Rue McClanahan: An Appreciation Of The Original Jezebel


Rue McClanahan—who passed away today—is best remembered for her Emmy-winning role on The Golden Girls. Blanche Devereaux was a notch in the bedpost of sex-positive feminism because—for the first time—a self-involved, slutty, older lady was endearing, not repulsive.

In McClanahan’s 2007 memoir My First Five Husbands…And the Ones Who Got Away, she wrote:

People always ask me if I’m like Blanche. And I say, ‘Well, Blanche was an oversexed, self-involved, man-crazy, vain Southern belle from Atlanta—and I’m not from Atlanta!’

Unlike other actors who portrayed beloved iconic pop culture figures, Rue really related to her character. In fact, Rue was initially offered the part of Rose on GG, but when she received the pilot script she instantly knew that she and Blanche “were made for each other,” which is a funny thought, considering that the character was often referred to in the dialogue—mostly by Estelle Getty’s character Sophia—as “slut,” “Sheena, Queen of the Slut People,” and (my favorite) “slutpuppy.” But Rue loved it. Writing about her time on GG, she says:

I decided right away that Blanche would laugh whenever Sophia shot a poisoned arrow her way…After all, putting up with that sot of thing was, as Blanche breezily put it, ‘the curse of every devastatingly beautiful woman.’

And perhaps it was that choice of self-acceptance and confidence that made her character so lovable. In the stiflingly conservative sexual and political climate of the late ’80s—during which some felt that the AIDS epidemic was a punishment for sexual promiscuity—a 52-year-old woman saying that she related to a fictional character who shamelessly and genuinely enjoyed her active sex life and spoke frankly about condoms was progressive to say the least. In fact, she felt so strongly about the part, that she agreed to begin shooting the series with a salary based on her previous project (Mama’s Family), which she says was tens of thousands less than that of Betty White and Bea Arthur.

One of Rue’s favorite exchanges from the series is also telling of her own admitted free spirit:

ROSE: Is it possible to love two men at one time?
BLANCHE: Set the scene. Have we been drinking?

In 1987, she won an Emmy for her role as Blanche, and gave one of the most notorious acceptance speeches in the history of the awards show:

My agents told me I’d never work on TV, that I wasn’t photogenic. My mother told me life was a lot of kicks and a lot of boosts… I won’t mention who gave the kicks, but you know who you are—and you’ll be in the book.

Although McClanahan’s career spanned more than half a century—acting in films and Broadway productions—she didn’t find mainstream success until she hit primetime TV in 1972 on Maude, a seminal show in the canon of pop cultural feminism, starring Bea Arthur. Playing title character’s best friend Vivian, Rue portrayed a sort of silly woman who—with the help of Maude—found liberation from traditional gender roles. Later, on Mama’s Family, Rue played a “spinster” freelance journalist.

In her real life, Rue had married five times (as chronicled in her memoir), was a staunch democrat, and was one of the first celebrity spokespeople of PETA. She always had a love of animals.

Rue—an undeniable gay icon—was also a longtime supporter of GLAAD, and long before the organization was founded, she publicly associated herself with gay acceptance. In 1971, she starred in the little-known film Some of My Friends Are…, about a group of gay men who meet up with their female friends at a bar in Greenwich Village on Christmas Eve.

In the first season of GG, Dorothy gets mad at Blanche about something, and spits, “You, Blanche, are a self-serving, amoral, backstabbing Jezebel.”

As someone who made no bones about enjoying her life as a gay-friendly, animal-loving, sex-positive, imperfect woman, we can only hope we grow up to be half the Jezebel that Rue McClanahan was.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin