12/8/17

The Golden Girls: Four Topics That Prove Just How Progressive The Sitcom Was








It's no secret that I'm a fan of The Golden Girls. I've mentioned it a few times before. The show was even the inspiration for my Undergrad capstone. As I write this, I've got pins of the ladies looking down at me. I honestly don't think I'll ever grow tired of watching this show. Through the many times I've watched, and re-watched (and re-watched...) the 180 episodes of The Golden Girls, I've noticed little details that might generally have gone unnoticed, and I've come to appreciate just how ahead of its time this show really was.




Don't worry, Bea is holding my voter ID card on the other side of this bulletin board. ;) 



I'm sure that a majority of the population has seen the show and I'd wager a guess that many have come to appreciate the quick-witted remarks of Sophia, the dim-witted responses from Rose, the overly saccharine southern being that is Blanche, and of course, the snarkiness of Dorothy. Hell, I even appreciate Stan from time to time! The show is classic in its sitcom style, which I personally find not only enjoyable, but also comforting. But I think there's something truly special about the show that goes beyond the comedy it delivers. The Golden Girls ran from 1985, through 1992 and during that seven year run, they touched on a variety of issues within our society - many of which we still see conflict over. The women discussed homosexuality and gay marriage, issues of race, aging, sexuality in general, and a whole slew of issues that in some ways, challenge the idea of the "perfect", or "typical" American household. Although the late eighties and early nineties were certainly a time of changes that were challenging these norms already, it still feels like The Golden Girls challenged it further. This group of four women, came together and discussed subjects that might still be uncomfortable topics for some. The moments of laughter were paired with discussions that might shock. In some ways, they were Sex and the City before Sex and the City.


Img Source: Culled Culture


Sitcoms are clearly my favorite. They provide an opportunity for writers and actors to utilize humor in a way which challenges the viewer to think. There is a power within sitcoms to change someone's viewpoints, or to give them the ability to understand those that are different from them, in ways which they might not have before. I love when a sitcom uses it's comedic platform to explore complex issues because comedy helps to relax the discussion - it doesn't feel quite so intense or aggressive. Some of the sitcoms that are currently on-air which I think are utilizing their platform well include: Superior Donuts, Blackish, Mom, and The Mayor.

Back to The Golden Girls. They might not have been the very first show to tackle anything taboo (look at I Love Lucy for example) or controversial, but they handled it in such a fascinating way. To begin with, the household composition was rather unique. These four women had come together later in life to live together. Their dependence on each other, allowed for their independence in life. It goes against what we (even still) view as a typical household - which I think is a good thing. People need to see all sorts of families on TV - not just the old-fashioned nuclear family. Although television is a platform for fantasy, it is important for viewers to see themselves on screen as well, as I think it creates a deeper connection between the viewer and what they're watching (I do however, think this depends on the genre. I enjoy watching Scorpion every week but I really don't want to envision myself in any of their life or death scenarios). The Golden Girls gave us a rather non-traditional household, but I still would consider them a family. It supports the idea that sometimes our family is not the family we are born into.

Beyond simply their household, there were so many issues that The Golden Girls tackled during their seven year run. I've highlighted four that showcase just how progressive the show truly was. 


Homosexuality






Throughout the shows run, homosexuality was a fairly common theme which they explored. In "Isn't it Romantic" (S2E5) there was Dorothy's friend Jean - a lesbian who had a crush on Rose. There was Dorothy's brother Phil, who although not gay, enjoyed dressing in drag. And of course, there was Blanche's brother Clayton who came out in an episode titled, "Scared Straight" (S4E9). Blanche struggles with accepting her brother as gay, and it's actually Sophia, the oldest of the group who helps her to understand better. Sophia has quite a few moments throughout the series in which her attitudes toward homosexuality could be viewed as being fairly progressive (given the time, her age, and the time in which she grew up). In a later episode where Clayton announces he is getting married - "Sister of the Bride" (S6E14) Sophia again helps Blanche to better understand her brother wanting to marry the man he loves. Sophia delivers some perspective for Blanche and balances it with her classic sassy humor we've all come to love.

AIDS






The Golden Girls came on air during a time where there was quite a lot of concern over the AIDS crisis. In "72 Hours" (S5E19), Rose goes through a bit of a health scare when she is informed that during a past procedure at the hospital, she might have been exposed to the AIDS virus. The episode follows along as she goes in for testing and during the long wait (72 hours, hence the name) until she finds out whether or not she has AIDS. Although Rose is scared and upset over what she is going through (reasonably so), the girls pull together to support her and to let her know that whatever happens, they are there for her. Rose suggests that no one will want to be around her if she has AIDS, signaling at the intense stigma associated with the illness, especially at this time. There's a part in the episode which is especially poignant in which Rose is upset and talking to Blanche. Rose suggests that since she is a good person, that this shouldn't be happening to her. To which, Blanche says, "AIDS is not a bad person's disease Rose. It's not God punishing people for their sins." The episode stands out as one that was incredibly progressive for its time, but honestly, I think it would be just as powerful in today's society.

PS - this is a great video clip but for the life of me I can't get it to embed in this post.

Race



I feel like there's a general theme that my favorite four ladies adhere to that a lot of us could learn from: If it isn't hurting anyone, and it makes someone happy, then what's the matter? Even when they don't understand something, or perhaps welcome it from the beginning, they seem to generally come to an acceptance. They learn from what they don't know, and they allow what they've known to be normative, to be challenged. Sometimes I think that even the most open-minded person could learn a thing or two from The Golden Girls.

