The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “End of the Curse” (S2, Ep. 1)

As it’s been ages since I wrote anything about The Golden Girls, I thought I’d take a bit of a break from my novel and dissertation stuff to write a brief entry in The Great Golden Girls Marathon. Here, we move at last into the second season, wherein Blanche has to confront the fact that she is moving into the next phase of her life, when she is told that she has begun menopause.

To my eye, this episode marks a definitive turning point in the way that the series works. Whereas Season 1 focused primarily on the familial and the personal–conflicts with grandchildren, nephews, sons, daughters, etc.–the second begins to really break out in an explicit way into the broader political questions that will become one of the series’ hallmarks.

Further, it also marks some significant shifts in tone. As I noted several times in my discussion of the first season, the characters had not quite gelled yet, though they came pretty close by the season finale. Rose is the character that shows the greatest change from the first season. By this episode, she has largely shed the prude persona–so conspicuously on display in the episode in which Dorothy has an affair with a married man–and has slowly morphed into the naive, slightly dim-witted, yet incredibly sincere and lovable Rose that will be her incarnation for the remainder of the series. Her funniest moment in this episode comes from her fundamental understanding of what an aphrodisiac is, leading to an absolutely hilarious interchange with Dorothy about “African what?,” the singular or plural form of Spanish fly (or beetle); and whether minks can be induced to mate.

The real center of the episode, however, is Blanche’s body and her relationship to it.

There’s no question that the subject of women’s bodies and their functioning is one of the most vexed in western (and perhaps global) culture. This is particularly true of Blanche, who sees herself as, first and foremost, both an object of desire for men and, I would argue, as the agent of that desire. The accumulated myths associated with menopause (or “The Change,” as it is menacingly referred to throughout the episode) suggest to her that with this biological shift she is losing an essential part of her femininity that renders her into that desirable and desiring subject/object.

Fortunately, the episode goes out of its way to inform Blanche (and us), that there is nothing unnatural about this shift. As her psychologist tells her, she will still be the same Blanche that she has always been, the same desiring, fun-loving woman with an uninhibited sex drive. Rather than seeing her as deranged–which Rose seems to, quite problematically, believe–he helps de-escalate her psychological state. As a result, she goes from seeing in her face the shade of her mother to hitting on the veterinarian who comes to examine the minks. She has emerged triumphant, back to being the love goddess that we know and love.

It is also worth noting that the series other major plotline, the breeding of minks for their fur, also expresses (albeit more subtly) one of the other semi-consistent political issues of the series: the ethical treatment of animals. Fortunately, the minks don’t end up being fur coats.

Next up, we come to one of my favourite episodes, in which the women’s plans to meet Burt Reynolds go terribly awry…

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Big Daddy” (S1, Ep. 23)

Since its been ages since I published a post about The Golden Girls, and since I needed something to distract me from some personal grief, I thought I’d write another one. In today’s episode, we meet Blanche’s father “Big Daddy” who, unbeknownst to her, has sold the family mansion and taken up a career as a country singer.

While Big Daddy will appear in another episode, this iteration is a rather earthier, more homespun charmer than his later incarnation. It’s clear that Blanche has a very close relationship with her father, yet it is equally true that she cares just as much about the dignity of the family name (for anyone who is from the South, this should sound and feel quite familiar). Unfortunately, as the episode progresses, she finds that her interest in maintaining the latter conflicts with the former.

There are truly some golden comedic exchanges, as when Big Daddy asks Dorothy to promise him that she won’t “fret none.” Dorothy, with her typical dead-pan delivery, says she would so, only she doesn’t know what “fret none is.” Of course, part of the humour in this situation arises from Dorothy’s ever-present skepticism and indeed dismissal of the peculiarities of southern culture.

Despite the episode’s focus on the personal relationship between Blanche and her father, there is also an ever-so-slight feminist element that springs from the conflict between the women and their cantankerous neighbour who refuses to repair the damage done by his tree.

TV Review: “Feud”–“Hagsploitation” (S1, Ep. 6)

A friend recently remarked to me that, every time he watched an episode of Feud, he felt as if nothing significant had transpired. As I continue to watch, I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with him. While there is still much to love about this series, it does feel like it’s beginning to drag a bit, weighed down by its own pretensions.

