Rue McClanahan was the overlooked member of The Golden Girls. As the sensual Southern Belle Blanche, she was not given the best lines nor was celebrated like Bea Arthur or Betty White. Even Estelle Getty, with her ham-fisted Borscht-belt delivery, got more attention as the sassy Sicilian Sofia. I remember my Dad awhile ago saying “I never was a fan of what’s her name… Blanche, but the other three sure are pros.”
As a society we still have little sympathy for the ‘slutty one’, especially when she is confident and unashamed. Although the other characters mocked her for it, Blanche’s sexual openness was remarkable for TV. You still rarely see characters who worry about one-night stands and menopause at the same time. In I’m the One that I Want, Margaret Cho discussed her sexual epiphany: “I wondered, ‘Am I gay? Am I straight?’ And then I realized: I’m just slutty. Where’s my parade?” After the term ‘slut’ has been successfully reclaimed, I look forward to that parade, led by Margaret, Kim Cattrall and Rue McClanahan, three generations of unapologetic sexual women.
Despite third-(or fourth-) banana status, Blanche was often given emotional ‘issues’ plots, such as when her rival sister had breast cancer, she was sexually-harassed by an adult education professor or her brother came out as gay (again, groundbreaking for 1980’s TV). Especially next to Maude’s Bea Arthur, it was surprisingly Blanche who often voiced the show’s feminism, such as when she threw out her overweight daughter’s fiancé because he treated her condescendingly. She gave a rousing speech to a Daughters of the Confederacy society who didn’t want to accept her because one of her ancestors was Jewish and from Buffalo: “You say you’re about American history? I am American history!” And when her father “Big Daddy” passed away, she visited her parents graves and broke your heart when she realized she was “nobody’s little girl anymore.”
Rue’s was a more naturalistic acting, her jokes built not around zingy one-liners but by poking fun at Blanche’s overconfidence and vanity. This might be the reason she was viewed as the least funny of the girls, but she was responsible for some of the show’s funniest moments. When Dorothy tells her that her visiting friend is a lesbian, Blanche, after initially getting over the shock that anyone wouldn’t like sex with men, accepts it. “That’s not all,” Dorothy continues. “She has a crush on Rose.” “Rose,” Blanche says, blankly. “Rose. Well, that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard! She’s staying under this roof and she falls for little Miss Muffet and not me! Who ever heard of something so ridiculous!” “Blanche, get a hold of yourself!” Dorothy growls.
In another classic episode, Blanche has trouble keeping composed when Rose brings home a date who is a little person. Trying to get a hold of herself in the kitchen, she tells Dorothy that she must play the welcoming hostess because otherwise it would look “unSouthern.” She grabs a plate of appetisers, waltzes into the living room, asks “Shrimp?” and, with perfect timing, turns back giggling and waltzes out in humiliation.
While Blanche was never really portrayed as dumb, it was always hard to believe she worked at a museum, especially when, during the sparse episodes her job was mentioned, she discussed art not artefacts.
‘Wow, Max,’ you may be thinking, ‘you know this show as much as that other show about four single women who discuss men and sex over coffee and desserts!’ I do. When I moved to Dublin, especially before I got a TV, turning on The Golden Girls youtube channel was my only entertainment (besides, you know, like reading). I will always have a fondness for those ladies because of how they distracted me during those first difficult months, and I’m glad to see them rerunning the show again on TV. We need more reruns of shows like that instead of the round the clock snark of Family Guy.
Fans of the show should have known something was up when Rue wasn’t present during Betty White’s lifetime achievement award ceremony a couple months back. Perhaps with time the legacy of her acting and character will raise her from being the Ringo of the quartet to being acknowledged as a great comedienne playing a taboo-breaking role. Maybe then I’ll know how to spell her last name.