Maude Findlay was 47 years old and pregnant. What to do? Bring an unwanted baby into the home of two “over the hill” misfits in an unstable marriage? Disrupt her life – not to mention risk it – for almost a year and then give the baby away to mythically perfect adoptive parents? Abort the pregnancy?
This must have been a tough decision for Maude. But it was really a choice for Bea Arthur who, in playing Maude on Maude in 1972 – before the monumental Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, two months later – became the first actress to portray a lead character undergoing an abortion in television history.
However did Arthur reconcile her decision to play the liberal-minded, outspoken housewife who befriends homosexuals, supports the civil rights movement and advocates legal abortion? And Maude was the f-word too: f- f- f- feminist! Was that even allowed in 1972? Ms. Magazine was less than a year old and the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded a mere five years before that. And then came Maude: mouthing off to her husband, harnassing her own reproductive rights, and taking a part-time job despite her hubby’s antiquated protests.
Last week, I read that Arthur (5/13/1922 – 4/25/2009) had died. I cried. I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude for all women who – however subtly – have chiseled away at the myths, the stereotypes and the expectations that make it difficult for other-than-standard beauties to thrive in this superficial world of ours. Standing 5 feet, 9 inches tall on bare feet and bellowing sarcasm with a distinctively low, husky voice, Arthur broke the mold. How? Perhaps, by simply not being afraid of it: “I can’t stay home waiting for something different,” she said once. “I think it’s a total waste of energy worrying about typecasting.”
After a semi-successful career in theatre, the actress broke into television with a memorable performance on All in the Family, from which Maude spun off. It was a picaresque show, really, because every good thing Maude wanted to do with the best of intentions always went wrong. But she was likable enough for most with her big heart and contrarily acerbic wit.
And later, in 1985, there came The Golden Girls: a show about four middle-aged to senior women living it up together in sunny Miami, Florida. As Dorothy Zbornak, Arthur wasn’t nearly as socially clumsy as Maude had been; but Zbornak was the butt of everybody’s jokes about being unattractive and sexless over the age of 50. The show won the Emmy for “Best Comedy Series” twice, in 1986 and 1987, and garnered each of the four women Emmy’s for their individual performances.
Arthur became famous for her deadpan sarcasm with lines like: You’ll have to excuse my mother. She suffered a slight stroke a few years ago which rendered her totally annoying…and…Well, I guess after a hard night of pillaging and raping, a Viking would want a little something to go with his cocoa.
I loved The Golden Girls. It gave me something to look forward to – namely fun and friendship…and cheesecake – in those years after my youth has faded and – as Hollywood has always envisioned it for me – my life is over. Here were four women who looked after themselves and each other. Men were accessories, often present for the sake of “war between the sexes” comic spectacle. Men were always disposable; until, as television luck would have it, Dorothy married Blanche’s (Rue McClanahan) uncle Lucas, played by Leslie Nielsen. The show fell apart when Dorothy left and was canceled the following season.
Dorothy was difficult to love for some, as Maude had been before her. I found her sarcasm funny, but when I wrote to my mother about Arthur’s death she couldn’t commiserate: “I found it difficult to watch her,” my mother wrote. “Not because of the issues but because she was so loud (coarse, rude) about them. It is possible that loud is necessary to get attention for these issues about which I was already on board. Too close for comfort, maybe.”
What’s of particular interest to me is that, perhaps like many, I had always assumed that the coarseness of Arthur’s characters – the stuff of my mother’s discomfort – went part and parcel with her “real” self. But apparently, the real Bea Arthur wasn’t loud or rude in private life. And remarkably – though they reportedly consumed more than 100 of them during the taping of The Golden Girls over seven seasons – Arthur hated cheesecake! So she opened her mouth AND she stuffed her face for show business – and feminism!
In an Entertainment Weekly tribute, McClanahan remembered Arthur’s softer side:
As a friend she was giving and loving to me. She was a very close, quiet, rather timid person, very gentle. I saw someone say something once that they didn’t mean to be a cutting remark, but it hit her wrong, and she immediately burst into tears. That was not seen very often, but those emotions were right under the surface…That height…and that deep voice, and that manner she was able to summon up, made people think she would be difficult. But she wasn’t.
Another costar Betty White called Arthur “a big part of my life,” while writer-producer Mitchell Hurwitz added, “I really loved her…Her warmth wasn’t superficial – it was genuine and bespoke true compassion. And it was this same inner sweetness that made her comedy so real and touching, and made her such an inspiration,” in another EW article.
Just as she was sweeter than her television incarnations, Arthur was the unlikely “women’s libber” too. She was married to stage director Gene Saks for 28 years (1950-1978) and the couple adopted two sons. Arthur maintained during her Maude era that “I’ve never felt that being a wife and mother isn’t enough,” according to this source.
