Since I was the oldest of my four siblings, I often had to stay home and babysit during my teens. There were only a few perks of not having a social life during this time. I didn’t have to worry about getting a part-time job because I didn’t need spending money. I didn’t have to worry about getting caught drinking because I didn’t go to parties. And I didn’t have to worry about missing an episode of The Golden Girls because it aired on Saturday nights. And, I was always home on Saturday nights.
One summer, in an exciting turn of events, NBC aired back-to-back episodes of The Golden Girls, and skipped the sub-par Empty Nest entirely. It was with twinkles in my eyes, and a bowl of Smartfood popcorn in my lap, that I stayed motionless in front of my living room television. I couldn’t get enough of The Golden Girls. Maybe I had a refined palate for expert comedic timing. Maybe I appreciated strong female characters. Or maybe I was just an immature teen and liked hearing old ladies talk dirty.
As the credits rolled over the first episode of the evening, a voiceover said, “This is Beatrice Arthur. Stay tuned for another episode of The Golden Girls, coming up next on NBC.” My eyes squinted at the screen as if it would help me hear it better. So weird, I thought. Why would NBC have a man pretend to be Bea? Bea doesn’t sound like that. It occurred to me that I had never heard Bea’s voice without seeing her face at the same time. The voiceover not only sounded like a man, it sounded like a man on life support. As soon as I saw “Dorothy” (Bea’s character) on screen in the following episode, I closed my eyes for a listen. Sweet Jesus, it’s true, I thought. The man voicing Bea Arthur in the Bea Arthur voiceover is…Bea Arthur. Chills shimmied through my entire body like a jittery wave, and the sensation left me pale. This discovery had hit close to home.
Throughout my life, my own voice had always been a conversation piece with my family and enemies (my friends felt too sorry for me to ever mention it, because that’s what good friends do). When I was little, bullies at school would say I “talked like a girl.” And, I would often be told to “lower” my voice by my grandparents – both sets. My attempts at a lowered voice were always a disaster. My vocal goal, in terms of depth and masculinity, was to sound like a local newscaster. Instead, I ended up sounding like an inebriated Cher.
“Hello there, Gramma,” I said during one weekend breakfast, with my requested lowered voice. “These pancakes sure are light, flaky and delicious.” She would, in turn, look at me with the same blank eyes she usually reserved for anyone associated with the Democratic Party.
When I was about twelve years old, my voice changed into what it would remain for years to come. Pretty damn gay. My voice had become deep, breathy, and droll, like a bored California housewife. Going from a girly voice to a gay voice didn’t up my popularity at middle school, and I would often keep quiet to avoid classmate commentary. I would also dodge answering the telephone at home in fear of hearing, “Hello, is this Mrs. Masefield?”
My realization of what Bea’s voice really sounded like resonated over the course of the night’s second episode. I zoned out and began analyzing Bea. She clearly didn’t let sounding like a dying man affect her. In fact, she appeared to be thriving. She was also frighteningly tall and unusually proportioned, with her extended torso. I related to these elements as well, and remembered having to stand in the back-center of my elementary school class in every group picture. Additionally, I had always considered my belly button too high for my body. But I digress. Yes, within thirty-minutes on that Saturday night, I realized that I had much more in common with a sixty-five year old woman than I ever thought possible. Bea was tall. I was tall. Bea was funny. I was funny, albeit unintentionally. Bea sounded like a man. I sounded like a woman.
Bea Arthur was the poster child for all of the freaky qualities I felt I had. The difference was she didn’t want to be cured. She didn’t care what people thought of her. She didn’t care what she looked or sounded like. She owned it; way before “owning it” was popular. From that point on, thanks to Bea, I chose to own it too.