Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Jessica Bennett (00:00):

In 1986, in the middle of an episode of the beloved sitcom, the Golden Girls, a silly, simple joke-

Clips (00:07):

Not Lebanese Blanche, lesbian.

Jessica Bennett (00:12):

… triggered that classic laugh track, and a surprising legacy. That’s because those four Golden Girls had an unsuspecting power, the power to influence public perception about a topic that remained taboo.

Drew Mackie (00:24):

You have these four women living together in a chosen family. This is a really powerful relationship they have with each other, and I think that’s subconsciously really good modeling for anyone really.

Jessica Bennett (00:38):

In shoulder pads and caftans, the Golden Girls snuck positive gay representation into millions of living rooms across America, creating a ripple effect in writers rooms and on screens for decades to come. I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (00:53):

And I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (00:54):

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

Susie Banikarim (01:00):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Jessica Bennett (01:02):

Today we’re talking about the Golden Girls’ first encounter with a lesbian, and the way it spawned an 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 two. So Susie, we’ve been talking about the Lebanese lesbian episode of Golden Girls, which is actually called, Isn’t It Romantic, that aired in 1986. And in that episode, Dorothy’s friend Jean comes to visit after the death of her partner Pat, and she develops a crush on Rose. As we spoke about, that episode was ahead of its time for many reasons. It was a pretty tender depiction of a lesbian character, at a time when that was pretty rare. And as we have laughed about, its repetition of the word lesbian really drove home that that was a word we should feel comfortable with.

Susie Banikarim (01:53):

Yeah. And even the fact that there was a gay character at all was pretty significant for that time.

Jessica Bennett (01:58):

Yeah. And in order to understand how subversive that was for the time, what you really need to understand is the way that gay and lesbian characters were depicted back then. So I want to set the scene a little bit in terms of what was happening in this time. Prior to 1970, there really were very few, if any gay characters on screen at all, and that makes sense for the time. Homosexuality was classified as a mental illness until 1973.

Susie Banikarim (02:28):

It was? I didn’t realize it was that late.

Jessica Bennett (02:30):

Yeah. In the DSM.

Susie Banikarim (02:31):

It was pretty recent. Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (02:33):

But then in 1969, Stonewall occurs. So the Gay Liberation Movement is bursting forward in the early 1970s, and representation on television begins to shift as a result of that. So in 1971, you have the first gay male character who appears on the sitcom All in the Family.

Clips (02:52):

But he thinks that you’re, I can’t even say it, Steve.


He’s right, Arch.



Jessica Bennett (02:59):

And that’s interesting too, because four years later, that same show has a recurring drag queen character that’s actually played by an out drag queen.

Clips (03:11):

I’m afraid you don’t understand Mrs. Bunker. I’m a transvestite.

Jessica Bennett (03:12):

And then skip ahead a few years in 1977, you have a trans character that appears on The Jeffersons. And the plot line there is essentially George, who’s the patriarch of the Jefferson family goes to meet his old Navy buddy Eddie, only to find out that Eddie has transitioned to Edie.

Clips (03:29):

Look. You don’t understand George. I’m a woman. Deep down inside, I’ve always been a woman.


Even in the Navy?


Even in the Navy.

Susie Banikarim (03:36):

Oh. Interesting. And actually, in 1977 is the same year there’s that show Soap that appears with Billy Crystal playing a gay character. Right?

Jessica Bennett (03:45):

Oh. Okay.

Susie Banikarim (03:46):

And I think that show was also made by Susan Harris who made Golden Girls, right?

Jessica Bennett (03:49):

Golden Girls. Oh. I hadn’t realized that. Okay. So before the Golden Girls episode, she has already done this.

Susie Banikarim (03:56):

Yeah. And interestingly, that show initially got a lot of backlash for having an openly gay character, but then went on to become a huge success. So maybe that’s why she felt so comfortable.

Jessica Bennett (04:05):

Oh. So maybe that emboldened her.

Susie Banikarim (04:06):


Jessica Bennett (04:07):

Yeah. So 1977 was I guess a big year, because that also was the year that one of the first Black gay characters appears on television. And this is in an episode of Sanford Arms. I didn’t know this show, but it was a spin-off of the popular Black sitcom Sanford and Sons. Basically, the character in the show is this tall, handsome, civil rights lawyer. So very much a positive depiction.

