Pop culture idols rise or fall in the click of a mouse or arched eyebrow. Yet, “The Golden Girls,” the TV show that aired on NBC from 1985 to 1992, is in no danger of losing its iconic status. Rue McClanahan, the Emmy Award-winning actress, who played the beloved Southern vixen Blanche Devereaux on the hit series, died on June 3 at age 76. Everyone, straight or gay, with a DVD player or who’s tuned into Lifetime, will miss McClanahan. But, to we who are queer, Blanche is indelibly imbedded in our DNA. Our community will especially mourn her passing.
When McClanahan as Blanche entered the room it was as if a waterfall of unadulterated pleasure – a monsoon of camp – had enveloped the TV screen. “Blanche was an oversexed, self-involved, man-crazy, vain Southern belle from Atlanta – and I’m not from Atlanta,” McClanahan wrote with campy affection about herself and Devereaux in her autobiography “My First Five Husbands…and the Ones Who Got Away.”
Why is McClanahan, who was straight, so beloved by LGBTQ people? Because she was talented, daring, witty, and, in a charming manner, willing to speak her mind.
Born in Healdton, Okla., McClanahan was bitten by the acting bug early on. At age 4, she acted for the first time in a production of “The Three Little Kittens.” After graduating with honors from the University of Tulsa in 1956, one of her first professional acting gigs was portraying Blanche DuBois at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. Before acting in “The Golden Girls,” McClanahan appeared in the groundbreaking TV program “All in the Family” and with (“The Golden Girls” co-star) Bea Arthur in its spinoff “Maude.” These 1970s shows tackled issues from abortion to feminism to racism that hadn’t been dealt with previously on television. McClanahan received an Obie award in 1972 for her portrayal of a father’s mistress in the drama “Who’s Happy Now?”
“Your work is that rare combination of earthiness and lapidary polish. … Frippery combined with fierceness,” playwright Tennessee Williams wrote to McClanahan on her portrayal of the wife of Dylan Thomas in the play “Dylan.”
Later in her career, McClanahan appeared in other stage, movies and TV shows, including the feminist show “The Vagina Monologues,” the Broadway musical “Wicked,” “Law and Order” and a cable television series “Sordid Lives.”
Off-stage, McClanahan was active in causes that were dear to her. She spoke to cancer support groups because she herself had survived breast cancer. A lover of animals, McClanahan was an honorary director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. McClanahan’s interests also took a sartorial turn, leading her to develop the clothing line “A Touch of Rue.”
McClanahan’s superb talent and bravery in her life and work touched many from breast cancer survivors to animal lovers. Yet, it is her embodiment of Blanche Devereaux that will be forever in our hearts. “The Golden Girls” is iconic in a way that few TV series have been or ever will be – especially for the queer community. Set in Miami, the show was about four older women who live together.
They have heart attacks, endure family drama with their far-flung relatives, eat tons of cheesecake, work as substitute teachers and grief counselors, dance, have cat fights, say deliciously bitchy things, dish about sex, have sex, look for romance … have more sex. “What do you think I ought to do with my bed?” Blanche asks Dorothy (Bea Arthur’s character). “Put it in the Smithsonian, Blanche,” Dorothy says, “It’s got more miles on it than the Spirit of St. Louis.”
“The Golden Girls” resonates so powerfully with queers because of its emphasis on friendship. Like so many of us in the LGBTQ community, the Golden Girls are vulnerable as well as campy and bitchy. Unable because of circumstances (they’re divorced or widowed and too poor to live alone), they form their own family.
Even though we can legally marry in six states, many LGBTQ people still form their own families through friendships. “The Golden Girls” shows us that we can have friends no matter how old we are. Rue, you’ll always be our friend. R.I.P.
Kathi Wolfe, a local writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade. She can be reached through this publication.