Grace and Frankie: Vibrators Open Door to Universal Design

by Lainey Feingold on April 11, 2017

In the hit Netflix series Grace and Frankie, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin start a vibrator business.  But not just any vibrator.  Their bright purple sex toy is designed for themselves – women over 70.  It is easy to hold – for Fonda’s arthritis-riddled wrists.  And it has glow-in the dark buttons for the fading eye sight that accompanies many into the land of aging.  Even the instructions come in large print.

The words “universal design,” “usability,” “disability,” or “accessibility” are never mentioned in the series.  Commonly used hashtags “ux” (user experience) or #a11y (accessibility) don’t make an appearance.

But Grace and Frankie’s vibrator is one big (and fun!) lesson in all of these things.  The vibrator was designed for older women, and tested by a focus group reflecting the desired market share (more on that below). Fonda and Tomlin as product developers recognize that not everyone’s hands and eyes work the same way. But they know that everyone wants to participate.

With its pink and purple silicone sleeve, the Grace and Frankie vibrator is attractive.  And as is true with many universally designed products, the vibrator’s appeal goes beyond the initial target audience.  The 30-something girl friend of Tomlin’s on-show son Nwabudike Bergstein (played by Baron Vaughn) loves it.  Seeing that, even the son gives it a try – and he’s hooked too.

I hope the show’s developers somehow read this piece.  I’d love to see them name and celebrate the universal design ideas already baked into the show.  Here’s what it could look like.

Proposed episode:  Grace and Frankie Get Invited to Universal Design Conference

The episode opens with Fonda on her computer.  Suddenly her eyes go wide and she starts shouting:

“Frankie, Frankie, we’ve been invited to a conference!!”

“What kind of conference?” Tomlin asks skeptically.

“Something called a ‘universal design’ conference,” answers Fonda.

“Universal design?” Tomlin asks in that incredulous way she has.  “What the hell is that?”  I don’t know anything about how to design a university.”

Or maybe she’d say – true to her spacey (but spiritually deep), new-age character –

“Universal design?” The universe is already perfect – what the hell do they need a conference for?”

Then Fonda’s Grace would roll her gorgeous eyes as she does in most episodes, and explain it all to her best friend.

“Universal design” is about making products and environments that work for everyone,” Frankie. Like having ramps so wheelchair users (or old ladies with walkers) can get into buildings.  Or making sure websites are accessible so they work for people who can’t hold a mouse.”

“The conference organizers want us to talk about our vibrator because….”

“Why the hell would they want us to do that?” Frankie interrupts.

“They want us to explain why making things older women can use expands the market and is good for business.  And they want us to talk about how our vibrator design is a great metaphor for so many other things that need to work for more people. We didn’t know it, but our vibrator is the embodiment of universal design, usability, and access!”

Tomlin gains interest, coming to peer over Fonda’s shoulder.

“You mean like how I can’t read so many websites because the colors are too light?” She wonders aloud?  “They could make the print easier to read!  Or even let me adjust it how I like it!”

“Or how I couldn’t hear the video I wanted to watch last night about making pot brownies?”  They could have had captions on that video!”

Tomlin starts getting really excited thinking about the accessibility options that would make her life easier.

Fonda rolls her eyes (again) at the mention of marijuana sweets (Grace’s drug of choice is alcohol). But she encourages Frankie’s enthusiasm.

“We’ll say yes,” she says, and begins thinking about the power point.

And there could be more

Once Grace and Frankie say yes to a usability, universal design, or accessibility conference, the possibilities are endless. There could be a whole episode on the conference itself where Fonda and Tomlin are stars to the young web developers and designers.

The could give the young ‘uns a lesson in the frustration of too small buttons and too little color contrast on their favorite mobile applications.   The show runners could make up apps perfectly suited for the mis-matched friends.  Maybe a meditation timer for Tomlin, or a sophisticated clothing site for Fonda.

And the pair could get invited to other conferences, always with purple vibrator in tow.  Teaching architects about the time they hurt their backs (and spent half an episode on the floor in pain) and couldn’t walk up stairs.  Or telling pharmacists about how cool it would be if their prescription labels could talk. I can hear Frankie berating the white-coated staffers about how labels are too damn small for anyone to read – let alone blind people who need the talking labels for basic health and safety.

The fundamentals of a world built for everyone are already designed into the purple vibrator.  Let’s have Grace and Frankie take it on the road to make the world more usable for everyone.

Bringing Disability into the Focus Group

Before getting into the vibrator business, Fonda had a successful cosmetic business.  She knows that product success requires usability testing. The fact that Grace and Frankie love their new vibrator isn’t enough. In Season 3, Episode 3 Fonda insists that a focus group is needed.

Fonda calls an old friend who assembles a group of five women to come over to Grace and Frankie’s (gorgeous) home on the beach in southern California.  The visitors are told only that Fonda and Tomlin want to share a new product.  But [spoiler alert] it turns out the focus group women are in fact from a bible study group.  Once the true nature of the afternoon tea is disclosed, the women leave in a judgmental huff.

Yet one of them sneaks a vibrator into her purse.  Her subsequent happiness with the product eventually brings the church group around, and each of them end up buying one.  Universal design triumphs when the older women realize the value of the product despite their religious views.

The show missed an opportunity to expand the focus group and explicitly include disabled women.  Although society at large typically writes disabled women out of the sexual experience, that is simply a facet of pervasive ableism that fails to recognize disabled people as whole.  (Author and activist Anne Finger is one of many who has spoken of the “very real pain that’s happened to a lot of people around being desexualized.”  A bible thumping wheelchair rider could have offered one more lesson in the value of designing products for everyone.

Maybe it’s not too late.  Frankie wants their next product to be an easy open condom. (Yes, she admits she’s old, but she explains to Grace that her boyfriend, played by Ernie Hudson, is so hot that she can never be too careful.) It too will be universally designed.  The possibilities for disability-friendly story lines are endless.

Lainey Feingold is an author and disability civil rights lawyer in Berkeley California.  Her book, Structured Negotiation, A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits, tells about her work with the blind community to make technology available to everyone, all without lawsuits.  Grace and Frankie is the only TV show she has ever binge watched.  Learn more about Lainey’s work and her book on her website.

Filed under: National Politics