Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Jessica Bennett (00:00):

The year was 1986 and Golden Girls. A groundbreaking new sitcom was in its second season. The show followed the escapades of four senior women living together in Miami as they navigated their friendships and their sex lives. That in and of itself was radical for the time, but the show also pushed boundaries in more subtle ways. Like in this episode where Jean, a college friend of Dorothy’s comes to visit the girls and they find out she is a lesbian.

Clips (00:29):

Come on. Now. I heard you laughing. What’s so funny.


For starters, Jean is a lesbian.

Jessica Bennett (00:34):

But there was some confusion.

Clips (00:36):

What’s funny about that?


You aren’t surprised?


Of course not. I mean, I’ve never known any personally, but isn’t Danny Thomas one?


Not Lebanese, Blanche. Lesbian.



Jessica Bennett (01:01):

It’s a classic sitcom joke, a silly play on words and one that might’ve been forgotten over time. And yet that joke that punchline has lived on for nearly 40 years. I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (01:16):

And I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (01:18):

And this is In Retrospect where each week we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us.

Susie Banikarim (01:24):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Jessica Bennett (01:26):

Today we’re talking about the Golden Girls first encounter with a lesbian and the way it spawned enduring gay joke. But we’re also talking about the creative ways that Hollywood has written, and sometimes hidden queer characters for decades. This is part one.


So, Susie, we’re talking today about an episode of the Golden Girls called, Isn’t It Romantic, but as I like to refer to it, the Lebanese lesbian episode. This episode aired in November 1986 on NBC, and it centers around a friend of Dorothy’s who comes to town to stay with the girls who happens to be a lesbian.

Susie Banikarim (02:05):

How scandalous.

Jessica Bennett (02:06):

And to set the scene a little bit, this was the Reagan era. Shoulder pads are gracing the runways and the workplace, and Golden Girls was this wildly popular show. Each Saturday night at nine PM, millions of Americans gathered on their living room sofas to tune into the lives of Dorothy, Rose, Sophia and Blanche, who are four women living together in Miami. And the characters, they were all widowed or divorced. And what’s so funny is that they were actually described in all of the media as elderly back then, even though most of them were in their fifties.

Susie Banikarim (02:41):

That’s worrying for me.

Jessica Bennett (02:44):

Right? And the show documents their lives while they navigate life and love and friendship and sex, and Blanche in particular has a lot of sex. Susie, did you watch The Golden Girls?

Susie Banikarim (02:56):

I did watch Golden Girls, yeah. I watched growing up, and I feel like we watched as a family a lot of the time. Our favorite character was Sofia, who was Dorothy’s mom who lived with the girls. And I think I always liked that because my grandmother lived with us, so it felt very representative of an immigrant family. And Sofia was Sicilian, so she told a lot of anecdotes from the old country.

Jessica Bennett (03:16):

I think that was really common. This was a show that a lot of people watched intergenerationally and the characters included Sofia, the Sicilian mother of Dorothy who was played by Bea Arthur. She’s this wise cracking substitute teacher who’s always wearing a caftan.

Susie Banikarim (03:34):

I know my hero.

Jessica Bennett (03:36):

And then there’s Blanche played by Rue McClanahan. She’s like the man-hungry Southern Belle who’s always talking about sex, and she owns the house that they all live in. And then of course, there is Betty White’s character Rose, who is this innocent farm girl from Minnesota who never gets the jokes.

Susie Banikarim (03:56):

It’s funny that they were in their fifties because I remembered them being very old ladies.

Jessica Bennett (04:02):

There was that meme going around comparing sex in the city, those women now to the Golden Girls then, and just the way they look side by side is so different.

Susie Banikarim (04:13):

I remember that meme because it was making the rounds on social media after that new Sex and the City reboot came out and fans realized that the actors are actually a little older than the Golden Girls were supposed to be back then, which really encapsulates how differently we think about women in their fifties now than we did then. They all had gray hair, I feel like.

Jessica Bennett (04:32):


Susie Banikarim (04:32):

Or if it wasn’t gray, it felt like it was.

Jessica Bennett (04:35):

Well, and there were certainly the caftans, they were dressing like older women, but that was part of what made this show great. Golden Girls, I think was ahead of its time in various ways. For one, it was created by a woman, Susan Harris, but the characters and the women playing the characters were all women who might have been considered past their prime in other contexts. And not only were they supposedly passed their prime, but they were extremely open about their sex lives. I think in a lot of ways, the Golden Girls were the original sex positives.

Clips (05:12):

I happened to have an affection for bayous. Matter of fact, I became a woman in one.


I thought you lost it in a hot air balloon.


I thought you lost it at a pancake breakfast.


Well, those don’t count.

