Tag Archives: the golden girls politics

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…

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The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Flu Attack” (S1, Ep. 21)

Well, it has been a long time since I wrote a post on The Golden Girls. So, to take a bit of a break from the oppressive political news that seems to assail us each and every day, I decided to do a short entry on one of the final episodes of the first season, “Flu Attack,” in which Blanche, Dorothy, and Rose contract a flu and, in the midst of their sniping, also must contend with the fact that each of them is in the running for a prestigious volunteer award.

The episode is marked in particular by one of Sophia’s most humorous and self-reflexive stories. In her telling, pesto was inadvertently created when a village healer gave “Salvador, the village idiot” a salve for an ear infection. Once he realized that the substance actually tasted great on linguini, he decided to market it. When Dorothy accuses her of making the whole thing up, Sophia immediately responds, “I’m old. I’m supposed to be colorful.” Naturally, the scene is played for laughs, but it also contains an awareness of the

The revelation that it is Sophia who will be winning the Best Friend of the Friends of Good Health Award is one of the first instances in which we see her extraordinary level of involvement in the community (this theme emerges more fully in a future season). Furthermore, it also allows us to see the extent to which all four of them are deeply engaged in civic and public service. In the past, some critics have reprimanded the show for not allowing its four women to be more politically active, and I have always wondered if they have been watching the same show that I have. While a writer like Susan Faludi states that the women are safely ensconced in the home (and thus do not pose a challenge to the male order), I would argue that these moments of engagement on their part actually do serve as a site of resistance. They refuse to fade into irrelevance,

I’ve always found this to be one of the best episodes from the first season, as it is one of the ones that clearly shows how both the writing has matured and the four leads have begun to grow more comfortable with one another. There is still a bit of an edge to the comedy, but by now it has already been tempered by the obvious love among the four women, a love made all the more touching by their reconciliation at the end of the episode. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the sparring between Blanche and Dorothy in particular is uproariously funny, particularly their argument over custody of the blanket.

However, there are a few tender moments sprinkled amidst the vitriol, as when Blanche in a fit of pique calls Rose a “nerd” and the latter breaks down into tears. While it is clearly intended to be a humorous moment (and it is), it also reveals both Rose’s innate tenderness (for all of her competitiveness) and is also a moment of release from the bickering that has so far taken place. Rose can give as good as she gets, however, as when she passive aggressively reminds Dorothy that she cannot possibly get the award, given that too few people like her. And of course Blanche has her own vulnerabilities, as when she pays a waiter at the event to be her “date,” since her own was unwilling to go with her in her state.

All in all, this is one of the funniest episodes of the first season, if not an explicitly political one.

In the next installment, Rose finds herself unemployed and must attempt to find another job, which turns out to be much more difficult than any of them had anticipated.

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 Subversive Pleasures of “The Golden Girls”

When I was growing up, one of my chief television pleasures was The Golden Girls.  Though I was quite young at the time (I was only a year old when it premiered) those four delightful women still stand out as one of my favourite things about childhood.  As I got older, my appreciation for the series grew, as I recognized not only how powerful these women were, but also how queer-affirming the series was in many ways.  Indeed, it provided me with some much-needed solace during the turbulent years of undergrad.

Then came graduate school, and I started to turn my analytical lens on my favourite series, somewhat afraid of what I might find.  To my surprise, however, I found the series even more subversive than I had remembered, and Kathleen Rowe’s influential book The Unruly Woman finally gave me the vocabulary I needed to elaborate upon the series’ subversive gender politics.  Now I not only felt a deep spiritual connection to these women (especially the oversexed Blanche), but now also recognized the ways in which their actions and speech challenge the ideology that dictates what behaviour(s) our culture expects of elderly women.  These four women refuse to accept the limitations imposed by age, maintaining their sexual interest in men, laughing at themselves, and embracing the earthier, more visceral sides of their aging bodies (the numerous scatological jokes made by Sophia are excellent examples of this).  In short, they are everything that we as a culture train women not to be, and in doing so they call attention to the ways in which those expectations are constructed by our culture.

Viewing this series with my students recently, I was amazed at how well this series holds up, and how the transgressive/subversive pleasures it offers continue to pack a political punch even now, 30 years (30!) after it premiered.  After all, we are continually told that we now live in a postfeminist society in which the strident feminism of an earlier generation is no longer needed nor desirable (nor, some would say, “cool” or “stylish”).  The Golden Girls continues to serve as a potent and powerful reminder of the ways in which women can and do challenge the structures designed to police and discipline their behaviour.

Perhaps most subversively, these women actively desire men without sacrificing their closeness to each other.  In one particularly poignant moment in the episode “Brotherly Love,” Dorothy reprimands herself for letting a man (Stan’s cad of a brother) come between her and her friendship with Blanche.  This is a recurring theme throughout the series, as the women turn to each other in their times of greatest need, recognizing in the process the ways in which men continue to attempt to manipulate them.  In a world in which female friendships are constantly thrown over in favour of competition between women, The Golden Girls continues to reminds us of the power that can be obtained when women both recognize and emphasis their closeness to one another.

Of course, the series isn’t perfect, and it remains unclear to me, even now, just how much it challenges patriarchal ideologies.  The series does end, for example, with perennial spinster Dorothy being married off and leaving the house.  However, I’ve come to realize that it is almost as important to continue finding those points of contention and tension within mainstream culture that pose a challenge, however temporary those challenges might be.  This is not to excuse the shortcomings of the series just because I love it (though that is, I must admit, quite tempting), but instead to argue that there always limitations to just how subversive a text produced by the mainstream media can be.  Part of our job as critics and as consumers, I would argue, is to continue finding those points where the cracks in the dominant ideologies that structure our everyday lives are made evident in these cultural texts.  They might not be perfect, but they can at least give us a glimmer of what is possible if we continue to struggle against the forces, both explicit and implicit, that continue to oppress us.  The Golden Girls, for me, is just one such text.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some binge-watching to do.