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Girls and Gays: The Uniquely Queer Golden Girls

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the themes of mortality and despair in The Golden Girls. Because the show is so fun to analyze, I decided not to move on just yet. Here I talk about the LGBT material on the show, why it stands out, and why gay fans have been loyal since the show’s premiere.  

As a gay teen watching The Golden Girls, I was surprised at how many gay story lines and characters populated the show. I was watching in the late 90s, when gay visibility on TV was minimal compared to today. The gay content on The Golden Girls wasn’t limited to a typical “very special episode” (although the show had those, too), rather there was a true effort to integrate gay content into the fabric of the show. Dorothy’s college friend and Blanche’s only brother both came out during the series, and the latter returned for another coming-out of sorts later on. Even one-off gay characters who might seem offensive today were usually in on the joke. More often than not, they made jokes at the expense of our leads. I’m thinking of the effeminate, formidable caterer in “Sophia’s Wedding, Part 1,” who memorably dubs Dorothy “Stretch” and even gets in a dig about anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant.

The classic season 2 episode “Isn’t It Romantic?” is a great place to start. Dorothy’s old friend Jean visits the girls after the death of her partner, Pat. The girls, all except Dorothy, assume that Pat was a man. The audience, though, finds out quickly that Jean is a lesbian, in a great, undramatic conversation between Dorothy and Sophia. Blanche and Rose are left in the dark. But as Jean and Rose hit it off, Jean discovers that she’s developing feelings for Rose, and decides to cut her visit short. The showpiece of the episode is the bedroom scene in which Dorothy reveals to her mother, then Blanche, that Jean is in love with Rose. It’s refreshing and clever in every way. Jean is never the butt of the joke. Instead, we’re made to laugh at Blanche’s ignorance (confusing lesbian with Lebanese) and narcissism (her disbelief that Jean could prefer another woman over Blanche). The way McClanahan inflects the word “lesbian” three times, each utterance revealing another nuance, is a sitcom performance for the ages.


Blanche gets the spotlight again in season 4’s “Scared Straight,” when her baby brother Clayton reveals that he is gay. Clayton comes to Miami intending to come out, but panics and claims instead that he slept with Rose. Predictably, this sparks a mini-war, in which Blanche calls Rose a “cradle snatchin’, empty headed, two-faced dummy.” (Did I mention that Blanche is a gay icon?) Later, all is revealed, and Blanche manages to subdue her self-involvement long enough to accept, or at least begin to tolerate, her brother’s sexuality. The joke was always on one of the girls, to highlight their own hypocrisy: to show that Blanche was not as sophisticated or worldly as she thought, or that even leftist Dorothy was uncomfortable with being called a lesbian. The show never took cheap shots at its gay characters, and in this way, gay audiences could feel in on the joke. Importantly, it also set an example for how other TV shows could address gay story lines without demeaning gay people.

In these episodes, some of the most memorable lines are given to Sophia, whom viewers might expect to be the least progressive about sexuality. Not so. Sophia has this perfectly reasonable response to the reveal of Jean’s sexuality: “Jean is a nice person. She happens to like girls instead of guys. Some people like cats instead of dogs. Frankly, I’d rather live with a lesbian than a cat.” The show always treated Sophia’s big mouth as a powder keg; the girls often cowered in fear at what Sophia might say next. But by bucking expectations here, Sophia gives the audience permission to be progressive. Sophia — the 80-something Italian Catholic immigrant, the one you’d expect to be homophobic — is utterly unperturbed by gay people. It’s a clever joke, of course, the subverting of audience expectation, but make no mistake: it’s also a political statement. It’s the politics of “it’s not a big deal” and “I wouldn’t love you any less.” It’s not revolutionary. But in 1986, gay panic was everywhere. The Christian right stoked the fire with the fear of disease, conflating the contagion of HIV with the threat of homosexuality to children and families. The federal government did its best to ignore the scourge of AIDS, and did little to stop the spread of misinformation and pseudoscience to a scared community. It was a dark and dangerous time for gay Americans. So, that little affirmation of love on a network sitcom — that treatment of coming-out as the terrifying and complex experience it is — may not have been revolutionary, but it certainly was important.

Aside from the explicitly gay stories, The Golden Girls has a queer ethos of sorts. I mentioned in my last piece that the girls represent a “chosen family,” something deeply important to gay culture. LGBT people often choose to seek out new familial bonds if their biological families are hostile or unwelcoming. I’ve always seen “Isn’t It Romantic?” as making a subtle joke about four grown women living together and none of them actually being gay. The community- and family-building of The Golden Girls is not exclusively a gay concept, but probably explains some of the show’s appeal to gay audiences.

