Culture Death Match #1

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Culture Death Match pits Salvatore Pane against Amy Whipple in a point, counter-point battle royal. Today’s bout has them arguing about the most moving half-hour of television from their youths. It of course involves an episode of The Golden Girls that deals with gay marriage and Batman:

A-Dawg

Remember that moment in high school, catching a rerun of The Golden Girls and realizing it was a show entirely about old women getting laid?  That was traumatizing.  But after you Lysoled the image of your grandmother laughing as you watched the show together, a second realization: those four women supported and fought for everything you believe in.

Or maybe you believe in everything with help from The Golden Girls.

Whenever gay marriage takes a step forward or a step back, I repost a clip from a sixth-season episode, “Sisters of the Bride.”  Here it is, 1991, and Blanche’s gay brother (Clayton) visits with his fiancé (Doug).  Blanche is distraught in that dramatic Southern way.  Toward the end of the episode, Sophia sits at the kitchen table with Blanche, who wants to know why her brother has to be so public about his love life. Sophia asks why Blanche married her late husband, and, after eliciting the expected answer, says, “Everyone wants someone to grow old with, and shouldn’t everyone have that chance?”

Thanks, Sophia.

By the time Blanche asks Doug if he really loves and will care for Clayton, I’m all kinds of crying. I firmly believe that television doesn’t owe us anything, which makes episodes like this so special – even if Sal Pane says that my crying is really a result of my “tiny woman brain.”

Sal “Super King” Pane

When Amy Whipple forced me to endure the wholesale torture that is NBC’s The Golden Girls, I didn’t know much about the show and thought that, perhaps, it involved a squadron of gigantic golden women and their hilarious 22-minute exploits.

It does not.

Let me break down “Sisters of the Bride” for you, Rumpus readers. The dumb one is in some contest or something. The one that’s 30-feet-tall doesn’t really do anything. And the one that looks like Yoda gives advice to the easy one because her brother comes to town with his boyfriend. Homosexuals!? In 1991?! Yes, reader, yes. Except these men have no personalities at all, no character traits, and exist with their mustaches and double-barrel chests only as flesh and blood bullet points for what is (obviously) a well-intentioned political agenda on behalf of the writing staff. When Yoda gives her speech at the end of the episode, I completely bought it. Gay marriage? Why sure! But I never believed that the easy one bought it, and that’s a problem.

Let me introduce you to a far more moving episode from my own past. Batman: The Animated Series’ breathtaking “Heart of Ice” in which the origin of the dastardly Mr. Freeze is revealed. Imagine me, age eight, watching this for the very first time after the vanilla of Tiny Toons, Captain Planet and Beetlejuice only to see the dark noir stylings of Batman. Imagine a young Sal Pane watching “Heart of Ice” where an industrialist cruelly pulls Mr. Freeze’s (when he was just a scientist on payroll) wife off life support starting him off on his madman’s quest for revenge. This is the way the world changes. Batman is the way the world changes.

A-Dawg

Here’s what you need to know about the Sal Pane viewing experience. First, the crux of “Heart of Ice” is a gigantic ice penis.  With icy slush rolling, rolling, rolling up.  I already saw this video in ninth grade biology.  Second, Sal not only smiled but laughed during The Golden Girls.  He laughed.  I took a note (and have the entire experience on digital recording).

Other things you need to know: I’ve spent the entire summer as a nanny and thus am all caught up on children’s / tween programming.  I would sooner sit through Miley Cyrus’s I-just-got-kicked-in-the-business vocal patterns than watch another episode of Batman.

And it’s not like I’m a stranger to early ‘90s cartoons.  I’ve spent many an hour in the sweet company of the aforementioned Tiny Toons and its companion Animaniacs.  The success of these cartoons is that they work on the dual levels of the obvious slapstick and the nuanced rhetorical; the same could be said of The Golden Girls.

Sal misses the nuance.  Clayton and Doug, in the simplified way of sitcoms, are a type of Southern gay man – the kind who usually goes to the grave never admitting their sexuality.  “Sisters of the Bride” is indicative of a greater turning point in gay visibility, rendering this type less necessary.  “Heart of Ice” is indicative of the over-compensatory misogyny of certain twenty-something male writers and the certain male writers they idolize.

Too much?  Mr. Freeze keeps his scantily clad, big bosomed wife in a snow globe.

Whereas down in hot Miami, Blanche’s legendary overt sexuality is a red herring for her assumed permissiveness in “Sisters of the Bride” as well as earlier episodes where her single daughter seeks pregnancy through a sperm donor.  Blanche speaks of the greater American condition of the sexuality of ourselves versus the sexuality of others.

Sal “Chicken Soup” Pane

“The greater condition of the sexuality of ourselves versus the sexuality of others”?! Look. Batman defeats Mr. Freeze in this episode by chucking a container of chicken soup into his face. That’s pretty much the most ballin’ way to take down a super villain ever. Chicken soup. IN THE FACE. And the phallic imagery and adolescent power fantasy arguments are so played out by this point. Haven’t comics moved out of the cultural gutter? Superheroes are important cultural touchstones for two fundamental reasons: 1) They’re the closest thing we have to contemporary Greek gods. Their stories are modern day myths, and characters like Batman and Spider-Man will exist—with new stories—long after we’re all dead; 2) They give us an example of what we can become, give everyday people something to strive for. I don’t always make the right decision in my life, but you know who does? Superman. He never lets you down. There’s something powerful in that. And by the way, Freeze doesn’t keep his wife in a snow globe. That’s just a figurine made to look like his wife. Maybe Amy would know that if she wasn’t texting about New Kids on the Block every two seconds during the episode (that really happened, guys).

And one final point on the one dimensional Clayton and Doug from The Golden Girls. Doug has maybe two lines in the entire show. Clayton gets approximately five. I’m not buying them as the classic “Southern Gay Men” as Amy argues. They’re amorphous blobs who exist solely to teach the easy one a lesson and that’s patronizing. Also, did I mention that Batman threw a canister of chicken soup right into Mr. Freeze’s face?


The one time Amy Whipple saw Sarah Vowell read, they were wearing matching sweaters. Salvatore Pane and Tom Bissell both look like this. Though Amy is the better cook, she sometimes lets Sal cook for her and never reciprocates. This arrangement keeps the proper power imbalance in their friendship. When they’re not geeking out to their favorite writers, Amy writes profiles for Maniac, book reviews for PANK, and once wrote about furries for The Pittsburgh City Paper; Sal has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has fiction published or forthcoming in Quick Fiction, PANK, Annalemma, and others. More from this author →