What does The Golden Girls have to do with gender studies, sexuality, and jazz music?
Plenty, and the scholar to ask about it is Elliott H. Powell of the University of Minnesota, who wrote 'Staying Golden': The politics of gender, sexuality, and Jazz in The Golden Girls.'
We sat down with Powell, who is originally from Florida (natch), to chat about how Sophia buying a nectarine is connected to queer theory, how Doug and Clayton find themselves represented in the foundational sexuality essay “Thinking Sex,” and a whole lot more.
How did you get to the place where you found yourself doing an academic paper on these three seemingly disparate topics — gender and sexuality, jazz, and The Golden Girls — that unified so well?
Most of my work centers at the intersections of race and sexuality and popular culture, and specifically Black popular music. I’ve been teaching scenes and episodes from The Golden Girls, since about 2010-2011. The first time I ever taught my own course, at NYU, was a Gender and Sexuality Studies course. And being a huge fan of The Golden Girls, I was like, well, how can I incorporate it into the class? It went pretty well, and so then I was like, well, I'm just going to continue to do this in courses where it actually makes sense.
I watch Golden Girls episodes all the time and, at some point I started to notice how often jazz references appear. And I was like, oh, this is interesting, there's probably something here that I could write about. So around 2016, I was at a jazz conference, and one of my friends, Nicholas Pillai, said he was going to do a special issue for Jazz Research Journal, on television and jazz. His work is essentially how television can open up new understandings of analyzing and thinking about the representations of jazz. And then I said, you know, I've been wanting to do something about The Golden Girls and jazz. He just kind of looked at me and was like, you know, I've never thought about those things together, but I’ll give it a go.
For me, the relationship between jazz and a television show like The Golden Girls that's widely known for being an all-woman ensemble is that it’s also a show that pushes narratives and understandings around gender and sexuality, and really age. Then there is jazz being a Black art form, so how do we also talk about race? And then on top of that, what's really still somewhat of an under-theorized aspect of jazz, is gender and sexuality in jazz. Most of the academics who do work on jazz are men who don't usually read feminist or queer theory, and it's not like other forms of popular music with lyrics for folks to be able to analyze — like, how do you talk about gendering and sound? But a lot of the folks who I actually cite in the article — most, if not all, women — are the ones who have really been doing fantastic work. Their scholarship helped me think through The Golden Girls in this way, so the article is also really trying to kind of showcase these folks who are thinking about gender and sexuality and jazz.
Did you uncover anything, while you were researching and looking at other scholarship, that either surprised you or was new to you?
There were a number of things, but one that sticks out to me is The Days and Nights of Sophia Petrillo episode, where she’s buying a nectarine, and features that all-woman jazz ensemble. I was on IMDb, seeing who the cast was, and I was like, oh, I had no idea these women were a real band called The Dixie Belles. So I did my own reading of them and discovered it was Peggy Gilbert, who is a saxophonist. That was the light for me — stuff that I knew nothing about. But it was also just fascinating because I've seen that episode hundreds of times, and I just assumed that they were just extras who were playing instruments! That was different than some other times, like The Donatello Triplets, where that’s definitely an example of, yes, that is that is them.
So for me, I was just reading more about them and about this kind of collective of women who've been working in jazz for decades, who at this point, you know, are obviously older, but are still getting together to practice and to play.
I love that you highlighted the part where Rose gets hot at weddings, because the seemingly throw-away goofy line of, ‘Does he like jazz?’ in reference to Dizzy Gillespie as a threesome joke blew my mind. Were there any episodes or jazz references that you didn't include in the paper?
Yeah, I mean, the selection process was a bit difficult. The one thing I knew I didn’t want to do is I knew I didn't want to talk about Michael. That's in large part because with Golden Girls being an all-woman cast, I didn't want to say, ‘hey, let's talk about a man.’
I mean, I knew I couldn’t ignore that Michael exists, but I wanted to actually highlight other women in the show, so that became ‘let's talk about Rosalind Cash,’ aka Lorraine. Especially because it’s a very standard narrative within jazz, where women, if they are in a jazz band, are usually the singers. I also, in a roundabout way, wanted to talk about the dance marathon scene. I mean, when Rose goes solo, she's dancing to Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ and for me it’s a really, really interesting sort of jazz moment there. But I couldn’t quite think through it.
So then I thought, let's go with the Great Pretenders, right? Because on the one hand, I actually love that entire episode with Jake and Blanche — it’s one of my favorite Golden Girls episodes. So if I'm going to do work around gender and sexuality, I think of the way in which, you know, Rose is on this mission, she finds an all-woman jazz band, and then it turns out that there's this interesting queer moment that happens. And I wanted to be sure to highlight this.
It becomes really sort of indicative of how I'm trying to make an argument of how jazz operates within a television series that pushes the boundaries around gender and sexuality. How is it through jazz? And then of course, that kind of slippage that happens, where Rose doesn't seem to know who Dizzy Gillespie is, and yet uses language like “daddio” from bebop, right? There's that weird sort of appropriative act.