Susie Banikarim (04:31):

It’s so interesting this is all happening in the 70s when you told me that just until 1973, it was classified as a mental illness. You feel like it’s a sea change in terms of the way people are starting to think, right?

Jessica Bennett (04:43):

Yeah. Actually, that’s a really good point, because what you’re seeing in the seventies is pretty progressive, but then there’s this backlash, or this erosion of that when you start to have the eighties emerge. Essentially by the time the Golden Girls airs this episode in 1986, AIDS is a crisis.

Clips (05:01):

A mystery disease known as the Gay Plague.


AIDS appears to be a virus transmitted through body secretions.

Jessica Bennett (05:07):

Ronald Reagan is president.

Clips (05:09):

I think that abstinence has been lacking in much of the education.


President Reagan was repeatedly booed at an AIDS research fundraising dinner last night.

Jessica Bennett (05:18):

And I think to some degree, Hollywood gets scared off from writing these fully rounded gay characters.

Susie Banikarim (05:24):

I think AIDS was used so much as a cudgel to push back on gay civil rights. Right? It was just a way in which people stoked so much fear around gayness, and gay people. So it makes sense that that actually pulled back on some of the games.

Jessica Bennett (05:39):

Yeah, pulled back. And then at the same time, if there are gay characters written into scripts, they’re typically White gay men, and the plot lines usually revolve around AIDS in some way. Anyway, it’s this very negative depiction.

Susie Banikarim (05:51):

Yeah. I guess it was either negative, or very sorrowful. So you just never got any depictions of gay joy, but also where were all the lesbians?

Jessica Bennett (06:02):

So to a large degree in the eighties, lesbian visibility on film actually reflects life. It’s very much in the shadows, even as lesbians are very instrumental to the fight for gay rights. A couple of things worth understanding are essentially how lesbians fit into the larger feminist movement, which was very charged at the time, in part because Betty Friedan called lesbians, “The Lavender Menace,” because she felt like they would derail the women’s movement’s other causes. And I love lavender.

Susie Banikarim (06:33):

I know. Why lavender? I love the color lavender. [inaudible 00:06:35].

Jessica Bennett (06:37):

Whatever. And lesbians felt marginalized within the women’s movement, but they also felt pretty marginalized within the larger gay community. The first Dyke March, which is the lesbian march that happens every year around Pride, it didn’t even happen or become a thing until 1993. And I think that also shows just how groundbreaking that Golden Girls episode was in 1986, because in fact, the lesbian character, Jean, the friend of Dorothy’s, as we’ve discussed, was just the second lesbian character ever to appear on primetime TV.

Susie Banikarim (07:10):

Really even in 1986 it was the second time they’d had a lesbian character?

Jessica Bennett (07:15):

Yes. And the first happened just a few years before on a cop show called Hill Street Blues, and the lesbian was a police officer.

Susie Banikarim (07:22):

I remember Hill Street Blues. Isn’t that the show that spawned, “Be careful out there.”

Jessica Bennett (07:28):

Oh my gosh, really?

Susie Banikarim (07:28):

Yeah, with the cops, they end the meeting by saying, “Be careful out there.”

Jessica Bennett (07:32):

I had no idea.

Susie Banikarim (07:32):

But I don’t remember this character. So it must not have been a super prominent character.

Jessica Bennett (07:37):

Yeah. That’s probably by design. I don’t particularly remember it either. But lesbian representation was also working against this thing called the Hays Code. Susie, I feel like you probably know what that is.

Susie Banikarim (07:46):

When you say that, I feel like I should know, but I don’t know what that is.

Jessica Bennett (07:51):

I don’t know that you should know. I just feel like you’re our TV film whisperer. But the Hays Code was a set of content guidelines for American movies that existed between 1934 and 1968.

Clips (08:04):

With movies at their lowest moral ebb, but riding high financially, a new name appears on the national scene, Will Hays.