Later on after their divorce, Arthur began to question the meaning of female identity as juxtaposed with marriage: “I don’t think I ever truly believed in marriage anyway,” she told an interviewer in 1985. “I guess marriage means that you’re a woman and not a…person.”
I think, in both of those shows, we really did change the perception of a woman’s role. I don’t think anybody thought that it was okay to be a feminist back when she was doing Maude. And I’m sure that [show] released a lot of inhibitions. I know The Golden Girls certainly did because I’ve got fan mail saying “Thank you for allowing me to act and dress like I feel.” Because in those days, when you were over 50, you were supposed to be wearing certain types of clothes and behaving a certain way. And women were writing saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you for the freedom, for the release, for the permission.” And I’m sure Bea got that same kind of fan mail, too.
What is okay behavior for a married woman vs. a single gal? How much money am I supposed to make? Who am I really? These are ongoing discussions I hold with myself – not to mention in this forum. What I appreciate most about Bea Arthur is that she brought these issues to life as a fearless performer of women on the fringe of social acceptance: the sassy yet earnest housewife of an archaic thinker and the sarcastic yet intelligent over-50 divorcee who’s continually disappointed in life. She made these women likable to me – thus, I’m not afraid to turn out unloved by others. I can love me.
The real Bea Arthur always wanted to sing on the stage, despite the mediocrity of her singing voice. Hers was a variety show with music and comedy, the kind only she could deliver. “I wanted to see if I had the guts to just come and be myself,” she told the audience at one performance of her one woman Broadway show Just Between Friends in December, 2001.
She was 79 years old and had finally reached the pinnacle of her career. I’m 29 and nowhere near that spot. Arthur would probably tell me that there’s no rush.
I was glad to read that today’s funny women of television know how much they’ve benefitted from Arthur playing Maude with integrity. Tina Fey told Entertainment Weekly in an interview, “You could argue that every strong female comedy character, from Murphy Brown to Roseanne to Amy Poehler rapping at nine months pregnant on (Saturday Night Live), is in some way indebted to Maude and to Bea Arthur. Ms. Arthur sandwiched both sides of Three’s Company – Maude was before, and Golden Girls was after – and made TV a little safer for women.”
But, Tina, with topics like abortion to play out, she made the world safer for real women too!
March 30, 2009
Their stories are getting very interesting! (Apparently, the writers got my memo.)
It may seem as though I do nothing but watch television and movies. There’s a lot to write about because – I am pleased to say – women are being written rather well, in some cases. They’re increasingly dynamic. Unlike “chick” shows where several characters add up to one “real” woman, each character embodying a facet of the female psyche (think: Sex and the City, Designing Women and The Golden Girls, to name a few), some of today’s women have a little more in the mix: they’re allowed to be sexy and smart and confused and confident…all at the same time. What a novel idea!
Over the years, I’ve generally stuck to the programs on Showtime and HBO: Sex and the City, Deadwood, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, The L Word, which I wrote about two weeks ago, and Big Love, which I’ll probably write about in upcoming weeks. I generally avoid network television (I watch Damages, The Office and 30 Rock right now) because commercials are annoying and the content doesn’t usually interest me. Believe it or not, the lack of sex, violence and profanity that you might expect me to applaud given my reaction to Watchmen coincides with a reduction in substance. Unless the television show is about flying nuns, there should be a modicum of each to keep it real. (Think: Watership Down – bunnies with blood and guts…and fascism. Very interesting!)
I estimate that I watch between six and eight hours of television per week; and in that six or eight hours, I try to keep my feminist perspective honed. It might surprise you that The Office – very funny though generally devoid of topics for intense discussion – contained a golden nugget of feminist historical significance several episodes ago. I highly doubt that the writers were aware they’d created this landmark occurrence unless one of them was attending a college English literature seminar at the time… I just became aware of it during a second viewing of the episode last night.
Jim bought a house for his new life with fiance Pam, and he reserved for her the stand-alone garage as an art studio. When he surprised her with the house, he’d already set up the garage. He gave her just what every woman needs: creative independence. According to Virginia Woolf, every person should have “a room of one’s own.” And this space must have a door with a lock and key. It must be hers and hers alone, Woolf advocated, apart from the spaces of home and work or home/work united.
Because Jim has given Pam this space for her unique liberty, she has no need to abscond with her creative ideas later on, the way that Edna Pontellier does in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a landmark feminist text. Edna – the quintessential oppressed wife and mother – recedes to the cottage behind her middle class American home to express herself through art after she meets a mysterious single women named Mademoiselle Reisz. Reisz plays the piano hauntingly, casting a kind of spell over Edna who subsequently becomes inspired to create the separation between herself and her family. She wants to make her own music, so to speak.
