How The Golden Girls Changed the Face and Narrative of Aging
Senior citizens are the cornerstones of most societies. They are our forefathers and foremothers, our troves of lived experience, and our beloved grandparents, great-aunts, great-uncles, and friends. Some societies and cultures encourage parents and grandparents to live under the same roofs with their children and grandchildren. In some countries, such as China, it is illegal not to provide for one’s parents as they age.
American society tries to help senior citizens continue living life with dignity and vitality. Most families do the best they can for their aging loved ones. Yet for decades, senior care and the perception of senior citizens fell short in the United States for centuries. Senior citizens were cared for, but considered voiceless. It was assumed their life experiences in work, love, and other areas were long over; they were meant to sit quietly and watch television or do passive activities until they died, often after becoming severely disabled.
Such perceptions still persist, though in the twenty-first century, we are more aware of and able to combat them. However, this awareness and this change in the aging narrative didn’t start because the calendar hit 2010 or even 2000. Positive change in the aging narrative began much earlier, largely thanks to media representation from shows like The Golden Girls. Of course, one show could not overturn every prejudice or senior care horror story, any more than one book or one film usually does. With that said, The Golden Girls challenged an audience of all ages to look at aging, and particularly women over 50, in a brand new way. From 1985 to 1992, the four Girls gave us stories of elderly women who were active, vital, smart, and funny. Decades after cancellation, the show is shown in syndication on live and streaming networks. Every new generation has an opportunity to know Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia. With this opportunity comes one for fresh, ever-timely perspective.
Age is Just a Number
For the Golden Girls, the axiom was truer than it has perhaps ever been. When the show premiered in September 1985, youngest actress Rue McClanahan was 49. Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, and Betty White were in their 60s, with Getty playing octogenarian Sophia, thus acting a significant age gap. The television audience didn’t know what to expect from an all-female main cast over 50. Such a cast, such a show, had never been done. Yet The Golden Girls succeeded from season one onward because the creators determined right away that age was not going to be a major issue or main plot point. The Golden Girls would be about independent women living together for companionship purposes, not financial or medical reasons. Their personalities and plotlines would reflect the ageless premise. With comedy writer Susan Harris on board,the Girls’ Miami home was also a bastion of comedy.
From the pilot on, the Girls made their personalities known and made viewers laugh. When Rose first meets Dorothy, she greets her with, “Isn’t it a beautiful day? Mr. Sunshine really gave us his best…I wanna [give] Mother Nature a big kiss!” Dorothy doesn’t miss a beat. “You must be Mrs. Rogers,” she cracks, hitting the punchline dead center and getting a bigger laugh when Rose doesn’t register her sarcasm. Blanche, too, introduces us to her character in short, but well-timed lines about her gentleman callers and enjoyment of men and nightlife. Although Sophia doesn’t appear right away, she’s not to be left out of the fun. She’s moved in with Dorothy after surviving a stroke, so she could’ve easily been passive, pitiable, or inspirational in an overblown way. Instead, she’s even drier and more sarcastic than Dorothy. “She went for the jugular,” writer Susan Harris once said, “[because the stroke] wiped out that editing where you stop and say something kindly. She just told it like it was.” Indeed, on first meeting Blanche Sophia exclaims, “You look like a prostitute!”
This lack of filter endeared viewers to Dorothy, Sophia, Rose, and Blanche right away, but not just because they were old ladies being naughty, so to speak. Profanity and sex jokes coming from that demographic might get a chuckle, but the raw reality of life kept the laughs and honest emotions going. In one episode, for instance, Blanche faces the thorny moral dilemma of giving a kidney to her estranged sister. When she shares the news, Dorothy and Sophia are appropriately subdued. Rose breaks the somber moment with a naive question, “Why would [your sister] need a kidney?” Dorothy’s not having it. “To feed the cat, Rose!” she shouts, shattering the last of the ice and expertly mixing somber with humorous. It’s a bit wicked, but it works, because in that moment Dorothy acknowledges what viewers all know. Sometimes the tension of life-changing moments demand levity, sarcasm, or gallows humor to keep everybody sane and grounded.
