On a chilled-out weeknight in a chilled-out gay bar, you wouldn’t be surprised to see clips of Designing Women or The Golden Girls playing on the big-screen TVs. That seems intuitive, right? Gay culture has long embraced these shows, to the point that seeing Rose and Blanche eat cheesecake while we sip a gin and tonic would barely register.
And yet these shows are not explicitly gay at all. They’re about groups of empowered women, most of whom are over 40. They are, in fact, built upon relationships forged post-widowhood. What’s the connection?
A gay character or two may have sauntered in on occasion (or a maybe-gay character, in the case of Meschach Taylor’s Anthony on DW). Some episodes even tackled real gay issues, particularly Designing Women, which was known for its strident political bent. But that wasn’t the crux of any of these shows. And gay rights plotlines don’t feature in the clips I’ve seen gay men chanting along with—say, Dixie Carter’s famous-among-fans rant about how her beauty-contestant sister’s flaming baton-throwing caused “the night the lights went out in Georgia.”
I would posit that the very reasons gay men like these shows are the reasons we need more female characters over 40 on television (and maybe the reasons we don’t see enough of them, given the hetero-centrism and ageism of Hollywood decision-making):
1. These women are super-confident. Especially in the ’80s and ’90s when Designing Women and Golden Girls had their heyday, gay boys had few public role models. These women had an edge that younger women on TV weren’t allowed to have — you know, because those 20-somethings had to remain “feminine” to remain “sexy.” These brassy older gals had the confidence of age and no one to stop them from showing it. Thus we got the sassy Sugarbakers of Designing Women, the Blanche and Dorothy of Golden Girls. As Dave White wrote in an Advocate piece “Designing Women Made You Gay” these characters “taught a lot of gay guys of the late ’80s how to carry themselves and gave them the haughty dialogue they needed to bash back when life got them down.” Smith cites DW’s “Where y’all from, bitch?” as just one of many catchphrases young gay men of the time adopted. When I asked Facebook friends about the connection between gay culture and these shows, one of my bi male friends rightly pointed out that the link “invokes a lot of stereotypes.” Absolutely true — though I think many of us straight women could use a little more Sugarbaker swagger ourselves.
2. They offer another side of life besides marriage and children. Yes, many of these characters were moms. But that wasn’t what drove the plots. This allowed younger gay men at the time to relate to the same characters that, say, their own moms could relate to, thus allowing for some quality bonding time watching TV. And even if they didn’t watch it with Mom, they could still feel a connection to a mainstream show at a time when TV was overwhelmingly heteronormative.
3. The shows talk for real about sex. Of course, Sex and the City could go much farther since it was more recent and on cable. But Designing Women and Golden Girls got away with some dirty talk—probably because they were populated with older women who could play it off as a “joke.” While that’s an insult to older women’s sexuality, these shows used it slyly, subversively in their favor.
4. They prioritized friendship. Romance was a key part of their lives, but the women on these shows had important friendships. As one of my gay male TV writer friends said, “They have the kind of meaningful, unconditional friendships that gay men want to have. Particularly if you were in the closet, these were inviting, non-familial support systems that you knew would accept you for who you were.” With so much emphasis on heterosexual coupling in shows featuring younger women, these ladies provided a respite. Just one more way we could all do well by spending more time in the parlor with the Sugarbakers or on that lanai with the Golden Girls.