The series’ liberal treatment of sex also speaks to LGBT audiences made to feel ashamed of their sexual choices. The sexual revolution had clearly arrived on Richmond St, Miami. The girls were Greatest Generation-ers living in a baby boomer world. Rose and Dorothy were true to their era, revealing early on that their husbands had been their only sexual partners for most of their lives. Blanche, on the other hand, had known, in her words, many, many men. We see the three women pursuing love and sex with openness and honesty, insecurity and vigor. The frank discussions the girls have about orgasms, sexual partners, and condoms, condoms, condoms are familiar and welcomed by gay audiences. I’ve always appreciated the diversity of experience among the women. Rose struggles with deciding whether to sleep with a man for the first time since her husband died. Dorothy knowingly sleeps with a married man. Sophia spends the night with a man and leaves after he won’t return her “I love you.” Each character reserves the right to change her mind about sex, to abstain, or to pursue pleasure without shame. You’d be forgiven if you think The Golden Girls was about old ladies having sex left and right. In reality, though, the show treated women’s love lives with emotional complexity.

We should keep in mind that these are post-menopausal women who still want love and sex. It’s remarkable how infrequently we see that, even now. I think there’s a connection here with gay folks; both gays and elderly women learn to be ashamed or ignore their sexual feelings, and our society in general frowns upon their sexual behavior as odd or abnormal (or just as bad: gross). We expect women of a certain age to close up shop. (To say nothing of 80-year-old men marrying and impregnating younger women.) Gay movements of the 70s and 80s celebrated sex and pleasure to counteract the sexual shame beaten into their heads, sometimes literally, since childhood. So, to see women in their dotage, basically our grandmothers, looking for love and sex, is something of a cathartic experience. It’s a sexuality that dare not speak its name. Who understands that better than LGBT people?

A note here about the endless ‘slut’ jokes aimed at Blanche over the years: it’s jarring now, yes. Third-wave feminism has helped to politicize sex positivity and to fight back against slut-shaming. But slut-shaming and “take back the night” movements are relatively new, and totally foreign to the Golden Girls. The show is not perfect in its depiction of sexuality, as it wrings lots of humor from Blanche the libertine. But I would argue that the other girls don’t disapprove of Blanche’s sexuality per se. They too pursue sex, and each has multiple partners throughout the series. They make no attempts to shame Blanche into changing her behavior.  (I mentioned in the previous piece that the only attempt to slut-shame Blanche in a truly hurtful way was shut down very, very quickly.) Still, I won’t deny that the attitudes seems a bit old-fashioned to a 2015 audience. I’m not sure if the girls were openly feminist, but they sure did a lot to create new paths for women on TV.

I didn’t know it when I was young, but the actresses themselves had quite the gay pedigree. Estelle Getty got her big break in the gay-themed play Torch Song Trilogy, and was one of the first celebrity AIDS activists. Bea Arthur was already known as the feminist icon Maude Findlay; in her real life, she was an AIDS and animal rights activist who bequeathed $300,000 to the Ali Forney Center, which provides housing for gay youth. Betty White was close friends with Rock Hudson, even sending him advance copies of the show shortly before his death. And Rue McClanahan . . . do I even have to explain? Rue had five husbands, Southern charm, and played Blanche with a total lack of self-consciousness. Blanche would have been almost too camp if the actress hadn’t been so intelligent. These women were Hollywood limousine liberals — in the dismissive words of 90s conservatives — but their characters had remarkable reach in Middle America. You don’t become a top 5 show catering only to the ‘coastal elites’.

The Golden Girls is such a warm, inviting experience that sometimes I get the feeling that it was made just for me. I feel that its universe appeals to me in a unique way. Of course, that’s not true, as it’s an international hit with legions of fans, gay, straight, and other. But that feeling is part of the genius of The Golden Girls: it manages to speak to gay fans in a way that most entertainment simply does not. Its warmth, its bawdiness, and its queerness envelope you, and before you know it, you’re family too.


(Image from thegoldengirlsreviewedby.com)


Death and Despair in Sitcom World: Why The Golden Girls Is Singularly Great

This is the first in a series of essays on the TV series I have loved, series that, at their best, tap into the universal but also seem to speak only to me. I hope to mix some cultural analysis with my own sentimental feelings. 

The Golden Girls is like home to me. I’ve been meaning to write about this show for years, but I always hesitate because the words don’t come freely. It’s been so much a part of my life — and so much has already been written — that it’s tough to know where to start. A recent A.V. Club essay on the series sparked my interest and revealed new ways to think about the show.

Many of us born in the 1980s (and later) discovered The Golden Girls as teenagers watching late-night reruns. The girls, as they called themselves, were around the same age as my grandparents. My initial reaction was shock at how bawdy and hilarious these old ladies were. Although I loved spending time with my grandparents (and still do), they certainly didn’t talk or act like Sophia and Blanche. As I got older, my understanding of the show’s humor morphed into appreciation and even awe. (Partly because now, in this culture driven by teen boys and cross-promotion, how could this show even make it to air? A modern Golden Girls is the stuff of internet fantasy.)