As seasons progressed, the Golden Girls proved they were pros at mixing all kinds of seriousness with all levels of fun. Moreover, their ages didn’t keep them out of the fun. Blanche is probably best known for her exploits with men, but all four ladies had dating lives and diverse experiences with relationships. Dorothy’s ex-husband, Stan, was an unwelcome but fairly constant presence in her life, and through them, viewers got to see all facets of a complex, dramatic relationship. At times Dorothy felt sorry for Stan, who Sophia called a “yutz” and who indeed never seemed to achieve lasting success or happiness. At other times, she would quite literally look at him and slam the door in his face. Rose, too, had great perspective on the over-50 dating scene. She unashamedly waited until her wedding night and was often considered “out of the loop”–one early episode focusing on her was titled “Rose the Prude.” But she was also there to remind the girls how sweet and special sex could be, and how sometimes the quirkiest love stories are the best. Her reminiscing about Charlie, as well as her other boyfriends, kept viewers smiling and in stitches by turns. As for Sophia, she often played Dr. Ruth to her daughter and honorary daughters, regaling them with tales of her romantic exploits in Sicily, her decades-long love of Salvatore Petrillo, and yes, her sexual frustrations. “I haven’t had sex in fifteen years. It’s starting to get on my nerves,” she snapped once.
Finally, the Golden Girls reminded us age is just a number through more than dating, love, and sex. These women still worked, maintained friendships outside the home, and confronted moral dilemmas. Blanche struggled with separating her enjoyment of sex and romance with getting a reputation as a tramp; she successfully balanced virility with being responsible about her partners and sticking it to every man who tried to harass her, including a college professor who threatened to withhold her degree. Dorothy, a substitute teacher, nurtured her students and gave them verbal kicks in the backside when necessary. Sophia spent an episode agonizing over whether Dorothy was really her daughter or Dorothy’s Aunt Gina’s. In other episodes, the girls participated in charity dance-a-thons and walkathons with gratifying results; the dance-a-thon episode saw Rose doing cartwheels and perfect splits on the ballroom floor. They fixed toilets and refinished bathrooms as a team, held garage sales and fought over what to do with the money, and helped each other through phobias of flying, surgery, and other stressful situations. One Christmas episode had the Girls squaring off with a robber dressed as Santa Claus trying to hold up Rose’s grief center out of severe loneliness and depression. In a True Hollywood Stories documentary, the series creators said, “People were staying home on Saturday night to watch The Golden Girls”–and they did, as early as the first season. No matter what the main or subplot of an episode was, viewers knew they were going to enjoy, identify with, and root for these women, whether the viewers themselves were twenty, thirty, or eighty-five.
Tackling Controversy Before it Was Cool
Blanche, Dorothy, Rose and Sophia were certainly not behind the times. If anything, they often proved ahead of the times, and in a huge way. The Golden Girls as a show and as four women had a habit of tackling taboo or brand new topics, starting conversations that wouldn’t be commonplace until the next century. For example, the show and the women were extremely progressive about LGBT individuals and issues, along with the burgeoning LGBT movement. The season one episode “In a Bed of Rose’s” saw the Girls playing host to a lesbian friend and Blanche being insulted at the idea the friend would find Rose attractive, but not her. Two episodes also featured Blanche’s gay brother Clayton. In his first appearance, Clayton is tired of Blanche setting him up with single women but afraid to tell her the truth. He lies and says he slept with Rose. Blanche eventually comes to accept Clayton’s orientation, but is angry and heartbroken in a later episode where she meets his significant other. Upon hearing Clay and his partner Doug will marry in a “commitment ceremony” (recall, this was decades before legalization of same-sex marriage), Blanche is horrified. The episode deftly handles the idea that accepting a person’s orientation doesn’t necessarily mean accepting everything they do about it, which can cause heartache. The fact that Blanche comes around and shows support for Doug and Clayton was groundbreaking for the time period, but also an evergreen plot point in a time when LGBT people still struggle to find acceptance from selves and others.
