a truly inspired choice. CAST MIRANDA HART IN MORE THINGS YOU COWARDS. Also Anya Taylor-Joy is on her way to great great things, mark my words.
gif: Miranda Hart as Miss Bates in Emma tapping on a carriage window and saying “Such news!”
And now...Grace and Frankie!
gif: Frankie and Grace dancing, Frankie saying “I am getting down!”
It’s funny to me that we’re writing about this almost exactly a year after Life Partners. Though the shows are about very different times of life, they deal with similar tensions in similar ways, and I like the symmetry here. [Sidebar: in rereading our Life Partners issue, I noticed a comment I made about Skylar Astin’s arms, followed by “when did I become so openly horny??” Oh March 2019 Kelsey…...you sweet sweet child.]
gif: Frankie saying “Please, no questions.” and holding up a hand
The central tension that this show has always had to grapple with, especially the longer it goes on, is that so strongly values two central tenets (since I’m being horny, have you seen the pictures of Robert Pattinson in the upcoming Christopher Nolan movie Tenet? I digress) that are often in tension with each other:
That everyone (and in the show’s focus, women in their 70s and 80s) is worthy of sexual pleasure and romantic love
That our platonic friendships and partnerships have the potential to be just as, if not more, committed and fulfilling than romantic and/or sexual ones
gif: Frankie spraying whipped cream into Grace’s mouth. Grace says, “Oh! God!” Frankie cackles.
The tension between romantic and platonic love is one that feels very fraught to me. I believe that for many the difference between them is not very distinct, and yet I also believe that for many the difference is made of more than just the way most of 21st century society is currently organized. We could get into really big things like compulsory heteronormativity, anglo-Western hegemony, capitalism’s toxic influence on love and family, but I’m not really thinking about any of those when I’m sitting with a group of friends, nodding quietly as they talk about their romantic partners, or when I notice myself being moved from “first call” to further down the list as friends get more serious with those partners.
I didn’t really mean to become such a downer when talking about a show that brings me a lot of lighthearted joy. But this season prompted a lot of thoughts in me around topics they’d been dancing around for the five seasons leading up to this. The delight of the couple seasons was seeing Grace and Frankie, an odd couple friendship if there ever was one, learn to appreciate and then deeply love and care for each other, create together, and eventually organize their lives around each other in ways they often didn’t speak aloud.
gif: Grace walking away and saying, “I’ll passive-aggressively torture you about that later.”
Light spoilers from here to the end! I was incredibly grateful to this season of the show for grappling with the effect of Grace’s spur-of-the-moment marriage to Nick (played to perfection by Peter Gallagher, a national treasure) on her friendship with Frankie. It’s possible that the end gets a little sit-com-y, and ends up making the choice too easy for Grace than is actually helpful for most people in their actual lives. (However, to my cherished friends: if your partner is ever arrested for securities fraud that they DEFINITELY did, I will stand by you and rip open his couch to find secret cash with you.) But I think, most generously, the show is participating in that inescapable and frustrating fact of life that you and I talk about a lot: that many things can be true.
Many things can be true: Committing to organizing your life around someone else is gorgeous and special. Also it’s Not Great that most societal expectations dictate that that someone be one lifelong romantic partner. Also lots of discussions about the beauty of platonic companionship veer a little too close to “well bodies are gross anyway!” for my comfort, and certainly for this show, which has always vigorously engaged with Grace and Frankie (as well as Robert and Sol and the rest of their community) on their shifting relationship to their aging bodies. Also most of us have fluid and conflicting feelings about the interplay of partnership, independence, and loneliness. Also everyone feels sad sometimes. Also there are specific things one can (and if you’re me, one does) feel sad about in the absence of romantic partnership. Also there are specific things one can feel sad about in the presence of romantic partnership, even if on the whole it is fulfilling and joyful. (For example, if I ever am partnered, what would *I* even write about?? This is my whole beat now, I guess!) (Aside from Bones McCoy, which is my beat in a whole other way if you catch my meaning.)
gif: Grace and Frankie standing next to each other. Frankie says, “Mic drop” and makes a mic drop gesture.
But what Grace & Frankie does so beautifully is show us the many ways in which, if we’re lucky, life does keep going. Both of our main characters, and their families, adapt to change over and over throughout the show, which accepts change as a fact of life and encourages us to make the changes we can, as we can.
The other thing it does very beautifully is put June Diane Raphael in a variety of incredible power suits.
images embedded in a tweet: June Diane Raphael as Brianna in a pink pantsuit, a maroon pantsuit, a teal pantsuit, and a green pantsuit
The world is exceptionally scary right now. May you, and me, and everyone reading, find ways through change that give ourselves and others space and compassion for the many conflicting truths we all feel and experience. And, just as important, may we all find a power suit (or twelve) to rock the hell out of.