Bea Arthur passed away today at the age of 86 from cancer.
The Jewish Women’s Archive has an incisive write up on Bea’s life, written by Kirsten Fermaglich, although I must admit, I’m not sure why she keeps putting strong woman in quotes. The piece wrestles with the tension, assumptions and stereotypes that Jewish women, particularly Ashkenazi women, face(d) on film and TV, highlighting that “if Maude [had] been labeled “a Jewish mother,” her courage and fiery independence probably would have been caricatured as insignificant nagging. The decision to make Maude a WASP allowed her to be a “prototypical woman” and thus an icon of the women’s movement.”
Fermaglich outlining that to be an “icon” meant erasing race and ethnicity, requires that we ask the question, if the character “had to be a WASP,” whose women’s movement then were they really talking about and portraying?!
Suffice to say, Maude broke ground in covering controversial social issues, including abortion. The New York Times reports:
The two-part episode was broadcast in November 1972, two months before Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that made abortion legal nationwide, was decided. By the episode’s conclusion, Maude, who lived in Westchester County in New York, where abortion was already permitted, had chosen to end the pregnancy. Two CBS affiliates refused to broadcast the program, and Ms. Arthur received a shower of angry mail.
To be real, I never watched Maude. It’s not how I was introduced to Bea Arthur. But Elliott BatTzedek unquestionably remembers the show: “Maude was on when I was a girlchild rebelling against every part of my world and gender role, and was really important to me.”
The Golden Girls was my introduction. I loved Bea’s husky voice and tenacity, her defiant attitude and sarcasm. To this day, Golden Girls’ commentary never ceases in many circles of queer folks who adore the show, and also recognize it as a demonstration of how kinship and care circles are more varied in this country than we often discuss. And when Estelle Getty passed away, hearts broke too. I adored Bea’s wit and sarcasm as Dorothy, her take no shit vibe and the overall bond, support and love that these women shared for one another. She reminded me of the women in my family.
Here’s more from Kirsten Fermaglich:
“Let’s face it,” actor Bea Arthur told an interviewer in 1985, “nobody ever asked me to play Juliet.” At five feet, nine and a half inches, with a deep voice and commanding presence, Arthur has instead made her career playing “strong women” who speak their own minds and control everyone around them. Although these women have included such formidable characters as Yente in Fiddler on the Roof and Vera Charles in Mame, Arthur will probably always be best known for portraying liberal Maude Findlay, the “women’s libber” who stuck it to Archie Bunker on television’s All in the Family and then dominated her own situation comedy, Maude, throughout the 1970s. Arthur’s imperious and controversial Maude left a lasting imprint on American television and feminism.
Born Bernice Frankel in New York City on May 13, 1926, Arthur was the middle child of Phillip and Rebecca Frankel’s three daughers. When Arthur was eleven, her father’s financial troubles led him to move the family to Cambridge, Maryland, to run a clothing store. As one of the only Jews in a segregated southern city, as well as the tallest girl in all her school classes, Arthur faced antisemitic rejection, considered herself a “misfit,” and grew up “painfully shy.” She spent much of her time reading movie magazines and dreaming of becoming “a little, short, blonde movie star.” To hide her insecurities, Arthur developed a mean Mae West impression and won the title of “wittiest girl” in her class at Cambridge High School. After two additional years at private Linden Hall High School, Arthur studied at Blackstone College, a junior college in Virginia, and then graduated from the Franklin Institute of Science and Arts.
I have to admit, one of my favorite lines in the piece is Bea on marriage:
“I don’t think I ever truly believed in marriage anyway,” she told an interviewer in 1985. “I guess marriage means that you’re a woman and not a . . . person.”
I know I’m not alone in saying I will miss Bea deeply — a fierce, sharp-witted, bold Jewish woman — an icon in her own right in American pop culture.