Golden Girls: relationships without commitment are just fine

A couple of cable channels have been running The Golden Girls lately, and after Bea Arthur’s passing, I decided to watch some episodes. I watched the show now and then years ago and found the writing inconsistent – sometimes they recycled plots from other sitcoms, and other times they came up with something pretty original and funny. At the very least, they portrayed four women who were well over thirty as vivacious, active, interesting human beings – one of those things that shouldn’t be rare, but is.

I was surprised by one episode in particular: “Melodrama.” Blanche, the delightfully unrepentant “slut” (their word) of the group, has a male friend who comforts her every time she gets stood up or has a breakup. He’s always there for her. They’ll get together, watch a movie, cuddle, and in Blanche’s words “sometimes we do more than cuddle.” That was my first “huh” moment, because that type of relationship doesn’t fall neatly into the black and white world of sex on sitcoms. In the early 90s, a sitcom viewer could safely rely on every relationship being coded as good (monogamous, potentially long-term) or bad (casual). I knew what I thought of Blanche’s relationship with this man, but I had no idea what the show expected me to think.

The plot: Blanche can’t reach her friend when she needs him and freaks out, thinking he must be dead. It turns out he was just on vacation. But the reunion is so emotional that Blanche decides she wants them to be a real couple. Meaning, of course, monogamous and potentially long-term. They try this for a while, but the magic isn’t there.

The moral, if there is one: they should remain friends who have sex sometimes when they’re lonely. It’s good. It works for them.

Well, holy shit. A sitcom from the early 90s daring to suggest a relationship that doesn’t involve dating followed by going steady followed by engagement and then marriage is a good thing? Rewarding the woman in that relationship by letting her varied and exciting sex life continue unabated? Awesome.

In fact, Blanche in general is an awesome character. She loves having loads of sex with loads of men, and so she does. The others call her “the slut” and make crude jokes about her behavior, and most of the time she just smiles and takes it as good-natured ribbing – even when it’s not so good-natured. If her roommates don’t grasp that her sexuality is her business, why reward them by taking the bait? While the other roommates mainly stick to sitcom-approved monogamous, traditional, potentially long-term relationships, it’s Blanche who exudes class and dignity by not caring what they think of her.

Comments

  1. says

    “While the other roommates mainly stick to sitcom-approved monogamous, traditional, potentially long-term relationships,”

    O.o??? They do? Really?

    I mean, yes, Rose ends up with Myles for the long-term, but most of the men are Man Of The Week types, for all of them, who are rarely (if ever) heard from again. (I grew up watching this show – it’s part of how my mom and I bonded.)

    Anyway. I do find it interesting the type of good-natured (and not so good) “ribbing” Blanche gets. I find it interesting that there’s never any question that OF COURSE Blanche is having all the sex she wants (unless there are plot-related reasons why she’s having a dry spell), and a lot of the ribbing is about her vanity, not her sexuality.

    I also love that everyone – even Sophia – gets some in this show, but there’s not the “my worth is about what men think of me” vibe to all of it. When The Girls have sex, they’re obviously doing it because that’s what they want.

    Now that I’m watching some of it with a more critical eye, I wince at some of the “Blanche is such a slut!” comments, for sure, but I remember the joy of watching a show – with my mom! – where obviously older women were having sex they wanted to have, having a great time, and no one got “punished” for it.

  2. Robin says

    I don’t remember this particular episode, but I’m glad that it exists. :)

    I think that a (probably large) part of the reason the network let them portray The Girls as more sexually free than their younger counterparts is that they had all been in the “appropriate” long-term monogamous relationships in the past. (And, I believe, all had grown children.) Being widowed or divorced allows a single woman to admit that, yes, she has had and enjoyed sex in a societally approved way. They kind of occupy that same space as lifelong bachelors in a way that women who have never married (whom I will not call “spinsters” because I hate that term) somehow don’t.

    And I think that the constant put-downs of calling Blanche a slut were the show’s way of assuring so-called Middle America that “Of course we (the producers and network) don’t approve of such behavior among women.” While Blanche was never my favorite Golden Girl due to her frequent cattiness, I do respect her self-assurance and refusal to bow before society’s expectations.

  3. says

    I’m not so sure WRT Blanche, Robin. The show makes it very clear she was having a grand ole time as a young woman. The episode where she puts on her wedding dress, and it’s a lovely red number, she even says “Like anyone would think I would be wearing white!” or something of a similar nature.

    On the other hand, it’s also very clear that George was the love of her life, and that they were (mostly) monogamous. (There’s an episode where George’s son from an affair he had shows up, not that this is ever mentioned again.)

    There’s also lots of discussion about how one really doesn’t know what they want sexually until one’s done some experimentation – Rose says “It was five years into my marriage before I learned what makes your eyes roll into the back of your head!”, for example.

    Why do I know all of this? *laugh* Oh, GG. I loved you so much.

  4. says

    I mean, yes, Rose ends up with Myles for the long-term, but most of the men are Man Of The Week types, for all of them, who are rarely (if ever) heard from again.

    Yes, but most of them are still coded as potentially longterm monogamous relationships approved of by the Morality Squad. We’re supposed to overlook their duration because it’s the nature of episodic sitcoms to resolve things in one ep instead of letting it go on for a more realistic duration. Also, they often suddenly introduce a man we’re told Dorothy or Rose has been seeing for weeks or months whom we never heard of before.

    But I just take this as realism. Even in a society without the sexual hangups ours has, not everyone would choose (or have the option to choose) a sex life like Blanche’s.

    I find it interesting that there’s never any question that OF COURSE Blanche is having all the sex she wants

    Actually, there IS one ep where Blanche admits that some of her stories might not be completely true. Though, it’s not made clear whether the exaggeration is in how many sexual encounters/partners she has, or just how amazing they all seem to be. ;)

    Now that I’m watching some of it with a more critical eye, I wince at some of the “Blanche is such a slut!” comments, for sure

    …and the body criticisms they heap on themselves and each other. But the writing constantly sends the message that they’re all great and we have every reason to adore them, so whatever insults or mistreatment they suffer never feels like the writers saying, “See, this is what you get for being a slut/not looking like a model/etc.”

    Robin, I agree that they gave all three a history of having been in socially approved relationships to make the show more palatable to people who worry about that sort of thing. I’m not sure the remarks about Blanche being a “slut” would have helped much on that score. You may well be right (I have no idea how people who think that way would react), but Blanche is never “punished” in the story for sleeping around. She always gets by with it, and if *I* were offended by someone engaging in that sort of behavior, it wouldn’t matter to me how many times she was verbally put down about it. But again, that’s just me.

    Anna, I just saw that ep with the red wedding dress. She says, “It’s one thing to have people snickering as you walk down the aisle, but me in white? Even I couldn’t keep a straight face!” Maybe not exact words but very close. It’s such a cute scene, and the dress is so very Blanche. :)

  5. Fraser says

    I remember vividly one episode in which Rose mentions having sex with her husband every morning and night for the duration of their marriage. Even though they were happily married, it’s unusual to have the “good girl” shown as that keen on sex.

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