Jun 5, 2010

Blanching at Sex

I haven't yet seen Sex and the City 2, but by all accounts it's both a) a bad film, and b) a terrible indictment on American culture that should never have even been conceived, let alone birthed in some sort of horrific Manolo Blahnik-assisted caesarean section.

But I've been thinking about Sex and the City, particularly the character of Samantha, and comparing it to another feminine four-hander - The Golden Girls. That's because sadly, Rue McClanahan - who played sassy Southern belle Blanche Devereaux - has died aged 76.

The news took me back to my younger years, the late 80s to be precise, when my parents would let me stay up on a Friday night to watch The Golden Girls. I remember seeing that little "AO" symbol flash up in the corner, signifying that it was technically too "adult" for my little eight-year-old self. No matter. The really saucy jokes went over my head, and there's not a pre-teen alive who doesn't appreciate a good insult. Or just some out and out name-calling and abuse.

Of course, most of the saucy jokes came either from, or at the expense of Blanche, the self-obsessed yet charming maneater of the foursome. I couldn't say if I had a favourite Golden Girl - in much the same way I couldn't tell you if I had a favourite Sex and the City character - but Blanche would certainly be up there. Watching lots of fun clips on YouTube certainly made me realise that SATC's Samantha, played by Kim Cattrall, owes a debt to McClanahan's portrayal of Blanche. The voracious yet carefree sexuality, the great sense of self, the amazing confidence. As it happens, Cattrall - at what conceivably may be the end of the SATC era - is herself now 53, the same age Rue McClanahan was when she began playing Blanche.

And I wonder if that might be the reason the Samantha character is seen in such a different light to Blanche. There's a lot of hatred out there for the new movie, and the characters. As I said, I haven't seen the film, and it sounds like the characters have become two-dimensional and unlikeable. But even through the TV run of SATC, there was a fair bit of hate about for Samantha.

The Golden Girls began with four 50/60-somethings moving in together and having Miami-based adventures. Blanche was racy, suggestive and openly sexually assertive. But it came across as endearing, funny, charming. Perhaps it was the acting. I like to think it was more than Rue McClanahan's charming Southern accent. The point is, she started "old". She was "born" as a randy 50-something.

SATC, however, began with four 30-somethings having New York-based adventures. They've now reached their mid-40s, or in Samantha's case, her early 50s. Samantha - strong, witty, sexy, daring - was always great fun to watch. However, she started "young", and is now "old". And because we've seen her backstory, we seem to be less reluctant to accept her sexuality. She hasn't changed; that was always Samantha. But now she's "old", we think it's a bit embarrassing. We think "She should have some dignity," whether consciously or not.

Perhaps there are other reasons for this. SATC actually showed sex scenes, whereas The Golden Girls just hinted at them. Same with language - Samantha pulled no punches, whereas Blanche retained Southern ye olde worlde charm. We're pretty tough on ageing women, and the SATC girls have aged onscreen; whereas the Golden Girls began life as slightly rounder and slightly saggier, and therefore we never measured them against their earlier standard of beauty.

It's probably fair to say that a show like The Golden Girls wouldn't get made these days: not enough attractive hipsters wearing skinny jeans. And that's sad. Using endearing, funny and ballsy middle-aged characters allowed producers and writers to cover all sorts of topics: homosexuality; safe sex; domestic violence; organ donation; ageism; sexism; HIV/AIDS; artificial insemination; problem gambling. Not to mention the fact that there was same damn fine comedy writing in there.

Sex and the City managed to cover a fair few issues of its own, in between the sex scenes and shoe-porn. It certainly lived in more of a fantasy world than The Golden Girls, but still, it had four well-written, equally strong female leads.

Perhaps it's time. Perhaps back in the day, people didn't like Blanche, or thought The Golden Girls was naff. Certainly the public affection following the deaths of Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur and now Rue McClanahan reveals a great fondness for the show - not to mention how popular Betty White is these days. Maybe a similar thing will happen with Sex and the City in a couple of decades.

I will see the film and report back at some point. Plus, after a fairly spirited Twitter discussion (A "Twargument"? "Heated twords", perhaps?), there's a whole other blog post in whether SATC is a "good" or "bad" example for women. But for now, it's goodbye Rue McClanahan. Thank you for being a friend.


  1. Yeah, I loved The Golden Girls, even though most of it was over my head at the same age, but really, it says something when my parents who were fairly fundi Christian at that time enjoyed it too. Now they're open minded I don't reckon they've seen 5 minutes of SATC.

    From what I remember, Blanche never talked about how one guys jizz tasted like cabbage, I believe the writers had more class than that.

  2. I don't think the Golden Girls was ever trying to be much more than a gentle sitcom, and the treatment of the 'big issues' was never at more than the usual facile level you expect from a US sitcom, ie not even at Degrassi Jr High levels of hard-hitting-ness. Academic theses almost definitely weren't written on the sociogenderpolitical* significance of TGG's characters, and Cleo-politan wasn't full of breathless crap about how YOU can accessorize Blanche's latest looks while totally rocking your BEST EVER ORGASMS.

    Maybe the bogans are hating on the scary one because of her age, but it's the whole bloody concept that's haggard, wrinkly and has had every drop of juice thoroughly pounded out of it.

    *Wank word I totally just invented

  3. I liked the post I saw on Twitter the other day that suggested that when Rue died, Betty White was engulfed in electric blue lights while Queen's 'Princes of the Universe' played in the background.

  4. Dan - That's the same reason Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr can never be in the same room.

  5. Hey guys - thanks for your comments, as always.

    I've been pointed in the direction of this article from The Guardian - it's really interesting and makes a lot of good points about the level of vitriol aimed at SATC and its actors/characters.


  6. hmmm, interesting. the one thing that intrigues me is that some people keep reiterating how the second and first SATC films were such a let-down for the "great" characters that "we'd all come to know and love", or some such dross.
    i don't have a dictionary near me but is "vacuity" a word? seriously, from what great heights were they falling?
    surely, Carrie et al are just late 90s/00s proxies for Gordon Gecko and his Wall Street pals. except, this time, it's:
    bespoke bijou Bead is Good
    all symptomatic of an America (and a world) without anything better to talk about than the weather or whatever some $10-an-issue-mag-rag tells you is "au courant".
    fuck them all, i say.
    and if you can't, it's probably because you aren't wearing the right shoes...