Dorothy Zbornak Might Not Be Queer, but She’s an Amazing “Queering” Character on The Golden Girls
It’s no secret that The Golden Girls is a fan favorite of the queer community.
The show centers around ‘chosen family’, rather than blood relations, as a means of connection. It featured an episode in favor of gay marriage decades before it was ever signed into law. Drag shows in cities across the country feature four men dressed as Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia — well, at least they did when we could gather in groups — recreating classic episodes.
In short, the gays dig it.
There’s a whole slew of reasons why the LGBTQ+ community is into this show, but it’s still a fact that the show was about four super-straight white women.
Dorothy Zbornak is one of those straight women, who, according to scholar Kate Browne, participates in the “queering” of The Golden Girls.
What is “queering,” you ask?
QUEERING: a process described by Eleanor Patterson as accounting for not just the presence of gay and lesbian characters in sitcoms but all the ways that shows “make sense of the performativity of signification of non-normative sexualities or gender identities.”
In her TV Milestones Series book, The Golden Girls, scholar Kate Browne explains that in The Golden Girls, Bea-Arthur-as-Dorothy’s gender performance is more creative than the simple binaries of man vs. woman, or on-stage vs. real life. As in the definition above, “queering” is different than reading as “queer.” In fact, NBC was quite careful to ensure that their leading ladies were read as obviously straight. But, as Browne puts it, “Dorothy often occupies space in this gray area by speaking, moving, and dressing in ways that mix feminine and masculine identity markers to suit the situation.”
Dorothy is constantly teased by her two best friends and her mother for having a deep voice, for being not “traditionally” beautiful, for not fitting into dresses and feminine outfits the same as the others, for not having as many dates as the others, and generally for not performing femininity the “right” way.
And yet Dorothy is the one who ends up happily heterosexually married to a man at the end of the series, justifying and legitimizing her choices to lead her own life and be herself.
Thus, in the character of Dorothy, The Golden Girls produced a role model that patterned herself against mainstream models and ideals.
For example, in Episode 18 of Season 7, Journey to the Center of Attention, the central conflict surrounds Dorothy being able to attract men through her singing, and not through stereotypical femininity á la Blanche. At the end of the episode, Blanche says to Dorothy, “You’re beautiful. You can attract men in a way I can’t, and I’m jealous of you.” Dorothy, of course, tells Blanche that’s the nicest thing she’s ever said to her.
“The blending of identity and repetitive social action makes performativity both distinct from and dependent on performance, and has more to do with constructing identity through the process of ritualization rather than the behaviors themselves,” says Browne. “This means that ‘natural’ identities comprised of behaviors and actions taken for granted as part of everyday life can be considered performative in their effects.”
In other words, Dorothy the character can’t really be separated from Bea Arthur the performer in her deep voice, her physicality — she doesn’t really have a choice. And just by virtue of that physicality, her performativity of Dorothy Zbornak is performativity of queerness. That helped set the tone for other episodes in the series that cover queer topics in a much more nuanced and empathetic manner than you’d expect from a 1980s sitcom. It also highlighted, as Browne says, the very many possibilities for self-expression.
Dorothy Zbornak, ever the teacher, continues to teach generations that it’s OK to be your own person, and do things your own way. Even if your roommates and mother can be assholes sometimes.
This is the first installment of a four-part series on Kate Browne’s TV Milestones book, The Golden Girls.