In "Mixed Blessings" (S3E23), Dorothy finds out that her son Michael is getting married. She's excited to meet his fiance, until that is, she does. Michael's fiance Lorraine Wagner (played by Rosalind Cash) is black, which might come off as the problem that Dorothy is having with the pending marriage, but the issue that Dorothy has, is that she's much older that Michael. The fact that age was the only issue that Dorothy had with the arrangement actually stands out in a way.




However, when Lorraine's family comes over, we find that her mother, does have a problem with the marriage based on race. She doesn't find it appropriate for her daughter to marry a white boy. As Dorothy and Greta Wagner (Lorraine's mother) grapple with the issues they both have toward on the marriage, we learn that Greta and her sisters, Trudy and Libby, are much like Dorothy, Rose, Blanche and Sophia. It brings home a recurrent theme in the series - that despite our differences, we're all much more alike than we may appreciate.

Given the tension over the wedding, we learn from Rose that Michael and Lorraine plan to elope, which the women set out to stop ... until Dorothy and Greta learn that they are soon to be grandmother's. This potential new edition seals the deal and helps to bring these two families together. Despite age, and race, love is allowed to flourish.


Aging 


Given the demographics of this group of four women, it really comes as no surprise that aging is a heavily discussed topic throughout the show's run. From Blanche and her eternal quest to look as young and "svelte" as she possibly can, to Rose's anxiety over her future when she finds out her late husband Charlie's pension will run out - the show touched on a multitude of issues associated with aging. It comes across as quite progressive considering that in our society, aging is something that many generally don't talk about, even now. We live in a society that tries to mask aging in many ways, and The Golden Girls tackles it head on. They discuss menopause, sex, changes they experience in their bodies, fears over money and death, and a multitude of other issues. These women show that despite being older, they are still women with sexual, social, and intellectual needs to satisfy.

Although Rose, Blanche and Sophia have all dealt with the loss of their husbands, it doesn't mean that they are meant to live their lives as widows. Dorothy is an older, divorced woman who still seeks companionship. These women challenge the general double standards that exist for men and women - suggesting that women are only sexual beings at the behest of men. The show highlights the same trials and tribulations that exist for younger women dating, but with older women, suggesting that age is nothing but a number - although... in the case of Blanche, that number should always be rounded down. ;)



Aside from their romantic trysts, the show explores a variety of issues that are connected to aging - many of which can be difficult for people to discuss. There's a wonderful episode that makes me cry every single time I watch. In "Old Friends" (S3E1), Sophia meets Alvin (Joe Seneca) and they quickly become friends. Both widows, they bond over the loss of their significant other's and it's clear that they enjoy each other's company. However, it quickly becomes apparent during their time together that Alvin is suffering from Alzheimer's. As his mental state unfortunately deteriorates, his daughter lets Dorothy know that she will be taking him to live with her because he needs extra attention. The loss of this friendship is poignant and you can feel the heartbreak when Sophia goes to meet Alvin at their usual boardwalk bench and finds he isn't coming. Estelle Getty won an Emmy for her work in this episode (the episode won two overall) and deservedly so.


Source: Getty Images


The show again tackles Alzheimer's / Dementia in "Sophia's Choice" (S4E22) when Sophia, after finding out that her friend Lillian has been transferred to a sub-par nursing home, decides to break her out and bring her to live with her. The show highlights the inefficiencies that exist in nursing homes across the country (which have perhaps gotten worse as our population continues to age). Although, after bringing Lillian to stay with them, Sophia and the girls quickly realize that she needs much more assistance than they can provide. The show highlights the complications that arise from caring for someone with Alzheimer's and/or Dementia, but also the many ways in which nursing homes fall short.




Given that Sophia is the older member of the bunch, it makes sense that she would frequently be the one to introduce these story lines, but there is also a great episode where Rose's mother Alma Lindstrom comes to visit. In "Blanche and the Younger Man" (S1E9), Alma comes to visit and Rose coddles her as if she was a frail woman incapable of caring for herself. Rose treats her mother like a child and smothers her so much that Alma ends up wanting to cut her visit short. However, throughout the episode, Rose is able to better understand that despite being older, her mother isn't that unlike the other women in the house and their relationship is mended.


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It's hard to not talk about every episode of The Golden Girls as being a "stand out" in some way. The show delivers the classic American sitcom feel, but with so many layers. There is the general humor you expect from the gang of four, but there's also heavy topics - both personal and societal, sprinkled in which they are able to work through. If the audience is every made to feel uncomfortable during a topic, it's softened by the humor and sass the show did so well. Even now, after watching each episode so many times, I find myself marveling at how progressive the show was. In some ways it's a bit sad that there are issues they explore which are still issues in today's society, but it's also impressive, that this show was able to challenge the norms so consistently throughout its time on air. It's no wonder that the show was as successful as it was, or that it's still as popular as it is. The Golden Girls is an important part of our history and an integral piece of pop culture.

The Golden Girls is available on Hulu, and typically airs every single night on Hallmark (except for during the Christmas season). It also airs on TV Land on occasion and you can buy the complete set here on Amazon - it'd make an awesome gift! ;) I'd love to know any of your thoughts on the series - so please - discuss in the comments!





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