I wrote this paper for an LGBT class I took in fall, and with Obama’s recent signing of an anti-discrimination for hospital visitation bill, I thought it’d be a good time to share it. I know most people won’t want to read a school paper for fun, but if anybody’s interested, here it is!
The Golden Grrrls: How Four Hetero-Broads Create and Thrive in a Queer Aesthetic
At first look, a television sitcom detailing the lives of four heterosexual, elderly women might seem the furthest thing from queer, but by using Alexander Doty’s “Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon” essay and Richard Dyer’s “It’s Being So Camp as Keeps Us Going” as lenses, as well as applying other important ideas about non-traditional family units and homo-sociality, The Golden Girls reveals itself as an example of mainstream media that presents a queer aesthetic. In the episode “The Ebbtide’s Revenge” from season six, the women deal with the death of Sophia’s son and Dorothy’s brother, the oft-mentioned but never seen Phil. Through his death the audience learns that Phil’s life proved fruitful: he provided well for his family, was a great husband and father, and coincidentally, he enjoyed wearing ladies’ clothes with the support of everyone in his life except Sophia. The theme of this episode, coupled with the show’s overall styling and presentation, offers an incredibly progressive view on how autonomous, independent women function as a unit, and how honest analyses of queer issues result in acceptance and enrichment instead of discrimination and ridicule.
At the outset of his work “Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon,” Doty establishes a key point in the ongoing argument for critically analyzing “mainstream” and “popular” texts with a queer understanding. He writes, “While representation isn’t ‘real life,’ I think representation can be understood in ways as subtle and complex as those with which we understand real life.” (Doty 7) Although The Golden Girls, as in the episode in question, occasionally directly addresses issues of the LGBT community and does so in a predominantly progressive light, its great victory lies in its subversively enlightened take on the banal topics associated with its category of mainstream sitcoms aimed at an older, female audience.
A key element of the show’s non-conformity comes in the form of Blanche’s campy over-feminization, and how her friends accept her style while refusing it for themselves. Blanche constructs her persona in much the same way as John Wayne branded himself as hyper-masculine. In “It’s Being so Camp as Keeps Us Going” Dyer writes, “Gay camp can emphasize what a production number the Wayne image is – the lumbering gait, drawling voice and ever more craggy face are a deliberately constructed and manufactured image of virility.” (Dyer 115) Comparably, Blanche emphasizes her daintiness, her sultry, Southern voice and her youthful appearance, all of which tie directly to her extremely active eroticism.
Blanche cannot help but display her sexuality, even as the women somberly prepare for Phil’s funeral in “The Ebbtide’s Revenge”; when Dorothy expresses incredulity at her wardrobe choice, Blanche replies in her classic, vixenish fashion: “Dorothy, you know this is my funeral dress. I don’t believe in wearing black, unless I’m a bit bloated.” Blanche’s predilection for wielding her sexuality acts as a chief component of her personality, one that her friends recognize in her but do not attempt to replicate. This crucial difference positions Blanche’s persona on the queer side of camp; the show never intends to present it as the ideal of femininity, as proven by the steadfastness with which Dorothy, Rose and Sophia remain comfortable with their own unique personalities and styles. Phil’s widow Angela, too, represents an over-the-top style replete with loud colors and animal prints, an eccentricity that signifies her connection to and acceptance of her husband’s nonconformist lifestyle.
The biting witty banter the women share on the show further establishes the status of The Golden Girls as camp. For example, when Sophia sees Blanche’s choice of funeral dress, the two share the following repartee:
SOPHIA: Well, I’m all set. What’s with Satan’s secretary?
BLANCHE: Sophia, I believe Phil would’ve liked this dress.
SOPHIA: Liked it? He would’ve looked great in it!
While the funny exchange provides humor and entertainment, it also contains a hidden pitfall. As Dyer writes, “The fun, the wit, has its drawbacks too. It tends to lead to an attitude that you can’t take anything seriously, everything has to be turned into a witticism or a joke.” (Dyer 111) The danger of addressing serious issues in sitcoms existed before and persists since The Golden Girls, but the episode balances comedy with significance, addressing Sophia’s struggle to balance her love for her son and the guilt she feels for somehow producing the trait in him. After holding back her emotions for the duration of the funeral, she breaks down, sobbing: “I did love him. He was my son, my little boy, but every time I saw him I always wondered what I did, what I said, when was the day that I did whatever I did to make him the way he was.” The episode ends with Angela consoling Sophia with a truth that many viewers might not consider possible, given Phil’s cross-dressing, saying, “What he was, Sophia, was a good man.”
Portraying a man who enjoys wearing women’s clothes in such a light, highlighting his humanity, his abilities to provide for his family and to be missed by his mother, exemplifies the refreshingly progressive perspective of The Golden Girls, but this story-line makes up just thirty minutes of a show that spanned seven seasons and 180 episodes; the overall story-arc, four elderly women co-habitating and forming a non-traditional family unit, proves more radical than any individual issue addressed in a single episode, and based on one of Dyer’s definitions, can be categorized as queer. The show exemplifies Dyer’s notion, as he writes, “Some of the most exciting deployments of ‘queer/queerness’ are related to the word’s ability to describe those complex circumstances in texts, spectators, and production that resist easy categorization, but definitely escape or defy the heteronormative.” (Dyer 7) While the women identify as heterosexual, they never allow that classification to determine their place in society. Rose continues to work and volunteer, Dorothy maintains her career as a substitute teacher while also caring for her mother, Sophia depends on her daughter, but has a life outside the home, and Blanche refuses to ignore her sexual needs in the name of propriety. All in all, they reject the social more that dictates that women need men to head their households.
Although the women date and try to find romantic connections with men, their living arrangement calls into the question the validity of society’s insistence on nuclear-family households, and the hetero-normative, phallocentric and completely restrictive system that such a focus propagates. As Lisa Duggan and Richard Kim address in their 2005 article “Beyond Gay Marriage” for The Nation, “The stress on households is intensifying, as people try to do more with less. Care for children and the elderly, for the ill and disabled, has been shifted toward unpaid women at home or to low-paid, privately employed female domestic workers.” (Duggan, Rich 2) For the four single women of The Golden Girls to provide for themselves, in a system that tends to discriminate against both women and the elderly, pooling their resources as a non-conjugal family unit allows for an affordable and manageable autonomy.
The women’s lifestyle leans toward what Duggan classifies as one choice offered in “the moral conservative’s nightmare vision of a flexible menu of options,” in her 2004 solo article “Holy Matrimony!” Duggan writes the following in response to the knee-jerk reaction of the right: “What if there were a way to separate the tax advantages of joint household recognition, or the responsibilities of joint parenting, from the next-of-kin recognition so that such rights might go to a non-co-resident relative, a friend or a lover? And what if many benefits, such as health insurance, could be available to all without regard for household or partnership status?”(Duggan, 2)Duggan asserts that these possibilities could lead to a true equality across the lines of sexual-orientation, gender, race, age and class.
Between bouts of laughter and camaraderie, The Golden Girls addresses pressing social concerns both overtly and subtly, and the fundamental structure of the show and nature of the relationships it presents combine to offer a witty, conscientious, and forward-looking point of view. The episode “The Ebb-Tide’s Revenge” focuses the show’s spotlight onto a particularly contentious LGBT issue, but by addressing it with an honest and sincere perception, the episode reflects the series’s broader progressive and open-minded objectives.