This show features four heterosexual white women. Their age and the way they talk amongst themselves about sex is not normative; however, so much about them are. So how do the elements of race and queerness interplay with The Golden Girls writ large?
That’s a great question. The Golden Girls as women who are over 50 is part of their narrative. We see this in the first episode of the second season, End of the Curse. Blanche literally says, you know, ‘this means that I'm no longer a real woman,’ right? So there's this particular kind of way in which the Golden Girls is trying to respond to understandings around women and age and sexuality. It might not be queer, per se, because again, they all identify as heterosexual, but I think the way in which the show is trying to highlight how norms around gender and sexuality are also about age in a particular kind of way.
I think a lot of folks in gender and sexuality studies have also been thinking through these kinds of issues as well, about realistically disrupting these norms around gender and sexuality in a way that the Golden Girls is doing. So for me, as I started to get trained in feminist and queer theory, the show became a really interesting way for me to make sense of some theories. And this is why I actually use it in the classroom. You know, it kind of hits home in a particular way, because obviously theory can seem very abstract.
Also, many years ago, let's say around 2002, when marriage equality was being discussed on a national level in a way that it really hadn't prior, one of the things that some queer activists and queer scholars were actually concerned about was that if LGBTQ politics was framed as marriage equality being the end goal, it would ignore all these other kinds of struggles that people were still having. And so, queer activists and scholars were saying not only do we need to think about marriage differently, in terms of not simply making it a sort of heteronormative site, but also we need to rethink all the things that we embed in marriage. We need to rethink household organizations. And so one of the ways in which those folks started to kind of cast their arguments, like Lisa Duggan and Richard Kim do in “Beyond Gay Marriage,” was to talk about The Golden Girls. They were referencing the ways in which folks share lives with each other, and how to think about family in ways that aren't simply about blood.
And so this became a thing for me — in the classroom, I talk about it mainly in relation to Gayle Rubin's essay, “Thinking Sex.” It’s a foundational kind of essay in sexuality studies. It makes an argument about sexuality not just being an individual or interpersonal thing, but actually really institutional — how the state will leverage and dole out privilege and things like that. Rubin has this thing called the "charmed circle," which I talked about in the article, where those who are within the charmed circle are actually protected by the state — so, folks who are straight, who are monogamous, who aren't using sex toys, all these other kinds of things. And those who sit on the outside are those who the state deems unworthy for any kind of protection. So it also kind of suggests that those who are within the charmed circle are ‘good’ people because they have good sex, and those who are outside are ‘bad’ people because they have bad sex.
And so, when I teach that article, it's a very kind of abstract piece, so I use two Golden Girls episodes to ground it. I use the 72 Hours episode where Rose gets the HIV test, and Rose says, you know, ‘I'm a good person, this isn't supposed to happen to me.’ And then she points to Blanche and says, ‘you know, you must have slept with hundreds of men.’ And Blanche follows her into the living room and says, ‘AIDS is not a bad person's disease, Rose.’ What's fascinating again, in terms of the charmed circle, is how Rose describes herself as being against Blanche. That Rose is a good person who has good sex and therefore HIV should not happen to her, right? Whereas Blanche, because she's having multiple sexual partners, and that’s bad sex. That's the outer limits of the charmed circle, and so therefore something bad should happen to her.
There's another arc of the Rubin article that talks about how some folks who are on the outer limits of the charmed circle can gain some privileges, if they can present themselves in a way in which they espouse or embrace some of the politics within the inner circle. Which is to say, that if LGBTQ folks present themselves as being monogamous, not engaged in sex work, those kinds of things, they can gain certain kinds of rights and privileges. So I show part of the episode when Blanche's brother Clayton gets engaged to Doug, and Blanche is losing her mind over this.
"There must be homosexuals who date women.”
Right! "Yeah, they're called lesbians." That clip is great. But Dorothy makes a statement like, you know, they're consenting adults, and monogamous, and so you shouldn't shun them for wanting to get married. And that particular sort of theme becomes a moment when you see exactly what Gayle Rubin is saying, like, if you present yourself as having some aspects of the inner circle, then you should win some favor.
So there are a number of different ways in which The Golden Girls is really doing a lot of work that not only further substantiates the claims that queer theorists are making, but doing it in a way that’s also super funny. But I think it's really, in a subversive way, teaching us something about gender and sexuality that I think a lot of the audience probably had not thought about before.
That Dorothy line is fascinating because it's delivered in a way where she is making the 'sell' for homosexuality. But at the same time, in this theory, there's a slight disparagement there about how you should accept him because he's this type of gay instead of, like, sleeping around.
It's so fascinating.
If you were to write another scholarly article about The Golden Girls, what would it be about?
To be honest, I don't think that I would want to write this solo, but I really want to write about how the show deals with lesbianism or queer women's sexuality. I'm fascinated about how that actually gets discussed in really interesting ways. Obviously, we have Dorothy's friend Jean.
She's also in the ‘good sex’ category, right?
