Bea Arthur’s Subversive Sexuality

[21 September 2009]

By Charles A. Hohman

It was a mundane Saturday in late April. I got a long-awaited haircut from a flirtatious and/or tip-groveling stylist, and I purchased some toiletries at Target. By four p.m., I was ready to call it an unproductive day and curl up on the couch with the new Kelly Clarkson album, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and a steady stream of Diet Coke. But my lazy spring Saturday was about to take a tragic turn.

When I got home, I went online to check the news, but nothing noteworthy caught my eye. I was about to shut out the world when my mother asked me, “Did you hear who died?” Celebrity death had not exactly been fertile in 2009 so far—I would know, as that field has been a longtime passion of mine. So any number of ailing possibilities immediately sprung to mind. Farrah Fawcett? Ed McMahon? Ted Kennedy?

“No. Who?” I inquired, jarred by this omission from my cursory headline check.

“Bea Arthur,” she said. My heart sank faster than GM’s stock. My muscles turned to porridge. My eyes welled up with a salty liquid I usually reserved for Pixar movies and Leonard Cohen albums. Bea Arthur was gone, the news relayed to me by seemingly the only person unaware of my overwhelming, somewhat prurient fondness for the Maude and Golden Girls goddess. I bolted back to the computer, and there it was, in plain, finalized AP style: “‘Golden Girls’ Star Bea Arthur Dies at 86”

Where were my friends, who had been privy to so many workday and drunk-night monologues on Bea Arthur’s hotness? I checked my phone for the first time in hours, and the texts were there:

“Did you hear Bea Arthur died?”

The rest of the night is a grief-stricken blur. I’m pretty sure I substituted the Diet Coke with water, I doubt I was in the mood for Douglas Adams, I think I put the Kelly Clarkson album on repeat, and I’m positive I wept myself to sleep.

Cancer? I didn’t even know she was ill ... and I follow that sort of thing ... vigilantly.

Not since Jim Henson’s sudden passing had a celebrity’s death hit me with such brutal, gut-churning force. I was seven then, and promptly turned my bedroom dresser into a shrine of Muppet memorabilia. Not long after, I developed an unquenchable fascination with celebrity death that many called morbid, some called perverse, and the most merciful critics called scholarly. I now check obituaries and celebrity death websites daily, and I make a celebrity deathlist (a ranked listing of notable names I predict to die in the coming year) annually. My obsessive death-watching had acquainted me with figures, from Bella Abzug to Ring Lardner, Jr., that would never have registered otherwise. When two celebrities die on the same day (like the recent Farrah Fawcett-Michael Jackson twofer, which occurred on my birthday, no less), the thrill is so invigorating that I automatically wish for a third to make that final transition, and join the orgiastic feast of archival footage, extemporaneous remembrances, and publicist-generated memorial statements. No matter how many celebrities die in one day, one week, one year, I’m constantly gunning for more. The randomness, the brazen unpredictability, the finality—it’s all quite alluring, and if you follow it with enough gusto, desensitizing. In my teenage years, I escaped the viewpoint of celebrity death being sad and shocking—it instead morphed into a stimulating, almost sporting obsession. And so I laughed when Michael Hutchence died. I dubbed John Paul II a “cocktease” for his many close calls. I even rejoiced when Estelle Getty finally succumbed to Lewy body dementia, simply because she was on my deathlist.

But Bea Arthur. This was different. Very, very different.

It was not merely the sexual attraction. I had witnessed the ends of many retired fantasy objects—Dana Plato, Aaliyah, Anne Bancroft, Suzanne Pleshette—and they barely made a dent. Bea Arthur was not just a crush—she was an ideal. At the risk of mockery from buddies and even girlfriends, I would always rank Bea near the top of my desired celebrity conquests, alongside more conventional choices like Natalie Portman and Jenny Lewis. I began to vocalize my dream of flying to California and eloping with Bea, seducing her with fancy candlelight dinners and free-flowing wine, as she seduced me with jocular anecdotes of her vivacious, zestful life. “You better get moving on that” and “You’re kinda running out of time there” were the typical responses from my skeptical peers, but I shrugged them off and kept hope alive. For a woman in her mid-80s, she not only looked amazing, but appeared to be in fine health, even as late as Getty’s death in July 2008. Moreover, Bea Arthur seemed immortal; it never seemed realistic to me that she would die, like all the other celebrities eventually do.

In the week following her death, I was a wreck, as though grieving a family member or a soul mate. I was not only grieving Bea; I was grieving my dream, however quixotic, of being with Bea. I would never meet her, let alone sleep with her, and the optimistic, romantic side of me had always taken for granted that I would do both. How did I cope? I convinced a younger coworker to write the final paper for his community college Women’s Studies class on Bea Arthur. I then devised a nefarious plan for said coworker and I to fly to California and dig up her body, so he could do some firsthand research (he is studying to be a funeral director, I rationalized), and I could, however briefly, hold her in my arms. When we realized that neither of us had the money to fly roundtrip from Baltimore to Los Angeles, I contacted an ex-girlfriend, to whom I had not spoken in months, to see if her wealthy father would fund this impromptu “research project”. She thought I was kidding.

However implausible my “meet and seduce Bea Arthur” plan may have been, its dissolution nevertheless left me reeling. Through both her characters (specifically Maude Findlay and Dorothy Zbornak, her two most enduring performances) and her public persona, Bea Arthur radiated intelligence, erudition, wisdom, and strength. And that rare, especially for television, combination, coupled with her unmistakable physicality, made her remarkably sexy, much sexier than the vacant pinups, from Tina Louise to Pamela Anderson, who more commonly exemplify sexiness in the medium. Yet Bea Arthur is routinely omitted from lists of TV’s Sexiest Women. In fact, before her death and even after, the common consensus is that Bea Arthur was not physically arousing, even ugly.

An issue of MAD Magazine dated January 1990 featured a Jeopardy! parody with the following clue: “TV’s Talking Horse”. Turn the page for the question: “Who is Bea Arthur?” Even as a six-year-old, I saw this as an unfair blow, and as I grew older, I grew increasingly sensitive and defensive toward attacks, both public and private, regarding Bea Arthur’s attractiveness. Why is this woman with such an enthralling presence—a finely sculpted face, a seductive voice, a towering runway-ready figure, gracefully agile movements, an elegant but sensible wardrobe—dismissed as a sort of sexual nadir?

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.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/111692-bea-arthurs-subversive-sexuality/