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The Real Mud on The Golden Girls

Sophia, Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose didn’t wear blackface, but The Golden Girls still made plenty of racist jokes. Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty

Before my family had a VCR in the 1980s, I would put my audio tape recorder next to the TV so I could listen to The Golden Girls episodes again and again. That’s how I learned lines from the lanai by heart; that’s how I can still hear my late father laughing to St. Olaf stories to this day. So, when I saw that the 1988 episode “Mixed Blessings” had been pulled from Hulu for a “blackface” scene, I was as surprised as Rose was when her husband, Charlie, was making love to her and he shouted “Rose, I’m going. I’m going!” before collapsing on top of her, dead. It shocked me that this scene is what the show is getting criticized for, when the entire series is mired in racism and rape culture.

First, the “blackface” isn’t blackface at all. In the episode, Dorothy’s 23-year-old musician son, Michael, shows up to say he’s getting married to a Black jazz singer named Lorraine. While Dorothy is shaken to learn Lorraine is Black, she is far more upset that Lorraine is nearly twice her son’s age; her ageism trumps her racism. Rose is much more nervous about the prospect of meeting Lorraine’s Black family, asking Dorothy, “What color is Black people’s dandruff?” Dorothy answers that Black people don’t have dandruff (“God figures they’ve been through enough already”) and sarcastically quips that Lorraine’s family might feel more welcome if Rose does “the dance that the Cosbys do at the beginning of the Cosby Show.” But when Lorraine’s mother, Greta, and two aunts show up at 6151 Richmond Street to meet Michael’s family, Rose and Blanche — who’ve been spending the episode’s B-plot going through elaborate beauty routines to prepare for a kinky weekend cruising at sea with a set of twins — walk into the room with brown smeared all over their faces.

“This is mud on our faces,” Rose yells embarrassed. “We’re not really Black!”

This non-blackface moment is not only far from the most racist thing to ever appear on The Golden Girls, it’s not even the most racist moment in “Mixed Blessings.” That would be when Sophia refers to Loraine’s mother and aunts as “Martha and the Vandellas” and then asks Greta, “It is true what they say about …” — pausing for dramatic effect — “Black men in bed?” The episode’s kumbaya moment shows all the women, Black and white, laughing together at the Mandingoist myth about Black men’s sexual prowess; it ends with the girls, Greta, and her sisters racing to an all-night wedding chapel to find Michael and Lorraine eloping because Lorraine is pregnant. As Elliott Powell, a scholar of The Golden Girls and professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, recently explained to me, when Dorothy and Greta grudgingly accept the nuptials, the episode “suggests that mixed-raced-ness can bring about the end of racism.”

Lorraine being pregnant out of wedlock, as Dorothy once was with Michael decades before The Golden Girls began, brings me a more significant reason why I’ve thought in recent years that this sitcom made in the ’80s and ’90s might get called out by the media standards of our times: the obvious and repeated way the show jokes about the rape of Dorothy Zbornak.

It is referred to in many episodes, but Stan’s rape of Dorothy is most explicitly narrated in the episode “The Accurate Conception.” When Blanche’s daughter Becky is about to get inseminated at a sperm bank, Dorothy tries to make Blanche feel better by casually saying, “Among the four of us, we each conceived our children in a different way. I was totally unconscious. When I came to, there was Stan carving a notch into his dashboard.”

“I never bought that unconscious story,” Sophia says to her daughter.

“I swear, he must have slipped me something,” Dorothy says.

“Apparently!” Sophia retorts, to roars from the audience.

Dorothy said clearly that Stan drugged and raped her while unconscious, and the studio audience laughed uproariously. That rape conceived Michael Zbornak, and led to Dorothy being shamed not just into marrying Stan and staying with him for decades, but into enduring taunts from Sophia for getting “knocked up” before she was married for the next half-century. (I believe Dorothy’s omnipresent, seething rage for Sophia is rooted in that she went to Sal and Sophia for help after being raped, only to have them tell Dorothy it was her fault; that her mother rubbed it in her face in the subsequent decades may be why Dorothy has happy to ship her off to Shady Pines.)

Since at least 2018 — when another NBC hit from the same era as The Golden Girls, The Cosby Show, was pulled from syndication after its eponymous star was convicted of drugging and raping women — I’ve thought the ubiquity of rape-victim-shaming jokes lobbed at Dorothy across many seasons would make the show due for a reckoning in the Me Too era. The Golden Girls is often celebrated as a feminist sitcom, yet though we see Dorothy angry at Stan for many reasons, that anger is never about the rape. Herb Edelman has a guest role as Stan 26 times, and the rape is never acknowledged.