Susie Banikarim (05:27):

And they were always dating, which I think is also another thing that you don’t really see for “elderly” women that they have active romantic lives, and that was a huge part of the storylines.

Jessica Bennett (05:38):

Before we get into the episode itself, Susie, you’re a resident TV expert. We need to explain for people who didn’t live during this era, what you need to know about 80s sitcoms.

Susie Banikarim (05:49):

Yeah, I think the difference is that sitcoms were very much appointment television when we were growing up. You knew what time they came on. There was always between eight and 11 o’clock at night. And if you were lucky, your family let you stay up to watch them, and they were family friendly. You gathered round a television together and you watched and it felt like you knew those people.

Jessica Bennett (06:09):


Susie Banikarim (06:10):

And they also had this kind of famous laugh track, this canned laugh. It did just become the soundtrack of these shows. And so it helped cue you on what was supposed to be a joke and how it worked. I actually, I have to say I love sitcoms. It feels funny to admit this now, but we really love the Cosby Show in my family, and I even like some more current sitcoms. I loved Modern Family. So it’s very much, I think when you’re an immigrant family, one of the ways in which you learn about how America is supposed to work.

Jessica Bennett (06:42):

And that’s an interesting point because I think that these shows were catering to mainstream America, and so often they were really trying to reflect the cultural norms of the time, which sometimes were retrograde in some ways, but occasionally these shows would push against them either subtly or not so subtly. Like I love Lucy did this in the 1950s with pregnancy at a time when even just the word was forbidden on TV.

Susie Banikarim (07:09):

Why was pregnancy a forbidden word? It’s not a dirty thing to be pregnant. She was married.

Jessica Bennett (07:14):

We’re going to get into all of the weird rules-

Susie Banikarim (07:16):

Oh my god, amazing.

Jessica Bennett (07:17):

Around what you can and can’t say on television. But the thing is, when this episode, when Golden Girls was airing, there were really very few gay characters on television, and especially in the 80s, mid-80s, if a writer did Dare to create one, the plot line around that character often related to AIDS. And then within those gay representations, it was so rare to be almost non-existent to actually feature an out lesbian on a sitcom.

Susie Banikarim (07:47):

Yeah, I can’t remember one until actually much later. The one that comes to mind immediately for me is Grey’s Anatomy. But that was in the two thousands, so we’re talking about much later.

Jessica Bennett (07:58):

Yeah, there were definitely ones before that. But the thing about this episode is that it’s coming out at a time when Golden Girls is really at the top of its game. It has a devoted regular audience of 15 to 20 million viewers.

Susie Banikarim (08:12):


Jessica Bennett (08:13):

And out of the top 10 most viewed shows, it ranks number five.

Susie Banikarim (08:18):

Oh wow. I mean, I knew it was hugely popular, but I don’t know that I realized it was so popular. But also the interesting thing is it’s become this cult show since I remember watching it when I was growing up, but then I have friends who are still obsessed with it. So it really has taken on kind of a cultural meaning beyond just that time.

Jessica Bennett (08:43):

Okay, so let’s get into the episode. This episode, as I mentioned, is called Isn’t It Romantic? And it airs in season two, and the real plot of the episode involves Dorothy’s college friend Jean, who is coming to visit the girls after the death of her long-time partner, Pat. Pat, note the gender-neutral name. It’s easy for the girls to assume that Pat may be a man.

Susie Banikarim (09:05):


Jessica Bennett (09:05):

And Jean is and has always been a lesbian, and Dorothy knows this, but she’s worried about telling the other girls. And then what ends up happening, which gets us to our Lebanese moment, is that we learn that Jean actually develops a crush on Rose. And so Dorothy then tells her mom, who gets a kick out of this, and they’re in the bedroom giggling and in walks, Blanche.

Clips (09:27):

Come on now, I heard you laughing. What’s so funny?

Jessica Bennett (09:31):

Sophia then tells Blanche that Jean is a lesbian, but Blanche thinks she means Lebanese. And so she asked if Danny Thomas, who is a popular Lebanese-American entertainer at that time is one.

Clips (09:43):

Not Lebanese, Blanche. Lesbian.


Lesbian. Lesbian. Lesbian. Isn’t that where one woman and another-


We already know what it means.

Jessica Bennett (10:00):

Dorothy then tells Blanche that Jean, the lesbian has developed feelings for Rose. And Blanche in typical Blanche fashion, she famously loves attention, is totally unconcerned that Jean is a lesbian, but she is very concerned that Jean is into Rose and not her.

Susie Banikarim (10:17):

It’s a classic Blanche, but actually I have to say it feels pretty progressive how well they’re all taking the news. How does this all end up playing out?

