A child of the 80s, I grew up watching TV shows like Murder She Wrote and Love Boat. Living with my grandparents for 6 years clearly influenced my viewing pattern! But my favorite show of all was Golden Girls. Humorous and feel-good, I didn’t realize at the time it was such a cutting edge show. It’s not often that a movie or TV show focuses solely on female characters. It’s even rarer when those women are over the age of 50. Following the lives of four friends in Miami, Golden Girls showed us that grandmothers are sharp, funny and sexy, that they still have goals and dreams. It forever shaped the way I view women.
The quartet featured smart and sarcastic Dorothy (Bea Arthur), sexy man-crazed Blanche (Rue McClanahan), sweet clueless Rose (Betty White) and sharp jaded Sophia (Estelle Getty). Paving the way for shows like Designing Women and Sex and the City, these women formed a tight-knit family. They teased and supported each other through tough times, all while gossiping and eating cheesecake. Dorothy Zbornak, with her witty quips and shrewd outlook on life, was the one I most related to. I was saddened when Bea Arthur passed away. Yet I am equally as sad at the recent passing of Rue McClanahan who embodied the feisty, lusty Southern belle Blanche Devereaux. I feel like I’m losing family.
According to a fantastic tribute in Jezebel, McClanahan personally related to her Emmy-winning role, playing her with verve and passion. The original Samantha Jones, Blanche made no apologies for her bed-hopping and proudly owned her sexuality. Some of my fave Blanche lines are, “There is a fine line between having a good time and being a wanton slut. I know. My toe has been on that line” and “I’m jumpier than a virgin at a prison rodeo.” Despite her man-hungry ways, McClanahan made her character Blanche likeable and endearing. Jezebel writes,
“And perhaps it was that choice of self-acceptance and confidence that made her character so lovable. In the stiflingly conservative sexual and political climate of the late ’80s—during which some felt that the AIDS epidemic was a punishment for sexual promiscuity—a 52-year-old woman saying that she related to a fictional character who shamelessly and genuinely enjoyed her active sex life and spoke frankly about condoms was progressive to say the least.”
In real life, McClanahan was a fiery advocate for animal rights as she became a PETA spokesperson in the 1980s. PETA Senior Vice President Dan Mathews writes,
“Growing up in the country, Rue had always been shocked to see the glee that many people derive from hunting and fishing—and she had been mocked for her concern—so she felt relieved to get involved with an organization that made no apologies about defending all animals.”
The first person to pose for their anti-fur campaign, McClanahan eventually became PETA’s honorary director for three years. In addition to animals, she also championed for gay rights. Married five times and a cancer survivor, she carried her own lust for life and making the most out of each moment.
Just as Rue McClanahan was a woman ahead of her time, Golden Girls was too. A groundbreaking show, it dealt with issues such as safe sex, ageism, sexism, mental illness, domestic violence, gambling, homosexuality and animal rights. Yet it was equally revolutionary for focusing on women and their friendships, not defined by their spouses, men or children. In an age when Sex and the City 2 is ripped to shreds by critics who would rather comment on how the women are too old to pout and the leatheriness of their skin, some people can’t seem to stomach the notion of four women over the age of 40 gallivanting and having fun. It conveys how far we need to go in featuring women’s stories. Golden Girls did so with dignity, humor and grace.
So Rue, thank you for being a friend to us all.