"Blanche, Will You Marry Me?": The Golden Girls and Marriage Equality

Curator's Note

In many respects, The Golden Girls was a forerunner in LGBT representations on primetime television. Throughout the series there were references to Dorothy’s brother (Sophia’s son) Phil, a heterosexual cross-dresser. The pilot featured a flamboyant cook named Coco. In one episode, Dorothy’s lesbian friend becomes attracted to Rose. Several episodes featured Blanche’s brother Clayton, who first comes out to her and later marries his partner. Making LGBT issues visible in the 1980s was audacious, if unsurprisingly, given executive producer Susan Harris’s penchant for edgy sitcom material.

Since the series concluded its run in 1992, it has been embraced as part of gay culture, not only for the episodes that address LGBT subject matter but also for the camp value of the fashion, cutting humor, and lifestyles depicted (especially Blanche’s open sexuality). Additionally, the way the women craft a family out of strangers and roommates may resonate with the LGBT community. Reruns of The Golden Girls can be seen on Logo, the LGBT-themed network, and at the restaurant chain Hamburger Mary’s, which features drag performances. In Kansas City, the troupe Late Night Theatre performed a drag parody called Golden! Girls Gone Wild! Most recently, HBO’s Looking, a series about gay men in San Francisco, concluded its first season with two men watching the series together in affirmation of their friendship.

In 2013, as the Supreme Court heard cases on DOMA and California’s Proposition 8, fans revisited key scenes that addressed same-sex marriage. The Huffington Post, Jezebel, and the Daily Beast ran stories featuring the clip shown here and declared Sophia Petrillo twenty years ahead of the United States government. On Tumblr and Twitter, fans reblogged the clip in the name of marriage equality. Within the clip, Sophia notably does not say she supports legalizing same-sex marriage, but rather that she merely understands Clayton’s desire to wed his beloved. As an immigrant from Sicily, Sophia is the voice of the “old country” and is the most outspokenly religious of the four women. It is therefore significant that Sophia is the one who encourages Blanche to support Clayton’s marriage. Her sympathetic attitude is, for many fans, a testament to the series’ endurance: it got social issues right, often long before the rest of the nation.

Comments

Bridget Kies's picture

Uh-oh, I think that should

Uh-oh, I think that should say “unsurprising,” not “unsurprisingly.” :)

Deborah A Macey's picture

Archetypal Choice?

It’s not surprising to me that Golden Girls would address such issues. It was and still is a progressive and feminist series. Wow! I forgot this scene and it’s really powerful, especially when Sophia asks why Blanche married George. Forgive me because I see everything through the archetypes I discussed above and it is interesting to me that this very progressive discourse comes through Sophia, who I claim is the mother archetype, although I realize at times she is the iron maiden, but mostly for her sarcastic one-liners. I wonder if it had come through Dorothy if it would have felt too strident and 80s television wasn’t ready for that? It’s interesting to me that through this mother archetype it has a softer edge, but still poignant. What do you think? And how does this match up with Sophia’s relationship with her cross-dressing son?

Bridget Kies's picture

Sophia is definitely serving

Sophia is definitely serving in the role of the mother here, as she nurtures and coaxes Blanche into acceptance of Clayton’s desire for marriage. The politics she expresses might have more obviously come from Dorothy, but I think only Sophia could have made the point to Blanche in such a way that was effective without being a soapbox. And because Sophia is often the one with the crazy humor, her “proposal” to Blanche at the end works to defuse the intensity of the moment - a fitting comedic ending to a serious scene, but also, as we start to talk about in the next comment, a way to “soften the blow” for viewers with different political and cultural values. I can imagine a longer study on this that might also reflect on how the joke of a proposal would not work so well from Dorothy or Rose, since they are, in a sense, already quasi-married to Blanche through their shared lives and housing. Because Sophia is from a different generation and is somewhat the odd duck in the house, there’s no danger that her asking Blanche to marry her can be construed as anything other than a comedic bit (where, for some viewers, it may read as sincere coming from Dorothy or Rose).

Thomas J. West III's picture

The Softer Edge of Politics

I love that you chose to talk about this clip, Bridget, as it is one of the most poignant moments in the series. I also think it exemplifies one of those things that I find most compelling about “The Golden Girls,” namely that it offers multiple political points of entry for potential spectators. While Dorothy is often offers the most sharp-edged political commentary (I’m thinking in particular of her scathing critique of the Bush Administration), the other three often provide alternative viewpoints, often less strident or radical than Dorothy’s but no less political. I would also draw attention to the episode in which Phil passes away and Sophia is forced to confront her shame over his cross-dressing. The ending of that episode, in which she finally realizes that her son was a good man and accepts him, is an emotionally and politically powerful scene.

