The Older Woman Comes of Age

In a new comedy, Emma Thompson plays a woman who finally sees her body, the actor says, “as her home.” Her victory, in a post-Roe world, takes on the dimensions of tragedy.

Stills from "Grace and Frankie," "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande," and "Hacks"
Tyler Golden / Netflix; Nick Wall / Searchlight; Karen Ballard / HBO Max; The Atlantic

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The uterus has long doubled as a political tool. Summoned as a metaphor—for emptiness, for deficiency, for obligation—it has conflated a body part with womanhood, and used the logic of maternal sacrifice to limit women’s lives. Mental stimulation, some 19th-century doctors argued, could harm their reproductive systems. Exercise could, too. We might laugh, today, at the transparency of such tactical ignorance, but our smugness would be misplaced. The uterus, idealized into a means of degradation, is precisely what the Supreme Court reinstated last month as it overturned Roe v. Wade.

As Americans lurch toward our backward future, I keep thinking about the people who have sought to minimize the effects of Roe’s downfall. I think of the “we will adopt your baby” couple, how their message at once addressed and ignored the people who will be forced into motherhood. I think of those who have suggested that only “whores” will be implicated. And then I think of a film that has, on the surface, nothing to do with Roe.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is, for one thing, a comedy. It focuses, for another, on a British woman in her 50s. But it considers sex as a means of freedom, and in that speaks directly to this history-hinged moment. Nancy, played by Emma Thompson, is the mother of two adult children and the widow of one listless husband. She hires Leo (Daryl McCormack), a sex worker, because she has resolved to experience something she never has before: an orgasm. Leo Grande is in some ways a very small movie—a core cast of two, interacting in a single hotel room—but its intimacies belie its breadth: Nancy’s absent orgasm is a proxy for a life built of modular self-effacements, and for the sacrifices of motherhood both chosen and imposed. Sex, in the film, is a form of self-containment. Nancy hires Leo because she wants to discover who she might be when she stops stretching to the shape of other people’s desires.

Leo Grande is part of a flourishing mini-genre: the coming-of-age comedy focused on women of “a certain age.” The film began streaming on Hulu not long after Grace and Frankie, the sitcom starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, released its final season on Netflix—and soon after Hacks, the Emmy-winning comedy starring Jean Smart, concluded its second season on HBO Max. The shows celebrate older women, a radical move in a culture that equates age with invisibility. But in the process, they make the same claim that Leo Grande does: Sexual expression, however it might manifest, is an elemental dignity. Sex, for these characters—mothers, all—amounts to self-discovery, and creativity, and joy. And it can be that for them because it no longer carries the threat of pregnancy. These comedies, which are not about Roe but in another sense entirely about it, make an argument that is both obvious and newly urgent: Without sexual freedom, there can be no other kind.

In the final scene of Leo Grande, Nancy, alone in the room she and Leo have shared, removes her bathrobe and stands naked before a full-length mirror. She looks at herself. She touches herself. She smiles. Her reflection smiles in return.

The scene, at its edges, does the same thing those patronizing Victorians did: It reduces this woman down to her body. But it is also, in its context, a quiet crescendo, a statement of hard-won self-respect. Nancy has ended her time with Leo; their sessions have been successful. Which is also to say that, for the first time in her life, her body has become what it should have been all along: fully hers.

To film the scene, Thompson told me, she researched paintings that depicted women in the nude: Eve in the Garden of Eden, the womanly form with all its curves and capabilities. What she noticed was how peaceful they all seemed, and how thoroughly unembarrassed they were by their nakedness. “I found them all standing in the same relaxed posture,” she said. In that final moment of Leo Grande, she tried to replicate their ease. The result is lyrical and loaded, a “Self-Portrait in a Full-Length Mirror.” Nancy’s solitude, in it, is crucial. The only gaze at play is her own. “She’s looking into a body that she finally has a relationship with,” Thompson noted. She is “experiencing it as her home, and the place where she can feel pleasure, for the first time.”

The confined dimensions of Leo Grande’s story give the details of Nancy’s life—small revelations made over the course of the film—a sense of abiding drama. The question of whether she’ll have an orgasm is the plot’s main source of tension; the disclosure of what she did for a living, similarly, takes on the weight of a spoiler. Nancy, we learn, was a schoolteacher—one who taught religious education and thus, effectively, sex education. She spent years conducting ceremonies of shame, teaching kids to fear their sexuality (and then telling girls that their skirts were too short, and telling boys nothing commensurate). Her hypocrisy is eloquent, and familiar. The woman who hired a sex worker had spent her career introducing a new generation to one of misogyny’s most durable lies: that, in sex as in so much else, “men will be men,” and women will be required to accommodate them.

She comes to regret it. She also finds a way—another small spoiler—to correct things, at least in the life of one of her students. For Nancy, the film suggests, shame has been its own form of sacrifice, one she has imposed on herself and others. Part of what makes Leo Grande a comedy is that its conclusion is a happy one: By the film’s end, she has conquered her repression.