In the case of Pam, as a wife and mother, she’ll feel little or no need to assert her independence. All she has to do – in order to feel herself again – is step out her back door and cross the lawn to her makeshift art studio in the garage. “It gets great light,” Jim announced when he presented it to her, canvases, easel and necessary art utensils already in place.
Meanwhile, “over the hill,” and unarguably overweight office chum Phyllis is happily married to Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration. (In case you missed it, he does own his own business!) Phyllis is perhaps my favorite character on the show because her narrative arc shows that romantic dreams really do come true for nice women who aren’t the aesthetic ideal, but who wait their turn with thoughts optimistic. Bob once paid $1,000 for a hug from his wife at a charity auction (the top moneymaker)…and in a later episode, the happy couple abandoned their dinner guests (Jim and Pam, no less) for a sexscapade in the handicapped restroom. (Pam ate some of Bob’s French fries, and helped herself to a bite of his steak too! It just goes to show you that there are two kinds of couples in this world: those who enjoy sex in public bathrooms, and those who wish they did!)
These characters and their antics make me laugh so much that I re-watch episodes, often three or four times. But sometimes I need a little intrigue and that’s when I turn to Damages, starring the incomparable Glenn Close. Her character, Patty Hewes, is wicked to the core and a firecracker of an attorney to boot: in other words, she’s Snow White’s evil stepmother crossed with Alan Dershowitz.
It seems that all the shows I like are wrapping up their seasons – or even going off the air permanently – right now: The L Word (cancelled), Big Love (hiatus), Damages (hiatus), etc. But the one I’ll miss the most – the most revolutionary program in television history, which I just finished watching on DVD in rapid fire succession with the final episodes purchased on Apple TV: Battlestar Galactica. Though it has no mainstream accolades to show for itself, CNN reports that the cast and writers of the show executed one final diplomatic operation at the United Nations before fading into the past. It seems that the struggle for the survival of the human race after its near-anihalation at the hands of renegade cylons (machines, or “toasters”) really struck a chord with post-9/11 political leaders. Like their 1978 shortlived predecessors, Battlestar Galacticans utilized their own expletives (“Frack!” “Mother Fracker!” “Gods dammit!”) but found a way to stay human(e) in the face of near extinction. What can we learn from them?
For starters, we can learn that women have just as large a role to play in preventing the Apocalypse as do men. So there! The original series portrayed an ill-equipped elected civilian leader who led the human race to ruin with the help of a corrupt count, both male. In the 2003-9 re-imagined series, the civilian leader is transformed from a one-dimensional character into a force to be reckoned with: former Education Secretary turned “dying leader,” President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell). Though suffering from breast cancer for the greater part of the show’s four mammoth seasons, Roslin rarely lets her authority slide. She’s tough when it’s warranted and warm-hearted when she can afford to be. And her winter romance with Admiral Adama is one of the most thoroughly convincing love stories ever to air on television, despite Roslin’s failing health. (I think the original President Adar would have stayed in bed.)
The re-envisioned show also transformed the swashbuckling, womanizing Captain Starbuck (played by pretty boy Dirk Benedict) into the swashbuckling, seductress (I hate the word “slut!”) Captain (Kara Thrace) Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff). I’ve read comments by some women who don’t like this re-imagining because Kara Thrace is rarely feminine and mostly a hard-drinking, hard-punching sex instigator. “Why can’t she be a tough girl who is still a girl?” they wonder.
What do you want her to do? Put on make-up and knit a sweater? She’s a pilot who’s bunk mates with a bunch of other (male) pilots. She’s bound to be a little crass. She smokes cigars, drinks liquor and plays cards with the rest of the pilots…of either sex. It’s how they unwind after a long day of heroics and it sounds good to me!
I like Kara. I like both of these women because I think they work hard and make sacrifices without self-pity, proving that they have the right to be where they are. In the first few episodes, the qualifications that they bring to the table are questioned, first by a cylon skin job (one disguised as a human) and then by the Admiral, among others. I don’t remember anyone ever saying “because she’s a woman” – the show is too subtle for that. It was implied that the question arose as to how much of the burden these women can carry because of their sex. The answer: all of it! Kara Thrace could pilot a colonial viper after a few rounds of whiskey and Laura Roslin led the survivors of the twelve colonies to “Earth” after a few treatments of chemotherapy.
Even though Battlestar Galactica has ended, there may be an evil cylon or two left in the universe. I guess it will be up to Patty Hewes to…hire a contract killer to assassinate them…or sue them – whichever angle works out best in her favor.