The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “Isn’t it Romantic?” (S2, Ep. 5)

“Isn’t it Romantic,” the fifth episode of the second season of The Golden Girls, is one of the most famous (and, for some, infamous), since it deals with lesbian desire. In the episode, Dorothy’s college friend Jean (played by the warm and divine Lois Nettleton), reeling from the death of her partner, finds herself falling in love with Rose.

First of all, let’s talk about Lois Nettleton. For years before she guest starred in The Golden Girls, Nettleton was a well-regarded character actress, appearing in a wide variety of television series throughout her long career. As a result, she brings to Jean an earthiness and a warmth that renders her utterly believable as a woman who has lost the love of her life and is trying to find a way of moving forward. It would be very easy to make her an object of pity or ridicule, but the writers, and Nettleton, chose instead to portray this is a very human response to grief. Nettleton has an effortless charm that allows her to inhabit the role, and you find yourself loving Jean from the moment she appears on screen.

Some, I’m sure, will feel uncomfortable with the way in which the series plays into the myth that gay people are always aiming to seduce straight people. Others have also criticized the episode for reaffirming Rose’s heterosexuality. These critiques, in my view, grossly overlook what the episode actually accomplishes. It allows us to see Jean as fundamentally human, as prone to mix-ups and awkward feeling as the rest of us. More importantly, in my view, it also gives Rose the chance to talk maturely and seriously with Jean about her feelings. Although, she says, she doesn’t understand these feelings, she tries to imagine what it would be like, and she tells Jean that she would be proud that she was the recipient of them.

It’s important here that it is Rose, simple, naïve Rose, with whom Jean falls in love. Of all the women, it is Rose who seems to have the best heart and the sweetest nature, and it is exactly these things that allows her to respond to Jean’s overtures not with disgust but with warmth and love and generosity. This response fits in with the overall ethos of the episode, which can be summed up in Sophia’s pithy remark that she’d rather live with a lesbian than a cat, which is not only funny but a remark strikingly ahead of its time.

But of course, no discussion of this episode would be complete without the incident in which Blanche confuses “lesbian” with “Lebanese” (when told that Jean is a lesbian she responds, “Isn’t Danny Thomas one?”) For Blanche, the more upsetting part of the entire revelation is that Jean prefers Rose over her, and her histrionics are yet another testament to how profoundly talented Rue McClanahan was as a comedic actress.

All in all, I tend to come away from this episode feeling positive about the ways in which it affirms the power of acceptance. For a show produced in the 1980s, when the religious right was on the ascendant and a staunch Republican was in the White House, this was more than a little radical. That’s why, even all of these years later, I still find its message of warmth and generosity so powerful, so moving.

Next up, we get to meet (again) Blanche’s father Big Daddy, and Dorothy and Rose pen one of the series’ most famous songs.

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