Much has changed in the 35 years since Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin collaborated on the feminist comedy Nine to Five. The rise of Internet content providers such as Netflix and Amazon, for example, have created a wealth of progressive movies and shows that otherwise may not have ever made it to the big screen—or even network television.
One of those shows is Grace and Frankie, which reunites Fonda and Tomlin in a comedy about two women who forge a friendship after discovering that their husbands have fallen in love with each other. The plot is unconventional not just because it hinges on two closeted men coming out as gay late in life, but because its title characters are played by women well into their 70s—an anomaly, considering that the majority of female characters on prime-time TV in 2014 were in their 20s and 30s. Increasingly, female actors of another generation are heading to Netflix to find the roles they thought wouldn’t exist after middle age.
“I left the business for 15 years, and if somebody had told me then that at 77, I would be back and [there would be] this thing called Netflix—that’s not even television, you could look at the whole season all at once in six hours or something like that—and that I would have my first [on-screen] kiss at 77, [the first in] 15 years, I would’ve said you’re crazy,” Fonda said on an episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show that airs Thursday.
“I’ve wanted to do a television series for a long time, and I wanted to give a cultural face to older women, because we’re left out,” Fonda told DeGeneres. “The mass media doesn’t really deal with you after a certain age, and I wanted to change that.”
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Fonda isn’t the only legendary actor to be wowed by new opportunities afforded by Internet television programming. Diane Keaton, the 69-year-old Oscar winner who helped define the cinema and style of the 1970s with her title role in Annie Hall, also recently praised Netflix for offering older women a slate of new roles. While stars such as Cate Blanchett, Geena Davis, and Jessica Chastain have voiced concerns about the underrepresentation of women in Hollywood, Keaton doesn’t see any shortage of female roles, according to an interview this month with L.A. Weekly.
“When you consider everything that’s happened with television, YouTube, social media, all the different ways that stories are being told—no, I think if anything, it’s a much better time [for female actors],” Keaton said. “Everybody should be taking advantage of it!” She mentioned her friend Carol Kane, 62, who also appeared in Annie Hall but might be better known to young viewers as the eccentric landlady on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the Netflix sitcom created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock.
Fonda, a civil rights activist and cofounder of the nonprofit Women’s Media Center, has long advocated for gender equality, especially in Hollywood. At a Sundance Film Festival panel earlier this year, she suggested that studios should be shamed for their gender bias. “We have to fight real hard to get women in positions of power and remember there are no set rules,” she said. Content providers such as Netflix, which also produced Orange Is the New Black, and Amazon, which produced Transparent, are two platforms helping to shake up the industry’s rules—and introduce a range of LGBT characters.