Jessica Bennett (10:25):

Yeah, it plays out in kind of classic Golden Girls fashion. Basically, Rose still doesn’t know that Jean is a lesbian, and she definitely doesn’t know that Jean likes her, but they’re developing this friendship. And then there’s this really funny misunderstanding where they’re staying up late and the other girls are asleep. And so Rose is like, “Well, Jean, you can sleep in my bed with me.” And so then there’s this scene where they’re in bed and Jean rolls over and tells Rose that she’s quite fond of her, and I love this line because it’s so sweet and innocent. But then you watch as this clicks in Rose’s mind, what’s actually going on here, and she in response, pretends to be asleep.

Susie Banikarim (11:06):

Do they talk about it eventually?

Jessica Bennett (11:09):

Yeah. So eventually this little bit of drama is all resolved and they have this nice conversation and the girls remain friends, but not lovers.


And so the Lebanese joke is not actually the focus of the episode itself. It comes midway through after we find out that Jean has the hots for Rose. And it’s funny, it’s well-timed. It’s not too heavy handed. It’s maybe not even that funny, but it seems to be playing on this idea that the words Lebanese and lesbian sound similar.

Susie Banikarim (11:44):

It’s a perfect sitcom joke though. Sitcom jokes are a little absurd and not riotously funny for the most part. They’re almost like a little punny or juvenile, it’s meant to be silly.

Jessica Bennett (11:56):

But okay, so for many reasons, this was an episode that really stuck in people’s minds and it was groundbreaking in a lot of ways, but it was not groundbreaking for the Lebanese joke. And so you might have thought that that joke would’ve whatever, it gets lost to history. It’s kind of funny. We move on. And yet then a full decade later, it appears again in a very public fashion on an episode of the Rosie O’Donnell Show where Ellen DeGeneres appears.

Susie Banikarim (12:24):

Oh, interesting.

Jessica Bennett (12:25):

You probably remember this time because they were rumors circulating that Ellen, her character on her sitcom and also Ellen the real person was gay, and that she was going to come out as gay, which she soon would in April, I believe, of 1997.

Clips (12:41):

Susan, I’m gay.

Susie Banikarim (12:44):

Yeah, I completely remember this. It was such a big deal because there had never been a gay lead on a sitcom or primetime television show before.

Jessica Bennett (12:53):

And so this appearance on Rosie’s show is before any of that happens. I’ll just walk you through it. So Ellen comes on stage, they banter. Rosie is asking her about rumors, about Ellen’s character on the show, and she gives her the opportunity to set the record straight. And so then Ellen reveals, “Well, we do find out that the character is Lebanese.” And so Rosie says, “What, just out of the blue?” And Ellen then jokes about how there have been clues that she might be Lebanese. She eats a lot of baba ganoush. She’s pretty good to hummus, and she’s a big fan of Casey Kasem, the DJ.

Clips (13:30):

Hi, his is Casey Kasem, American Top 40 has moved to a new-

Jessica Bennett (13:34):

Who I actually didn’t realize was Lebanese.

Susie Banikarim (13:36):

I did not know that either.

Jessica Bennett (13:38):

And so then Rosie says you, “I also like Casey Kasem, maybe I’m Lebanese.” And Ellen says, “You know what, Rosie? Sometimes I pick up that you might be Lebanese.” And basically the whole thing is just wink-wink, but like an obvious one. And Rosie ends by saying, “Actually good for the network. Many networks wouldn’t be so comfortable with different ethnicities.”

Susie Banikarim (14:06):

Okay, that’s amazing.

Jessica Bennett (14:07):

And then Ellen closes it off by saying, “Well, you know, Rosie, half of Hollywood is Lebanese.”

Susie Banikarim (14:15):

Oh my God, I love this. But Rosie wasn’t out yet, right?

Jessica Bennett (14:18):

No, Rosie was not formally out. She didn’t come out until 2002 after this talk show had ended. But I think people knew. That’s why it’s funny, that’s why the joke worked. And it becomes this whole wink-wink. We can have this whole conversation about our sexuality without actually using the word lesbian, and the audience is going to get it. And of course, this is at a time when it’s much less common to be out in Hollywood. And that’s what makes the joke.

Susie Banikarim (15:03):

Didn’t Rameen write about this moment between Rosie and Ellen in his book about the View?

Jessica Bennett (15:09):

Yes, he did. So for listeners, this is Rameen Satuta, our friend, who is now the editor of Variety. And he wrote a book called Ladies Who Punch, which is all about the juicy inside details of the View. And in the book he talks to Rosie about Ellen’s coming out. And there’s this really interesting quote where she says to Rameen, “I remember thinking, well, she’s going to ruin her whole career.” And then when Ellen came on Rosie’s show, Rosie said she had to figure out a way to, here’s the quote, “Stand next to her so that everybody in the know is going to know I’m not leaving her out there alone.”

