It’s no secret, one of the most celebrated aspects of The Golden Girls (1985-92) are the unapologetic discussions about sexuality.
The show’s ability to break and redefine scripts, for how female sexuality was portrayed on TV, was nothing short of a masterclass.
And over its 7 season run, it aired several queer-themed episodes including, LGBT+ characters “coming-out” and an episode that addressed public misconceptions about the AIDS crisis.
Human sexuality is a tricky business. Modern theorists argue that sexual desire is inherent in all of us and can ground our social identities (Tyson, 2015). It’s just too powerful to ignore.
Our cultural norms set the standard for what is acceptable sexual behavior and that has the potential to politicize the issue. When I started thinking about how I would define The ‘Sexual’ Other, as a main research theme, I realized I was stuck on how the show portrayed LGBT+ characters.
Because the LGBT+ community often falls victim to othering in society, noting its representation on the show was vital to my analysis. But the reality was I was putting myself in a box before I’d even begun.
If I wanted to explore what it meant to be “sexually” othered, I had to expand my definition. I needed to consider all forms of sexual desire, behavior, and attitudes that may fall outside the social norm.
Key Concepts for The 'Sexual' Other
Queer theorists refer to the conflated norms of gender and sexuality as heteropatriarchy, or the idea that traditional gender roles are maintained through heterosexual relationships (Tyson, 2015).
If heteropatriarchy is the dominant system we live in then heterocentrism, the assumption that everyone is heterosexual (Tyson, 2015), is the ideology that keeps this system in place.
That explains the proverbial “gasp” in the room whenever someone announces themselves as LGBT+ on your favorite TV show, or the immediate defense a character assumes whenever it’s implied. “Gay? Me? Oh no, no, no, no, no….you got it all wrong!”
Aside from being marked as so fundamentally different as to be seen as improper, amoral, or not wholly human (Lanham, 2002; Tyson, 2015) based on orientation, the ‘sexual’ other operates outside proper heterosexuality.
Oh yes, there is a “proper” way to be heterosexual. Which leads me to the idea of heteromonogamy (a bit superfluous, I know).
I define heteromonogamy as the assumption that ‘normal’ heterosexuality cannot exist without monogamy. Over the years, we’ve become familiar with sexually transgressive scripts such as ‘the love triangle’ and ‘the mistress’ archetype, that may not defy heteronormative sensibilities but do operate outside of monogamy.
Characters who openly express or act upon these sexual desires are often labelled as ‘sluts’, ‘cheaters’, ‘players’ and ‘homewreckers’.
I noted the following in my formal sample.
- References to sexual orientation, sexuality, desire, or attraction.
- Presence or absence of LGBT+ individuals or groups. Portrayal?
- Tropes, Stereotypes, Bias (i.e ‘The Homewrecker’, ‘Closeted LGBT+’, 'The Slut', 'The Cheater')
- Implicit Othering: i.e. provocative clothing or reverse gender roles (female character in traditionally masculine role)
- Explicit Othering: i.e. slut shaming or homophobic jokes
"What do we have for collateral? A gay cook?" – Rose, The Engagement; Episode 1, Season 1
You can't talk LGBT+ on the The Golden Girls without talking about “Coco”. He was the gay male character featured in the show’s pilot episode, The Engagement. Often referred to as "the gay cook", many have hailed his character as an affirmation of the show’s progressive values.
But Coco also serves as an example of its limitations of well-rounded LGBT+ representation. Eventhough Coco did not reappear in the series, his character and all he represents has endured.
Let's unpack....shall we?
In the episode, Blanche is newly engaged to a "mysterious" man named "Harry". Rose and Dorothy are visibly shocked when Blanche announces her engagement to a man they haven’t met, “You’ve only known him a week” exclaims Rose. Despite the news, they remain supportive, spending much of the episode preparing the house for the wedding ceremony.
We first meet Coco in the opening scene cooking in the kitchen. Dorothy comes home from work as a substitute teacher and starts to vent.
By this point, we don't know what his name is and when I coded this episode I identified him as "unknown cook". However, his bright Hawaiian shirt and placement in the kitchen, an activity traditionally ascribed to women, told me there was a stereotype afoot.
Rose expresses concern to Dorothy about the possibility of Blanche selling the house they share after she marries Harry. Dorothy entertains the idea of buying their own house but Rose laments, "What do we have for collateral? A gay cook?"
Now Coco's identity is taking shape but he still remains unnamed and is only referenced based on his sexual orientation.
"He's an okay petunia" - Sophia, The Engagement; Episode 1, Season 1
This is compounded with the arrival of Sophia who, much to the surprise of Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose, needs a place to stay after "the home" burnt down. Coco is not present in the scene when Sophia asks about "the fancy man", an old epithet dredged up from days of yore.
She goes into the kitchen (because where else would Coco be?) and upon her return declares him an "okay petunia" to the rest of the women in the living room. We still do not know his name or if he even has one.
We only understand him as a one-dimensional character whose entire identity rests on his sexuality. It is not until halfway through the episode that Dorothy calls him by name, "Coco", which carries an air of ambiguity.
I noted it sounded like a stage name. Dorothy is the only one who calls him by his name which only happens one or two more times during the rest of episode.
Coco occupies an odd position.
When he's present, he's performing a subserviant task i.e. serving drinks, with little to no speaking lines. When he's not present, he's referred to by his sexuality, such as the last scene when Sophia refers to him again as "the fancy man" and says they're going to the racetrack.
