Don’t let the politics of today confuse you: language is best when you say what you don’t quite mean. And I don’t mean the inept lies of lumps on Capitol Hill – I mean putting out a gambit. Throwing down the gauntlet. Getting things going.
Let’s ruin the letter G with a classic — The Golden Girls. The TV comedy series aired on NBC from 1985 through 1992, and showcased veteran actresses in roles that defied television norms. If you’re not familiar with the show, here’s the gist: three widows and a divorcée walk into a house. Fortunately, one of them already owns the house and the other three become her roommates.
They laugh, they cry, they eat cheesecake; they try to live vibrant, exciting lives when they — unattached women over 50 — are expected by dominant culture to politely excuse themselves from sex and adventure. Nowadays, screen caps of the show are made into mugs, drag queens play ‘The Girls’ on cruise ships, and you can buy Chia Pets in the shape of the stars’ heads. The cultural impact of Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty, and Betty White is enduring. But this essay isn’t for those four. It’s for Freida Claxton.
Freida Claxton, or “Mean Old Lady Claxton” as she’s known by her neighbors, appears in only one episode of The Golden Girls—“It’s a Miserable Life.” Played by the late Nan Martin, Claxton lives just down Richmond Street from Dorothy et al., on a property that hosts a massive, beautiful, ancient, corn-fed, true-blue, all-American oak tree. The episode’s plot revolves around this tree, which the city plans to chop down as part of a street-widening project. Everyone on the block bands together to save the tree. Everyone except Freida Claxton.
Rose, the show’s ever-optimistic do-gooder, tries to bring Freida into consensus with an onslaught of neighborly acts. Each act is met with hostility. Eventually, though, Rose seems to get through to Claxton with a gift: one plate of prune danish. Moved by the prunes, Freida agrees to help Rose save the tree.
The Richmond Street quintet meet in City Hall the next day. Everyone’s excited for this unanimous political action in defense of a helpless tree, but Claxton announces she’s no longer on board.
Freida Claxton: I’m here to make sure they cut [the tree] down.
Blanche Devereaux: Well, Mrs. Claxton, Rose told us you said you were going to help us.
Freida Claxton: That’s right.
Dorothy Zbornak: And now you’re not?
Freida Claxton: That’s right.
Rose Nylund: Well, why did you lie?
Freida Claxton: To get the danish!
After Claxton stuns with this seeming betrayal, the group files into Miami City Council chambers. Council denies a petition for an outdoor Menudo concert, and then the tree’s fate comes up on the docket. Almost immediately, Claxton and The Girls start exchanging barbs in front of the Council. Rose tells Claxton to shut up or drop dead. The latter chooses the latter. Sudden heart attack, age 83.
Claxton has no next-of-kin, so The Girls arrange her funeral. Nobody attends the service except someone who is there by mistake. That attendee, upon realizing it’s Freida’s funeral, kicks the casket. Another mistake: Claxton is cremated against her wishes. The Girls take the ashes with them, and Rose spreads the debris of her neighbor around the tree-in-crisis, daring the city to cut it down now. Now it’s a sacred space: a memorial to a person nobody liked. The episode ends with The Girls looking lovingly at the tree, which is always off-camera, until a great dane begins pissing on Claxton’s ashes at the root line.
I really love The Golden Girls, so I know when to hate the show. I hate it in moments like these for its whole-hog-fisted preachiness. “Claxton isn’t cooperative, so nobody loves her. She got in the way, so she died alone. Even in death she must be punished.” Ironically, I think Freida Claxton is who Dorothy, Blanche, Sophia, and Rose aim to be. They just need a bit more courage. Freida Claxton is a direct response to a feckless, unthinking life.
Let’s start with a pretty simple question: Why does Freida Claxton want to chop down the tree? The script for this episode never explores the possibilities. Maybe the tree was dying, or strangling the life from other plants. Maybe it was a risk to her house and others. Maybe the tree had been planted in memory of a Confederate general. Any of these are possible, but I think Freida had a much better reason. Freida Claxton, rightly, detected that the tree mattered to her neighbors more than she did. She didn’t matter except as a neighbor — as a part of a cooperative structure, as someone who should pitch in and get out of the way. Meanwhile, the tree deserved to be literally in everyone’s way.
Even Rose’s kindness towards Claxton was part of a bet. She had bet her roomies that, by ‘being kind’ to Claxton, she could get “the miserable old witch” to sign the petition and save the tree. She was out to win a bet and win a battle. It wasn’t kindness born of a desire to alleviate suffering in others or create new pleasure in the world, but a desire to compete and win. To the others, and especially to Rose Nylund, Freida Claxton was either a problem (bad) or a tool (good).
Now, I’m no champion of selflessness. I won’t tell you to give your things to the poor. Your things might be ugly or, worse still – boring! Haven’t the poor suffered enough? No, I won’t tell you to forgo all selfishness, but I do think we denigrate the possibilities of living when we treat people as means to an end, more than ends in themselves. We’re rarely (if ever) perfectly selfish or selfless. All our actions are a mixture of treating others as living people, and treating them as pathways to something else. In good living, I would argue, your desires and those of others are given space to spread wide and, as the kids say, ‘eat.’ Your neighbor should get a danish because you like making danishes, and because you value the pleasure she gets from eating one. Maybe all those pastries are raising her cholesterol, but life isn’t about always getting it right. Life is full of possible pleasures, and living consists of finding those pleasures — laminated or lascivious.
Maybe that’s why I, like Freida, have a problem with many helper / activists types. As Claxton herself intones:
“There’s nothing I hate more than someone who thinks that every person who lives alone wants company and a few kind words. I live alone by myself because I like it! Got no use for people, never have!”
