In June 2020, Hulu removed an episode of Golden Girls where Rose (played by Betty White) and Blanche (played by Rue McClanahan) awkwardly meet a Black family wearing mud masks. In the episode, Dorothy’s son is engaged to a Black woman and the scene takes place when her family arrives to meet Dorothy’s family. Just as they enter the Golden Girls’ home, Rose and Blanche barrel through the kitchen door wearing mud masks. There is an awkward silence, filled with a laugh track that shows Dorothy reacting in horror. Rose awkwardly tries to explain their actions by saying, “This is mud on our faces, we’re not really Black!” The interaction is quickly forgotten as Dorothy’s son enters the scene to be introduced to the Black family and the core conflict of the episode is revealed: an interracial marriage.
The removal of the episode has caused controversy and push back from within the Black community with many calling the action unnecessary. Echoing these Black voices, I agree this removal ignores real issues with the legacy of Blackface in our society. It also ignores the intent behind the joke.
Golden Girls was a progressive show for its time. While it was centered around the experiences of four white women, it also was inclusive of other narratives. Being based in Miami, the show regularly hosted stories that dealt with the struggles of Latinx immigrants. Through Dorothy, a substitute teacher, we were often given glimpses into a struggling educational system. With Rose’s work as a counselor, we often saw the failings of the mental health care system. And Blanche? She was a sexual icon before the ladies of Sex and the City marched onto HBO. Blanche was unapologetically sexual. Then of course, we had Sophia, the rock of the group. Sophia was an immigrant woman who fled an unwanted marriage in Sicily and was not above organized criminal behavior to get what she wanted. The show was about four women who were active characters with goals, complexities, and hopes.
The show addressed many difficult topics. In a time when the U.S. government was ignoring the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Golden Girls addressed how this disease was causing social fear and anxiety (season five, episode 19). Was the show perfect? Not at all. As Steven W. Thrasher addressed in his recent Vulture article, the show has its moments that would make 2020 audiences squirm in their seats. That being said, the joke at the heart of the controversy is not problematic. To truly understand it, it must be looked at with context and, more importantly, intent.
To echo Rebecca Wanzo, 'The joke is the situation, not Black people.' This is what separates putting something dark on your face from Blackface: intent.
The joke is centered around a (brief) miscommunication between two groups of people. Rose and Blanche do not put on the mud masks to mock or belittle Black people. They put them on as part of a skincare regiment. They do not burst into the room to shuck and jive in front of a Black family, they were walking through a door in their house. The joke is also based on the audience’s knowledge of Rose and Blanche. When the women enter the room wearing mud masks, we know that Rose and Blanche are not doing a reenactment of a minstrel show. Viewers know the intent was harmless and we see them horrified at the situation and miscommunication taking place. The joke lands well because it is not a Blackface joke. To echo Rebecca Wanzo, "The joke is the situation, not Black people." This is what separates putting something dark on your face from Blackface: intent.
The intent of Blackface is to degrade and humiliate Black people. As assistant professor of history at California State University San Bernardino, Marc A. Robinson stated in a recent interview: “This make up [Blackface] was commonly used as part of comedic performances that caricatured Black people. On the surface level then, the purpose of Blackface was to visually represent Black people and entertain the mostly white audiences. But, on a deeper level, scholars argue that Blackface, as part of these comedies or "Minstrel Shows," reinforced beliefs of Black inferiority and white supremacy.”
Blackface has historical roots in Black terror and pain. While minstrel shows were being performed across the United States, Black people also lived under threat of organized violence from lynch mobs and unfair laws that kept them from succeeding socially and economically. Blackface does not exist in a vacuum, it is directly connected to the intention of inflicting psychological pain upon Black people. This is the reason for controversy around Blackface; it is correlated with a horrific past. Mud masks are not.
Blackface does not exist in a vacuum, it is directly connected to the intention of inflicting psychological pain upon Black people.
A mud mask within itself is not Blackface. However, donning a mud mask and then using that moment to pretend to be Black or mock Black people crosses the line into utilizing a skincare treatment into a racist action that has roots in violence. The Golden Girls did not use this joke to mock Black people. Removing the episode in hopes of avoiding criticism is problematic because it creates a perception that Black people are anti-mud mask and anything resembling Blackface is offensive. The reality is, however, Black people can easily identify when we are being mocked versus when someone is trying to get smooth skin.
As companies try to consider how to align themselves with Black activists, they must identify how their actions can be beneficial to the Black community. The best way to do this? Listen. It may seem a radical idea, but the reality is many Black people have repeatedly spoken on how companies can support their communities. From holding more anti-racism training sessions to hiring more Black people, there are ways to tangibly support the Black community.
I understand why Hulu removed this episode, from a public relations standpoint, and do not believe it was done with the intent of trivializing Black people’s feelings towards Blackface. However, how the action was received should send messages to corporations. Specifically, it should be a conversation starter on how corporations can do better in listening and making changes that Black communities want and need from them.
Want to learn more about Dr. Marc A. Robinson? Follow him on Twitter.