In this episode, Joan attempts to resuscitate her career by acting in cheesy horror films, while Bette also struggles to find roles that are worthy of her talents. However, Aldrich is determined to cement his legacy and so, even as his marriage falls apart, he proposes another entry in the “Hagsploitation” genre (a term allegedly coined by Jack Warner), and he hopes to reunite Crawford and Davis and continue to exploit their antipathy toward one another.

The relationship between Aldrich and Bette, as always, continues to ring the truest and to have the most emotional depth. There is an undeniable chemistry between Sarandon and Molina, and they carry this over into the fondness that these individuals have for one another. They understand one another, even more so now that Aldrich is faced with a life without his wife (who has told him she wants a divorce due to his inability to truly privilege her in the face of his work).

As always, though, it is Lange who steals the show, and she manages to continue wringing the role of Joan for all of the pathos that it’s worth. While it remains unclear whether the real Joan Crawford–if we can even speak of such a thing–would ever have shown the type of vulnerability that Lange conveys, the fact remains that Lange combines strength with vulnerability. Lange’s Crawford is knowing and understanding about what the world is like, and the world of Hollywood in particular, but this knowledge does not give her any sort of comfort. Knowledge in this context proves to be just as much a burden as it is a blessing.

She does, however, display a true spine of steel when her brother threatens her with an alleged video of her performance in a stag film (the rumour of the existence of such a film ultimately sunders her friendship with Hedda). While she pays off his demands, she does so because she values her career and her accomplishments above everything else, and she is not about to let a money-grubber, even if he happens to be related to her by blood. Thus, when she finds that he has died during an emergency operation on his appendix, her first move is to cancel the payment on her check. For Joan, family is a burden, yet another sacrifice that she must make in order to solidify her career and the reputation that she has taken such an effort to maintain.

However, while I still take a lot of pleasure in this show, it’s clear that it’s starting to run out of steam a bit. I’ve thought for some time now that it would have probably made more narrative sense for this to have either been two episodes shorter or to have been released all at once. For me as a viewer, the appeal of the show continues to lie in the performances and the sumptuousness of the image, rather than in the narrative. I’m not sure that this is entirely as Murphy intends it, but I have long felt that his skills as an image-maker and as a casting agent far excel his skills as a creator of long-form drama. I suppose that we will have to wait until the final episode to see if my theory is proven correct. (Note: while he is not the writer or director of most of the episodes so far, his imprint is indelibly stamped on the series as a whole)

Overall, I found this to be a touching entry, but I’m still a little unclear about what the series in the aggregate will look like. If the series’ purpose was to show the ways in which women are exploited in Hollywood and their interests sublimated in the service of men’s profit, then that mission has already been well-accomplished. However, one can hop that there will be a deeper takeaway by the end, one that merits the expanded frame of the narrative.

TV Review: “Feud”–“The Other Woman” (S1, Ep. 2)

There’s nothing quite like settling in with your Boyfriend to catch up on last week’s episode of Ryan Murphy’s FX series Feud: Bette and Joan. In the episode, titled “The Other Woman,” the tensions between the two women continue to ratchet ever-upward, exacerbated by the machinations of the men running the show (Robert Aldrich and Jack Warner) and by the malevolent Heddy Hopper and other gossip columnists who are only too eager to exploit the escalating tensions between the two women for their own financial benefit.

The strongest part of the series continues to be the performance from Lange and Sarandon. While Lange manages to convey the bruised and aching heart of Crawford–battered by decades in Hollywood at the mercy of the men in charge–she also shows the inner core of iron that allowed this working-class girl to become one of the most prominent stars of classic Hollywood. For all of her vulnerability, there is still a harshness to her, one that only bursts out of her at moments of extreme stress and anger, as when she commands her current husband to leave.