Read that again. Freida lives alone because she likes it. Freida finds pleasure in being by herself, but Rose doesn’t care about that. Rose refuses to imagine Freida’s pleasure. Rose cares about one thing: being kind so that she can feel good about herself, prove a point, win a victory. Freida, meanwhile, has no use for people. People aren’t useful to her. That might sound cold, but I also see in her tirade a refusal to socialize just as a means of extracting something from someone else. So many activists I’ve known, by contrast, can only really appreciate the people who are doing ‘the work,’ who are serving the purposes they themselves have marked as important. Anyone who wants to live alone, who doesn’t want to find use in people, is a problem to be converted to a tool. It’s not just the environmentally-minded who treat others as tools. Doing something for yourself by using someone else is an ancient religious practice.
Picture it: Pittsburgh, late summer 2010. A beautiful, young this/that, with hair not unlike a Slinky, is walking outside the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. A woman approaches him. He expects her to ask for directions, or maybe tell him about a free event nearby. Instead, she pulls a religious pamphlet out from her pocket and begins telling him about Jesus. No inquiry into his day, no interest in why he would or wouldn’t already have joined the J.C. fandom. She’s leading up to a big call for him to commit his soul to the Most High. So, the this/that decides right then and there: I’m going to fake a religious conversion. He listens to her sermon-on-the-go, prays with open eyes, and takes a flyer about her church. Then, she’s gone.
That young this/that was me. And that woman? I have no idea who she was, but she was using me as a tool. I know this from my own proselytizing Christian upbringing. Later that day, she almost certainly bonded with her church peers over how she’d save my soul. I was something to brag about, a place where a religious prophecy could be enacted. The conversion she forced wasn’t about a personal spiritual experience, but an act of maintaining a community of believers. Getting me to pray in a park proved the importance of what they believed, kept it all in place. I was just a tool.
Perhaps I could have confronted the roving preacher about her own selfishness, but I know the mindset of these missionaries too well. To them, any show of aggression is the result of demonic possession, or resentment against the gospel (I wish / I wish.) The only escape was to take a route she’d not anticipated: becoming a Christian as a farce. I fashioned my own joy, living a blasphemy my childhood self would have both feared and admired. I sought out the prune Danish of living.
Plenty of times in life, we’re expected to cooperate simply to keep polite society going. Our presence is demanded. A wedding invitation or death notice arrives, a holiday shows up, someone you can’t stand says ‘hello’ to you. In these moments, it’s easy to go with the flow of society and celebrate, mourn, gather, or greet, even if we know we’re doing it less-than-half-heartedly. Then, there are the more everyday and therefore more violent calls to action: Be a real man. Be a good woman. Have kids. Don’t shove your sexuality in others’ faces. Don’t dress like that in public. To my eyes, every exhortation of do or don’t contains its opposite, an invitation to work against a society that seeks to steal pleasure.
Finding those invitations is an act of anti-social pessimism. Not ‘anti-social’ as in someone who sulks in the corner at a party. Instead, it’s against society, against the mandates of society that force you to lie to yourself, mangle and contort yourself, for no discernible pleasure. And not pessimistic as in nihilistic, or ‘let’s listen to Lana Del Ray.’ No, ‘pessimism’ as in a commitment to here and now — no heavens, no utopias, no perfect new deal futures on the horizons. This is the world we’ve got. It’s not very good, and it probably won’t get better. So, start the party right now. This pessimism is a short-circuiting of society to find the pleasure and joy you can in a world that is, not by divine plan but by mortal design, never going to treat you fairly. Without a future kingdom to build, we can’t excuse treating people as tools in the service of ‘something bigger.’ Instead, we should treat people as ends unto themselves, right here and now. This kind of pessimism has various origins, but I find my own pessimism (and some echoes of Freida’s) in the pessimism of queer and Black thinkers.
For instance, Lee Edelman’s 2004 polemic, No Future, argues that the very idea of a future filled with brilliant, sparkling, all-American children is an idea which is generated in order to police and punish queer people. Consider the ‘grooming’ rhetoric which very uninventive political leaders throw at queer and trans people today. That rhetoric says people like me are out to violently corrupt children and, more than that, ruin the future of a nation by destroying its next generations. At the center of this rhetoric is the idealized image of a pure, potential-filled, soon-to-be-patriotic, destined-to-be-baby-making, almost-certainly-white child. (Edelman notes that ‘real children’ can’t live up to this ideal, and they rarely benefit from it.) In this fetishizing of the future, the gleaming frontiers of Americana have to be protected from the lewd desires of faggy-dyke-trannies like us.
It’s an ideal which becomes a call to kill us, keep us out of the future. With this in mind, Edelman exhorts us to forget the future and dig into the pleasures and troubles of right now. James Bliss carefully redirects Edelman’s argument in a 2015 article, pointing out that this approach to finding joy within a rotten landscape is one Black people, and Black women especially, have long developed. Black feminist writers consider futures which aren’t necessarily meant to be inhabited or developed, but as impossible futures built for the dreamy joys of inventing things right here and right now.
If Freida Claxton is a “miserable, vile, scum-sucking old crank,” I’d argue that it’s because this is a miserable, vile, scum-sucking old world. Nobody mentioned Freida Claxton before they wanted to rally around her tree. When she took Rose’s danish gift and made that false promise to save the tree, I think she was reflecting back to Rose what Rose herself was doing: “See how it feels to be a tool in a plan? To be someone who just has a tree, just bakes a danish?” Everyone wants to convert you to or enlist you in their little projects, and if you see another option, they hate you. Freida Claxton hates trees, and she hates people, and I think she’s not wrong.