The Politics of Gender, Sexuality, and Jazz in The Golden Girls
Keywords:Jazz, Television, The Golden Girls, Gender, Sexuality
This article seeks to contribute to the growing scholarship on feminist and queer approaches to jazz studies by focusing on the place and intersections of jazz, gender, and sex(uality) in the television sitcom The Golden Girls. A highly popular U.S. sitcom from its first season in 1985 until its final season in 1992, The Golden Girls consistently explored and exploded norms of gender and sexuality. It showcased the lives of four middle-age-to-elderly women—Sophia Petrillo, Dorothy Zbornak, Blanche Devereaux, and Rose Nylund—who were single, who lived together, and who led sexually active lives. In so doing, The Golden Girls challenged the dominant framing of women, and especially senior women, as lacking a sex drive, and it rewrote the popular script of household/kinship formations as patriarchal institutions. In short, The Golden Girls was a sitcom that presented women as sexually desiring and desirable agents whose everyday lives subverted and did not depend on the normative ideals of heteropatriarchy. It is at this intersection of the sexual and the everyday that I explore the workings of jazz in The Golden Girls. I argue that jazz became a premiere site through which the show’s main characters articulated and performed gender, sex, and sexuality differently. I posit that jazz mediated how the characters expressed their as well as other bodies, desires, and pleasures outside of the norms framing (older) women’s lives. For example, the characters once hired what they assumed to be an all-female jazz band for a charity function, but the band actually comprised gender non-conforming musicians. In another episode, Rose is hesitant to attend a wedding because, as she later tells her housemates, talking to men who like jazz at weddings increases her sex drive and could potentially cause her to cheat on her boyfriend. These as well as other examples illustrate how jazz organized non-heteropatriarchal forms of gender expression (e.g., gender queer musicians) and erotic desire (e.g., non-monogamy) on the show.
Importantly, this article will focus on swing music’s effect on the sexual lives and experiences of The Golden Girls’ main characters. Each character was either an adult or child/ adolescent during the big band swing era of the 1930s and early 1940s, and they maintained nostalgic and erotic attachments to swing as older adults. I build on the scholarship on women’s participation in swing to not only explore consumption rather than production, but to also investigate the temporal markings of this gendered consumption. Specifically, I examine how these older women and women living outside the traditional swing era (i.e., women living in the 1980s/1990s) used swing to critique sexism, ageism, and heteronormativity, and instead, produce new knowledges of gender and sexuality. As such, I illustrate how The Golden Girls presents another site through which to explore the voices, presence, and embodied erotics of women in jazz—subjects often excluded from the historical archive. Indeed, The Golden Girls, as a women-centered sitcom, provides a way for us to highlight women in jazz in new and exciting ways.
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