Jessica Bennett (08:12):

And the Hays Code basically outlined moral codes for what could appear on screen. And they kept this list of topics that were not allowed to be shown, things like homosexuality, which was called in their words sexual perversion, interracial relationships, drug use, scenes of passion? That’s a funny one.

Susie Banikarim (08:31):

That feels like it could be very hard to define.

Jessica Bennett (08:34):

Nudity, ridicule of religion, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And the Hays Code was for movies, but the point is it seeped into television. It goes on to set the model for what becomes the Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters. That’s a mouthful, but basically that’s the code that prohibited depictions of homosexuality.

Susie Banikarim (08:54):

Wow. Yeah. I didn’t know any of this history, but it makes sense. A lot of those codes are still in place. There are a lot of things you still can’t say on TV. And didn’t you not used to not be able to say hell for a long time on television?

Jessica Bennett (09:07):

Yeah. And actually, I want to reintroduce Maya Salam here. She’s the culture editor at the New York Times who’s written about this, and who we spoke to earlier. And specifically, she’s written about how so much of this stuff ties back to the power of the Catholic Church. And it wasn’t just words that you couldn’t say. It was subjects too.

Maya Salam (09:25):

So divorce, abortion, homosexuality, the church threatened to boycott movies if these strict regulations weren’t applied. And filmmakers in studios bowed to them. So that’s why characters were written as sissies, villains or sexual deviants is the way that it’s put. Then it was more acceptable. They would be more likely to allow it if they were cast in this really negative way.

Jessica Bennett (09:49):

So essentially, what Maya is saying here is that the only way to have content that the Catholic Church would disapprove of like representations of homosexuality was to write these characters as villains. So that behavior could basically act as a warning to viewers, “Don’t do this. Look what will happen to you.” And to get around that, writers and directors start doing something called queer coding, which is essentially create characters who appear to be queer, but couldn’t actually be out due to the codes.

Susie Banikarim (10:21):

That’s actually brilliant. So there’s ways in which they’re indicating that someone is gay, but not explicitly saying it?

Jessica Bennett (10:27):

Exactly. Here’s Maya again.

Maya Salam (10:29):

That’s when you really start to see the really clever ways that queerness was shown, and explored in characters. It was really this under the radar, only gays maybe might pick up on it, you don’t know unless you know representation. One of my favorites is Calamity Jane, which is a 1953 musical western with Doris Day. And there’s a scene in the movie where she walks up to who would be her crush, and she almost tries to look down her top. And she’s like, “Oh. I think I might be in love with you,” or something like that.

Clips (11:06):

Gosh, Almighty. You’re the prettiest thing I ever seen.

Maya Salam (11:10):

And there’s a wonderful song. It’s called Secret Love, first of all.

Clips (11:18):


Maya Salam (11:21):

And it is the gayest.

Susie Banikarim (11:38):

Jess, it sounds like queer coding initially was a good thing. It was a way to have gay characters hidden in plain sight, and give them an opportunity to be part of the stories.

Jessica Bennett (11:51):

Right. And Jean, the lesbian friend of Dorothy is on Golden Girls, is really a great example of this. Here’s Drew Mackie again.

Drew Mackie (11:59):

For a lesbian character, Jean is very femme. She looks like one of the girls. You would not look at her, and presume she’s a lesbian. So she is sneaky. And that sounds like a negative phrase sometimes. I’m using it as a positive here. They did their homework. They tricked the audience into giving a shit about a gay person, which is remarkable.

Jessica Bennett (12:19):

So the problem with queer coding is that in some cases, it’s easy for these characters to quickly veer from this wink nod example of representation, to tropes.

Susie Banikarim (12:30):

So this positive thing can turn negative when it becomes stereotypical. So what do some of those tropes look like?

Jessica Bennett (12:38):

One of them is what Drew and his co-host call the Angel Gay. It’s this idea that you have to be perfect, good in every way. You’re not allowed to have flaws if you’re a gay character, because you can’t possibly reflect poorly on your community in any way.

Susie Banikarim (12:54):

Oh. Interesting. So this is the equivalent of a Model minority?

Jessica Bennett (12:59):

Yeah. I think that’s a really good comparison. Here’s Drew talking about how this applies to that Golden Girls episode.

