What we learned from
“The Golden Girls”
Writer: Irene Huhulea
Editor: Sarah Todd
Illustration: Kirby Salvador
When “The Golden Girls” premiered on primetime television in 1985, the show was considered revolutionary for its portrayal of single women entering their golden years with a zest for life (and sex). I was only four when it first aired, but I discovered it with interest several years later, as an eight-year-old growing up in New York City.
My mother was puzzled by my fascination with the show. “These women are your grandma’s age,” she’d say. “What do you have in common with them?” While some of the show’s more complex storylines went over my head, I was instantly charmed by the characters. Between Rose’s lovable naiveté, Sophia’s sassy advice, Dorothy’s quick wit, and Blanche’s joie de vivre, I found it impossible not to fall in love with the Miami crew.
Twenty-six years later, I often wake up and fall asleep to “The Golden Girls,” which remains so popular that it continues to run in syndication on three different cable channels. My story isn’t singular. Most of my friends, irrespective of gender, have some level of affection for the show. Many, like me, still watch the show’s seven seasons on a near-constant loop, and nearly all are able to quote episodes in casual conversation. The longevity of the show recently prompted me to revisit my mother’s question: What do we have in common with the Golden Girls?
I posed this question to my Facebook friends, whose responses were enthusiastic and unanimous in their praise. “I loved Sophia, the tough Italian grandmother everyone knew,” one said. Another friend referred to the way the show embraced storylines involving the characters’ sex lives, including Blanche’s penchant for one-night stands, thereby “challenging ageist notions of sexuality.” And finally, as one pal cited, there were those “late-night chats over cake and coffee.” One of the show’s most recognizable and beloved traditions, these cozy, intimate chats became the hallmark of the show, offering the characters a place for reflection in each episode and making viewers feel included in the conversation.
Perhaps most importantly, the show’s politics were way ahead of its time, and helped shape conversations that have had a far-reaching cultural impact. Dealing with topics like divorce, the HIV crisis, single parenting, and LGBTQ issues, “The Golden Girls” was not only willing to tackle controversial subjects, but to do so in a sensitive and thoughtful way. When Blanche’s brother came out as gay during the show’s fourth season, the HIV crisis was at its peak—and along with it, widespread homophobia. But the writers and producers of the show refused to engender fear of gay men’s sexuality at all, instead normalizing Clayton’s relationship with his partner for a mainstream audience by emphasizing their desire to get married.
Impressively, it was the show’s oldest and most conservative character who helped Blanche understand the parallel between gay and straight relationships. “Why did you marry George?” Sophia asks Blanche, as they discuss Clayton and Doug’s relationship. Blanche’s answer is matter-of-fact: “We loved each other,” she says. “We wanted to make a lifetime commitment.” Not missing a beat, Sophia’s responds in an equally matter-of-fact way. “That’s what Doug and Clayton want too. Everyone wants someone to grow old with. And shouldn’t everyone have that chance?”
Although this was the show’s most important statement about same-sex relationships, it was not the only time the topic was addressed. Throughout its run, “The Golden Girls” tackled LGBTQ issues in a variety of ways and included several gay characters. Among them was Dorothy’s friend Jean, who fell in love with Rose while visiting Miami, resulting in a funny but poignant dialogue regarding the possibility of falling in love in unconventional circumstances. And each episode on the topic served to increase the visibility of same-sex relationships and further the conversation about the changing cultural landscape in America.
In addition to championing gay rights, “The Golden Girls” was careful to discourage the homophobia that surrounded the AIDS crisis, connecting HIV transmission with blood transfusion rather than sex. Even more important was the choice of character they used for the episode on HIV. Focusing on Rose, the show’s most innocent and good-natured character, the episode forced a confrontation about some of the myths surrounding HIV. “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease,” Blanche explains when Rose argues that being a good person means she shouldn’t have to worry about getting it. Although Rose is given a clean bill of health at the end of the episode, the message that AIDS is a disease that has nothing to do with morality is clear.
Throughout its seven-year run, the show also covered many of the realities facing senior citizens in an era defined by conservative politics and economic instability. Among these were homelessness and suicide. In one of the show’s lesser-referenced episodes, the girls misplace a winning lottery ticket and end up in a homeless shelter while trying to track it down. Sophia comes across an old friend from the senior home where she used to live, now housed among the residents of the shelter. Surprised, Sophia asks her friend how she ended up there. “Nobody told me that it cost money to get old,” Ida responds. “I just figured that was one thing you got for free.”
As she continues to share her story, it becomes clear that Ida’s situation is not only a common one, but one that can happen easily to anyone without a support system. The episode ends with the girls donating the lottery ticket to the shelter after realizing that the money would be better spent on those who really need it. It’s a somber ending, and a haunting one.
While “The Golden Girls” brought attention to political and civil rights issues that defined the ‘80s and ‘90s, it also served as a way of highlighting the bonds of female friendship. With each episode, the storylines emphasized the importance of the characters’ relationships with each other, and of alternate family structures. In more than one instance, circumstances forced the girls to remember that they were each other’s primary support systems, making mutual decisions on everything from health care to marriage proposals.
But how does this explain the show’s staying power more than 30 years after its initial premiere, and 24 years since the last episode aired? The answer may lie in its ability to be at once relevant and nostalgic. Writing about the show’s legacy for the A.V. Club, Sonia Saraiya suggested that its appeal was largely due to its ability to bring hope to moments of our lives that can otherwise make us feel lost.
“It’s a time that could be a source of despair,” she explains, referring to old age. “In between jokes, the lives these women lead speak of loneliness and emptiness. Friends and relatives are passing on; their children are grown up and married. Finding purpose and companionship is not always easy.” With its ability to inflect humor into these situations, “The Golden Girls” was able to strike a chord that is still reverberating throughout American culture more than two decades later.
More than anything then, the show’s legacy rests in its timeless affirmation of friendship. “Where ‘The Golden Girls’ strikes a universal chord is when it shows these women choosing to be there for each other,” Saraiya explains. “And doing so with attitude and style.” The theme of enduring friendship is recognizable in every one of the show’s 180 episodes, and is even present in the show’s theme song. It’s a song I fall asleep to almost every night, and one that never fails to remind me why I’m still watching the girls almost 30 years later. The chorus is simple and powerful: “Thank you for being a friend.” It’s a line that not only sums up the power of “The Golden Girls,” but also how I feel about them.
This article originally appeared in the Mothers & Grandmothers issue. For more inspiring stories about dealing with mothers and grandmothers, check out The Late Birth of Birth Control and Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle