My favorite episode is a feature for this blog in which I look at my favorite episode of a TV show I like. Some of the shows will be classics – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, etc., and others may be shows that I personally loved, even if they haven’t endured or stood the test of time, like Ugly Betty, for example. I won’t go into the history of the show too much, but will give some context if needed – and I’ll also go into the show’s historical significance and if the episode is a much-beloved classic, I’ll also discuss that.
The Golden Girls has always been a very queer sitcom. It took apart the concept of the nuclear family by presenting a new king of family – one of single friends who turn to each other for support. The story of four older women sharing a house in Miami, Florida, has resonated with gay audiences – particularly gay men – because many of the viewers of the show understood what it meant to have to cobble together patchwork families after being rejected from their own.
Cognizant of the show’s audiences, the writers have also looked at queerness on the show. Though a lot of the jokes and plots are dated now (and some of the gay jibs and story lines are borderline offensive at times), I still appreciate the show for challenging gender and sexual roles. Interestingly enough, when The Golden Girls was killing it in the ratings, The Cosby Show was also huge (the two even shared a network). But where The Cosby Show was almost aggressively uncontroversial and inoffensive, The Golden Girls often took on controversial topics, many of them queer.
While not the most gay-explicit, “Ebbtide’s Revenge” is queer because it deals with cross dressing. The episode dealt with grief, shame, acceptance, and tolerance. Dorothy (Bea Arthur) is tapped to give the eulogy for her brother Phil. The recurring joke throughout the show’s preceding six seasons was that Phil was a cross dresser. He wasn’t a drag queen and he was straight (happily married with children), but had a lifelong penchant for women’s clothing. Before “Ebbtide’s Revenge,” the cross dressing was treated like an odd quirk. Dorothy’s mom, Sophia (Estelle Getty) always treated Phil’s cross dressing with resigned tolerance. But Phil’s death forced Sophia to examine how she really felt. Her feelings of shame and embarrassment manifested themselves in the hostility she showed toward Phil’s wife, Angela (guest star, Brenda Vaccaro).
So what I liked about “Ebbtide’s Revenge” – and The Golden Girls in general – is that even if this is a Sophia-Dorothy episode, each member of the ensemble has a moment to shine. In this episode, the naive, but compassionate Rose (Betty White) has a pivotal moment at the end, where she encourages Sophia to move past her feelings of shame and embarrassment and embrace her love and grief for Phil. Sexpot Blanche (Rue McClanahan) has been mostly relegated to comic relief in the episode, which is necessary because a lot of the episode is very sad. Because the quartet of actresses is made up of four brilliant comediennes, the show’s episodes pass around the role of straight man, so even if Blanche isn’t as integral to the plot of the episode, she’s still a welcome presence.
So many will watch “Ebbtide’s Revenge” and question some of the jokes that the characters make at the expense of Phil and cross dressing in general. For example, when Sophia sees Blanche’s fire engine red dress for Phil’s funeral she cracks a joke and Blanche defends her sartorial choice saying, “I believe Phil would have liked this dress.”
Sophia: Liked it? He would’ve looked great in it. Dorothy, I never understood why your brother liked to wear women’s clothes, unless he was queer.
Blanche: Sophia, people don’t say queer anymore, they say gay.
Sophia: They say gay if a guy can sing the entire score of Gigi. But a six foot three, 200-pound married man with kids who likes to dress up like Dorothy Lamour, I think you have to go with queer.
In other parts of the episode, the characters throw around cross dressing gags, and it’s highly debatable if Phil was given dignity at his death. He was buried in a teddy – which provided the characters with a lot of comic fodder, but as his widow pointed out, “Phil would’ve wanted it that way.” It’s a poignant moment seeded into a potentially-cheap joke, that feels very apt today when deceased trans folks are often buried by transphobic family members in their originally-assigned sex roles. And though Phil wasn’t trans, it feels important that he was buried women’s clothing, as it was true to his character (though burying him in lingerie may be questionable).
So, obviously in the 25 years since the episode’s airing, our understanding of homosexuality has evolved a bit more than “knowing the entire score of Gigi.” But gay men on television in the 1980s have either been flamboyant, flowery gay men who burst into song (The Golden Girls had a few examples), or if the show was intent on being progressive, the gay men would be bland, almost sexless drones cast to prove that “gay people are just like everyone else!” On The Golden Girls queerness has been folded into the reality of the characters, but it isn’t immune from the AIDS-panicked 80s view of homosexuality. Still, underneath some of the dated and antiquated views of queerness, there’s an underlying basis of tolerance, acceptance, and love.
During the episode, it’s unclear just what exactly Sophia is harping about. Though it’s understandable that’s she’s grieving about her son’s death, she’s seemingly more interested in swiping at her daughter-in-law. And while the trope of warring in-laws is ingrained in the fabric of the traditional sitcom, there was something deeper in Sophia’s anger at Angela. Dorothy and Blanche are at a loss to figure out why Sophia’s normally-ornery persona is ramped up to an even more irascible level. It’s Rose who figures out the source of Sophia’s anger. Rose, a grief counselor, gently prods Sophia toward confession on what was really the problem: “Every time I saw him, I always wondered what I did, what I said, when was the day that I did whatever I did to make him the way he was.” It was the shame that made Sophia angry – shame and guilt, feelings that many parents of queer children have. The line is beautifully delivered by Getty, who then openly breaks down in tears, releasing the shame and just allowing herself to feel the grief she was setting aside. And White is every bit her equal, letting some of Rose’s jokey dumbness fade a bit, and letting her seemingly endless reserve of compassion and love shine through.
The show would go on for another season (before being spun off into Golden Palace, sans Arthur), and have still looked at nontraditional sexuality. In fact, a few episodes later, Blanche deals with her own issues of shame and tolerance when her brother announces he’s marrying a man (again, 25 years before gay marriage became a national debate and a political wedge issue). I won’t go as far as claiming that The Golden Girls is ahead of its time, or that it revolutionized television – Roseanne was far more daring and confrontational in how it dealt with issues like sexuality. But as “Ebbtide’s Revenge” shows, the show does have a knack for telling a story about topics that are easy to trivialize in a way that makes them funny without being too cheap or easy.