For her part, Sarandon continues to bring a similar amalgam to her characterization of Bette Davis. Her voice has the same sort of tough hoarseness that was Davis’s trademark, and she also manages to convey a similar blend of steely strength and aching vulnerability. Sarandon’s Davis is a woman caught in an impossible position; her belligerent daughter has already begun to turn against her, reminding her in a fit of the fact that she is no longer young. Yet she also is a woman single-mindedly devoted to her craft. Unlike Joan, who seems to be more committed to her star status, Davis sees herself as an actress, a distinction that has, in the historiography of both stars, become the accepted wisdom.

As with the pilot, this episode of Feud continues to highlight its awareness the hypocrisy and cynicism that seethes beneath the glossy surface of Hollywood life. Hollywood cares for nothing more than the accumulation of further financial gain, and it is willing to destroy the lives of the women who, it must be admitted, are key to its very system. Even the redoubtable Hedda Hopper, along with her truly glorious hats, can’t seem to find in herself to have any innate compassion for her fellow women. It is only when Joan promises to let her in on some juicy gossip for her noxious columns that she agrees to be her ally, and it is her machinations that lead Aldrich to betray both women in his own relentless pursuit of career advancement.

While they only appear only briefly, both Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones deliver strong, precise performances as Joan Blondell and Olivia De Havilland. Both of them act as a sort of Greek chorus, offering the audience a sense of the conflicted position women occupied (and continue to occupy) in the entertainment industry. They are the source of one another’s greatest strength and yet they are repeatedly encouraged by the industry to tear one another apart in the media and in the eyes of the public.

All in all, I found this to be an extremely compelling piece of television. Love him or hate him, but Murphy has a knack for churning out stories that help us to understand and empathize with powerful women who are punished by the societies in which they live. It remains to be seen, however, whether Feud can continue threading the precarious needle it has set itself. Is it possible to critique a system that encourages women to hate each other by providing a pleasurable drama about…women hating each other?

Only time will tell.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Blind Ambitions”

Since it’s been quite a while since I posted about my dearly-beloved Golden Girls, I thought I’d take a minute and post about one of my favourite episodes from the first season. In this episode, we meet yet another member of the extended family, in this case Lily, Rose’s sister, who has recently gone blind and struggles to make it on her own.

As my Boyfriend recently pointed out, it’s an interesting fact that the women that hail from St. Olaf (with the exception of Rose) seem to be a bit quicker on the uptake than Rose herself. This is distinct from the men, such as Rose’s cousin Sven or the three men who come to determine whether Rose will be eligible for the St. Olaf Woman of the Year Prize, all of whom are quite as dense (if not more so) than Rose. Lily seems to have escaped the veil of idiocy that surrounds almost all of the other inhabitants of this small Minnesota town.

Throughout the episode, brief as it is, we get a good sense that Lily has really struggled to adapt to life as a blind person. She is clearly a woman who is used to doing what she wants when she wants, and her physical disability has made it difficult for her to adapt to a different kind of life. As a result, she finds that she has to rely on Rose to an extraordinary degree and, unsurprisingly, she asks Rose to come life with her. As happens so often in the series, Rose finds herself torn between various competing personal loyalties.

I’ve always thought that The Golden Girls was fairly progressive in its articulation and representation of disability. The disabled persons who appear in the show are, in many ways, treated just like any other characters. For the most part they aren’t just magical figures that sweep in for a very special episode, only to serve as a message. Now, admittedly, Lily doesn’t really appear again in the show, but it is true that she has a richness and a depth that one rarely sees in a one-off sitcom appearance. We get a real sense of her, both as an individual as well as part of Rose’s very large family. Just as importantly, we also get a strong, almost gut-wrenching sense of what she has lost, when she breaks down and confesses that she yearns for the days when she could still see.

It is thus refreshing that the episode ends with Lily taking control of her own life and deciding that she can, indeed, be independent without Rose’s assistance. Rose’s decision to force Lily to be independent is certainly heart-wrenching for her, but in the end it enables Lily to prove to herself and to her sister that she is capable of leading a life of her own without assistance from others.

Of course, the episode is also full of some truly hilarious moment, as when Rose rediscovers her old teddy bear that was almost sold at the garage sale. The high-pitched voce that she adopts when talking with that teddy bear engenders a screech of dismay from Dorothy, and it is hard not to erupt into laughter at the banter between these two.