That kind of victory is an element of Grace and Frankie, too. For the show’s two heroines—best friends, and a classic odd couple—“the golden years” are not the stuff of easy euphemism. They are instead truly better than what came before. The show makes that case, in part, through story lines that find both women, freed of child-rearing and marriage, rediscovering their sexuality. Both have a lot of sex—and both, significantly, enjoy it. Both are blunt in their discussions of it. As in Leo Grande, their sexuality is also symbolic; it serves their creativity and their entrepreneurialism. Frankie, the free spirit, produces and then sells her recipe for an organic personal lubricant (she makes it out of yams and stores it in their shared refrigerator, resulting in a series of sitcomic confusions). Grace and Frankie design, and then produce, a vibrator for older users: light in weight, with glow-in-the-dark buttons. Grace, like Nancy, has a sexual relationship with a younger man. That relationship, like Nancy’s, ends up giving Grace the gift of herself. Through it, she realizes that she doesn’t want to be his wife—and then realizes that she doesn’t want to be anyone’s wife.

Sex with a younger man is similarly liberating for Deborah Vance, the acerbic comedian of Hacks. Often, in the show, sex is proximate to humiliation, a way to explore how easily people can be made expendable to each other. (Marty, Deborah’s love interest/nemesis, uses sex with her as a power play; Ava, Deborah’s younger writing partner, spends a night with her subletter and, the next morning, is unceremoniously kicked out of her own home.) That makes Deborah’s encounter with the younger man especially moving: He sees her not as a celebrity, but as a woman. He wants nothing from her except herself, and the simple terms of that desire inspire, in Deborah, a new self-confidence. The male gaze, rather than reducing her, inspires her to see herself more fully. The episode is titled “The Click,” and the name suggests both connection and the mechanics of the camera: Exposing herself sexually leads her to approach her art more honestly. Her act had focused on her as a victim—as a passive person whom others had done things to. Her tryst makes her realize that there is more to her story. She is not just its hero; she is also its villain.

Her culpability, crucially, extends to motherhood. Deborah’s edited act finds her discussing her relationship with her daughter, DJ. Now an adult who has a love-hate relationship with Deborah, DJ struggles with addiction; pretty much everyone who knows them assumes that her problems stem from a mother who rebelled against motherhood. One of the mournful elements of the show is that her daughter is the person who has most clearly paid the price of that rebellion.

Motherhood is always a sacrifice. At best, it is a beautiful one, freely chosen and joyfully made. The comedies acknowledge that; Deborah and her fellow mothers love their kids, even if they don’t always like them. But they also struggle against motherhood as a cultural demand. Grace is a mother who is decidedly not maternal. (At one point she informs her daughter Mallory, now a mother herself, that “you’ve greatly overestimated my interest in my grandchildren.”) Nancy—who, as a teacher, operated in loco parentis—resented many of her students. She admits to Leo that she finds her son “boring.” The biggest tragedy of her life, Deborah tells her audience in her newly honest set, was not the dissolution of her marriage; it was the loss of her late-night show. The admission is fraught precisely because it violates motherhood’s most elemental mandate. Deborah was willing to sacrifice. But her family was the thing she was willing to give up. What would the world have lost, the show encourages viewers to wonder, had she been required to cede her talents? And what would that loss look like, at scale?

Last week, the Kansas City Star reported on the confusion hospitals are beginning to face because the trigger laws now in effect in Missouri—laws that ban abortion after eight weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest—are so imprecise in their language. The sloppiness, allowed in these efforts to legislate other people’s bodies, speaks to a broader carelessness. The laws do not take into account how it would feel to know that your life might be saved by simple surgery—surgery that you may not get, because strangers with power have privileged “life” as a concept over the life that is yours; or how it would feel to fear that a miscarriage might lead to your arrest; or how it would feel to be forced to bear the child of your rapist: tethered to him, in that most primal of ways, for the rest of your life.

Motherhood, invoked as an ideal, does not require such politically inconvenient considerations. It assumes what misogyny always has: that those who can bear children owe their bodies to others. That their pleas and their pain are beside the point. Because of Roe’s fall, many people will die. Many more will lose their lives—their dreams, their independence, their political power, their selves—in other ways. People will always have sex; the question is merely how they will do it, and who will be punished for it.

Deborah and her fellow women, because of their age and their various privileges, might seem relatively immune to the looming tragedies of a post-Roe America. That is precisely what gives their stories power. No one is exempt. The regressions will radiate. Desire as a sexual impulse cannot be extricated from desire as a basic dignity; a culture that punishes people for their pleasure is a culture that can have no hope of freedom. That final scene of Leo Grande represents, for Nancy, a notably small victory—and, in the context of this moment, a notably vulnerable one. She has led a life of compliance; all she wants, now, is to be attended to. All she wants is to stop being asked to sacrifice. All she wants is to be seen not just as a mother, but as a person, worthy and whole. In that, it turns out, she may well want too much.