“Let’s face it,” actress Bea Arthur told an interviewer in 1985, “nobody ever asked me to play Juliet.” At five feet, nine and a half inches, with a deep voice and commanding presence, Arthur has instead made her career playing “strong women” who speak their own minds and control everyone around them. Although these women have included such formidable characters as Yente in Fiddler on the Roof and Vera Charles in Mame, Arthur will probably always be best known for portraying liberal Maude Findlay, the “women’s libber” who stuck it to Archie Bunker on television’s All in the Family and then dominated her own situation comedy, Maude, throughout the 1970s. Arthur’s imperious and controversial Maude left a lasting imprint on American television and feminism.
Befitting her new status as a single, older woman, Bea Arthur created a new television character in the 1980s: Dorothy Zbornak, the divorced schoolteacher of The Golden Girls. From 1985 to 1992, Arthur played Dorothy as the sharp-tongued leader of four older women who lived together in Florida, coping with aging while looking for love and enjoying female friendship. This realistic, funny portrayal of senior citizens won the series a loyal older audience and helped Arthur gamer a second Emmy in 1988.
Despite her continued identification with the theater in the 1990s, it is clearly television audiences that have most warmly embraced Bea Arthur’s “strong women,” and it is through television that Arthur has most influenced American culture. On Maude, Arthur helped break down television barriers and normalize topics like abortion and alcoholism as subjects for open discussion. Perhaps even more important, selves. The sharp-tongued heroine who does not conform to cultural standards of youthful beauty or wifely duty but who holds herself tall and speaks her mind has been a rarity in American popular culture. Bea Arthur embodied this rarity and created a role model for many American women.
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