Goodbye, Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur died on April 25, 2009. She was probably best known for her roles as an outspoken liberal feminist in Maude and as middle-aged divorcee Dorothy Zbornak whose life was far from over in The Golden Girls.

I’ve never reviewed Maude, mostly because others have done it better years before I came along. Maude was flawed, middle-aged and not someone you’d mistake for a supermodel. Today, I wonder if someone like her could ever be the central character in a sitcom.

Maude’s feminism wasn’t perfect: she was a white woman of means whose privilege sometimes conflicted with the beliefs she espoused – a point the show confronted directly.

Maude got an abortion in the first season, while Roe V. Wade was before the courts. Today, now that abortion is legal, it would be considered too controversial for comedy TV. Go figure.

And Dorothy Zbornak was over the hill by every standard we have for women, yet she had a life. Her recent divorce at the beginning of the show felt like the end of her life, but she struggled and coped and finally made it a beginning. I remember The Golden Girls as very smart in the early seasons and eventually falling into tropes and predictable catch-phrases as the seasons wore on – like so many shows do. But it always viewed its ensemble of four older women as fascinating human beings, and my guess is it will be a while before we see that again on American TV.

Of course, Norman Lear and Susan Harris and any number of writers and producers also deserve the credit for Maude and Dorothy. But Bea Arthur had an amazing presence which she brought to her characters, and without her, they wouldn’t have been so memorable.

Comments

  1. A Very Bad Girl says

    I’ve never actually watched Golden Girls (or Maude, for that matter), but my Father mentioned it a few times; he has a crush on Rue McClanahan. LOL

    Anyhow, just the other day, I was thinking about how it seems like feminine progress is going in reverse instead of forwards. As you pointed out with the abortion reference and how it would never be shown on TV today, it’s like things are actually getting worse for women.

    I remember seeing a really stupid article featured on the cover of some well-to-do magazine, a couple of years ago. The headline read something like “Yes, women really can be funny”. The cover featured a photo of several actresses who I did not recognize.

    So, I’m standing there looking at it, and I’m thinking “WTF?”. Uh… funny women have been around for quite some time now. I believe it’s fair to say that Lucille Ball proved that women could be uproariously funny, a VERY long time ago. So, what are these morons talking about?

    There is this current belief in Hollywood that “funny women are unattractive”. And we all know that if a woman isn’t providing wank material for those 18-35 year-old heterosexual white males, she is essentially “worthless”. These days, a woman is no longer allowed to be funny unless she’s showing some cleavage at the same time. Pathetic.

    These men really do think the world revolves around their wants & needs, huh? I am always amazed at how incredibly selfish they can be. Because of these very attitudes, I often wonder if we will ever see another Lucille Ball, LaWanda Page, Marla Gibbs, Vickie Lawrence or Carol Burnett.

  2. A Very Bad Girl says

    PS I’ve decided to blame this hated of funny women (or any female character of substance) on mainstream porn. It’s rise in popularity has fostered the meat market mentality that asserts “women are not good for anything other than sex, and if they aren’t promoting sex in some way, we don’t give a damn about what they have to say”.

  3. says

    I’d say the belief women are good for nothing but sex goes back to the very roots of patriarchal society, when daughters were sold into marriage for land, camels and so on. Porn does often promote the idea that women exist to gratify men sexually. But it’s age-old society that promotes the idea that all men are entitled to own women for sexual purposes.

    Bringing this back to the topic of funny women: years ago, women were taught to laugh at men’s jokes whether they were funny or not, because that appeased the male ego and helped one secure a husband. I think some men feel when a woman is funny, she’s taking away one of their dating schticks – if she can make herself laugh, what will she need him for? I’m very funny offline, actually, and I meet plenty of men who enjoy that. But every once in a while, I find one who seems to feel a need to compete and show me he’s funnier. It’s very odd.

  4. A Very Bad Girl says

    I’d say the belief women are good for nothing but sex goes back to the very roots of patriarchal society, when daughters were sold into marriage for land, camels and so on. Porn does often promote the idea that women exist to gratify men sexually. But it’s age-old society that promotes the idea that all men are entitled to own women for sexual purposes.

    Yes, you are right. What I meant was that, for some reason, men react negatively to porn. They seem incapable of distinguishing fantasy from reality. It just seems to me that the dislike of funny & interesting female characters began to surface as porn rose in popularity. I’ve watched quite a bit of porn myself, so I’m certainly not trying to bash men who enjoy it, but as I said before, men don’t get that it’s just fantasy stuff. On some forum, I once saw a guy say that, because of watching porn, he was no longer capable of being aroused by the average woman. As he put it… “If they aren’t at least a D-Cup, I’m not interested”. Judging by his tone, it seemed as if he felt that he was doomed to a life of solitary masturbation. Pretty sad.

    Bringing this back to the topic of funny women: years ago, women were taught to laugh at men’s jokes whether they were funny or not, because that appeased the male ego and helped one secure a husband. I think some men feel when a woman is funny, she’s taking away one of their dating schticks – if she can make herself laugh, what will she need him for? I’m very funny offline, actually, and I meet plenty of men who enjoy that. But every once in a while, I find one who seems to feel a need to compete and show me he’s funnier. It’s very odd.

    One thing that really annoys me about men is how they think being funny is the only way to get a woman interested in them. In all honesty, I don’t need a man to make me laugh; I can easily make myself laugh. :D. My particular brand of humor tends to rub people the wrong way though (I’ve been told that it’s crude & sleazy), so I usually don’t share it with anyone who doesn’t know me very well. Anyhow, I think men are adamant about being “the funny one” because, in their mind, it distracts women from their other, less-than-favorable qualities. [sarcasm]God forbid if a woman uses the same criteria* that men have been using to determine attractiveness…. that’s a sin![/sarcasm]

    *Although, ours tends to me much more realistic.

  5. napthia9 says

    “It just seems to me that the dislike of funny & interesting female characters began to surface as porn rose in popularity.”

    I don’t mean to sort of rain on the parade here, but I just wanted to add that correlation does not indicate causation, that technology has also had an effect on the consumption of pornographic materials, and that it’s a bit of a generalization to suggest that all men react to porn in the same way. One of the problems I’ve been having with many of the men I know is not that they’ve been desensitized by pornography, but that they feel they must prove that they’re -not- “that sort of guy” and then they wind up trying to prove that they “respect women” by catering to whatever their notion of “what women want” is, but they haven’t exactly done much (any) thinking about sex/gender and wind up making basic mistakes like, say, assuming that all women all want the exact same man. So, uh yeah- mainstream porn has its problems, but it’s a bit of a stretch to blame the current lack of Bea Arthur-types all on porn. IMO, sexism can use different rationales (EX:women are only good for their looks/sex, women aren’t funny) to support the same result (less Bea Arthur roles).

  6. says

    You’re not raining on the parade at all. The commenter who made those remarks has since been put on moderation for accusing other commenters of lying (about their own feelings/beliefs) and making unqualified generalizations about men.

    I think it’s actually more likely the belief that women aren’t funny is actually tied to the belief that women aren’t sexual. Victorian novels contained plenty of women who had more agency than a lot of modern women characters, but they didn’t have sex lives (just chaste romance) and they weren’t intentionally funny. Porn often caters to the idea of women as vapid warm sex dolls, but I don’t think porn invented it.

    Several of Bea Arthur’s characters helped to counteract both of those beliefs by showing us women who were complex, complete human beings.

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