The Girls tackled a similar controversial issue in the episode 72 Hours. Rose is in the spotlight this time, and she’s received blood work results that indicate she might be HIV positive. She will have to get an HIV screening and wait 72 hours for the results. She’s instantly terrified, thinking her dearest friends will no longer want to be around her, not to mention that if she has the disease, she may well contract and die from AIDS. Rose also expresses self-hatred at the possibility of diagnosis because she’s “a good person.” This opens the door for some necessary dialogue about how HIV/AIDS is not a “bad person’s disease” or a “dirty person’s disease,” as well as how it does or does not affect people and their lives. The episode could have been extremely preachy, but again, a balance of humor and reality prevent heavy-handedness. In nervousness, Rose gives Dorothy’s name at the HIV clinic. Meanwhile, Blanche and Dorothy try to organize a Save the Wetlands fundraiser as the subplot, with Blanche becoming so desperate she suggests they add a gimmick like “Guess How Many Leeches in the Jar.” These moments are expertly coupled with more serious ones, like Blanche taking Rose aside to tell her she has also been tested, can empathize, and has learned from the experience. When the test results come back, Rose isn’t HIV positive, but viewers are meant to know if she were, her life would go on as normally as possible, perhaps largely because of a loving and supportive community. In an era when AIDS diagnoses had increased and myths about the disease caused panic, The Golden Girls spotlighted the issue in a classier, more tasteful way than many media representations had done.
Not every issue on the show was controversial in the classic sense. Sometimes the ladies dealt with social justice issues that were just beginning to garner significant media attention. At least two episodes dealt with ageism, job discrimination, and lack of worker’s comp. One featured Rose, who despaired of getting another job after the grief center closed down because she was “too old.” As the other women found out, her age was only part of why she was consistently turned down for jobs. The other issue was, Rose’s life experiences as a wife, homemaker, and community college student, not to mention grief counselor, were not valued in the current job market. Rose did end up finding a job she liked, but it basically involved minimum-wage manual labor. While the episode’s conclusion was played for laughs, it prompts today’s viewers to think more deeply about how the job market treats people over a certain age. A similar episode, spotlighting Sophia, had her joining with some fellow elderly, female employees to bust their twenty-something boss for ageism and other abuses at a local steakhouse. The women get what they want, and need, largely because Sophia is unafraid to tell this young man her life and work experiences make her valuable, and probably more of a job asset than he’s been in his life, considering he’s the former boss’ privileged son. The words “privileged” and “ageism” weren’t used, but that’s what happened. Today’s evermore socially conscious viewers might find it surprising, but also gratifying, to see women of previous generations tackling these issues and taking feminism to a brand new level.
Humanizing Senior Care, Disability, and Death
Some episodes did revolve around the main cast’s standing as late middle age or senior citizens. Sometimes the plots were, again, played for laughs. Sophia could milk her status as a stroke survivor when it suited her, and she once faked disabling injuries to get legal compensation, but ended up wearing a knee brace on her neck. But at other times, The Golden Girls handled aging issues with a softer, defter hand. Each woman was spotlighted at least once in an aging-centered story. For instance, Blanche had to face the mortality of her father and mother over the seven-season show. Dorothy dealt with the stress of being a good caregiver to Sophia without coddling her, as well as the guilt of having placed her in Shady Pines Retirement Home. Rose worried fairly often about living on a fixed income and dying alone. Her widow status also caused her significant grief at times; once, she thought Charlie was speaking to her from beyond the grave, and once, she was racked with guilt when she developed feelings for Charlie’s war buddy.
However, Sophia often took the spotlight in the most serious of aging episodes. As the oldest character, she was closest to issues surrounding the elderly, and she had already proven she could handle such plot lines with a mixture of grace and grit. In a heart-wrenching episode, she deals with the consequences of being elderly and depressed up close and personal when a friend begs for her help in committing suicide. Sophia weighs the pros and cons, hashes it out with her housemates, and eventually decides she will help. The other, younger housemates are horrified, but Sophia points out suicide isn’t the issue. The real issue is, her friend feels abandoned and alone, and no one of any age should have to feel that way. At the same time, Sophia faces her own mortality, and opens up to her friends about how scared she sometimes feels. After all, she’s already had a stroke. Suppose there is a next time, and suppose she isn’t so lucky, either because she dies or is completely incapacitated? When Sophia changes her mind and talks her friend out of committing suicide, viewers can sigh in relief, and cheer Sophia on because she did the right thing. That said, the entire plotline is sobering, calling on viewers to reexamine the quality of life and dignity afforded to senior citizens. Senior care has improved greatly in the decades since The Golden Girls last aired, but substandard living options, outrageous expenses, Medicaid fraud and nursing home abuse are still rampant in the American system. Sophia in particular humanizes these realities and opens the door for a lot of in-depth, desperately needed conversations.