I’m also fascinated by the series’ queer fandom. One of the things that stands out in particular is the ways in which queer fans often recount watching the series with the women in their family. Just as importantly, these memories were often recounted on message boards following the deaths of Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur, and Rue McClanahan, highlighting the very important role that these women’s star personae played in the series’ queer appeal.

Bridget Kies's picture

A longer paper could

A longer paper could definitely explore the women’s star personae and how that affects the show’s queer fandom. What’s most fascinating to me is not that the show has a queer fandom, but how enduring its legacy has become as a result of that fandom.

And, yes, this clip is really the quintessential “cultural forum” model. Blanche voices the conservative attitude (“Why do they have to marry?”) while Sophia offers the more liberal viewpoint (“Who cares? They love each other just like you loved George”). What I find so intriguing is that it’s Sophia, the voice of the old country and the ardent Catholic, who says this. Not Dorothy, who would be the obvious choice in terms of her political position, or even Rose, who might say something less explicitly political but affirming of love. It’s a wonderful moment in which we get to see Sophia’s character in all its complexity.

Jessica Lee and Rosanne Carlo's picture

Identification across difference

We’re really interested in the point you made about gay male identification with Blanche, particularly how identification can happen across difference. Why would gay men identify with an older heterosexual female? This excerpt actually brought to mind a youtube clip we had watched where Rue McClanahan describes her impression about why gay men love the character of Blanche (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_H2dMEo-0g).

Deborah A Macey's picture

I continue to be amazed at

I continue to be amazed at the diversity of the fans of the series. When I show this to college students, they like it far better than Sex and the City and Living Single. It’s so funny to watch how engaged they become with this seemingly dated sitcom, especially given technology and access to less formulaic series.

Bridget Kies's picture

I hadn’t seen this video

I hadn’t seen this video before, so thanks for sharing it. “We all want to be Blanche” is an interesting claim for many reasons: Blanche’s role as the perpetual sexual object choice of men, always beautiful and desirable, even as she ages; her narcissism and promiscuity that are mocked by the others but never too harshly judged; her crazy wardrobe…and, I would say, especially significant is her ability to engage in sexual activity without fear of pregnancy (not a concern for gay men, certainly) and usually without fear of disease (a far greater concern for gay men). While the series does make occasional reference to the rising epidemics of STIs (as tomorrow’s post will address, I suspect), most of the time Blanche lives in a world that is seemingly free from the physical consequences of her frequent sex acts. While I’d be hesitant to make any definitive claims about why fans love her without doing an in-depth ethnographic study, I do think that aspect of her character and her character’s behavior may hold fascination both at the time the series was broadcast and now.

Thomas J. West III's picture

Blanche's Sexuality

Though I don’t actually address the issue of STIs specifically in my post, there is a very compelling moment in the episode “72 Hours,” in which Rose is informed that she may have been contracted HIV during a transfusion. Blanche not only admits to having been tested herself—in the process admitting that she had to do a great deal of soul-searching and has since been protected—but also sharply reprimands Rose when she implies that Blanche should be the one going through this (as a result of her promiscuity). She even goes so far as to say that it is not a “bad persons’ disease” and, just as importantly, that it is not God punishing people for their sins. A sentiment like this would certainly have endeared the series, and especially Blanche, to the many gay men emerging out of the panic-stricken ’80s.

(I would also point out that this episode also shows Sophia overcoming her paranoid fear of AIDS, manifested by her refusal to use Rose’s bathroom and by putting an “R” on any cup that Roes has used. Again, this would have had a powerful resonance with many people, both gay and straight, coming out of the height of the AIDS crisis.)

Bridget Kies's picture

Another episode I love. (Are

Another episode I love. (Are there any I don’t?) I didn’t mention this episode explicitly, since it is framed as a “very special episode” in the vein of many HIV/AIDS special episodes on television in the 1980s, and since Rose’s risk is through transfusion. But your note about Blanche’s testimony, as well as Sophia’s struggle to overcome her paranoia, rightly demonstrate another example during which the series gives at least an implicit nod of support to the LGBT community.

Thomas J. West III's picture

I also remember seeing an

I also remember seeing an interview with Susan Harris, in which she states that part of the reason they did the episode was in support of many of their gay friends in the industry who had either died or contracted HIV/AIDS.

Feedback

No one has reviewed this post… but you need to login to submit feedback