The Golden Girls is Golden Girlspraised for its sharp writing, the strong performances of its four leads, and its unprecedented portrayal of senior citizens on American TV. Although the series fell into some familiar sitcom tropes, the four leads created fully realized characters. Bea Arthur’s Dorothy remains one of the most shaded and three-dimensional sitcom characters I’ve ever seen. It was the perfect marriage of content and form, writing and acting: the scripts were clever enough to wring great, often stunning performances from its actors, and the actors contributed depth and subtlety to a genre riddled with cliche. But fans and critics often forget just how unconventional The Golden Girls was.

So much about it bucked tradition: older women with careers, pursuing casual sex and romance; the characters engaged with morally and politically charged issues like AIDS, gay rights, feminism, and ageism (with varying success, of course); and the women represented a chosen family, which endeared them to gay fans. The show’s expansive concept of family resonates deeply with gay fans to this day; young LGBT people, for decades, have built their own families out of necessity, as we are often cast out from our homes, misunderstood, or alienated by our own families. The show was an outlier in 80s sitcom world, which had mostly abandoned the social consciousness of Norman Lear’s 1970s shows in favor of “Morning in America” conventionality. (The creator of The Golden Girls, Susan Harris, wrote the controversial abortion episode of Maude in 1972.)

But what sticks out to me is what the A.V. Club’s Sonia Saraiya observed: this is a show about death. The spectre of death haunts the episodes so thoroughly that it’s impossible not to notice. The girls, in their late 50s and early 60s when the show began, have all been widowed or betrayed by their husbands and left behind by their families. In each other, they seek solace from loneliness. Despair, tempered by humor, pervades the series’ seven seasons. So many episodes focus on a family member or friend’s illness or death, and each of the girls has serious health scares of her own. Their dead husbands and parents haunt the show and its viewers’ collective memories.

The season 6 episode “Ebbtide’s Revenge,” in which Sophia’s son Phil dies, is particularly difficult. It features what I think is Estelle Getty’s best performance of the series. Sophia at first navigates her grief stone-faced, squabbling with Phil’s widow, Angela, over decades-long resentments. After the funeral, Sophia and Angela (the great Brenda Vaccaro) reveal the source of their conflict: Sophia’s shame over Phil’s cross-dressing and her supposed role in it, and that she allowed it to destroy their relationship. The show used cross-dressing as a joke for years, but here the writers mine it for pathos. Getty’s performance devastates, as she takes us through the complexities of her character’s grief: the loss of a child, the guilt of family estrangement, the mourning of lost time, and the loneliness and fear that often accompany aging. This is not typical sitcom material, but The Golden Girls makes full use of its premise and its performers to hit hard when it counts.

In “72 Hours,” Rose deals with the possibility that she was infected with HIV by a blood transfusion. Rose then has to endure a weekend worrying that she might have contracted a disease that will kill her. This episode has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality, and we should remember that many people were infected and died from AIDS in the 1980s and early 90s because of a reckless blood industry and the lack of a scientific consensus. The show uses Rose’s virtuousness to great effect. If a viewer thought, even for a moment, that the promiscuous Blanche was more likely to contract HIV, the writers set them straight. When Rose attempts to slut-shame her roommate, Rue McClanahan gets to speak this powerful message: “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins!” America was still in the grips of Reagan-Bush conservatism, and the AIDS crisis was mired in apathy and fear-mongering in the press and government. Activists were not only fighting for medical treatment, but were also trying to counter the homophobic notion that AIDS patients were getting what they deserved. That The Golden Girls — a series geared toward older people — took such a progressive stance is particularly daring.

Golden Girls kicking coffin

Of course, the series also uses death as the inspiration for a great many jokes. Take the classic “It’s a Miserable Life,” in which Rose ‘kills’ the despised neighbor Freida Claxton. Who can forget that kindly old lady kicking Mrs. Claxton’s coffin? There’s “Til Death Do We Volley,” which sees Dorothy’s old frenemy fake her own death on a tennis court. The pranks between the two then escalate to yet more sinister levels. And consider the deaths of off-screen characters deemed fortuitous by our girls (usually Rose) because it removed the competition from some bowling tournament or charity award.

So while The Golden Girls remains known for the dirty jokes that flew past network censors, perhaps its most daring contribution is its obsession with aging, loneliness, and eventually, death. The broadcasting model aims for mass appeal, and The Golden Girls succeeded, finishing in the top 10 most-watched shows for six of its seven seasons. But it also, unexpectedly, tapped into something nearly universal: the knowledge that time moves swiftly, that death is all around, and that old age can be deeply isolating. These women have chosen to face their final years together, because they love each other, and because it’s better than being alone.

Photo credits: Amazon.com, Goldengirls.wikia.com