Next up, we meet Blanche’s father Big Daddy. Blanche, like her fellow women, must contend with the various pressures of a family.

Review: “Feud”–“Pilot”

Let me begin by saying that I’ve been looking forward to Ryan Murphy’s new FX anthology drama Feud: Bette and Joan from the moment that it was announced. As a long-time lover of classical Hollywood, of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and of women’s pictures, this seemed like the perfect mix of everything I loved. And indeed, if the first episode is any indication, it will more than fulfill my expectations.

When it comes to playing abject (anti)-heroines, no one excels like Jessica Lange. Since her several-season run on Murphy’s other successful series American Horror Story, Lange has become acknowledged as one of the leading actresses of her generation, a woman able to not only inhabit her roles but to bring to her flawed characters a deep well of humanity. In Joan Crawford, that most contradictory of classic Hollywood actresses, she finds a character worthy of her tremendous abilities. Within a little more than an hour, Lange has managed to show us the dark depths of Crawford’s tortured soul.

While I personally strongly dislike Susan Sarandon, she does an extraordinary Bette Davis. This is the tough-as-nails actress who took no prisoners and drank and swore with the best of them. And as Joan Blondell says, she always puts the professional before the personal, and as a result she is able to attain heights of acting glory that remain the envy of her nemesis and co-star Crawford. There is no question that Davis was a better actress than Crawford, and in Sarandon she has found a fitting avatar, a woman unafraid of telling everyone in her path what she thinks of them.

Indeed, it seems to me that part of what makes Feud such a compelling show is the fact that a high-profile series has provided a vehicle for two aging actresses. And the series goes out of the way to show that Bette and Joan, for all of their acrimony, actually have far more in common than any other two women in their world. They are both vestiges of a Hollywood system that made use of their talents while caring little for their welfare (as evidenced by Stanley Tucci’s reprehensible Jack Warner). Yet, precisely because they are products of a system that sets women against one another and that has already left them behind, they also find that they can never express any true affection for one another.

Whatever his failings as an auteur, Murphy has a keen eye for a story about the relationships among women, and he knows how to make these stories truly emotionally resonant. One can’t help but be reminded of Billy Wilder’s extraordinary work in Sunset Boulevard, or the many women’s pictures produced during the height of classic Hollywood (the ones in which Crawford and Davis made their reputations). As with those other films of yore, Feud immerses us in a world of pathos, sadness, and delicious poison, so that we can’t help but take pleasure in the seething hatred that slowly re-emerges between these two powerful women.

Murphy also has a keen eye for colour and decor, which is readily apparent with his new outing. The hues seem to pop off the screen, sometimes a little too garish for comfort, a searing reminder of the larger-than-life personalities and heightened emotions these two women experience as they find themselves in a maelstrom of vitriol and ever-deepening and decidedly mutual loathing. They can’t seem to escape from their surroundings, bound together in a cycle of destruction that threatens to consume them both.

All in all, the pilot of this show hopefully bodes well for a thrilling and delicious season of venom and vitriol. Could you ask for more?

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Adult Education” (S1, Ep. 20)

In today’s entry in The Great Golden Girls Marathon, Blanche is confronted by her professor, who tells her that the only way that she will be able to pass his class is by sleeping with him. Meanwhile, the other three women attempt to get tickets to see Frank Sinatra.

For me, this episode has always been one of the most explicitly feminist in its sensibilities. The episode is a scathing indictment of the way that men in positions of power think that they have the right to women’s bodies (and the expectation that women will give in to their demands for that access). Once again, it is uncanny how relevant the series has become in the era of Donald Trump, when the President-elect of the country has openly bragged about assaulting women and has won the election anyway.

The most frustrating part of the episode, however, is Blanche’s meeting with Dean Tucker. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has had dealings with university administration that he is not only criminally inept (he doesn’t even know which form the incident requires), but he seems far more interested in brushing the affair under the rug than in actually taking this harassment seriously. Like so many men that occupy positions of power, he remains much more invested in both protecting his fellow man and insulating himself from potential criticism than in helping the woman who has come to him for his assistance.

