It was nearing 9 pm on a Friday when my friend and I headed out to a tiny local theater. We were in no rush, thinking that perhaps few people in our college town would opt to watch Grandma at 9 pm on a Friday. But lo and behold, the theater was packed. The film had pulled a buzzing crowd that delivered an excellent little slap-in-the face to any ageist, sexist notions that might spring to mind with the word “grandma.”
In the movie, Lily Tomlin is the namesake [lesbian] grandma, Elle, who is approached by her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) to procure money for an abortion. As Elle has recently gone broke—having paid off all her debts and refashioned her cut-up credit cards into a wind chime—the two set off on a scavenger hunt spanning relationships both past and present to secure the six hundred and some dollars. To reiterate: the movie is about a lesbian woman over the age of seventy helping her teenage granddaughter get an abortion. A far (and I’d argue, necessary) cry from Leonardo DiCaprio being mauled by a bear, for instance.
Grandma is lighthearted, straightforward, and quite funny. First things first, rather than agonizing over the abortion, the medical procedure is used as a plot engine that gives a sense of urgency and purpose as we make our way through Elle’s colorful series of relationships. We’re in search of money and closure. Along the way, we discover far more. But what I’d like to focus on is the timely presentation of feminism at the intersection with capitalism and how a seemingly discordant array of female characters is able to offer a viable way forward.
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Elle was once a feminist activist, and the rights that she fought for are manifested in the society she is growing old in. But not all has developed according to plan. While Sage can legally get an abortion, it’s not cheap, and the financial burden falls squarely on the teenager. Her partner in fertilization bears no responsibility or interest in the matter, and there’s little Elle can do to help her granddaughter get the cash from him (aside from maybe thwacking him a few times with his own hockey stick). So while the legal framework for women’s control over their bodies is in place, our socioeconomic system serves as an effective barrier. Elle, whose own progressive stances have been shaped by years of not-particularly-lucrative work in poetry and academic thought, is equally disempowered by her lack of liquidity.
In one superbly ironic scene demonstrating this conundrum, Elle decides to sell her collection of first-edition feminist literature towards the abortion fee. She is confident that the books, especially given their age, will fetch a handsome price. Yet a quick Amazon search conducted by Sage reveals that they aren’t worth much at all. Feminist milestones like The Feminine Mystique have been brutally discounted by the market, showing a glaring dissonance between Elle’s values and those enshrined in our all-important economic system.
But there is a silver lining to Elle and Sage’s commercial failure. Turning away from sales, Elle takes Sage on a tour of relationships instead. Memory and shared experience connect a patchwork of women leading different lives with different goals. On the one hand, this is a good thing. It illustrates women as Hollywood rarely does: unique in purpose, personality, and even appearance. But it also prompts a difficult question: How can such a wide array of people, some of whom seem at odds with each other, unite under one movement? The movie gathers many flavors of feminism: 60’s second wave activist, Sandberg-style “Lean-In,” gen X textbook feminist, millennial re-mystified… Would a unified cause not dull their individual ambitions?
Ultimately, Grandma gives us hope on this front. Catalyzed by her granddaughter, Elle brings to life a community of experience and perspective. This gives Sage’s struggle depth and meaning, even as she straddles a new economic and technological era. So while at first it may seem that the protagonists’ names are sarcastically reversed—Sage isn’t very sage, and Elle possesses few feminine characteristics—by the end we realize that their differences, and their ability to share them, are exactly what paves the way forward.