Now we come to what I think is one of the finest episodes of the entire series (yes, I know I’ve said that before, and I’ll probably say it again). Both bittersweet and joyful, “Isn’t it Romantic?” exemplifies the best that The Golden Girls has to offer.
In this episode, Dorothy’s friend Jean (played with inimitable charm by Lois Nettleton) comes for a visit. While warm and delightful and quick to make friends with Rose and Blanche, Jean also harbors something of a secret. Her recently-deceased partner Pat was not, as everyone seems to assume, a man, but a woman. And, on top of that, she gradually finds herself falling for Rose, whose farm-girl cuteness appeals to Jean’s own loneliness and vulnerability. While Rose must ultimately let Jean down easily, the two agree that they can remain friends.
Part of what makes this episode work is the sheer charm exuded by veteran TV actress Lois Nettleton. She’s one of those people that you know you’ve seen on some TV show from the ’60s or ’70s, though you may not be able to say what it was or who she played. Regardless of the role, however, Nettleton always manages to convey the inner warmth and goodness of her characters.
Some, I’m sure, will see in Rose’s repudiation of Jean’s feelings a warning about the the futility of queer desire, but to my mind it’s a very human and natural storyline portrayed in a very sympathetic light. Jean is not rendered into a stereotype or a pathetic figure, but is instead simply a woman who found herself falling for another woman whose kindness and goodness of spirit are some of her most attractive qualities.
As always, Sophia leads the way when it comes to the perspective the viewer is meant to take on Jean’s sexuality. While everyone (including Dorothy) makes a big deal out of it, Sophia accepts it without question, commenting that some people prefer cats over dogs, and some women prefer women over men. It is the blunt simplicity of Sophia’s statement that always stands out to me, as she reveals the folly of overanalyzing human desire and emphasizing the things that we share as fellow human beings.
Yet even Rose, who seems quite befuddled about the whole affair, ultimately concludes that, were she gay, she would proud that Jean felt that way about her. This might seem a little trite to some, but it always resonates with me. Let’s be real; we queer folk have a tendency to fall in love with the straights, and for many of us that is one of the most painful experiences we have as we come into our own as queer people. Far too often, our feelings for our straight friend is met with contempt, if not violence. Isn’t an expression of pride and compassion better than disgust and revulsion? Let’s remember that this is the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was still doing everything in its considerable power to make sure that queer folk stayed invisible. Jean’s visibility, and the girls’ acceptance of her, is a well-deserved slap in the face to that repressive ideology.
But of course no discussion of this episode would be complete without mentioning the uproariously funny jokes that emerge, foremost of which is Blanche’s confusion of “lesbian” with “Lebanese,” with a bit of Danny Thomas thrown in for good measure. The best part is that Blanche is mortally offended that Jean would prefer Rose over her, though she also admits that it’s fine, even if she doesn’t understand it. There is an irony here, given Blanche’s later outrage at her brother’s homosexuality, but that’s a post for another day.