Drew Mackie (13:05):

In some ways, Jean is an Angel Lesbian in that she doesn’t really have any flaws, aside from the fact that she is lusting after Rose. And Angel Gays normally don’t get to want someone the way Jean wants Rose. So that’s probably the one exception to it-

Jessica Bennett (13:22):

Because they can’t show lust or desire?

Drew Mackie (13:24):

Yeah. You’re there to maybe make some snapping comments, and that’s it. Mostly you’re there to help probably a straight female character achieve something in her life, and then you’ve fled away, and you’ve never heard from again.

Jessica Bennett (13:36):


Drew Mackie (13:37):

There is this thing that happens on sitcoms where usually in the second season, they’ll do an episode that tells the audience, “Despite how things might look, this character is not gay.” And this is an example of that where if someone was watching, “Why are these ladies living together? Are they some lesbians,” this is the episode that will definitively spell out, “They are not lesbians. Bea Arthur has that voice. She’s not a lesbian. They are all heterosexual. Don’t worry. You’re watching a straight show with straight characters.”

Jessica Bennett (14:05):

Do you have a name for that?

Drew Mackie (14:06):

I guess we’ll call it the Second Season Clarification.

Jessica Bennett (14:11):

Another trope you might recognize is called Barrier Gays.

Drew Mackie (14:13):

That doesn’t sound good.

Jessica Bennett (14:15):

The trope was originally used actually in books. It was a way for gay authors to write about gay characters without coming under fire for breaking laws. And you see this a lot in lesbian pulp fiction of the 1950s and 60s. And the idea there was that they could avoid the censors, and the obscenity laws, because if a character was given a happy ending, it would set off alarms. But if you just kill one off at the end, then it becomes a cautionary tale.

Clips (14:42):

Oh God.


Tara? Baby?

Susie Banikarim (14:46):

God, it’s so insidious.

Jessica Bennett (14:48):

Isn’t that crazy? It starts as this sneaky positive, but not totally positive thing. But then it just starts to become a broader trope.

Susie Banikarim (14:58):

Meaning they just eventually start killing off all their gay characters?

Jessica Bennett (15:03):

Kind of. Autostraddle, which is lesbian website, has a list that they update every year of, currently it’s 230 dead lesbian and bisexual characters on TV, and how they died.

Susie Banikarim (15:14):

It’s interesting because that’s a trope we hear about so much in horror movies about the Black friend. If you’re the Black friend in a horror movie, you’re going to die first. But I didn’t realize this was also a thing, if you were a lesbian or bisexual character, you also were doomed.

Jessica Bennett (15:27):

That’s a really good comparison. And yeah. There are a few that I remember. There’s an example in 1997 in NYPD Blue where Kathy, who is a lesbian, is shot by a hitman hired by her girlfriend’s ex.

Susie Banikarim (15:38):

Very dramatic.

Jessica Bennett (15:38):

There’s another example on Buffy, which I think is more our generation. There’s this scene where you finally get to see longtime girlfriends Willow and Tara in bed together.

Clips (15:49):

I forget how good this could feel, us together without the magic.


There was plenty of magic.

Jessica Bennett (15:58):

And yet then in that very same episode, Tara is killed by a stray bullet. So you don’t get to see the relationship progress.

Susie Banikarim (16:04):

Wasn’t that a famous scene with Willow and Tara, because they had shared a historic kiss?

Jessica Bennett (16:09):

Yeah. That’s why I think it was so upsetting when she was killed off. But here, let me go to Maya again, because she actually talks about how this plays out in a couple of different ways.

Maya Salam (16:18):

There is the obvious the person literally dies, drops dead.

Jessica Bennett (16:23):


Maya Salam (16:23):

But even if a lesbian character, or any LGBTQ character, even the Golden Girls character, in a way, they might not die, but you just never see them again. It’s one thing to come out on TV, or be on an episode. It’s a whole other thing to have a whole storyline, and continue to be gay. So it’s like one thing to come out, and be gay on TV, but it’s another thing to stay gay.