Susie Banikarim (15:43):

Oh, that’s interesting, right? Because she doesn’t want to seem like she’s not in solidarity with her, but she’s also worried about her own career. It must have been very complicated, actually.

Jessica Bennett (15:52):

Exactly. And so they’re doing it in this way where it’s kind of like, if you know, you know.

Susie Banikarim (15:57):

But it’s actually kind of sweet, right? I mean, it makes that moment even more meaningful because it’s a way of her showing support and finding a way to do it in a way that’s going to get through the sensors, I’m sure. Had they seen the joke on Golden Girls? Is that where it came from?

Jessica Bennett (16:11):

Well, so that’s the thing, we don’t know. You have to presume. So I’ve gone up and down into nexus deep dive all the way trying to find the origins of this joke, and the first known use of it is on Golden Girls. So had Rosie seen Golden Girls? I’m not sure. Or was this something that was one of those things that was out in the ether where you don’t really know the origin? It reminds me of the lesbian U-Haul joke. What do you bring to the second date? A U-Haul?

Susie Banikarim (16:39):

Wait, is that joke from something?

Jessica Bennett (16:40):

I don’t know. We’ve all always heard that joke. It’s certainly appeared in various sitcoms and on television and pop culture, but I don’t know that anyone really knows the origin. Though, probably if our listeners are anything like New York Times readers, they’ll now fact check us on that, which I welcome. Please tell us the origins of that joke.

Susie Banikarim (16:58):


Jessica Bennett (16:59):

But there’s a lot of these wink, wink nod jokes when it comes to people’s sexuality. And actually, this makes me think of something that Sharon one of our producers point out, which is Jean in the Golden Girls episode is A, “friend of Dorothy.” Friend of Dorothy is a reference often used for a gay person that comes from Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz.

Susie Banikarim (17:22):

Oh, that’s where a friend of Dorothy comes from?

Jessica Bennett (17:24):

And so this too is one of those jokes with unclear origins. Best I could find for why that is the case is because Dorothy was played by Judy Garland, who, though she herself was not gay, or at least not that we know of, was a huge icon to the gay community.

Susie Banikarim (17:41):

That’s amazing. Yeah, of course I’ve heard friend of Dorothy, but I didn’t connect it to this episode, but I wonder if the writers were doing a wink to that.

Jessica Bennett (17:49):

I feel like they must have been. There’s all these wink wink, nod nods. And so then the next time the joke appears, this is, I know a favorite movie of both of ours Comes in Mean Girls.

Clips (18:00):

On Wednesdays, we wear Pink.

Susie Banikarim (18:02):

Best Movie.

Jessica Bennett (18:03):

The best movie. And so this time, so this is again the Lebanese lesbian joke, and this time the plot point involves Janis. Janis is the gothy indie side character.

Susie Banikarim (18:14):

Well, she’s the one who takes in the Lindsay Lohan character when she doesn’t have friends in the beginning, right?

Jessica Bennett (18:19):

Exactly. And she’s this outsider, and her best friend is gay, and she presents as a lesbian in a lot of ways, which is something that Regina George then uses to make fun of her throughout.

Clips (18:32):

I was like, Janis, I can’t invite you because I think you’re a lesbian. I mean, I couldn’t have a lesbian at my party. There could be girls there in their bathing suits.

Susie Banikarim (18:40):

My God, Regina George is such a bitch.

Jessica Bennett (18:43):

So that’s Regina George making fun of Janis Ian, by the way, Janis Ian named after a famous 1970s lesbian singer songwriter. So that’s another underhanded thing there.

Susie Banikarim (18:55):

Oh, fascinating.

Jessica Bennett (18:56):

And so then you get to the very end of the movie, and Janis and Katie and everyone are at the school dance, and Janis, you’ll remember, is wearing this very androgynous suit, but she’s dancing with Kevin G who is one of the guys from Katie’s math team, and it’s clear that Kevin G is into her.

Susie Banikarim (19:13):

A fellow mathlete.

Jessica Bennett (19:15):

Oh, yeah, mathlete.

Susie Banikarim (19:15):

A fellow mathlete.

Jessica Bennett (19:17):

Mathlete. Yes. So she’s dancing with Katie’s Fellow Math Leap, Kevin G, and Kevin G says to her-

Clips (19:24):

“You’re Puerto Rican?”



Susie Banikarim (19:27):

Wait, she wasn’t Lebanese?

Jessica Bennett (19:29):

No, she is Lebanese.