Furthermore, this incident reveals a problem that still exists in terms of women’s reporting of sexual assault. When she explains that there were no witnesses to the encounter, he immediately reminds her that given it’s a matter of “he said/she said,” he has to err on the side of caution rather than let the professor’s reputation suffer. Never mind that a woman has basically been assaulted by a man in a position of power.  The incident, as frustrating (nay, infuriating) as it is, reveals just how deeply run the channels of rape culture. It is always the woman whose account is called into question; the man is always presumed (because of his power) to be the innocent party.

Fortunately, though, Blanche does end up having the last laugh, since she does manage to attain the grade through sheer hard work and determination. The moment when she proudly tells her sleazy professor to “kiss my A” is one of the most rousing and fulfilling of the first season, a symbolic victory over the kinds of men (like our very own President-elect) who make this world such an unpleasant and downright dangerous place for women.

I’ve always found this to be a peculiarly vexed episode, though, especially considering the many subsequent times that Blanche actually does use her wiles to get the test information in later episodes. However, in those cases, I would suggest that those efforts are undertaken by Blanche rather than pushed upon her. As always, The Golden Girls straddles the line when it comes to politics, showing the conflicted and often contradictory spaces that women occupy in a culture that still views their bodies as fundamentally not their own.

Next up, the four women have the misfortune of contracting the flu, leading to an episode that is full of some of the best barbs and insults of the entire first season.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Second Motherhood” (S1, Ep.19)

In today’s installment, we’re going to be talking about yet another suitor of Blanche’s who wants her to marry him, a certain wealthy widower named Richard.

Since Blanche is, unequivocally, the youngest of the four, it makes sense that she would be the one who could most easily slip back into the role of mother should the necessity arise (this is a theme that will emerge several times in the series run). However, she also comes to recognize that she can’t fix all of the problems that have already started to afflict his family, including his divided loyalties between his sprawling business empire and his children.

As always, however, the narrative forecloses on the possibility that Blanche is going to actually marry this man. For all that they actually seem to get along well, and for all that he would provide a measure of financial and domestic stability that she lacks, the series again reminds us that it is the relationship among the women that takes center stage. While Blanche does not say so specifically, it’s clear that she is not willing or able to take on the responsibility of fixing the many domestic problems that Richard has already begun to encounter.

The other narrative thread of the episode follows Dorothy and Rose as they attempt to install a toilet on their own. Of course, this whole sequence is delightfully ridiculous, as the plumber turns out to be quite  misogynist jerk who labours under the impression that women, especially older women, are incapable of doing male domestic labour. Of course, the two of them do, in fact, manage to successfully install it, giving the lie to the idea that two elderly women can’t take control of their own homes.

While this may seem a bit of a banal point, I do think it says something that Dorothy and Rose are able to reclaim this symbolic victory from the men who would dismiss them out of hand simply because of their gender and their age. Given that we now live in a country in which a notorious misogynist like Donald Trump has now been given the reins of power, this message of empowerment and reclamation seems to have taken on an extra layer of significance. This particular story gives us hope that even in the darkest of times there are still moments of representation–the symbolic, if you will–that show us what an alternative world might look like.

To me, the unruly women of The Golden Girls, with their refusal to cave in to the demands of patriarchal culture, are an important corrective to the world we are facing. We can look at them and draw hope from the fact that they managed to express such radical politics even during the backlash era, and we can continue to fight back against the powers arrayed against us.

Next up, we come to one of the most politically pointed episodes of the entire first season when Blanche is confronted with sexual harassment at her adult education course.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Nice and Easy” (S1, Ep. 17)

It’s become something of a recurring theme in these posts that I discuss the importance of family to so many of the storylines in The Golden Girls, and today’s post is no different. In today’s episode, we get to meet Blanche’s (rather obnoxious) niece Lucy, who quickly shows that she has taken her aunt’s example to hear and has begun her own rather unruly exploration of her burgeoning sexuality. She soon reveals, however, that her attempts to mimic her aunt come from a profound sense of insecurity.

