Friends of Dorothy: Was ‘The Golden Girls’ Really As Queer-Friendly As Its Reputation Suggests?

Friends of Dorothy: Was 'The Golden Girls' Really As Queer-Friendly As Its Reputation Suggests?

Before I begin, I’m going to place my gay card on the table (just in case you want to revoke it after you hear some of the blasphemous things I say).
“The Golden Girls” is a seminal queer classic, one that flawlessly incorporated aging women into NBC’s primetime lineup. Since its initial airing, the show has developed quite an immense following from viewers (especially gay men) who enjoy the antics and sexual escapades of Rose, Blanche, Dorothy, and Sophia. But what I have noticed about some of the more prominent and vocal fans is that they tend to glaze over the show’s problematic depictions of LGBTQ characters, hailing these depictions as brave and flawless.
Like any sitcom, “The Golden Girls” suffers from a formulaic flaw: a revolving door of recurring guests who appear in one or two episodes, then leave without any lasting impact.  Often times, these characters are used to push the narrative forward. In terms of queer characters, their sexualities and gender are used as a narrative catalyst rather than as a character trait, and a majority of the episode is spent waiting for the gay man, the lesbian, or the transgender politician to come out of the closet.
My examination of these characters isn’t meant to demean the brilliance of the show, nor downplay the boundaries it pushed in order to show older women on television. I myself am an avid fan, but even I must take a step back from my own personal adoration in order to look at the problems that are inherent in these depictions. I applaud the producers and writers for featuring LGBTQ characters – especially during a time when being such was stigmatized – but that doesn’t mean the depictions were flawless.
THE LIMP-WRISTED SIDEKICK
Coco Davis (Charles Levin) – Appeared in “The Engagement” S01 E01
Coco is introduced as the girls’ cook who has a somewhat limp wrist, a swishy walk, and a penchant for cooking enchiladas in the Floridian heat. He is coded as gay before Rose actually references him as such (she remarks that the only collateral her and Dorothy have is a “gay cook”). Sophia even manages a jab or two, calling him a “Fancy Man” and a “Petunia.” Essentially, Coco is a sissy character who merely exists in order to provide sass.
Producers axed the character after they realized Sophia (who was slated to be a recurring character rather than a lead) proved to be a better wisecracker than Coco. Richard Laermer of The Advocate admonished the creators for getting rid of this gay character who was “played with pathos and a roving eye” (if you watch the episode, there is very little “pathos” in Levin’s portrayal). It is unclear what Coco would add to the rest of the show, but it is clear that he offers very little in the pilot. He is a sexless/harmless buffoon with an occasional one-liner about how dumb Rose is.

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THE SEXLESS LESBIAN
Jean (Lois Nettleton) – Appeared in “Isn’t It Romantic?” S02 E05
Dorothy’s friend Jean – who is grieving from the loss of her partner, Pat – decides to stay with the girls for a few days. There is a catch: Jean is a lesbian. Only Dorothy and Sophia know, and they ask Jean to keep it under wraps out of fear of intolerance and naïveté from the other women (Jean obliges when she sees Rose coming out with a tray of ice cream clown sundaes). As the episode progresses, Jean grows closer to Rose, realizing that she may be falling in love with the innocent ditz.
In an episode that begins with the girls watching porn, it is interesting that the prominent lesbian character would be stripped of her sexuality (meaning she is a “lesbian” is name, not action). Much like Coco, Jean is a sugar pill, one that is easily consumed because she doesn’t have any potent effects. Even her confession is tame and used as a sight gag (Rose opens her eyes really wide, then pretends to be snoring). Her sexuality is a catalyst for the plot, and the episode’s third act is meant to be a sentimental moment of “See, lesbians have the same feelings as straight people.”
I do admire Sophia’s views on homosexuality, which seemed to have evolved since the pilot. Sophia has a couple of great lines, my favorite being “…I’d rather live with a lesbian than a cat. Unless a lesbian sheds, that I don’t know.” Yet Jean’s impact on Sophia, Rose, and the other characters is all but forgotten by the next episode.

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THE TRANSGENDER PUNCHLINE

Gil Kessler (John Schnuck) – Appeared in “Strange Bedfellows” S03 E07
The girls endorse Gil Kessler, a wimpy politician running for City Councilman. When Blanche takes a folder to his house, she is unknowingly photographed by the paparazzi (who think she is Gil’s mistress). In spite of Blanche’s attempts to clear her name, Blanche’s roommates and the entire Miami press believe she is a home wrecker. 
Sophia and Gil drop a few hints here and there about the climactic reveal: Sophia says that there is something that she doesn’t like about him; Gil says that he always felt that inside him was “a great man trying to get out.” Gil’s transgender identity (he was born Anna Maria Bonaduce and lived as a stenographer and housewife) is used for shock value rather than a nuanced exploration of transgender identity. Even Dorothy shirks off Rose’s constant questioning about Gil’s transgender operation, shrilly responding that his “parts” were made out of “silly putty” (this response is more out of annoyance with Rose than cultural ignorance). The only moment of earnestness comes from Sophia, who says that she had a hunch he was Italian (as opposed to being surprised about Gil identifying as a transgender male).

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THE UNATTAINABLE OBJECT OF LUST
Laszlo (Tony Jay) – Appeared in “The Artist” S03 E13
Rose, Blanche, and Dorothy all pose for the latest sculpture by Laszlo, a Hungarian artist. The three women vie for his affection and wait to see the end result. The climactic scene not only reveals that the sculpture was made from the best parts of the three women, but that Laszlo is also a gay man.
Much like Gil’s transgender identity, Laszlo’s sexuality is the punch line of a 30-minute joke. However, no one actually says the words “gay” or “homosexual.” The reveal is characterized by a coded sissy character, one who saunters into the frame, glares at Laszlo, and says, “Laszlo, looks like we’re a hit!” before sashaying away. The audience roars with laughter, and the artistic Lothario leaves the girls with the response, “I’m sorry, I thought you knew.”

