While discussing the legacy of her late Maude and Golden Girls co-star, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan claims she thinks that "in both of those shows, we really did change the perception of a woman's role."
"I don't think anybody thought that it was okay to be a feminist back when she was doing Maude," McClanahan tells Entertainment Weekly, "And I'm sure that [show] released a lot of inhibitions.I know The Golden Girls certainly did because I've got fan mail saying "Thank you for allowing me to act and dress like I feel." Because in those days, when you were over 50, you were supposed to be wearing certain types of clothes and behaving a certain way. And women were writing saying 'Thank you, thank you, thank you for the freedom, for the release, for the permission.' And I'm sure Bea got that same kind of fan mail, too."
Arthur, who passed away yesterday at the age of 86, is being celebrated across the internet, with various tributes pointing out her important role in challenging what it meant to be a woman on television. As James Poniewozik of Time notes: "Spun off by Norman Lear onto her own show, she created a legendary character in her own right by showing Maude wrestling with serious issues for a TV sitcom-alcoholism, drug abuse, and famously in 1972, abortion, as her character decided to terminate a pregnancy late in her 40s. (Even today, it's extremely rare for a TV female lead to make that choice.) What endeared Maude to us, beyond her quick wit, was the fact that she was a person with doubts, not just a paragon of liberal rectitude."
Salon's Rebecca Traister also celebrates Arthur's feminist legacy, noting that the actress consistently challenged the public's perception of women, from her role as "Maude Findlay, the Democratic-voting, women's liberation-supporting, four times married cousin of Edith Bunker," (a character who also had the first prime-time abortion, two months before the Roe vs. Wade decision was made) to her role as Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls a show that Traister praises for "one of the most female-friendly and respectful looks at the experience of aging while female ever broadcast on national airwaves, simply by showing women — living, talking, having sex, making friends, cracking wise, living full lives together with energy and engagement." Golden Girls, the New York Times notes, also provided a platform for the discussion of "serious issues, especially those involved with aging, but also matters like gun control, gay rights and domestic violence."
Perhaps Arthur's most lasting legacy will be her undeniable presence: through her quick wit and humor, she was able to bring her audience along, drawing them into discussing issues they might have otherwise shied away from. "[Thirty-seven] years ago she showed me how to be very brave in playing comedy," McClanahan recalls, "I'll miss that courage. And I'll miss that voice." So will we, Rue. So will we.
Golden Girls Say Emotional Goodbye To Bea Arthur [Kansas City Star]
Sharp Tongued Sitcom Roles Symbolized Rise Of Feminism [WashingtonPost]
Bea Arthur, Star of Two Television Comedies, Dies At 86 [NYTimes]
Remembering Bea Arthur, Feminist TV Pioneer [Salon]
Bea Arthur, 1922-2009 [Time]
Rue McClanahan Remembers Bea Arthur [EW]
5 Things You Didn't Know About Bea Arthur: A Tribute [Neatorama]