Jessica Bennett (16:54):

Okay. There’s one other phenomenon I want to mention here, which is the Lesbian Kiss, and in particular the Lesbian Kiss episode, which becomes a thing in television and film where a seemingly heterosexual female character will kiss a possibly lesbian, or maybe bi character. And in many of the instances, the potential for a relationship does not actually survive past this one episode. And the lesbian or suspected lesbian is never to be heard from again, and the other character goes back to their straight hetero life.

Susie Banikarim (17:30):

So this would be the lesbian kiss that’s really purely for the male gaze.

Jessica Bennett (17:34):

I think that’s exactly it. And one of the first big examples of this comes in 1991 on L.A. Law.

Susie Banikarim (17:42):

Oh. I know L.A. Law. I watched L.A. Law. I’m beginning to think this episode is purely set up to make it look like I did nothing but watch TV as a child, which is not inaccurate.

Jessica Bennett (17:51):

You did watch a lot. And maybe I didn’t watch enough TV-

Susie Banikarim (17:53):

It’s all I did, apparently.

Jessica Bennett (17:55):

… because I don’t remember this. But what happened is there’s a kiss between these two lawyers, C.J. Lamb and Abby Perkins, and it’s widely regarded as the first romantic kiss between two women on a major network. And this is interesting, because it’s historic in a good way in that it’s the first time two women kiss on TV, and also because neither one of them dies, or kills anyone, or is ostracized afterwards.

Susie Banikarim (18:20):

And I don’t remember this character being gay at all. So that’s fascinating.

Jessica Bennett (18:23):

And part of that is probably because it was never meant to be a real relationship that would develop.

Clips (18:29):

You kissed me back.


Yeah. I’d like to forget the whole thing.

Jessica Bennett (18:33):

Even later on as the actresses who played these characters were interviewed, they’ve described how essentially this kiss was included for ratings.

Susie Banikarim (18:42):

Of course, yeah.

Jessica Bennett (18:42):

It was not meant to be developed. It was not meant to be expanded on, and that was it.

Susie Banikarim (18:47):

Wasn’t there something similar on Picket Fences?

Jessica Bennett (18:50):

Yeah. So Picket Fences is another example where two teenagers kiss in 1993, and then one of the big ones that’s often referenced is 1994 on Roseanne. And this is a kiss between Roseanne Barr and Mariel Hemingway. And it’s in an episode titled Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Clips (19:07):

You got to hang out more often.


I was thinking that too, but next time, let’s leave the wives at home.


Read my mind.



Susie Banikarim (19:17):

I don’t actually remember this particular episode, but this must have been the Clinton era, right? Because Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was something he introduced in relationship to gays in the military, but it was very much part of the zeitgeist.

Jessica Bennett (19:28):

And this one actually ends up being a pretty big deal. The kiss lasts for three seconds.

Susie Banikarim (19:32):

Oh my God.

Jessica Bennett (19:34):

So of course, if you re-watch it, you can’t actually see either of their lips.

Susie Banikarim (19:40):

Now I’m going to have to go [inaudible 00:19:41] watch that, because I don’t know how you would have a kiss where you couldn’t see any lips.

Jessica Bennett (19:45):

But it becomes a big deal. ABC didn’t want to air the episode, and whatever we think of Roseanne Barr today, at this time, she, to her credit, threatened to take her sitcom to another network if they wouldn’t actually air it, which I think is part of the beauty of being in charge of your own show, which she was at the time with her husband.

Susie Banikarim (20:06):

I think that is the sad thing about Roseanne Barr, because that show really did break so many barriers, and was so progressive in so many ways.

Jessica Bennett (20:14):

And actually, that character becomes one of the first recurring bisexual characters on a show. So it really did have an impact. But for the most part, these Lesbian Kiss episodes were more just sweepstunts. And in many cases, these sweepstunts are dreamed up by straight male showrunners.

Susie Banikarim (20:32):

Of course they are, because straight male showrunners still run most shows, unfortunately.

Jessica Bennett (20:37):

And the thing is, these stunts are actually pretty effective in a lot of ways. They’re visual. They’re cheap. They’re controversial. So people talk about them. And then the other thing is they’re easily reversible. You don’t have to develop the relationship. You can, like you said, just go vanish into the night, and go back to the plot line as you had it before.