Susie Banikarim (19:30):

This is blowing my mind. I’m such an innocent. I was like, “Oh, she’s Lebanese like me. Middle Eastern.”

Jessica Bennett (19:34):

Well, no, she is Lebanese, and she talks about it at various points in the film, but-

Susie Banikarim (19:40):

She’s also a lesbian.

Jessica Bennett (19:40):

If you subscribe to the queer fan theory, yes, this is her confirming to those who know that she’s also a lesbian.

Susie Banikarim (19:49):

Okay. That’s amazing.

Jessica Bennett (19:49):

So there’s all these funny theories. You could go deep into Mean Girls fan theories, but one of the theories is that at some point, Janis says she’s Lebanese, and Regina may have misheard her, and so that’s why she thinks she’s a lesbian.

Susie Banikarim (20:03):

Oh, that makes sense. Yeah, that’s hilarious.

Jessica Bennett (20:05):

You could see the ending of that movie as her telling Kevin G, she’s Lebanese flat. That’s it. Or you could read it as her coming out. And so there are various interpretations of what that means.

Susie Banikarim (20:18):

Wow, this is blowing my mind.

Jessica Bennett (20:19):

So Suzy, if you can’t tell already, I got a little bit obsessed with this lesbian Lebanese joke, and I really started going down a rabbit hole that took way too much time. But I went on a journey because I needed to know where the origin of this joke was. And was it really as simplistic as it sounded?

Susie Banikarim (20:56):

Well, first of all, I love this about you. One of my favorite things about you is that you can come up against something that just seems simple and then spend hours and hours trying to come up with the origin.

Jessica Bennett (21:07):

Too long, too long.

Susie Banikarim (21:07):

And I do think it’s going to pay off. And I’m curious, what did you hope you were going to find? What was the thing you were searching for?

Jessica Bennett (21:18):

Well, I guess I wanted to credit the original author of the joke, but I wanted to know if there was something we weren’t getting. It just seems too simple. Is it really just a play on words? You seriously mix up the words Lebanese and lesbian? I just didn’t get it, and I thought there must be more to it.

Susie Banikarim (21:37):

This is very writerly of you to want to make sure that whoever came up with this had really gotten the credit they deserve. I love that.

Jessica Bennett (21:45):

So, okay, here’s where I began. I had a great place to start, which is with my friend Maya Salam. She is a culture editor at the New York Times. She is a Golden Girls Super fan. Her dog is named after Bea Arthur.

Susie Banikarim (21:58):

That’s amazing.

Jessica Bennett (21:58):

And on top of that, she is an actual Lebanese lesbian.

Susie Banikarim (22:02):

Oh, whoa.

Jessica Bennett (22:03):

So I figured she would be a good place to begin.

Maya Salam (22:07):

I have been thinking about it and obsessing about it, this very strange play on words for so many decades that in 2010 I actually bought the domain lebaneselesbian.com with high hopes of creating a blog. And the only thing I did on it was actually embed the clip from that Golden Girls episode at the top.

Jessica Bennett (22:26):


Maya Salam (22:29):

So this has been a long-running theme in my life.

Jessica Bennett (22:33):

So I was screaming on the phone with Maya because I had no idea when I called her that that website was a thing.

Susie Banikarim (22:42):

What a perfect thing.

Jessica Bennett (22:43):

The other thing is that Maya actually remembers watching that episode in real time. So I’ll let her explain what it was like to see that.

Maya Salam (22:50):

We had only been in the US for a couple of years. My family came to America from Beirut, Lebanon, and I took to watching a lot of TV as soon as we got here. It was my little outlet in a way that I learned a lot about pretty much everything I learned about American culture. And I was obsessed with the Golden Girls from the start. I still am.

Clips (23:13):


Maya Salam (23:13):

I was sitting on the living room floor. I know my mom and at least one of my sisters was in the room.

Clips (23:20):

Not Lebanese.

Maya Salam (23:21):

And of course, they heard the word Lebanese and caught everyone’s attention.

Clips (23:26):


Maya Salam (23:26):

But then they paused because they understood what the word lesbian meant, even though I didn’t. So it was sort of like I was this little girl cracking up at this joke, and they were frozen probably in fear that I was going to ask them what lesbian meant. At that young age, I didn’t know what a lesbian was, but to hear Lebanese, which obviously I am and was such a interesting word, and not one that I was hearing in my life, we were in Missouri at the time to hear it on the most popular show on television. It just made me feel so heard and seen.

Jessica Bennett (24:05):

It would be a number of years before Maya would actually come out as a lesbian. But I just love that image of her in the TV room watching this show so much.

Susie Banikarim (24:13):

Me too. I know from watching TV with my Middle Eastern family that anything that was even vaguely scandalous was so uncomfortable.