Sophia wasn’t the only one who helped humanize aging. In the early episode “Blind Ambitions,” Rose’s sister Lily comes to visit. She has recently lost her sight and is trying to cope, but refuses to use any modifications or take advantage of help. Lily “fakes it ’til she makes it” pretty well in some situations but in others, such as when she tries to use the stove, she narrowly escapes severe injury. Dorothy and Blanche persuade Rose to talk to Lily about getting professional help, but Lily refuses because she “wants to be the person [she] was before.” Losing her independence has shattered Lily, and she pleads for Rose to come back to Chicago to take care of her. Rose is torn, but ends up refusing, convincing Lily she will be much happier and more confident if she can navigate life as a strong, independent and blind person.
“Blind Ambitions” premiered in 1986, four years before the ADA and IDEA would go into effect. However, the concept of disability rights was gaining steam, making Rose and Lily’s plotline as timely as any the general media had seen to date. More importantly, this plotline was groundbreaking. Before, in shows such as Diff’rent Strokes or All in the Family, persons with disabilities were featured as guest stars on “very special episodes,” where the obvious moral was, “Don’t treat this person differently.” Yet the disabled character was treated differently, because his or her lack of independence and confidence was a foregone conclusion, unless a non-disabled individual stepped up to help out and show kindness. For Rose and Lily, this wasn’t the case. Lily wasn’t stuck with two polarizing choices–be totally independent or need 24-7 care. She and by extension Rose learned the third option, living life with modifications when necessary, was possible and actually afforded a lot more realism and dignity.
Perhaps the best example The Golden Girls ever gave us of humanizing illness as part of aging was a two-part episode starring Dorothy. In “Sick and Tired,” Dorothy becomes so fatigued and weak she can’t work or enjoy any leisure activities. At first she and the other ladies think it’s a flu she can’t shake. In time though, Dorothy becomes practically incapacitated. Worse, no doctor can tell her what’s wrong. The problem becomes so severe, Sophia fears her daughter is dying. It should be noted she’s shaken less by the idea of death than the idea that because Dorothy can’t get adequate help, Sophia may have to bury her child. A local doctor, Dr. Bud, certainly doesn’t help when he tells Dorothy her problem is that she’s old, and she needs to either see a psychiatrist or get out more, perhaps by getting her hair done.
Such an example of combined ageism and male privilege, plus the idea older people don’t need thorough medical care were slaps in the face for viewers, and continue to be so today. Dorothy and viewers are vindicated when she is finally diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and when she publicly tells off Dr. Bud in the classy, pointed manner she’s best known for. Her calm yet rousing speech speaks for a lot of seniors, and people of any age who have faced illness, disability, or even impending death without real help. “Dr. Bud, I came to you sick and scared,” Dorothy says, “and you made me feel like a child…a neurotic…wasting your precious time. I don’t know where you doctors lose your humanity, but you lose it. [Your patients] need caring, they need compassion.” The words are so resonant, so famous, that one clip from the hour-long episode circulates on YouTube and similar networks, with tons of comments from viewers who identified with and rooted for Dorothy. Additionally, it has inspired some of those commenters to share their own stories across age, sex, and other perceived barriers.
As Golden As Ever
The Golden Girls premiered in 1985, seeking to reach a demographic the media, especially the sitcom, had thus far ignored. Its writers and creators succeeded in giving viewers four diverse, smart, hilarious protagonists who had much better things to do than sit at home collecting Social Security checks. However, over seven years and decades afterward, the series has done so much more. It has kept an evergreen perspective on current issues without being moralistic, respected the humanity and experiences of real people, and given a new, vibrant face to aging. There may never be another series quite like it, but Blanche, Rose, Sophia, and Dorothy have blazed a trail for shows that deal with similar issues in a memorable, enjoyable fashion.
As of 2022, it will be thirty years since the Girls left our screens for the first time, thereafter to be found in syndication or on DVD. Yet our need for characters like them, and the evergreen, cutting-edge plots those characters bring, remains constant. Show creators could find a wealth of potential in other aging characters, as well as other marginalized people groups (the LGBTQ community, the younger disabled and chronically ill, the bi- or multiracial, etc.) A successful new show in the vein of Golden Girls could even unite some of these groups under one roof rather than focusing on just one at a time. The key will be in giving new characters the same spark, personality, and vitality the Golden Girls continue giving us every time we tune in.
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