We’ve already discussed that Betty White isn’t the only woman over 60 on TV. But she’s certainly the patron saint of older female television stars. Though White's long been a household name — her incredible career dates back to some of the first TV broadcasts ever, in the ‘40s — something special happened a few years back. In her late ‘80s, she suddenly became a hot commodity. The surge in her popularity was the result of a confluence of events: a scene-stealing role in the 2009 Sandra Bullock movie The Proposal and a funny Snickers commercial appearance that ran during the 2011 Super Bowl inspired a Facebook campaign to get her to host Saturday Night Live. Then she did, in the midst of launching a new show she happened to be in, TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland. Suddenly major magazines were doing profiles, and talk shows were vying to book her. People suddenly remembered: They loved Betty White.
The Golden Girls’ feminism is self-evident: Four outspoken, post-menopausal women live together and support each other through older age, dealing together with their grown kids, ex-husbands, and dating lives. And they are not the punchline—they make the punchlines. This show, against all odds, was a massive hit in the ‘80s.
When shows like this happen—groundbreaking shows that disprove network executives’ narrow views of what makes good TV—we tend to believe that everything has changed in one swoop. But we are usually wrong. When Golden Girls became a hit in the ‘80s, it was easy to imagine a whole spate of wonderful shows about older folks ushering in a new era of acceptance for stars of all ages.
Remember when Cougar Town premiered four years ago and we all made a whole thing of it because of its name, and, oh my God, what was this trying to say about older women’s sexuality, and why are we legitimizing the use of this offensive term?
I am not making fun. I was one of those people saying those things. But while the show itself knew from the beginning that its title was stupid, it turned out the idea wasn’t so dumb: funny divorced lady funny played by Courteney Cox starts her life over sans husband. The show gradually outgrew its hamstrung premise and morphed into something else altogether: a show about six friends, most of them of a certain age, acting just as fun and confused and complicated as we all do at all ages. It turned out the show wastrying to say something about older women, and it was mainly this: They’re just like all other women!
On a chilled-out weeknight in a chilled-out gay bar, you wouldn’t be surprised to see clips of Designing Women or The Golden Girls playing on the big-screen TVs. That seems intuitive, right? Gay culture has long embraced these shows, to the point that seeing Rose and Blanche eat cheesecake while we sip a gin and tonic would barely register.
And yet these shows are not explicitly gay at all. They’re about groups of empowered women, most of whom are over 40. They are, in fact, built upon relationships forged post-widowhood. What’s the connection?
A gay character or two may have sauntered in on occasion (or a maybe-gay character, in the case of Meschach Taylor’s Anthony on DW). Some episodes even tackled real gay issues, particularly Designing Women, which was known for its strident political bent. But that wasn’t the crux of any of these shows. And gay rights plotlines don’t feature in the clips I’ve seen gay men chanting along with—say, Dixie Carter’s famous-among-fans rant about how her beauty-contestant sister’s flaming baton-throwing caused “the night the lights went out in Georgia.”
Presenting an unthreatening facade to the world, older women detectives usually conceal razor-sharp investigative skills and intelligence. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple is one of the classic examples of these subversive characters.
Television icon (and feminist favorite) Rue McClanahan passed away this morning at the age of 76. She was best known for her role as Blanche Devereaux on the classic sitcom The Golden Girls (though I probably didn't have to tell you that). Blanche was always my very favorite of the four Golden Girls. I loved her Southern wit and charm and her unabashed sexiness (oh, and I thought her flowing pajama robes were the height of glamor).
Though us feminist TV fans will miss Rue something fierce, she leaves behind a legacy that won't be soon forgotten. She was a pioneer when it came to representations of older women on television, never apologizing for her sexuality or her age. Thank you for being a friend, Rue McClanahan!
For the record, I'm not a huge fan of the term "cougar." It demonizes older women by framing them as dangerous predators who prey on younger men, and it has inspired far too many terrible jokes. However, I am also not a fan of Google AdSense's recent decision to refuse service to ads for cougar dating sites. Their reasoning? The concept of an older woman looking to date a younger man is not "family friendly." They will continue to allow "sugar daddy" dating sites to advertise online though, because those are way more kid-appropriate.