Jessica Bennett (24:22):

And so Maya has actually gone on to cover this subject as a journalist. And not just Golden Girls, but the idea of queer representation on television. So I thought for sure she could help me understand where this joke came from. This was a joke that had followed her entire life, but she didn’t know.

Susie Banikarim (24:40):

Oh my God, you’re never going to get to the bottom of this, but you will.

Jessica Bennett (24:45):

Well, no. So where did I go from there? Okay, so every lesbian I know receives a phone call or a text about this.

Susie Banikarim (24:52):

I’m sure they really appreciated that.

Jessica Bennett (24:53):

My resident owl got a phone call.

Susie Banikarim (24:55):

Wait, what’s an owl?

Jessica Bennett (24:57):

An old wise lesbian.

Susie Banikarim (24:58):

Oh, I didn’t know that was a thing.

Jessica Bennett (25:00):

She had never heard of it. I then was with my friends, Danielle and Sarah. And Sarah has a friend who is Lebanese, not a lesbian, but Lebanese. And so we texted her asking if she’d ever heard of it, and she actually said, “Yes. Oh my God, I’ve been so confused by this for years. This is a bad joke that people would say to me when I would say, ‘I’m Lebanese.'” And so I was like, “Wait, how does that look?”


And so she wrote this out on text. So her, “I’m Lebanese.” Guy, “You’re a lesbian?”

Susie Banikarim (25:32):

Of course. You can picture that at every frat party if you’re a lesbian.

Jessica Bennett (25:36):

It’s just a that’s what she said joke. And then I was in the middle of a deep research dig and realized I was late to therapy. So I paused for therapy. And then I asked my therapist, she’s not Lebanese, but she is a lesbian.

Susie Banikarim (25:51):

I like how we have to clarify for each person, now. Lebanese lesbian or both.

Jessica Bennett (25:56):

And she very much knew the joke. She knew immediately, but she too thought that it had originated with Rosie and Ellen, not with the Golden Girls. And actually she also made the good point that there are a lot of these types of jokes that persist. Another one that she uses with her friends is the toaster oven joke from Ellen.

Susie Banikarim (26:16):

Wait, I don’t know the toaster oven joke.

Jessica Bennett (26:17):

I had to look this up. But basically it’s a joke about how if you recruit a straight woman to the lesbian cause, they get a toaster oven as their reward.

Susie Banikarim (26:27):

The lesbian gets the toaster oven, or the formerly straight woman?

Jessica Bennett (26:30):

It was a gift of recruitment. I see. So in the common usage it’s like, “Oh yeah, did you give her a toaster oven?”

Susie Banikarim (26:38):

So I thought it was a reward for the person who had recruited the straight woman into the lesbian cause.

Jessica Bennett (26:43):

Well, maybe she deserves a toaster oven too.

Clips (26:47):



There’s the toaster oven.


Thank you.

Jessica Bennett (26:52):

Okay, so that clearly got me nowhere. But finally, I reached out to Drew Mackey. He is a journalist and the co-host of an amazing podcast that I now can’t stop listening to called Gayest Episode Ever. And so here’s what Drew told me.

Drew Mackie (27:08):

I was really thinking about, this is the hardest question in the list of questions you sent me. I’m like, “Why is this a thing?” And it made me think of Lake Titicaca, where Lake Titicaca is like an easy joke in the culture of anyone who’s not someone who lives around Lake Titicaca because it sounds like something funny, even though it’s not that thing. And I’m like, “Is that it?” I really do think that’s it.

Jessica Bennett (27:29):

Wait, is it that simplistic?

Drew Mackie (27:31):

Lebanese sounds like this word that is sexual in nature and no matter how much studying and maturing we do, we are still little kids giggling at the thing that sounds like another thing, and I can’t think of another explanation for it.

Susie Banikarim (27:47):

It’s sort of like how kids laugh whenever you say Uranus, even though Uranus is not objectively a funny word.

Jessica Bennett (27:53):

Yes. Okay. Yes. On that note, before I get into how Drew helped me unlock the mystery of this joke, there’s a small but very important piece of his personal history that Susie I think you need to hear.

Drew Mackie (28:04):

I remember learning the word from Sophia and then using it at school. Did not understand what it meant, I just thought it was like a generic insult for someone that you don’t like. And then I had to have explained to me that just because Sophia says something does not mean that I should be allowed to say it, which was surprising to me. It was like, “Oh, she’s allowed to say that on TV and I can’t in school. That’s weird.”

Jessica Bennett (28:24):

Who did you call a slit, by the way?

Drew Mackie (28:26):

This girl named Aida and we were fighting over some sort of toy on the playground. I was like in second grade. And then she was like, “Mrs. Brown. Drew called me a slut.” And she was like, “What?”

