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Rue McClanahan, 1934-2010

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Actress Rue McClanahan died this morning, reportedly of a stroke, at age 76. McClanahan had a wide and varied career on stage, in film and on television, but she’s most widely remembered for playing the vivacious and bodaciously lusty senior Blanche Devereaux in the sitcom The Golden Girls. With just the right blend of sass, sashay and Southern charm, McClanahan made Blanche into an icon of sexuality at a certain age, and endeared fans with her character’s unashamed enjoyment of life and its, ahem, pleasures.

McClanahan’s death leaves Betty White—currently enjoying a Facebook-fueled surge of popularity—as the last surviving Golden Girl after the deaths of Estelle Getty and Bea Arthur. The Golden Girls was a popular and long-lived sitcom in its time, of course, but one of the most striking phenomena of vintage TV today is how popular the show has stayed among TV fans, including those well below retirement age.

Part of it, of course, is simply that the show was well-executed and the performances, McClanahan’s among them, were consistently sharp and well-timed. But the show also seems to strike a chord, both because of how its characters represented their age and transcended it. On the one hand, it was and is refreshing to see a group of senior women—second-class citizens on much of TV then and now—bickering, living and refusing to be invisible. And on the other hand, there’s also something universally appealing about the characters’ insistence on owning their lives, their voices and their sexuality.

Like Sex and the City’s characters later, their appeal was in their power to say whatever, do whatever—and in Blanche’s case, do whomever—they wanted. And its hard to imagine the show without the way McClanahan embodied Blanche’s life force; it spoke not just to senior ladies but to young women, gay men and, for that matter, fans of strong characters whatever their own gender, sexuality or age. McClanahan’s performance transcended her demographic niche, and it will surely outlive her death. RIP.