Sunday, October 16, 2011

Flashback to Revolutionary TV: The Golden Girls

cross posted from my Media Justice blog

Part of me has wanted to feature some revolutionary television shows that have inspired me in so many ways. These are shows that we don’t often have accessible on basic television (not including cable) but that were available when I was growing up on basic national networks. This may be a series depending on the response I receive from readers, or this may be a one-shot deal. Either way, I’m too excited to write about The Golden Girls!

Earlier last week I saw an image shared on a social media site of The Golden Girls and it inspired this post. I remember watching The Golden Girls on television growing up and I would not be surprised that watching this show encouraged me to go into the field of reproductive justice. Growing up with this type of media really impacted me and still does today and I knew I had to share, even if just a bit, with readers.

Many of you reading may have a background with The Golden Girls as the one surviving cast member of the show is Betty White who is experiencing what some may call a “come back” (but it’s not like she went anywhere to begin with). With White being at the center of a hugely successful social media campaign to get her to host Saturday Night Live and now with a “rap” song released called “I’m Still Hot,” she’s making it clear she’s not going anywhere. Her song also makes references to The Golden Girls either by name or by referencing cheese cake.

For those not knowledgeable of the show, it takes place in Miami, Florida and features four women: Rose performed by Betty White, Blanche performed by Rue McClanahan, Dorothy performed Bea Arthur and Sofia, Dorothy’s mother, performed by . We follow the four women who are all over 55 years old in their everyday lives as single women. Estelle Getty. All of the women are widows except for Dorothy who is divorced and her husband Stan has a returning storyline. They are all parents and some even grandparents. We follow them as they age, find work, date, and remarry.

The Golden Girls discussed and represented so many aspects of our lived realities. How is it that I connected so much to a show that featured older white women living in Florida? I do believe it is because of how the characters are created and the topics they discuss. This was also one of the first times I saw a representation of a Caribbean gay man in a television series who was normalized and not targeted or harassed. Each episode had an amazing script written and the performances were stellar! Some of the topics they discussed, and that I remember to this day, include: HIV, condom usage, dating, sexism, homophobia, single parenting, marriage, divorce, healthcare, aging, disability, race, and of course friendship.

They were, and still are, on the vanguard of television.


In the pilot episode of The Golden Girls where we are introduced to all of the characters, Blanche, who owns the home all the ladies rent a room from, is seeking roommates. We are also introduced to her cook named Coco who is a gay Latino man. Throughout the series homophobia was challenged by normalizing lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.

For example, check out the conversation Dorothy, Sophia and Blanche have about one of Dorothy’s childhood friends who identifies as a lesbian.

When Blanche’s brother wants to marry his partner, she struggles with understanding why two gay men would want to be married. Their discussion is one that has been used often during the various conversations in the US regarding same gender marriage.

And they discuss the term “queer” and cross-dressing among Dorothy’s older brother. Sophia explains how she finds the term to be useful in certain ways. Blanche’s discussion of queer shows us how time specific language may be, but also how it evolves, especially how we use the term today.

Teen Pregnancy, Single Mothers & Birthing Options

The characters often discuss pregnancy and parenting on a regular basis as each of them are mothers. However, teen pregnancy is specifically featured as Dorothy became pregnant while still in high school. She carried the pregnancy to term and parented her child while marrying her partner Stan. Many of the stereotypes about teenage mothers and familial (specifically Italian as Dorothy and Sophia’s characters are and originally from Brooklyn, NY) responses to teenage pregnancy are presented in a humorous way. We hear Sophia’s narratives of how she responded when Dorothy told her she was pregnant, Dorothy’s fear and challenges in being a teen mother and married so young, and we see the successes their family has experienced.

Blanche’s daughter Rebecca chooses to have a child without a partner and raise the child as a single mother. She also chooses to have her child in a birthing center. Here is a clip of the visit to the birthing center which also discusses some of the challenges Rebecca experiences.

Normalizing Sexuality In Older Adults

Blanche is the most infamous character for normalizing sex and sexual activities for older adults. Her character is the main one who was dating often and easily discussed her experiences and dates with her male partners. She dated the most and was also not as monogamous as the other women. A part of the series did make fun of her experiences with men, but Blanche didn’t let that phase her. The wealthy up-bringing and self-entitlement she had only normalized her choices: why couldn’t she have as many lovers as she desired? Why couldn’t any of us? Blanche’s ideas definitely impact the ability to date among her roommates. Here is one clip of Blanche setting up a double date. Rose agrees to go and shares her frustrations with dating as an older woman. She also shares her resistance and fear of having sex with other men besides her husband. This is real talk!


As this show was seen during the mid to late 80s, HIV became a topic of discussion around the US. In the episode on HIV and AIDS, Rose has a blood transfusion that may have been contaminated with HIV positive blood. This was something that happened many times in the US early when we were beginning to understand HIV. Today, however, we have not had a case of HIV transmission through a blood transfusion in decades. However, Rose is sad and scared about her HIV test results she’s waiting 2 weeks to receive. She talks with Blanche about her fears and concerns and states that she thinks Blanche is the more likely person who “deserves” to contract HIV because of her active sex life. Check out Blanche’s response to that assumption.

Aging and Dying

One part of our lives that we often don’t enjoy discussing is dying and aging. Because The Golden Girls are all over 55 years old, this is a recurring theme. Sophia often is the one character who talks the most about aging and dying. In this clip Sophia believes her dead husband has sent her messages about her upcoming death and she is preparing for it with the girls. Also in this episode Blanche’s brother Clayton comes out to her as a gay man.


With all of the women having been married, Dorothy’s storyline is the one that features infidelity the most as her husband Stan left her for a younger woman. However, the ideas all the women have about their dead husbands are sometimes shaken. In one episode Blanche is challenged when a man comes to her home claiming he is the son of her dead husband George. Some of the things that come up for a person who believed their partner was not one who went outside of their monogamous marriage are shared in this episode.

Race & Ethnicity

Although race and ethnicity were not paramount in the show, which is something that is defintely one issue that is problematic. However, when The Golden Girls did address race and ethnicity it was done in a way that brings attention to the ridiculousness of racially white people being cast as people of Color. It also brings attention to what happens when folks try to do race, and fail. In this clip we see how the ladies go to a high school reunion and Rose gives all of the women other identities taking the one of a Korean exchange student for herself.

Another scene when Dorothy begins dating exclusively and finds a man whose company she enjoys. Her mother Sophia acts out her happiness by embracing some southern stereotypes laced with racialized ones as well. This is a great example of how some skits can be funny even without the blackface.

If you’d like to see how they ended the show without any spoilers check out this scene and see who gets remarried and moves away, who stays with Blanche in her home, and how the women decide to continue their friendships.

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