The Curious Case of Philip Petrillo
The unseen character was one of the queerest to ever appear in The Golden Girls.
Fans of The Golden Girls will remember that Dorothy is not Sophia’s only child. In fact, she has two younger siblings: Gloria and Phil. Gloria appears twice, first in the first season when she tries to convince Sophia to come live with her in California, and then in the seventh season when she visits after having lost all of her money. Phil, on the other hand, remains totally unseen.
Of course, Phil is just one of many sitcom characters that never appear onscreen but which nevertheless come up again and again. And, as is is usually the case, Phil has a characteristic that makes him a perfect punchline: he’s a crossdresser. Lest you make the assumption that because he dresses that way because he’s gay, that is manifestly not the case. Again and again, the series makes it clear to the viewer that he is a man happily married to a woman with several children. There is never even the intimation that’s ever had a sexual encounter with a man (except for one time, when Sophia says that they could never get him away from gladiator movies).
In fact, despite the fact that he appears offscreen, Phil is one of the most fascinating characters that the show created. In the episode “Ebb Tide’s Revenge,” we find out that Phil has died unexpectedly of a heart attack, plunging his family — including and especially Sophia and Dorothy — into grief. As the episode begins, Sophia remarks that she could never quite understand why Phil wore women’s clothes unless, she says, he was queer. Blanche gently corrects her that people don’t say “queer” anymore, they say gay. Sophia, never to let a chance go by without a bit of a smart remark, says that “They say gay if a guy can sing the entire score of Gigi. But a 6 foot 3 200 pound married man with kids, who likes to dress up like Dorothy Lamour, I think you have to go with queer.”
I’ve always found this a remarkable exchange. While it will subsequently be revealed that Sophia was tortured by guilt that she was responsible for the way that Phil chose to live his life (to which I’ll return anon), what stands out about this moment is just how banal it seems. Sophia doesn’t seem to mind that her son is queer. In fact, it’s she who seems to have a stronger sense of what word more accurately describes Phil than Blanche (who, despite her seemingly sexually liberated persona, is actually quite conservative when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality). And, as Dorothy goes on to put it, he must have had emotional need for which crossdressing provided an outlet.
It’s more than that, though. I would go so far as to argue that this is actually one of the most straightforwardly queer moments in the entire series. When Sophia points out that “queer” is a more appropriate and accurate descriptor for Phil, she puts her finger on exactly the issue. Phil definitely isn’t gay; we’ve been given no reason to believe that his decision to dress in women’s clothing corresponds to his sexual object choice. In fact, he isn’t even the only straight man that dresses in women’s clothing. At the funeral, a group of “veiled, shapely creatures” (as Blanche refers to them), linger at the casket in grief. What Blanche mistakes for a group of “sluts” are, Angela informs her, the guys from Phil’s poker game. When Blanche goes off to get her camera from the car, the men follow her, in the process reinforcing the notion that simply dressing in women’s clothing doesn’t, by itself, signify homosexuality. They, like Phil, are clearly straight men who just happen to enjoy dressing up in women’s clothing (and they have fine taste, to boot).
It is, of course, appropriate, then, that Phil never appears on screen. In fact, it seems to me that his very refusal to be rendered visible is one of the queerest things about him. Were he to appear onscreen, it would concretize his appearance, encouraging the viewer to put him in the same restrictive box as so often happens when straight men appear in drag. By remaining beyond the viewer’s sight, Phil can continue to trouble and disrupt the binary structures through which the characters, and the audience, make sense of gender.
For all of her apparent sangfroid about Phil’s cross-dressing, it soon becomes very clear that Sophia is very upset about it and has, in fact, harbored a deep resentment that Phil’s wife Angela, in Sophia’s view, didn’t do enough to discourage him from the practice. It’s gone so deep, in fact, that she invents a reason for the longstanding feud that she has with her daughter-in-law. As the episode nears its climax, she first claims that she held it against Angela that her dowry check bounced and it is only when Rose, using her innate compassion and her skills as a grief counselor, gently coaxes the truth out of Sophia.
In one of the most heart-wrenching performances of the entire series, Sophia says, in a voice tremulous with years of grief and guilt, what was the day that she did whatever she did to make Phil the way that he was. When Angela informs her, gently, that what he was was a good man, Sophia finally gives in to the grief that has been roiling beneath the surface the entirety of the episode. With a heartbroken cry of “My baby is gone,” she breaks down in tears.
It’s a powerful moment, certainly, and it’s a humbling reminder of the struggles that some people have with accepting their queer children. It’s especially fitting that it should be Sophia of all four of the characters who has to contend with the reality of her own guilt. Of all of the women, she’s been the most outspoken in her support of queer people: she tells Dorothy that she would support any of her children were they to come out as gay; she accepts Dorothy’s gay friend Jean as if she’s part of the family; she even supports gay marriage when Blanche, the most sexually liberated of the four, can’t bear the thought of her brother Clayton marrying another man. To see her struggle with her own son’s queerness highlights the fact that even those who seem to be the most accepting have certain lines that it remains difficult to cross. Rather than condemn her, however, the series allows her to come to terms with her grief, and with the regret that she didn’t spend more time with her son while she had the chance.
As we celebrate Pride month, it’s important to look back at series like The Golden Girls, to think about the ways that they challenge us to think in different ways about gender and sexuality. Far from being just an average sitcom, this series was, in many ways, subtly radical, consciously and continuously undercutting the conservative ethos of 1980s America.