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THE WELL-MEANING “TEACHABLE MOMENT”
Rose Nylund in “72 Hours” S05 E19
Rose receives a letter from the hospital, informing her that her blood transfusion may have contained HIV antibodies. She takes an HIV test, only to discover that she has to wait three days in order to receive the results. All four women deal with the possibility of Rose having HIV, including Sophia who is scared to touch anything that Rose has touched.
This is one of the more sobering experiences from the show, revealing that AIDS not only affects heterosexuals, but that it can also be transmitted without having sex. The episode also contains one of Blanche’s best lines: “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins.” Yet there is still a part of me that is confused as to why the word “gay” was never mentioned once in the episode. In fact, there is an important moment when Dorothy reads a pamphlet on AIDS/HIV and teenagers, and admonishes parents for not being more open when discussing sex. Yet beyond this admonishment, the episode does little to discuss HIV/AIDS prevention or to even discuss other ways in which the virus can be transmitted (namely through drugs). Again, I applaud the producers and writers for incorporating such an important topic into their show, but the episode is incidental/isolated and its effects do not carry on into future episodes.

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THE NEUTERED QUEER
Clayton Hollingsworth (Monte Markham)- Appeared in “Scared Straight” S04 E09 and “Sister of the Bride” S06 E14
After the dissolution of his marriage, Clayton (Blanche’s brother) comes to stay with the girls for a few days. Blanche immediately sets him up on a date, but the chemistry between Clayton and the woman fizzles. He spots Rose in a park, and the two play a game in which Rose tries to figure out his type of girl. She slowly realizes that Clayton is gay (“Clayton, you’re that thing that everyone said Onga Larson’s nephew was because he wore pastry clogs and gave out puff pastry on Halloween.”). Yet, when Blanche confronts him about his date, Clayton lies and says he slept with Rose.
The power of “Scared Straight” comes from Blanche’s reaction: though she is an open (and seemingly liberal) woman, she still has a somewhat conservative mindset, especially concerning private/personal matters. Clayton’s sexuality tests Blanche’s tolerance, and she inevitably accepts her brother for what he is. Yet when Clayton returns in “Sister of the Bride” (a problematic title, but I digress), Blanche is confronted with her brother’s marriage to another man, Doug (Michael Ayr).
Like Jean, Clayton is a sexless man who is only characterized as gay because everyone else calls him such. Even his affection for his partner is lackluster (they stand next to each other but they never touch or kiss, though I doubt that NBC would have wanted those things to happen). Essentially, Clayton becomes that which Blanche wanted: “I don’t really mind Clayton being homosexual, I just don’t like him dating men.” Blanche accepts her brother for being gay, but she doesn’t want to deal with the reality of Clayton being intimate with another man.
Though the episode focuses on Blanche’s evolution, it is Sophia who again provides the most poignant perspective, especially in terms of gay marriage (“Everyone wants someone to grow old with, and shouldn’t everyone have that chance?”). Yet the fact remains that Clayton is neutered of any sexual difference, and though he isn’t a buffoon like Coco, he still serves the same purpose as Jean: to teach the heterosexuals a lesson of tolerance.

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THE FAUX-LESBIAN GAG ROUTINE
Blanche and Dorothy in “Goodbye, Mr. Gordon” S07 E15
Dorothy and Blanche agree to appear on “Wake Up, Miami” because Rose is the associate producer. Unbeknownst to all the roommates, the show is about lesbians (or as Blanche calls them, “Lesbian lovers of Miami”). Rose blackmails the girls into staying on the show (saying that if she gets fired, she’ll tell them St. Olaf stories), and they even take on dominant and passive roles (Dorothy “take[s] out the garbage” and Blanche is “the little homemaker”).
The episode is self-aware and it pokes fun at the homosocial bonds between the four women by turning them into potentially homosexual bonds (especially at the expense of Bea Arthur’s butch features). Yet the episode over steps its boundaries by having Blanche use her faux lesbian status to date men (Blanche goes out with a man who wants to convert her).
I doubt that the legacy of “The Golden Girls” is based on these queer representations, but it is still important to examine how these characters play in the show. We as queer viewers reappropriate the show for out of our own cultural desires, but I believe our adoration of the show is based on homosociality rather than homosexuality. We may not get the best representations of LGBTQ characters, but at least we still have four friends and a slice of cheesecake.

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Comments

Roger Asquith

THE GOLDEN GIRLS lived up to the title, they were witty and certainly on the ball . They kept their audience entertained and put them in a good mood which surely was the PURPOSE of the show. There was no bias, either political or for/against the gay community. If only more TV shows were like that. I visited the set two or three times and found everyone in a good mood, they all got along great . This is why the show was a success.
Any comments about whether or not the Golden Girls were gay frieindly are superfluous because they were friendly to everyone and a great example for Senior Citizens.
Roger Asquith

Crimson

I have to disagree with you to a point. It's really unfair to look at a show, which started in 1985, through eyes of 2014 (long after Ellen D, Will & Grace, Neal Patrick H, etc). Considering they brought the topic to the forefront, even if briefly, to prime time TV was wonderful. Being in my late teens, in a backwoods Alabama town surrounded by extremely conservative religious friends and family, the eventual acceptance by the end of the episodes really warmed my heart. It gave me hope that there would be some who would also accept me, well, once I finally accepted it myself a few years later.

And you mentioned most roles and jokes were of more stereotypical representations, but back in the late 80's, I'd have to say nearly 85% of the gays I knew were ones who gave credence to the stereotypes.

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