Bea Arthur’s Subversive Sexuality

by Charles A. Hohman

21 September 2009


She’s everything you could want in a woman

The oft-recited men’s magazine cliché applies to Bea Arthur more than the average MAXIM leg-spreader: she’s everything you could want in a woman. But a simple Google search (especially before her death) would find Bea Arthur as a sexual punchline, representative of the last woman on earth, the one with whom you’d rather let humanity die than repopulate. Why the sexual hostility towards such a bewitching temptress? And what did some overweight, zit-faced kid from Baltimore see in Bea Arthur that the mass populace apparently did not?

Obviously, part of the prejudice is age. Beauty in America is very much a young woman’s game. Think of the great American sex symbols, and note that most peaked before forty (Mae West being the obvious exception). By the time Maude debuted, Bea was a Broadway vet, already in her fifties, her hair mainly gray, her body a bit pudgy, but her dignity and poise eclipsed her feminine imperfections. So perhaps the greater explanation lies in male insecurity, as Bea Arthur challenged both patriarchal order and gender normativity. This made her threatening in some eyes. In others, like my own, it made her a trailblazer, a revolutionary, and in her unstoppable drive to assert the power men had been denying women like her, profoundly sexy.

In Maude Findlay, she introduced not just a feminist, but an audaciously sexual older woman, to the viewing public. Here, in this medium where married couples slept in separate beds less than a decade prior, was a woman who had regular sex. In fact, she had gone through four husbands, birthed and raised a daughter, even famously had an abortion when her supposition that she had entered menopause proved false. Maude achieved sexual fulfillment, while the supposedly comelier Mary Richards could barely sustain a boyfriend. Maude was often brash, stubborn, and outspoken, but humanizingly fragile: she condescended to her maids (including Florida Evans, who would go on to anchor Good Times), she contradicted her own dogmas, she grappled with depression and emotional instability. To some men, she represented everything they hated and feared about feminism: the moronic Jerry Falwells of the world likely viewed Maude as a grotesque she-male exercising feminism out of bitterness that the prettier women got all the advantages. Bea imbued Maude with caustic drollery and a take-no-shit attitude. In sharp contrast to her cousin Edith Bunker, Maude was not a “stand by your man” type of gal; she divorced two husbands who attempted to rein in her more aggressive tendencies. She would often disarm her current husband with a stern “God’ll get you for that, Walter” whenever he would cross a line or crack a joke at her expense.

Seven years after Maude went off the air, ending in the title character’s election to Congress, Bea was back on TV as Dorothy Zbornak in The Golden Girls. Like Maude, Dorothy was divorced, sexually active, psychically complex, and unabashedly intellectual. Unlike Maude, however, Dorothy was single and searching, and often the butt of jokes characterizing her as homely, overly masculine, or utterly sexless, usually lodged (albeit with love) by other women, often her own mother. There was a resignation in Dorothy that was absent from Maude: chalk it up to post-ERA Reagan-era feminist defeatism. Her cutting wit remained intact, but the fierce political spirit had receded. It was as if, after all the demonstrations and lectures amounted to no sweeping breakthroughs, Bea (and Dorothy) accepted humor as the most effective weapon of subversion. And so Dorothy would attack Blanche’s gold-digging man-chasing just as she would flare his nostrils and exasperatedly raise her voice at Rose’s ditziness, stupidity and sexuality being far more favorable to traditional male ideals of womanhood. Her acerbic repartee with her housemates positioned her as the Dorothy Parker at an ‘80s sitcom equivalent of the Algonquin Round Table, sharing cheesecake instead of cocktails, telling sex stories at an age when merely having a libido was an act of defiance.

This is why all four Golden Girls are sexier than any of the four Sex and the City ladies: subverting patriarchal beauty standards will always be sexier than caving and catering to them. In her utter flouting of what Naomi Wolf called “the beauty myth”, the emphasis on young, wrinkle-free, product-enhanced faces, Bea Arthur set the stage for a new sexuality, one built more on a brain than a body. She did for women what Woody Allen was doing for men in the same era: establishing marginalized physicalities as sexually desirable. She lent credence to the notion that women (really, everyone—Bea was a pioneering champion of gay rights and a legendary gay icon) deserved the right to be not only comfortable, but beautiful in their own skin, too. Her fetching looks were illustriously singular—it was impossible to mistake her for anyone else. Physically, she was not tomboyish but exotic, like the girl in the bar who enraptures you in her unapologetic individualism. Bea conducted herself with devil-may-care confidence and a sexuality that didn’t need or covet your validation.

Bea herself, however, was not immune to the demands of femininity: she had multiple plastic surgeries (note the facelift between the two sitcom roles) and was known for tearful on-set breakdowns. In an interview widely quoted upon her death, Bea even stated, “Let’s be honest. Nobody ever asked me to play Juliet.” We can often attach too much of the actress’s work on to the person herself, especially if the actress is often typecast; this is true of everyone from Philip Seymour Hoffman to Danny DeVito. And it is true of Bea as well, which is why her 2002 one-woman Broadway show, Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends, was such a necessary and enticing development. It showcased Bea Arthur free from the confines of scripted characters.

Unfortunately, during its run, I was an impoverished college student living in rural Maryland, and no amount of begging my parents or friends could snag me one of New York’s hottest tickets. “She did one-woman touring shows throughout the 90s”, I reasoned. “Surely, the opportunity will arise again. Maybe then I can meet her and even kiss her.” So I idly and fruitlessly waited, and settled for her sporadic TV work: amusing talk show appearances, priceless guest spots on Malcolm in the Middle and Curb Your Enthusiasm, an uproarious appearance on the Comedy Central Roast of Pamela Anderson, in which she outfoxed the Baywatch floozy.

Of course, sexiness is a subjective thing, and it seems reasonable that millions of my fellow heterosexual males will continue to view Bea Arthur as some revolting Amazonian beast. But hey, it’s their loss. Bea Arthur, unlike allegedly sexier actresses, was not somebody you’d sleep with and discard. She was an entire package, who derived sexiness not by indulging arbitrary (and often outlandishly stringent) patriarchal standards, but being her own proud, exuberant person. With or without sex, she could guarantee a lively, delightful evening, full of bon mots, non sequiturs, quippy asides, and the occasional philosophical discussion. 

Fitting for a woman whose breakthrough role was as Vera Charles in Mame, Bea Arthur radiated life, even in the quiet dignity of her death. According to tabloid reports published after her passing, Bea’s cancer battle was kept hush-hush because she didn’t want fans to see her in a frail, sickly condition. We often assume death to be sad, but as any celebrity death aficionado can testify, death can also be a life-affirming phenomenon. A person, a staple of your life even, has met the inevitable, and you, as someone still surviving, can assure their legacy and memory. A death means a life, not to be mourned, but to be celebrated. Bea Arthur knew this, and acted accordingly. Perhaps I was wrong to weep the night she died, for if anyone would have wanted me laughing and living upon her demise, it was my beloved Bea.

Hollywood producers be damned. She will always be my Juliet.

Charles A. Hohman is a Baltimore-based freelance writer, wage slave, voracious pop music geek, and celebrity death junkie. Had he born between 1920 and 1950, he’s pretty sure he would have married Bea Arthur.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media