Now that its reckoning has happened in the Black Lives Matter era because of non-blackface blackface, I wonder: Will the show pull episodes where Ruby Dee plays Blanche’s “Mammy Watkins” (in the 1990 episode actually named “Wham, Bam, Thank You, Mammy”)? Or when Sophia did a Black voice (“Them’s just the appetizers!”) while dressed as a mammy in the 1991 series finale? Or Paula Kelly playing the Black, mysterious, and lazy voodoo housekeeper Marguerite? Or when Dorothy — after submitting his essay on how his family immigrated illegally to a contest — prompts her “Prized Pupil” Mario Lopez to turn himself into immigration so his family can be deported? Or when Chick Vennera played both a Cuban boxer Sophia bought on the street named Kid Pepe (“Kill Gonsales!”) and later played Latin TV reporter Enrique Mas? Or when Keone Young played both Dorothy’s Japanese student Mr. Tanaka (“Joe Mama!”) in one episode and Dorothy’s Chinese physician Dr. Chang in another (enduring endless racist jokes about Chinese food from Sophia)? From the pilot episode onward, Sophia was always putting down Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Middle Easterners.

All four of the girls were racist. Rose once whooped it up in a Native American headdress and pretended to be an exchange student named Kim-Fung Toi in the series’s penultimate episode, using a racist accent. And in addition to longing for her mammy and her “Big Daddy,” Blanche tried to join the Daughters of the Confederacy; she was denied when it came out she was part Jewish. (In The Golden Palace, a short-lived spinoff with Cheech Marin, Don Cheadle, and strange racial politics, Blanche defended the Confederate flag.)

Given all of this, do I still like The Golden Girls? I am conflicted to admit that I do. I am a homosexual born in 1977. I was practically raised on the lanai, spending many Saturday nights of my childhood watching the show with my parents.

So do I make peace with its racial and sexual politics?

First, I don’t make peace with them; I wrestle with them all the time. Like everything TV viewers are meant to take in passively, I have bell hooks in my head when I watch The Golden Girls. When I hear it applauded for being feminist, I think about how it is so mired in rape culture, it’s almost unspoken. When I hear it praised for being progressive on its depiction of gay people with diseases like AIDS, I think about how the girls had a gay houseboy named Coco in the pilot and turned people with diseases like dwarfism into punch lines.

Second, I don’t watch the most racist episodes, and I generally avoid the episodes with Stan. When I moved from watching The Golden Girls on DVD to iTunes, I only bought the least offensive episodes. Unless Hulu wants to take down all the problematic episodes of The Golden Girls (and there wouldn’t be many left), viewers should be able to decide which ones they want to watch or not. Navigating racism in this way to me is a form of something I have been thinking about a lot lately: harm reduction. As epidemiologist Julia Marcus explains, harm reduction means allowing people to choose options that mitigate harm, even if those options don’t achieve the dubious goal of eliminating 100 percent of all risk. For me, when navigating prejudice in a show like The Golden Girls, it means avoiding the most racist episodes. For some, the rape of Dorothy Zbornak may be reason to avoid the series altogether. For others, it may be something in between. This is all okay, just as using harm-reduction approaches to navigating the inevitable racism in museums or academia is okay.

Third, I realize that old media — especially network TV shows never made with the intent they’d be available 24/7 decades later — is always steeped in racism, sexism, and ableism. The only possible freedom from this is to make new work. There is no salvaging past work entirely; work that is free of (or at least not centering) rape culture and racism can only possibly be made by artists and writers who are not beholden to the dominant power structures of the present and the past, and who can dream of comedy and drama of the present and future differently. So, much more important than any or all episodes of The Golden Girls or my complicity in nostalgia about the show is that we, as a society, make space for new work — new work from new voices that media usually doesn’t offer opportunities to.

So while I was surprised that “Mixed Blessings” was pulled from Hulu (you can still get it on iTunes or DVD), it’s not especially important. What’s far more important is that all of us critically unpack all the messages we receive every day in popular media, think deeply about how to reduce the harm in them, analyze how power actually works, and not try to cling needlessly to the past — like Blanche yearning for her mammy or Big Daddy.

Steven W. Thrasher, Ph.D., is a professor in the schools of journalism and medicine at Northwestern University, where he holds the Daniel H. Renberg chair in social-justice reporting and LGBTQ research. A scholar of the criminalization of HIV, he is currently writing his first book, The Viral Underclass, for Celadon Books/Macmillan Publishing. Twitter: @thrasherxy