I noted this last remark as a possible trope, implying LGBT+ individuals' have inclinations toward deviant behavior, gambling in this case. There is no indication in Coco's actions or speech that he would be interested in "going to a racetrack".
I'd argue that there was an attempt to normalize his gender, going from domestic activities to a place traditionally seen as 'not fit for a lady'.
"Her mother was a slut too" - Dorothy, The Case of the Libertine Bell; Episode 2, Season 7
Overall, transgressive sexuality can include hypersexuality, fetishes, taboos, or even extramarital affairs (Tyson, 2015). No one knows how to transgress sexual norms quite like Blanche Devereaux.
She is sexually liberated, uninhibited, and boasts of her many ‘suitors’. Blanche wears her sexuality like a badge of honor. She often laughs off whatever jab or insult thrown her way. She brags about her sexual conquests and rarely feels the need to defend her behavior.
Some would argue, Why should she? she's a single, vibrant, gainfully employed adult. She should be allowed to exercise a sense a agency. And she does, but not without judgement.
In a way, Blanche represents the core message of the show. It's okay to be a woman who embraces her sexuality, wants to feel attractive, or simply craves companionship (whatever that looks like).
It's all fun and games until you sleep with someone's husband...allegedly
In Take Him, He’s Mine, Blanche is accused of breaking the cardinal rule, sleeping with a friend’s husband. In the episode, Dorothy’s ex-husband Stan is upset over his recent break-up with wife no. 2. Stan’s looking for sympathy and some company to ease his loneliness.
Dorothy feels bad for him and knows if she doesn’t do something he’ll just keep pestering her. Naturally, she does what any good ex-wife would do and tries to set him up with one of her friends.
Dorothy turns to Blanche, who is hesitant until Dorothy says she’ll introduce her to her boyfriend's Navy buddies. She finally agrees when Dorothy adds, “some of them have been at sea for more than 6 months”.
Two things are happening here.
One, Dorothy bribes Blanche with access to a group of eligible, sexually starved men. Her achilles heel. Two, she trades one type of sexual favor with another when she effectively ‘pimps’ Blanche out to her ex-husband.
"Blanche Devereaux does not stay out all night with a man to go walking along on the beach!!”- Dorothy, Take Him, He's Mine; Episode 3, Season 2
After their date, Blanche admits she liked spending time with Stan. Dorothy does what any good ex-wife would do and publicly accuses her of sleeping with him.
Blanche vehemently denies it and calls Dorothy out on her hypocrisy, “You practically pushed him on me. It’s not my fault I had a good time.” But Dorothy can’t let it go and continues to ignore Blanche for the rest of the episode. She even goes to Stan’s place, thinking she’ll catch them in the act, only to find him in bed with a young, ditzy blonde.
Afterward, she apologizes to Blanche for not believing her and they make up.
This would not be the only example I observed of Blanche falling into the ‘Homewrecker’ trope.
In Hey, Look Me Over, Rose discovers a photo on an old roll of film which seems to show her late husband, Charlie, in bed with Blanche. Dorothy urges her to talk to Blanche and give her a chance to explain. But Rose is afraid to confront her, thinking she might call her “a slut”.
It doesn’t take her long to get over this fear and accuse Blanche of sleeping with her husband over ten years ago. Blanche doesn’t take this allegation lying down (sorry, I couldn’t help myself), saying she may be a ”social person” but she does not sleep with married men. She doesn’t recall ever meeting Charlie.
“You not only met him, you slept with him just like you sleep with everybody!” – Rose, Hey, Look Me Over ; Episode 1, Season 7
Like Dorothy in Take Him, He’s Mine, Rose continues to ignore her for the majority of the episode. In an effort to clear her name, Blanche combs through ledgers of every sexual encounter she’s had since her husband passed.
She finds that yes she did sleep with a travelling salesman named “Chuck” all the women, including Blanche, assume this must have been Charlie and Blanche apologizes to Rose.
It is only after discovering the photos were the result of double exposure that Rose apologizes for treating her so poorly. In, Take Him, He’s Mine and Hey, Look Me Over, Dorothy and Rose equate Blanche's open sexuality with amorality.
Because Blanche embraces her sexuality she must be a liar, indiscriminate, and untrustworthy. And as punishment she must be othered.
I read several articles that touched on Coco's character during preliminary research, but this was my first time watching the episode. In the spirit of objectivity, I drew my conclusions based on my own observations.
Even though my formal sample amounted to 21 episodes, 3 episodes per season, I only observed one that could be explicitly described as queer-themed. This would be a very different discussion if I had purposely selected queer-themed episodes for formal analysis.
However, I did note all references to sexual orientation including, jokes, reverse gender roles, and explicit mentions of the LGBT+ community. Seeing as how the dominant sexual norm portrayed on the show is firmly heterosexual, Coco the "gay cook"/ "fancy man"/ "okay petunia" is both explicitly and implicitly othered.
There is much to be said about LGBT+ representation on the show and I would encourage anyone interested in media studies to pursue this topic for content analysis.
Blanche is often portrayed as being indiscriminate when it comes to her sexual partners. Both Take Him, He's Mine and Hey, Look Me Over, put her in a position where she needs to defend her sexuality. But I found it interesting that she would need to do this at all.
Neither Dorothy or Rose had a direct connection to either situation. Dorothy and Stan had been divorced for years and even if Rose’s husband Charlie had slept with Blanche it was long before the two women had met.
These examples could be seen as an effort to add a layer of respectability to Blanche's sexual behavior. She does not date married men and she would never have sex with someone her friend was involved with without discussing it with them first.
Even Blanche Devereaux has standards.