Jessica Bennett (28:36):

And you’re like, “Sophia said it.”

Drew Mackie (28:38):

Literally. I can remember being like, “But I learned it from Golden Girls.”

Susie Banikarim (28:43):

It’s really funny that he actually learned the word slut from an actual grandmother.

Jessica Bennett (28:48):

It’s perfect. The show was not just groundbreaking, but it was educational in a really important way. And speaking of educational, Drew has actually written a very well-researched oral history of its episode.

Susie Banikarim (29:00):

Oh wow.

Jessica Bennett (29:01):

He did it a few years back for a now defunct gay magazine out of LA called Frontiers. But as part of that oral history, he spoke to this guy, Jeffrey Duteil, who was apparently the man who was actually responsible for writing that episode of The Golden Girls.

Susie Banikarim (29:17):

Okay, I’m genuinely impressed by how far down this rabbit hole you went.

Jessica Bennett (29:21):

Thank you. But also, we’re not done.

Susie Banikarim (29:23):

Oh, I know.

Jessica Bennett (29:25):

So I obviously had to get in touch with Jeffrey, but Drew couldn’t find his email. So then we began this game of telephone, which essentially was first I spoke to this woman. This is the behind-the-scenes reporting that you normally don’t put into the article. But since we’re on the podcast, we’re going to put it all in.

Susie Banikarim (29:43):

Yeah, I love it.

Jessica Bennett (29:44):

So first I spoke to Winifred Hervey, who herself is a trailblazer in many ways. She wrote an executive produced shows like the Cosby Show, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And she was a co-producer on Golden Girls. Oh wow. But she didn’t know the origin, of course. So she put me in touch with a guy called Barry Fanaro. He was a staff writer on the show during the time that this episode aired. And I spoke with him and he actually claimed that he had written the joke.

Susie Banikarim (30:07):


Jessica Bennett (30:08):

But then, here’s the twist I finally heard from Jeffrey, he’s retired now, he’s 72, he’s a grandparent. And he explained in more detail that, yeah, he had been a freelancer at the time, and he loved Golden Girls. He was an out gay man. He knew Winifred from working with her on a past sitcom. And so he got this spec script to her, and the joke came to him in A, “Burst of creative luck.”

Susie Banikarim (30:38):

So I tend to believe Jeffrey here.

Jessica Bennett (30:41):

I don’t want to get into the middle of this. I’m sure that everyone had a hand in it. I’m not going to mediate between these two writers.

Susie Banikarim (30:47):

That’s very even-handed of you.

Jessica Bennett (30:48):

Many years have passed. But I did learn two important things from this series of conversations. First, as Barry reminded me, all of the characters on this show were a little naive. So it’s not that crazy to think that Blanche might have actually mixed up lesbian for Lebanese.

Susie Banikarim (31:04):

That’s fair.

Jessica Bennett (31:05):

And second, what Jeffrey explained was that there was actually an inside joke here too, and that was that Danny Thomas, who we spoke about before this famous comedian and actor who was Lebanese, is the father not only of Marlo Thomas, but of Tony Thomas whose production company ran Golden Girls.

Susie Banikarim (31:23):

Oh my God.

Jessica Bennett (31:24):

So on top of the wordplay, there was this poking fun at Tony Thomas because it’s his dad, and now we’re going to call his dad a lesbian.

Susie Banikarim (31:34):

Oh God, there are so many layers here we could never have predicted when we started on this journey. I love this.

Jessica Bennett (31:40):

Exactly. There’s another thing, Susie, that became very clear in talking to Jeffrey, which is basically that Golden Girls was always for the gays

Susie Banikarim (31:50):

Because it has a gay icon status.

Jessica Bennett (31:53):

Well, that very much is true now. There are Golden Girls cruises and drag shows and every kind of fun golden Girls themed event under the Sun now, which all sound amazing. I would love to go on a Golden Girls cruise. But I guess I didn’t realize was that Golden Girls has ties to gay culture that are much deeper and really go all the way back to its inception.

Susie Banikarim (32:16):

Oh, really?

Jessica Bennett (32:16):

So from the very first episode in the pilot, there is an out and proud gay character, Coco. I don’t know if you remember this. He was a houseboy. He was then written off. So like arguable how progressive that character actually was. But from the very first episode.

Susie Banikarim (32:32):

I don’t remember that.

Jessica Bennett (32:33):

And then there was this episode where Blanche’s brother Clayton comes out and he pretends that he has slept with Rose in order to disguise the fact that he’s gay. But the point of the episode is really that Blanche has to confront her own homophobia. So then a little bit later, the show took on AIDS in 1990, but not in the way you might have thought. In the episode, it’s Rose who’s told she may have contracted HIV during a blood transfusion. And this is an exchange between she and Blanche.