Susie Banikarim (20:59):

Right. So it’s like the lesbian sweeps in, gives you your sweeps numbers, and then sweeps away.

Jessica Bennett (21:03):


Susie Banikarim (21:04):

You know what this reminds me of actually is do you remember when Brittany, and Madonna, and Christina Aguilera did that kiss at the MTV VMAs in 2003?

Jessica Bennett (21:15):

I of course remember this moment, but I think I’ve forgotten the details a little bit. I remember there was a pretty lengthy kiss between Brittany and Madonna, and was Christina watching while that happened?

Susie Banikarim (21:25):

Well, I guess Christina was watching, but really what it was was that the three of them performed a song, Brittany, Madonna and Christina Aguilera. And at the end of the song, Madonna leans over, and gives Brittany a peck actually. It’s not a lengthy kiss, although there was a lot of debate at the time of whether or not there was tongue or whatever. And then she does the same with Christina, but most people don’t remember the Christina part, because the camera immediately panned to Justin Timberlake, because Brittany and Justin had recently broke it up. So all the audience cared about was his reaction, or all the director thought the audience would care about was his reaction. So Brittany wrote about this in her book about how this becomes a big cultural moment, and it’s for the same reasons. Right? It’s salacious, and it gets attention, because it’s two women kissing.

Jessica Bennett (22:12):

And actually, Maya said something really interesting about how growing up during this time, these random performative kisses felt so prevalent that they actually influenced how she felt about using the word lesbian.

Maya Salam (22:29):

I’ll admit that it has not always been the most comfortable word for me to use. Depends on the setting in the eighties, and nineties, and the aughts. It was a phrase that represented. It just went hand in hand with pornography, and what the word lesbian was a word owned and used by men to represent what they wanted to see.

Jessica Bennett (22:51):

It was titillating to say the word lesbian.

Maya Salam (22:55):

Exactly. Exactly. You don’t always want to conjure up images of lesbian sex in people’s minds when you use the word. So I used to just rely on using the word gay, because I didn’t feel like I owned the word lesbian in the way that I wanted to, the way that I feel like I do now.

Susie Banikarim (23:13):

But some real lesbian characters do start to emerge, right? In the late nineties, and the aughts, we start to see this improve in a way.

Jessica Bennett (23:23):

Yeah. There were a few. One that I really remember is on Friends where you have Ross’ ex-wife Carol who has an affair, and leaves him for Susan.

Susie Banikarim (23:31):


Clips (23:32):

Friends, family, we’re gathered here today to join Carol and Susan in holy matrimony.

Jessica Bennett (23:38):

And Susan and Carol go on to get married, and the three of them co-parent their son, which is actually a really nice example of a blended family.

Susie Banikarim (23:47):

I really remember that it was often a joke at Ross’ expense that his wife had left him for a woman, but they did air Susan and Carol’s wedding nearly a decade before same-sex marriage was legal in the United States.

Jessica Bennett (24:00):

Yeah. So all of that was great in a lot of ways, but there were still limits. They didn’t kiss at that wedding. The wedding episode was banned in several markets. And like you said, the relationship was really used as a punchline at the expense of Ross sometimes in a funny way, but also as a punchline.

Clips (24:20):

It seems like Ross is the guy who would marry a woman on the verge of being a lesbian, and then push her over the edge.

Jessica Bennett (24:27):

Another thing that happened was later on, the actress who played Susan actually did an interview where she talked about how she was cast for the role, because basically she didn’t look like a lesbian. So she was palatable enough for the Friends audience.

Susie Banikarim (24:41):

That’s a parallel to Jean in the Golden Girls episode that in some ways it’s progress to have lesbian characters who don’t look like some stereotype the same way it’s progress not to have gay men who always have to be sassy best friends. But on the other hand, it’s also about making them accessible to a “mainstream audience,” I guess.

