On Saturday, June 27th, 2020, the news broke that Hulu pulled the season 3 episode “Mixed Blessings” from its streaming platform due to concerns about the portrayal of blackface. This decision was in response to a request from Disney-ABC, the series’ distributor. Is this a day that will live in infamy? Probably not. But for fans of The Golden Girls, at least, it’s a moment that’s sparked some debate. I’ve seen lots of different viewpoints on Twitter and Facebook, and I’ve actually been thinking of writing about this episode for some time now.
In this episode Dorothy’s son, Michael, is in town and announces that he’s engaged to a woman named Lorraine. Michael thinks it might be a problem that Lorraine is “kind of black,” but it turns out that Dorothy is instead upset at the fact that she’s twice Michael’s age. The B plot involves Blanche and Rose embarking on a beauty and fitness routine to get ready to go on a cruise, which is where the scene in question comes in. Images of this scene by itself could be seen as blackface, and I think Disney-ABC probably decided to pull the episode in a short-sighted attempt to avoid controversy as other show creators have recently pulled offensive episodes. But context, as always, is important.
Dorothy is finishing up some dusting when Lorraine’s mother, Greta, and her sisters arrive. Greta mistakes Dorothy for the maid at first, which helps set up the next joke. Blanche and Rose then unexpectedly burst through the kitchen door wearing mud face masks.
Greta: You must be Michael’s parents.
Lorraine: Mama, put your glasses on!
Greta: Oh, my lord…
Rose: This is mud on our faces. We’re not really black!
When Lorraine introduces Michael it turns out that it’s actually Greta who takes issue with her daughter marrying a “skinny little white boy.” So now both mothers are against the marriage, although not for the reasons that audiences would expect. Yes, Blanche and Rose’s mud masks do reference blackface, but it ultimately subverts that trope and reinforces how this episode ably deals with race, interracial marriage, and generational differences in a humorous way.
Rose: Stop it, all of you. What difference does it make that Lorraine’s a little long in the tooth and Michael’s a skinny white boy? Can’t you see they love each other? We should be celebrating, not arguing whether or not it’s right. Now, what do you say we all join hands and sing a chorus of ‘Abraham, Martin, and John’?
Greta: Is she for real?
Dorothy: Frightening, isn’t it?
Greta and her sisters return later that night and join the Girls over some cheesecake to work out what to do about the marriage. The face masks, along with the moment where Sophia asks Greta if it’s “true what they say about Black men in bed,” all walk the line of being offensive, but that’s also why the jokes work so well. In the end, Rose blurts out that Michael and Lorraine are on their way to elope. They all rush out to find them at the all night wedding chapel, where it’s also revealed that Lorraine is pregnant. The episode ends on a positive note with Dorothy and Greta coming together to support the marriage so they’ll be able to see their grandchild.
I’ve always liked this episode for the way that it subverts expectations about race and age. Hulu’s decision misses that point entirely. It also takes attention away from the Black actresses’ amazing performances. And as long as we’re dealing with these issues, the truth is that there are other episodes and jokes on The Golden Girls that really did miss the mark. Fat phobia reigns in the “Blanche’s Little Girl” episode, also from season 3, and Sophia makes an unfortunate reference to Aunt Jemima in the two part series finale. Many people on social media have also noted an episode of Designing Women in which Suzanne appears in blackface impersonating The Supremes in a talent show. While it is often said that these jokes are a product of their time in the 1980s and early 90s, recent television shows have made significant missteps as well.
As any fan of the show knows, The Golden Girls dealt with many issues in progressive ways that stand out even today, and it’s one of the reasons why it continues to resonate with audiences. It’s also been encouraging to see people in the Golden Girls Facebook groups stating that they don’t want to speak for people of color on the issues of blackface and Hulu’s decision. I certainly don’t want to do this either, but I hope I’ve explored this episode in a way that dispels some of the confusion. Black fans of the show have also noted that Hulu’s decision reads like an empty corporate gesture that disregards what movements like Black Lives Matter and recent protests are currently working to accomplish. Strangely, or perhaps predictably, Hulu has yet to comment on their decision. I would expect that the episode will make an unannounced return to the platform at some point, but you can be sure that fans will take notice when it does. Of course, the episode is still available on DVD, YouTube, and iTunes and will most likely continue to air on cable TV in syndication.
We should always be open to thinking critically about media and re-evaluating episodes and themes that may not have been as problematic when they first aired. Like the episode itself, I think this is a moment that helps to push important conversations forward, whether or not you agree with Hulu’s decision. We can and should deal with issues of race and representation in the media, both past and present. All of our faves are problematic in some way, and we shouldn’t let that get in the way of much needed discussions about representation on television and racial justice overall.