Clips (33:00):

I’m just saying that I’m a good person. Hell, I’m a goody two shoes.


AIDS is not a bad person’s disease rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins.

Susie Banikarim (33:17):

Wow, that’s really progressive. I think at that time there really was this right wing talking point that AIDS was punishment. So it’s impressive that they took that.

Jessica Bennett (33:26):

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a really poignant line. And then there’s this other fact that Drew alerted me to, which is another episode. It’s in Valentine’s Day episode, and many of these women are widowed. And so Blanche goes to this bar where she orders two glasses of champagne to commemorate her late husband. And while she’s there, she meets a young man who’s going to propose to his boyfriend. And all of this is to say that the episode basically ends with Blanche saying, love is love. The line love is love.

Susie Banikarim (33:57):

Wait, was that a political slogan at that time?

Jessica Bennett (33:59):

No, because this was 1989. And that of course is the phrase that became known as the slogan or part of the rallying cry for marriage equality.

Susie Banikarim (34:09):

That’s an amazing sort of little negative political history that ties to this.

Jessica Bennett (34:12):

Yes. Meanwhile, these were really big and overt moments of gay representation in the show, but there were also more subtle ones too. Here’s Drew Mackey, co-host of Gayest Episode Ever again.

Drew Mackie (34:24):

You have these four women living together in a chosen family, and the reasons that they’ve been separated from their nuclear families are different from what would separate a queer person from their nuclear family, especially back in the eighties. But the result is the same. They’re living together and they’re getting the stuff that you would normally expect to get from parents, siblings, extended family. They’re getting it from each other, even though except for Dorothy and Sophia, they’re not related.


And it doesn’t mean any less to these four women. This is a really powerful relationship they have with each other. And I think that’s subconsciously really good modeling for anyone really. And I think that is the genius of sitcoms, is that you don’t watch to relate, or you don’t certainly don’t want to learn. You just watch to laugh. And if this show is written intelligently enough, they will educate you regardless. And you may not ever realize that that show changed your opinions about anything, particularly gay people. But I think this show definitely did. And this episode definitely did.

Jessica Bennett (35:23):

I think it’s so interesting what Drew is saying here, which is that whether purposeful or not, these messages like chosen family, friendship, community, they really stuck with people and especially gay viewers. And actually, when I was emailing back and forth with Jeffrey, the writer of the episode, he described how the Golden Girls characters for him and for so many of the men he still hears from became these surrogate mothers. They were aunties and grandmothers.

Susie Banikarim (35:52):

Because they were accepting. These examples you’ve gone through are all examples of these women kind of coming to terms with whatever personal feelings they might’ve had and then embracing their loved ones no matter what their sexual orientation. That had to feel relatively unique back then.

Jessica Bennett (36:09):

Yeah, and so I think all of this plays into the way that the show was so embraced by the gay community. And so another thing that I didn’t know that I learned from Jeffrey, the writer, was that he, before he wrote this episode, when he was simply a fan, he would gather with his friends and his community in this communal, celebratory watching of The Golden Girls. So for him, that meant going to gay bars in LA on Saturday nights, and at nine o’clock when the new Golden Girls episode would air, they would turn off the dance music. Everyone would gather around the television, they would watch the show in the bar, and then it would end and they would turn the music back on. Everyone would go back to partying.

Susie Banikarim (36:51):

That sounds so fun, honestly.

Jessica Bennett (36:53):

And he wrote to me that he has now attended many drag performances of different episodes of the show, some of which include this episode. And he’s always pleasantly surprised when Scott, his husband of thirty-nine years, can’t wait to tell a new gay acquaintance that he, Jeffrey wrote the first Gay Golden Girls episode. And they immediately know which one, and they respond with, “Not Lebanese, Blanche. Lesbian.”

Susie Banikarim (37:19):

Oh, that is such a nice story. I love this story. Okay, that feels like a good place to end it for today. But Jess, what do we have coming up in part two?

Jessica Bennett (37:28):

Yeah. Part two is going to look at how queerness has been sneakily written into TV for decades, but also where that Lebanese lesbian joke is today.

Susie Banikarim (37:36):

I can’t wait.


This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a pop culture moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (38:01):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram, which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (38:11):

You can also find this on Instagram @jessicabennett and at @susiebnyc. Also, check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This Is 18

Jessica Bennett (38:19):

In Retrospect is a production of iHeart Podcasts and the Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Emily Marinoff is our producer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (38:34):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindi Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe. Our mixing engineer is Amanda Rose Smith. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (38:51):

Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more. Check out Inretropod.com. See you next week.