Jessica Bennett (25:01):

Yeah. Exactly. And actually, I want to go back to Jean for a moment, and that Golden Girls episode that started all of this, because yes, on the one hand, Jean is the perfect not too lesbian lesbian, but there are also some things in watching the episode now that really stood out to me. The first thing is that Jean’s character is pretty well-developed for a gay character at that time. She’s comfortable with her sexuality. She’s uninterested in hiding it. At one point when Dorothy is telling her that she wasn’t sure, she should tell the other girls, Jean says, “Well, I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of who I am.”

Clips (25:36):

Hey. You know your friends better than I do. If you think they’re the people who can handle it, I’d prefer to tell them.

Jessica Bennett (25:43):

And also, she’s always been a lesbian. She’s not just trying this on, which I think is how in later years, a lot of the gay characters were depicted as just trying it out, and then going back to the way they were. And even when she has the hots for Rose, it’s not treated in a predatory sense, or even so much a joke. And then when the episode closes, after we’ve learned that Rose doesn’t share the feelings, but she says this really lovely thing, which is she gently tells Jean, “If I were like you,” meaning a lesbian, “I’d be proud and flattered that you thought of me that way.”

Susie Banikarim (26:18):

That is actually a really lovely way to respond. I think we all wish that when we were presented with something uncomfortable, we would respond in such a gentle and sweet way.

Jessica Bennett (26:28):

And it’s interesting looking back, and trying to analyze I guess, what is going on here, and how much the writers were actually conscious of what they’re doing. Because on the one hand, Jean, she appears she’s very attractive. She’s super palatable. She looks like the other girls. She’s got her own caftan. She’s not butch. She’s not playing into the stereotype we might have of what a lesbian looks like. At the same time, the writers are not shying away from the fact that she is who she is. They say the word lesbian in that episode over, and over, and over again. If you were confusing Lebanese and lesbian before, you will not be confusing it after you watch this. And that was really not common at that time.

Susie Banikarim (27:12):

We’ve finally seen an evolution to some degree with how lesbians are depicted on TV, but I’m curious if anything else comes of the Lebanese lesbian joke.

Jessica Bennett (27:36):

Well, yes. So just to recap, after Golden Girls, the joke first re-emerges in 1991 on the Rosie O’Donnell Show in a conversation with Ellen DeGeneres. And then again, it appears in Mean Girls as a wink-wink inside joke about Janis Ian, the hot goth Lebanese lesbian. But this is the best part. The joke keeps coming up.

Susie Banikarim (27:56):

It really does have a life of its own.

Jessica Bennett (27:58):

It is again in a 2011 episode of Glee. This is an episode titled Born This Way, which is the Lady Gaga queer anthem.

Susie Banikarim (28:06):

Yes. I watched Glee.

Jessica Bennett (28:07):

I’m guessing you also watched Glee. Okay. Yes. Obviously.

Susie Banikarim (28:10):

I’m familiar both with Lady Gaga and Glee.

Jessica Bennett (28:13):

Okay. And in this episode, there’s this scene of Santana and Brittany, and Brittany gets a T-shirt made that’s supposed to say lesbian, but instead it says Lebanese.

Clips (28:23):

Wait, was that supposed to be lesbian?


Yeah. Isn’t that what it says?

Jessica Bennett (28:27):

And it’s supposed to be I guess this airhead moment, or mistake, but there it is again, Lebanese lesbian.

Susie Banikarim (28:33):

I probably watched this, and it didn’t register for me, because I didn’t know that this joke was a thing. So I probably was just like, “Yes. She’s very ditzy.”

Jessica Bennett (28:41):

Then later on in 2017, there’s actually an episode of Master of None. This is the show created by Aziz Ansari, and they devote this entire episode to the coming out story of Denise, who’s played by Lena Waithe.

Susie Banikarim (28:55):

We finally found a show that I did not watch, but I do remember that Lena won an Emmy for this. Right? I’ve been meaning to watch this show.

Jessica Bennett (29:02):

Yes. Lena Waithe won an Emmy for this. But the interesting thing here is that this joke appears again, but this time, it’s a little bit less of a joke. Here. I’m going to let Maya explain this.

