Madeira Mondays: Grace and Frankie…and John Adams

I think most people have ‘their shows’, those they gravitate to when times are tough and they just want to zone out and relax. Aside from Gilmore Girls (my #1 feel-good show), I love to watch Grace and Frankie. It’s good, quality easy-watching TV, and today, I wanted to tell you a little more about it and its surprising connections to early American history! Read on, friends…

maxresdefault

Lily Tomlin, left, and Jane Fonda, right, star as the titular Grace and Frankie

Grace and Frankie is in many ways a radical show for network TV. It features two unconventional leading ladies – older women in their 70’s and 80’s – often talking frankly about sex, relationships and (small spoiler alert) trying to start a company where they sell sex toys! The premise is basically that these two women, Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin), get stuck together when their husbands, longtime business partners, announce that they are gay…and marrying each other. So it’s a bit of an Odd Couple set-up: Grace and Frankie move in together when their husbands leave them. Grace is organized, severe, Type A. Frankie is a hippie, scattered, creative. They clash. Then they become besties. It’s cute.

The show has been running now for six seasons (the 7th one comes out later this year I believe and will be the last). But it’s a very relaxing watch because it’s funny, the stakes are low, and everyone more or less gets along with and loves each other.

But of course there is drama in the show, which brings me to how it ties together with American history! At the end of Season 3, Grace’s ex-husband Robert Hanson (Martin Sheen) becomes involved with a gay theatre company’s production of 1776. For those of you who don’t know – 1776 is a musical set during the American Revolution. It’s about John Adams and his push for the colonies to declare independence from Great Britain. Robert is cast in the leading role as John Adams, but his theatre company is plagued by homophobic protestors who try (and fail) to shut down the play.

Later, Robert wins an acting award for his portrayal of John Adams. He uses his acceptance speech as a platform for LGBT+ activism, citing Adams as his inspiration:

It was an honor to play John Adams, a man who stood up to things that were bigger and scarier and more powerful than he was. And you know we had a little taste of that during our run of 1776. We had to stand up to bullies, who were threatening to shut us down because we are a gay theatre group. But we did stand up. Because the show of eradicating intolerance must go on…I thank the one man who truly made all of this possible. John Adams.

grace and frankie

Martin Sheen as Robert Hanson, playing John Adams in a gay community theatre production of 1776 in Grace and Frankie

 

Robert’s statement that Adams ‘made all of this possible’ refers not only to how Adams inspired the musical, but also that Adams made America possible, a country where he has the right to stand up and express his beliefs. I found this scene very moving and I’ll talk more about the musical 1776, and its connections to modern progressive politics, in a later post.

So I would recommend Grace and Frankie not only because it’s cute, smart, sweet and enjoyable, but also because of its fun nods to American history. I hope that it brings you joy during this troubling time. Let me know if you’ve seen it in the comments below and please do recommend other ‘feel good’ shows. What are your favorites?

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Trinity HistoryCon

‘Most of us began our love of history from something we saw on TV, in movies or other pop media.’

This was one of the opening remarks at Trinity History Con 2019, a two day long conference in Dublin at Trinity College, all about the intersections of pop culture and history. And that remark really stood out to me because I think it’s so true! Often the first time that we encounter history is through historical fiction – be that books, TV, films etc. For me it was reading books like Johnny Tremain about the Revolutionary War that ignited my curiosity in that whole time period. I know from speaking to other historical fiction writers, historians, and lovers of history that pop culture media often sparks a love or curiosity in a period that leads to academic research or just a lifelong fascination with a particular place and time.

In one panel at the conference, ‘How We Remember Her’, featuring actress Lotte Verbeek (from TV shows like Outlander and The Borgias), she discussed some of the different reasons someone might watch a historical fiction TV show like The Borgias: to get a sense of the past, to understand a bit, but also (perhaps primarily) to be entertained. Yet a show like that can also ‘open up a world for people’ who might otherwise know nothing at all about the time period and might now be encouraged to seek out further information.

The Borgias was one of dozens of pieces of pop media that were discussed at HistoryCon. While I was there, I saw talks on (to name a few!): Star Wars, Games of Thrones, Star Trek, and the Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life. There were presentations on Kate Bush’s song ‘Wuthering Heights’ and its relationship to the novel, as well as discussions on Charles Manson and American film. There was even a presentation from two St Andrews researchers, Christin Simons and Elena Romero-Passerin, who research 18th century mercantilism and botany respectively, on the history-inspired board game they have designed based on their research called ‘Mer-plant-ilism’. Basically, this conference was a dream event for a history nerd (and all around nerd, let’s be honest!) like me.

IMG_9746

Conference organizer and presenter Dawn Seymour Klos giving her talk on Leia Organa and 13th century English Women

But in addition to academic talks from researchers from all over the world there was also a brilliant sword fighting demonstration in a college square and a costume contest!

IMG_9766

Sword fight demonstration from Medieval Armoured Combat of Ireland in Fellows’ Square, Trinity College

I was encouraged to enter the costume contest and actually won third place for my John Adams costume. What do you think of the outfit? (We actually had to walk down an aisle and pose in front of a panel of judges and I imagined RuPaul there and calling out, ‘Category is: Revolutionary Realness’).

IMG_9715

My John Adams costume for Trinity HistoryCon

And what I loved in particular about the concept of HistoryCon was that it was free, fun and open to the public. We were told to structure our talks more like Ted Talks, so that the general public (and several people did just wander in on the day) could engage with the material and have something to take away. Academic researchers are often encouraged to do public engagement and to disseminate their research with the wider community, and that is built in to the whole ethos of this event. Breaking down those barriers between the academy and the general public, and hopefully sparking curiosity about the past and the various ways to study and interact with it, was the name of the game.

I, for one, had a brilliant time presenting on representations of John Adams in pop culture. I delivered my talk ‘Obnoxious and Disliked’: John Adams’ Legacy in Popular Media, from 1776 to Hamilton, dressed as Adams and I’m not sure when I’ll ever have the opportunity to do that again!

I learned a lot throughout the busy two days and made so many new nerdy, academic friends. So I’d like to thank the organizers at Trinity College for creating such a fun and accessible conference and for inviting us all to Dublin. Thank you! Live long and prosper.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday!