The Golden Girls and aging tastefully
Why adoration for the pioneers of female-fronted television endures today
The Golden Girls, a sitcom that ran for seven seasons with 180 episodes, has received various awards such as Golden Globes and Emmys, stars a killer cast, and was a hit the moment it started airing. Actresses such as Betty White (Rose Nylund), Bea Arthur (Dorothy Zbornak), Estelle Getty (Sophia Petrillo), and Rue McClanahan (Blanche Devereaux) made their characters come to life. Furthermore, its killer guest actors such as George Clooney, Alex Trebek, Mario Lopez, Burt Reynolds, and Dick Van Dyke made the show riveting; somehow, through it all, the main characters of the show were always the ones who shined.
What made The Golden Girls iconic was its unique premise – to showcase four senior women living together and the many adventures they went through as a collective. In an industry that promotes youth and discourages aging, Golden Girls was ground-breaking. In many ways, it was inspiring.
The impeccable writing also set the show apart from many others on the air at the time. It was raw, fierce, and audacious, and took many risks by shedding light on important topics. In an interview with Out Magazine, Susan Harris, the show creator stated, “[w]e liked to tackle – not outrageous issues – but important issues. Things that I knew that people went through that hadn’t been addressed on television.” Harris is a visionary in television for the creation of The Golden Girls but also for writing the emblematic abortion episode on Maude. This episode led to her being recognized for the Humanitas Prize, an award for writing in film and television that emphasizes on human dignity, safety, and freedom.
In a 2010 interview, Harris stated, “I think everybody including younger people when they reach an age when they feel alienated – the thought of being alone, and spending your life alone, is terrifying. These women were at an age where they were alone and were likely to stay alone until they found each other… They encouraged each other and had a life together. It showed that you didn’t need the customary, traditional relationship to be happy. It paints a picture of all the possibilities for family. I also think young people like Sophia because she says whatever pops into her head!”
The show highlighted an important message: women don’t need to be in romantic relationships to be happy. Marriage or a being in a romantic relationship does not ensure that you will always live with your partner. Divorce can happen, as shown in the case of Dorothy. Death can happen, in the case of Rose, Blanche, and Sophia. The show emphasized the importance of cultivating friendships with other like-minded women. A soul mate is not just your romantic partner. A soulmate can be your best friend, and that’s what The Golden Girls showed us all. The older you get, the lonelier life can get – and amidst it all, everyone needs people who understand them, people who will always be there for them, who will make room for them to be vulnerable, and to be accepted by those loved by them. Ultimately, the little things are what make life special and that is what many fans found in The Golden Girls.
The show was also a success due to its depiction of aging. Aging is not linear and there is not just one way of aging. Aging is complex and unique to everyone. In an episode titled “Rose Fights Back,” viewers see the harsh reality that happens when Rose is unfortunately removed from her deceased husband’s pension plan. As a result, she is forced to find a new job. The episode focuses on age discrimination as Rose worries about how she will be able to pay her portion of rent. After seeing an older woman going through the trash, Rose tells the other ladies, “I wondered, what did she do to get herself into a fix like that? I thought, well, she must be lazy, or she must be pretty stupid to let something like this happen to her. The truth is: she’s me.” This is a powerful example of reckoning with ageism in our society.
Another episode focuses on Sophia’s new friend, Alvin, who has Alzheimer’s disease. After finding out, Sophia tells Dorothy, “People think if you live to be my age you should be grateful just to be alive. Well, that’s not how it works. You need a reason to get up in the morning and sometimes even after you find one, life can turn right around and spit in your face.” The episode highlights the reality that life is simply just not fair.
Another episode introduced viewers to Viola “Mammy” Watkins. Viola discloses that she had an affair with Blanche’s father. “In another time and place, we would have been married. But at that time in the South, it wasn’t an option.” The episode showcased how easy it is for white children to forget the racial complexities of the society they live in whilst simultaneously being attached to their Black caretakers. The Golden Girls was innovative for choosing to display topics relating to race in an authentic manner.
Over the span of seven years, The Golden Girls racked up 68 Emmy nominations with 11 wins. Today, it is among only four shows in television history where all its main actors won Emmys for their roles. The reality is that without The Golden Girls, many shows would not exist today. It’s The Golden Girls that made shows such as Sex and the City, And Just Like That, Grace and Frankie, Hot in Cleveland, and more possible today. As a result, The Golden Girls will always be known as a pioneer in entertainment, film, and television. In a culture that views mature women negatively, it was refreshing to finally have a show that unapologetically appreciated ageing and female friendships, making both the centre of the show.