There are some really funny bits in this episode, including the revelation that Rose is a huge fan of Miami Vice. I’ve always been partial to those moments in the series when we get references to other shows running at the same time (there are at least two references from Sophia referring to Designing Women). To me, these references reveal the extent to which The Golden Girls was a very self-conscious show, perfectly aware of its own place in the television landscape of its own time. Indeed, it won’t be the last time that the show will make reference to Miami Vice. (By the way, how funny is it that Rose of all of them is the one obsessed with the show?)

The most compelling moment of the episode, however, is when Blanche takes Lucy to task for her behavior and her bouncing from one relationship to another in the space of a few days. Lucy, and I’m sure most of those watching the episode, rightly takes note of the fact that this criticism rings a bit hypocritical coming from Blanche of all people, who is hardly known for her circumspection in matters of the boudoir. Just as importantly, however, Lucy also reveals how uncertain she is about her own sense of self. While her fate remains somewhat uncertain by the end of the episode, we get the feeling that she will grow up to be as self-aware of her own sexuality and its powerful possibilities as her aunt.

What I find most extraordinary about this episode, however, is the way in which Blanche neatly turns Lucy’s criticism on its head. Rather than acting ashamed of her own sexual proclivities, she proudly tells her niece that her decision to bestow her favors on her gentleman callers is a decision that she undertakes of her own volition, not because she needs them to make her feel validated. This is one of the earliest of Blanche’s forthright reclamations of her sexuality from the jaws of patriarchal prudery, and I always cheer a little when I heard her say this. (Stay tuned for my entry on the episode on Valentine’s Day, when Blanche makes an even more empowered speech).

In our next installment, we move on to a moment of vulnerability for Dorothy, as well as some of the finest dancing the show ever produced. We also get to meet one of the ’80s most iconic sitcom guest stars (I’ll save her name until the post itself).

See you then!

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “The Truth Will Out” (S1, Ep. 16)

In today’s entry in “The Great Golden Girls Marathon,” we once again meet some members of the girls’ family, in this case Rose’s daughter Kirsten and granddaughter Charley. While Rose has spent the years since her husband’s death cultivating his legacy and encouraging her children to see him as a successful businessman, it gradually becomes clear that, in fact, he was a terrible salesman, and that he left her very little in his will.

However, on the way to that revelation, Rose finds that she has to lie to both her daughter and her friends, claiming that it was bad investments on her part that led to the lack of funds. Kirsten, unsurprisingly, condemns her mother’s alleged irresponsibility, proclaiming that she has never been so ashamed of her. Somehow, it becomes acceptable for her to show the utmost disregard for her mother’s feelings, to say nothing of the respect that she should theoretically at least an effort to demonstrate.

It should come as no surprise that Kirsten proves to be quite the ungrateful and indeed disrespectful to her mother when she believes that Rose has squandered the fortune that her father allegedly built. The fraught and often contentious relationship between children and their parents would prove to be an ongoing tension in many episodes of the series (not least between Dorothy and Sophia), but here it takes on an especially cutting edge, and we’re definitely not encouraged to sympathize with Kirsten.

Indeed, it’s only when Rose realizes that the myth she has propagated about Charlie has begun to distort the view that her grandchildren have of their grandfather that she feels that she must at last come clean about the reality of his legacy. It’s rather touching, I think, that Rose was willing to sacrifice her own good image in her daughter’s eyes rather than sully her husband’s conversation. It’s also rather nice that Rose, and Kirsten, finally realize that it is Charlie’s success as a good person that matters, more than the amount of money that he was able to leave his widow and family.

In a fun bit of casting trivia, this is the first of two times that daughter Kirsten appears in the show. She would return in the final season when Rose suffers cardiac arrest, though in the latter she is played by a different actress. If anything, her later incarnation is even more unpleasant, since she blames the other four women for her mother’s health scare. Truly, Kirsten is one of the most unpleasant of the many progeny that appear in the show, and one wonders how someone as sweet and kind as Rose could raise such an unpleasant daughter (I’ll have much more to say on this when we get to Kirsten’s second appearance).

In the next episode, we meet yet another member of the extended family (which happens a great deal in the series, particularly in the first season), when Blanche’s niece Lucy comes for a visit and reveals that she acts a little more like Blanche than is probably good for her.