Saturday, June 5, 2010
On Golden Girls
So, The Golden Girls. For six years probably the best show on television.
For the seventh year...well...the explosion that made Dorothy's hair look like that must have knocked the funny right out of the writers.
There are many reasons why the Golden Girls were and are awesome. Gay characters throughout the series, none of whom were dying of AIDS. Women whose main relationships were with other women and that was OK. Celebration, time and time again, of non-traditional family models. Elderly people having sex lives. Guest stars from the firmament of the American musical. Shoulder pads. But the one that, I think, made the show stick for me the most, is the fact that each of the show's stars had both a deep, underlying insecurity and a firm moral core.
Allow me to explain. The firm moral core is easier--all four stars were staunch animal rights and quieter gay rights activists. While most of their animal rights work was for the ill-advised PETA, an organization whose strategies I usually find repugnant, that didn't matter. They all deeply believed in the moral necessity of caring for and about living creatures. Sitcom stars don't usually take such stances. The pro-gay stance, of course, moves me on a more personal level. It is lovely to see women who are being venerated by gay audiences—both men and women—return the favor. Bea now has a homeless shelter for LGBT youth named in her honor, funded by her estate.
The deep insecurity, though, is where the power of the show comes from. It's a hackneyed observation that great comedy often comes from a place of near-pathological need for approval, but that's not the kind of insecurity the Golden Girls showed. Bea Arthur did partake of the typical comic's need to be adored by everyone, but she wore closer to the surface her crippling belief that nobody really did. Listen to her solo show on Broadway, a decade after the Girls ended their seven-year run, and you'll hear a carefully constructed, brittle persona claiming to "just be myself." She couldn't be herself; nobody would like that self.
Estelle Getty, untrained as an actor compared to her co-stars, had to write lines inside props on the set, since she could never remember them. Her stage fright was legendary, often causing her to freeze on camera, and her comedic talent, though prodigious, was simply not suited to creating a believable character or to delivering those hastily memorized lines as dialogue. She felt out of her depth on the show, a fourth wheel on the tricycle both on-screen and off.
And then there's Rue. I didn't know about her insecurity until I listened to commentary she'd done for one of the episodes in, I believe, season five. She talked about her costumes, and how she got to keep them all after the show (though she took out the shoulder pads). She talked about how she needed Blanche's brazen assertions of physical perfection to be able to have any kind of positive outlook toward her own body. Those costumes, that character, they allowed her access to a confidence she didn't have in life. The heartbreaking part of that is, of course, that Blanche was deeply, deeply unsure about both her looks and her worth as a human being apart from those looks. And Rue thought of her as the character she had played that was closest to herself, but a model for being more confident. Like Bea, who needed Dorothy's aggression and unlikability to mask her own perceived unlikability (and non-femininity), and who needed her costumes to conceal the fat body she imagined and despised, Rue found herself in her character, in the endless hyperperformance of herself that was so much easier than simply living.
Betty White was always the most confident. I love Betty White, of course, and I thought of her as unquestionably the best actor on the show, but she lacks that need. Perhaps it is my hubris as a devoted fan, but the other Golden Girls seemed so much to rely on their characters and those characters' fans. Betty White was able to move on to other roles when none of the other girls really could. She knows that she's funny, talented, awesome; they survived on applause. Maybe that's what made it possible for her, the oldest of the four, to outlive her co-stars.
Applause is a poor substitute for nourishment, whether it be physical or emotional nourishment you seek. Bea, in her old age, would watch reruns of Golden GIrls at 5 AM and talk happily about how much weight she'd lost since the '80s, reveling in both the omnipresent laughter and the body that she had since shed. Estelle, sadly, succumbed very early to Lewy Body Dementia, her terror-inducing difficulty with memory now taken to the nth degree. Rue took to the Broadway stage in The Women and in Wicked to get an IV drip of laudatory sustenance; it kept her going for a few more years.
This overlong rumination on the emotional frailty of the Girls is not intended as a slight. They were, and in my mind still are, towers of strength for everyone who saw her- or himself in them. They took their insecurities, draped them in various shoulder-padded, floral-printed, and sadly pin-striped numbers, and paraded them about for all to see, conquering them, at least for seven years. They did wonderful things for people, animals, and not least themselves. Rue's passing is an occasion to mourn, of course, but also to recognize the work these four middle-aged and elderly women did for us all. From the bottom of my heart, Ms. McClanahan, thank you for being a friend.