Rue McClanahan's Blanche: The Original Samantha

Sex and the Desert: sheiks, harems and hunks have lit up the silver screen since the dawn of cinema

Rue McClanahan, who died of a stroke Thursday at the age of 76, was best known for her role as Blanche Devereaux on The Golden Girls. Blanche was an older woman but didn't acknowledge her age, much less act it. She was the sexual libertine of the group, bedding new men with abandon, in the process providing Sophia (Estelle Getty) with endless fodder for her famous one-liners.

It's interesting that Blanche as a character is recalled so fondly, considering the less-than-favorable reactions to Sex and the City 2, which opened last week, many of which singled out Blanche's most prominent descendant, Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall). Reviews from male and female critics alike seemed to home in for ridicule on Samantha's insatiable sexual appetite, suggesting, if not saying outright, that the behavior is unbecoming for a woman her age. Samantha is 52 in the movie, which is roughly the same age Blanche was when The Golden Girls premiered in 1985.

Why the love for Blanche and the scorn for Samantha? It's certainly not that our attitudes toward female sexuality, particularly of the 50ish variety, have become less accepting over the past quarter century. It's all in the execution. Where Sex and the City places disproportionate focus on Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), The Golden Girls gave all four of its women equal voices and equal screen time, so Blanche was given far more to do than just fall into bed with random men. She was also sort of tragic; a widowed mother who had estranged relationships with her children, Blanche's refusal to settle down as she aged made sense as part of a larger pattern of eschewing anything associated with adulthood.

But as well as the character was written, Blanche wouldn't have worked if not for a masterful performance by McClanahan, who certainly held her weight in a quartet of comic actresses working at the top of their games. Betty White won rave reviews for appearing on Saturday Night Live to show the younglings how it's done. But McClanahan deserves just as much kudos for the comic coup she pulled off way back then—by taking a character most known for lying flat, and giving her all kinds of dimension.