Exactly. She totally is. They'd been together for years. There's this, you know, Blanche being jealous that Jean has the hots for Rose, the ‘lesbian’ vs. ‘Lebanese’ kind of thing — which, incidentally, pops up on the old Rosie O'Donnell TV talk show where she and Ellen have an insider joke about actually being Lebanese, before either of them actually come out. It’s an interesting sort of tongue-in-cheek where she's talking to another queer woman and using ‘Lebanese’ where it's clearly clearly coded as lesbian. I remember seeing that clip circling around and wondering if The Golden Girls bit is a wink wink nod nod to a much broader kind of coded language within queer women’s circles that I just don’t get.
Then of course there’s the episode with Mr. Gordon that I think sort of makes commentary on history. Rose has this whole conversation about Dorothy and Blanche being quote unquote lesbians, right, because Rose pitched it that they live together and sleep together, right? One of the interesting things for me is how it, in part, is a throwback to what's known as Boston marriages. These were late 19th and early 20th Century kinds of deals where women would live together in close friendship, and would sometimes have romantic partnerships. And so I felt as if that whole pitch about ‘women who live together’ with her producers automatically being like, ‘oh, you must be talking about lesbians’ is a really interesting kind of slippage — women who live together might be sexual, might not. And we might identify it as queer and we might not. The Golden Girls does this very well and it’s very interesting.
And there's one last thing that I'll say around that subject — there's a really funny joke in Wham, Bam, Thank You, Mammy. Dorothy gets tired of Rose's stories, and so she's like, ‘I don't want to hear another story about some Minnesota person who crossed a bull with a duck, and their daughter was a bull duck who ran a tattoo parlor.’ It’s very clearly an allusion to bull dyke, right? It goes by so quickly. And basically every time I'm like, how did they get this past the censors? Perhaps I could co-author something with someone who would be willing to kind of engage me on this on this subject. Because I think it's really interesting, but I also think for me, as a cis man I don't actually want to wholly occupy this particular kind of space.
Is there anything else that you want us to share about The Golden Girls?
I think it’s interesting how music operates in other kinds of forms in the show, like in Journey to the Center of Attention, which was actually Rue's favorite episode. I am actually someone who does not does not like that episode, and I think in part it’s because I really like Blanche. It’s a bit difficult for me to sit through an entire episode where it's just not really the best of Blanche. But I think that episode does some interesting things in relation to music. Dorothy sings ‘What'll I Do,’ which is Irving Berlin, as the song that kind of draws folks in at the Rusty Anchor. And later Dorothy does ‘Hard Hearted Hannah,’ which is an Ella Fitzgerald song — so Dorothy goes into jazz and it’s a hit. And then in the kind of concluding scene, we have Blanche who does ‘I Want to Be Loved By You,’ which Marilyn Monroe made famous in Some Like It Hot, and obviously that doesn't work. So I'm really interested in why Blanche sings Marilyn Monroe and it just bombs. Like, why this moment when two sex symbols — Marilyn Monroe as an international sex symbol, and Blanche Devereax within, well —
Miami Dade County.
Exactly. And so, I'm interested musically why that actually doesn't work. Why, when Blanche tries to match sex with sex, does it fail? And then again, how it ends is, you know, they make up in the bathroom, and Blanche asks if for their duet Dorothy knows ‘Cry Me a River.’ And Dorothy says no, and Blanche is like, great, we'll do that. One of the interesting things about Cry Me a River is that it was originally written for Ella Fitzgerald, and so like there's a whole kind of thing for me again that's thinking about multiple genres and is thinking about jazz and is thinking about jazz singers. This is the whole deal with The Golden Girls, that there are these quick and fast references to music, but I think they're really powerful.
Like, I'm thinking about Sophia listening to Purple Rain. Or how they all went to go see Madonna and then come back and see the home has been broken into. Or the unauthorized Elvis fan club that Dorothy gets kicked out of. Or when Blanche is getting engaged, again, to Richard, and the reference to Little Richard burying Fats Domino in the sand.
There's also something about rock and roll and how that operates in the series. The kind of jazz that the girls identify with is 1930s, 1940s Big Band swing jazz. And in some ways that makes sense in terms of their age, there's a kind of teenage kind of nostalgia to it. But when you get to the 1950s, there's a kind of generational shift that happens.
Famously, The Golden Girls writers were just having fun in the writers room and not really worrying about continuity or age or, you know, how many kids they all have, so there's even that whole Beatlemania episode.
I completely forgot about that one!
And they're obsessed with Frank Sinatra, too. They’re all over the map in terms of shifting to be relevant.
The episode where Kate is getting married, Rose asks Dorothy, if her daughter is getting serious about Dennis. And Dorothy says something like, it’s the first man she’s been serious about since Paul McCartney. So, right, if Dorothy in future seasons is obsessed with the Beatles, then did you have your daughter and then were you obsessed with the Beatles, too? It’s such a confusing thing that happens. Just like we don't actually know how many kids Blanche has, right? It's, like, you know, is Skippy just a random kid? Who is this person?
But it’s just so good.
➤ Highly-recommended women scholars doing work in gender and sexuality and jazz:
Many, many thanks to Elliott H. Powell for his time, brain, and fandom.