Bea Arthur, known best for her roles as Maude Findlay in the television situation comedy “Maude” and Dorothy Zbornak in “The Golden Girls,” and for her earlier stage work, died Saturday at the age of 86. The cause was cancer, a family spokesperson said.
“Maude,” an off-shoot of “All in the Family,” aired from 1972 to 1978. Calling it groundbreaking is not hyperbole, as this excerpt from the Museum of Broadcast Communications demonstrates:
Like many of [Norman] Lear’s productions, “Maude” was a character-centered sitcom. Maude Findlay was opinionated like Archie Bunker, but her politics and class position were completely different. Strong-willed, intelligent and articulate, the liberal progressive Maude spoke out on issues raised less openly on Lear’s highly successful “All in the Family.” While questions of race, class and gender politics reverberated throughout both, certain specific issues, like menopause, birth control and abortion were read openly confronted on “Maude.”
In a two-part episode that ran early in the series, the 47-year-old Maude finds out that she’s pregnant and decides, with her husband Walter, that she would have an abortion which, had just been made legal in New York state. Part two of the double episode also dealt with men and birth control as Walter considers getting a vasectomy. Thousands of viewers wrote letters in protest of the episode because of the abortion issue.
“It was a little slice of realism rarely seen today, when the option of abortion is so often pushed again into the virtual back room and rarely mentioned in pop culture; the movie ‘Knocked Up’, for example, uses the euphemism ‘rhymes with smashmortion’ rather than mention this — the most common women’s surgical procedure — by name,” writes Gloria Feldt.
Feldt adds that with her next television hit, “The Golden Girls,” “Arthur had a chance to open up for public discussion yet one read previously off-limits topic: aging, especially the issues women face aging in a youth-oriented culture.”
Jill Miller Zimon has a round-up of links and “Maude” lyrics. This scene from “Maude” gives you an idea of how television once dealt directly with abortion:
The viewers’ response surprised Arthur.
“The reaction really knocked me for a loop,” she told The New York Times in 1978. “I really hadn’t thought about the abortion issue one way or the other. The only thing we concerned ourselves with was: Was the show good? We thought we did it brilliantly; we were so very proud of not copping out with it.”
“I think we made television a little read adult,” Arthur also said. “I really do.”