Feminism / TV

Gone with the Rue: A Look Back at Actress & Activist Rue McClanahan & ‘Golden Girls’

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.

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5 thoughts on “Gone with the Rue: A Look Back at Actress & Activist Rue McClanahan & ‘Golden Girls’

  1. Never was a huge fan of “Golden Girls” but I loved each of the actresses for their careers in general. They always playing interesting, fun female characters.

    I only have two comments. First, I can’t believe that Blanche was only 52. I’m 48 and I swear those characters were more than 4 years older than I am. And if they are only 4 years older (except Sophia, of course) why the heck are they always wearing sweaters in Florida?

    Secondly, you compare “Golden Girls” to “Designing Women” and “Sex and the City.” Is it interesting to anyone else that all four shows have 4 women. Is there a reason for that?

  2. I’ve always stated, since the very begining, that “Sex & the City” was merely “The Golden Girls” with a younger, less-likeable cast.

    I also was a child of the 80’s, and i truly loved “The Golden Girls.”
    Bea Arthur, for me, was like the Eddie Van Halen of sit-coms!
    From “Maude” to “The Golden Girls,” she was untouchable with her unique, dry sense of humor, and her signature delivery.
    Sometimes she didn’t even have to utter a word, as her facial expressions could convey it all.
    Bea was completely “old school,” meaning she studied her craft & had the comedic chops & timing, to carry any show she graced.
    Actually, all of the actresses on “Golden Girls” were the real deal, unlike say, the cast of “Friends.”
    I loved the way Bea & Estelle Getty would play off one another, both had incredible chemistry on the small screen.

    It is truly sad that “Rose” is the only Golden Girl left!
    It feels like just yesterday, all four women were bickering, somewhere in Florida, enchanting us with their day to day lives.

  3. Debra, regarding your question of the consistency of the 4 character types, that occurred to me too. All I can offer is that perhaps someone thought, “Let’s not cast all women as just the Madonna or the Whore–let’s double the number of roles! That ought to shut them up!” And like the triple camera technique of sitcoms, it just stuck. Or maybe it’s due to some sort of folk wisdom I heard many times growing up, that “there can never be an odd number of female friends–someone will always be left out”. So the writers feel that 3 or 5 characters would play as unrealistic, 2 is too few, and 6 is just too many for the audience to keep track of.

    Julian, you complete me. I completely agree with your post. Golden Girls rocked–especially Bea & Estelle, & Bea’s face–and Friends was noxious.

    Opinioness, as you know, we were separated at birth only to be raised by families that hatched from the same pod. I’m right there with you in the 80’s, letting The Girls help define my idea of feminism and independence. I couldn’t wait to get as old as them, and move to Miami with my best friends to live it up and have midnight snacks & confessions! Am I old enough yet? 🙂

  4. I too was saddened by our collective loss of McClanahan, though I find it odd and appropriate that the only remaining Golden Girl seems to be going through something of a career revival. While Betty White was my personal favorite as the sweet-but-dimwitted Rose, the original female quartet were all wonderful in their portrayals of women, though I was too young to appreciate that at the time when it was on the air! Though the last thing I remember seeing Blanche Dubois in was a small role in Starship Troopers, I wish her a good journey to wherever we will eventually go on the other side.

  5. I’ve told this story before, and it’s completely true, but one of my fondest memories is watching the “Golden Girls” stoned, with my mom! (No, my mom wasn’t high, nor was she aware that i was).

    It was all purely accidental, and my mom sort of trapped me, as i attempted to scurry past her (like the rat that i was, that particular night).

    I think i was in eighth grade, at the time…

    But let me tell you, watching that show, in that state, i don’t think i’ve ever laughed so hard in my life!
    My mom & i were both huge fans of ‘The Golden Girls,’ she was partial to Blanche, while i adored Dorothy.
    My sister & Dad couldn’t be bothered with it.
    ‘The Golden Girls’ always reminds me of that bond my mom & i shared, way back in the fab 80’s.

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