The Facts of Life is a popular 1980s TV sitcom that spun off from the hit interracial adoption sitcom Diff’rent Strokes. The show told the story of Mrs. Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae), a former housekeeper who gets a job as a den mother at a preppy girls school in upstate New York. Eastland is the fictional girls school that is the setting for the show. Although the show’s remembered for focusing on four students in particular: the rich and spoiled Blair Warner (Lisa Whelchel), the witty and jovial Natalie Green (Mindy Cohn), the snoopy and mischievious Tootie Ramsey (Kim Fields), and the tough biker chick Jo Polnicziek (Nancy McKeon). But in the show’s first season, the cast was much larger, including more students as well as faculty members.
In the season’s first episode, “Rough Housing” Mrs. Garrett is helping the girls prepare for the Harvest Queen contest. Beautiful and popular Blair is considered a shoe-in, but she finds unexpected competition in the dorm’s tomboy, Cindy (Julie Anne Haddock), a girl much more comfortable in a baseball jersey than a ball gown. Not only is Cindy a tomboy, but she’s very affectionate and demonstrative of her love for her friends, by giving them hugs. Blair, in a fit of homophobic cruelty, so popular among high school kids, warns Cindy of being “strange,” code for “lesbian,” which sends poor Cindy into a self-doubt and self-loathing.
In what would become Mrs. Garrett’s real job, she becomes Cindy’s therapist. And this is where the both the virtues and the vices of the show run, parallel to each other. When Cindy shares her feelings of discomfort with Mrs. Garrett, she responds with expected sympathy and her brand of no nonsense advise. When Cindy castigates herself for being so physically affectionate with her friends, Mrs. Garrett sooths her, pointing out that the girls in the school are her family. She also reminds her that it’s alright for girls to be into sports, and that athleticism doesn’t make anyone less of a girl.
So far so good. But no where in Mrs. Garrett’s lecture does it say that even if Cindy was gay that would be okay. Instead we get that old-fashioned narrative of “It’s okay to be a tomboy, because being a tomboy doesn’t mean she’s gay.” The implication, of course, is that being gay is something wrong or incorrect. This homophobic narrative is further pushed when at the end of the episode, when Cindy returns from the Harvest Fair, in a ball gown, she confirms her heterosexuality by good-naturedly showing interest in a boy that caught Blair’s eye. To further cement Cindy’s heterosexuality and normalcy, when she offers her hand to Blair in congratulations for winning the Harvest Queen contest, Blair takes her friends hand and pulls her into an embrace.
It’s interesting to watch this episode of The Facts of Life for a number of reasons, but mainly because it has become an unintentionally queer show. Firstly, Once the experimental first season was through, the second season tightened the bloated cast into the core four girls mentioned earlier, led by Mrs. Garrett. Jo’s entrance into the show happened during the second season, and she took Cindy’s place as the resident tomboy. Because the writing was stronger in the subsequent seasons and because McKeon was a very good actress, Jo became a far more complex and interesting character (within the context of a middle-of-the-road sitcom like The Facts of Life). In her first season, Jo wore motorcycle leathers and eschewed beauty regiments like the other girls. She was unequivocally hetereosexual, but her verbal sparring with Blair inspired a lot of flash fiction of the two developing a sexual relationship.
Another queer aspect of the show is the family of friends narrative that takes place. Though the girls have their respective families (of varying levels of function), living together under one roof with Mrs. Garrett as their surrogate mother creates a space in which blood relatives are unnecessary. Like The Golden Girls or Sex and the City, queer audiences related to The Facts of Life because it reflected the kinds of patchwork, constructed families that gay people are often forced to create.
The presence of Nancy McKeon’s Jo adds a slightly Sapphic aspect to the show because of her character’s challenging of gender roles, but Mindy Cohn’s presence gave the show a more queenier note. Cohn’s comedic performance brought to mind such gay icons like Joan Rivers, Totie Fields, or Barbra Streisand. Slightly self-deprecating (because she was heavier than the other girls), but always cracking jokes with the consummate pro of a Borscht Belt comedienne that is so popular among gay audiences.
So with all this in mind, it’s a little difficult to watch The Facts of Life and seeing the writing pander to a certain early 80s homophobia, especially when it’s presented in the progressive voice of Mrs. Garrett, a seemingly worldly woman whose rich life informs her advice. And while Cindy’s love of sports is supported (Mrs. Garrett even palms Cindy’s baseball glove), she’s still pushed to wear a prom dress, because even if her tomboyishness is okay, she’s still encouraged to participate in heteronormative, patriarchal activities like beauty contests.
The show would later take on such difficult topics like rape, child prostitution, suicide, cancer, losing one’s virginity, adoption, homelessness, undocumented status, among others. It was very much a “very special episode” show that took surprising risks, especially since it was a show that was geared toward teenaged girls.