Maya Salam (29:14):

I talk about this episode all the time, because I do think it’s pretty much one of the greatest episodes of television in the last 10 years. But in this episode, the Lebanese lesbian joke takes a little bit of a different spin, even though it’s used in a similar way, but it’s not as jokey. Lena Waithe is the adult Denise. But here, you have the teenage Denise speaking to Dev, the childhood version of Aziz Ansari’s character. But they have this conversation.

Clips (29:40):

Wait, are you trying to tell me that you’re?

Maya Salam (29:43):

She says, “I’m Lebanese.”

Clips (29:45):

Lebanese? Wait, you’re from Lebanon?


No. I don’t know how to. I’m not comfortable with the word lesbian.

Maya Salam (29:52):

And she uses that as a cover, because she’s not ready to use the word lesbian, or say the word lesbian, even as reference to herself, who she is, or in conversation, because she’s still grappling with that reality. So she uses it as a substitute word that she’s more comfortable saying.

Jessica Bennett (30:11):

I just love that so much, because it’s like, we’ve seen this play on words go from “Ha ha, wink, wink, that’s what she said,” joke to this actually really poignant moment that allows this character to say how she identifies without having to say it.

Susie Banikarim (30:29):

Yeah. It’s really sweet in a way that this joke that now that we’ve traced the history, started in a way that was throwaway really has become meaningful for some people.

Jessica Bennett (30:39):

Okay. I have one other thing to tell you, which is that as I was interviewing Maya, she had been watching RuPaul’s Drag Race where this joke came up again.

Maya Salam (30:47):

I couldn’t believe when this happened. It seemed like I was dreaming in a way, because it was so perfect.

Jessica Bennett (30:54):

And what was happening is Maya was watching this episode of Drag Race, where the queens are tasked in this challenge with giving some lesbians a makeover.

Maya Salam (31:02):

Ru and Michelle have this exchange where Michelle Visage asks, “Why are we remaking Lebanese women,” and Ru’s like-

Clips (31:11):

Not Lebanese, Michelle, lesbian.



Maya Salam (31:16):

And then you really have the full circle moment where Michelle is like-

Clips (31:20):

That sounds like fun. Thanks, Golden Girls.

Maya Salam (31:24):

And she looks at the camera, and winks, and I’m like, “We’re living in a simulation.”

Susie Banikarim (31:29):

Oh my God. It’s perfect.

Jessica Bennett (31:34):

It’s almost too perfect. And I guess, I don’t know. Somewhere in writers rooms all over America, people are still deciding that this is a joke worthy of telling.

Susie Banikarim (31:44):

That is beautiful. And I have to say that going on this journey with you about this joke has made me love the Golden Girls even more than I did before, which I did not know was possible.

Jessica Bennett (31:55):

I love that, and I’m so glad. And I also have one more surprise for you, Susie, though it’s not actually for you. But do you remember when I told you that Maya, this is Maya Salam, New York Times culture editor, very established journalist, was once the proud owner of lebaneselesbian.com.

Susie Banikarim (32:15):

Of course. How could I forget such a thing?

Jessica Bennett (32:17):

How could you forget? Well, when we were talking, she confessed to me that she actually let it lapse, and I was horrified. Honestly, that’s pretty homophobic maybe even. And I did what a good ally does. I decided to buy it for her. So Susie, you’re now speaking to the owner of lebaneselesbian.com, which honestly is probably appropriate. So I need to figure out how to transfer this to Maya immediately.

Susie Banikarim (32:46):

That’s really beautiful. Congratulations, Maya.

Jessica Bennett (32:49):

And congratulations to Lebanese lesbians everywhere.

Susie Banikarim (32:57):

Jess, do you want to tell listeners what we have coming up next week?

Jessica Bennett (33:00):

Yes. It’s an interview with the director of Bottoms, the hilarious gay fight club comedy whose director happens to also be the best friend of one of our producers, Sharon.

Emma Seligman (33:10):

I knew that I wanted to make a teen comedy, and that I wanted it to be queer. From the get-go, there was no, “We will see what the sexualities of these characters are.”

Susie Banikarim (33:24):

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 (33:38):

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 (33:48):

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

Jessica Bennett (33:57):

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 (34:12):

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, Suzy Banikarim …

Jessica Bennett (34:29):

And Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out inretropod.com. See you next week.