30 Years Later, ‘The Golden Girls’ is Still the Most Progressive Show on Television

Published on
by

30 Years Later, ‘The Golden Girls’ is Still the Most Progressive Show on Television

The strength of the characters, the incorporation of storytelling, and punch lines delivered with a simple facial expression are among the many devices that make The Golden Girls one of the funniest sitcoms of all time. But it’s progressive message makes it one of the most important. (Image: Still from The Golden Girls, NBC)

Picture it: Hollywood, 1985. The first episode of The Golden Girls airs, introducing the world to Blanche Devereaux, Rose Nylund, Sophia Petrillo, and Dorothy Zbornak. The show attracted more than 25 million viewers, becoming the highest-rated program of the week and consistently ranked in the top 10 sitcoms during its run. Over the course of seven seasons, the show racked up 68 Emmy nominations, 11 wins, and is one of only 4 shows in TV history whose principal actors all won Emmys for their roles. Despite Hollywood’s obsession with youth, The Golden Girls is still beloved by audiences thirty years after its premiere.

Beyond the fact that the show is extremely well-written and well acted (thanks to Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan, and Betty White), The Golden Girls also stands out for being one of the last sitcoms where progressive values were part of the show’s DNA.

In an interview with Out Magazine, show creator Susan Harris explained, “We 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 was no stranger to shows that incorporated political story lines, having previously worked on Norman Lear’s groundbreaking All in the Family, and having written the historic abortion episode for Maude, which won her the Humanitas Prize — an award for film and television writing that promotes human dignity, meaning, and freedom. It is not surprising then that Harris brought this tradition to the writer’s room of The Golden Girls each week. The following are just some of the reasons why, after 30 years, The Golden Girls is still the most progressive show on television.

A Feminist Show

The very premise of The Golden Girls — four women navigating life after marriage and finding companionship in one another — is feminist in nature. While the women exchange quips and get into fights, the overarching message of the show focuses on the importance of chosen family, and women supporting other women. Further, we see the women enjoying life after marriage. Over the course of the series, we see the characters focus on career ambitions, new hobbies, and more often than not, their unapologetic enjoyment of sex. So much so that the blog Refinery29 recently tallied how many men each character slept with (naturally, Blanche had the most at 165). What made their love lives particularly important was the fact that television shows rarely portray older women as sexual beings.

The very premise of The Golden Girls — four women navigating life after marriage and finding companionship in one another — is feminist in nature.

“Television is always several steps behind life. When do you see passionate older people on television?” Susan Harris told The New York Times in a 1985 interview shortly after the show’s premiere. “There is life after 50. People can be attractive, energetic, have romances. When do you see people of this age in bed together? Eventually on this show, you will. It’s kind of pathetic that this show is television’s baby steps.’’

And the impact this had on audiences was clear. During an episode of The Phil Donahue Show, an adoring caller thanked guests Bea Arthur and Betty White for making her “feel 52 and gorgeous.” And the Winter 1989 issue of Media & Values magazine included survey responses from middle aged viewers of the show, such as one woman who responded, “I like this program because it gives me hope that there’s life after 50!” Beyond the message of female empowerment, the fact that the characters were older was significant in and of itself for the unprecedented portrayal of aging on television.

Portrayals of Aging

“Probably the single most effective product to come out of Hollywood in terms of turning around the cultural stereotypes about older women was the hugely popular and successful television show The Golden Girls in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” activist Ai-jen Poo wrote in her book Aging with Dignity. “Those four women, each with her own distinct history and personality…shattered the silence and the invisibility around aging in the most hilarious and endearing ways.”

While the entertainment industry pressures actresses to go to great lengths to maintain or restore their youth, The Golden Girls embraced aging and all the humor, wisdom, and vulnerability that comes with it.

This is evident in the episode “Rose Fights Back,” when Rose is cut off from her deceased husband’s pension plan and must find a new job. She is soon faced with age discrimination and the fear of not being able to make her rent. In a poignant scene, Rose discusses often seeing an older woman digging through the trash. She 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.”

In another episode, Sophia makes a friend, Alvin, at the Boardwalk, but soon discovers that he has Alzheimer’s disease. She 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.”

While the entertainment industry pressures actresses to go to great lengths to maintain or restore their youth, The Golden Girls embraced aging and all the humor, wisdom, and vulnerability that comes with it.

Gay Rights

While the show’s message about women and aging is tied to its premise, The Golden Girls was often ahead of its time on other social issues. Twenty-four years prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling on marriage equality, The Golden Girls defended same-sex marriage before it was a mainstream position. In this episode, Blanche’s brother Clayton pays a visit and announces that he is engaged to his partner, Doug. In one scene, Sophia perfectly explains marriage equality to an upset Blanche:

In an interview with Vulture, show writer Marc Cherry recalled, “We were young writers, and we got to say a little something about gay rights and how gay people see themselves. It was about two men getting married, which is something people at the time didn’t talk about. And it was a really funny episode.”

Off the screen, the actresses were dedicated to advancing the cause of gay rights. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, which tragically hit the gay community, Estelle Getty was a staunch AIDS activist. In a 1989 interview, she explained, “I’ve been in show business all my life, and the majority of my friends are gay…A lot of my friends have died from AIDS.”

The show tackled the stigma surrounding AIDS head on in the episode “72 Hours,” and worked to counteract the myth that it was a gay disease or punishment. In the episode, Rose finds out she may have contracted the disease from an operation, and grows increasingly scared and angry. In one scene she exclaims, “This isn’t supposed to happen to people like me…I’m a good person!” Blanche argues back, “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins.” The scene manages to be both humorous and raw.

Confronting Race

Much like the show did with gay rights, The Golden Girls confronted issues related to race in honest ways, rather than the imaginary “post-racial” interactions many sitcoms favor today. In one episode, Dorothy’s son Michael announces he’s getting married to Lorraine, a black singer in his band. The news causes Dorothy to cringe and cry out “Oh God,” but she recovers to explain that her race doesn’t matter. The scene portrays the complexity of prejudice, and dispels the idea that racism is something only “bad people” are guilty of — a recognition that is necessary in order to truly overcome prejudice.

Rarely is America’s complicated history with race woven into a sitcom storyline, much less as part of a white character’s backstory.

In another episode, we are introduced to Blanche’s “Mammy” from growing up, Viola Watkins. When Viola reveals that she had an affair with Blanche’s father, she explains, “In another time and place, we would have been married. But at that time in the South, it wasn’t an option.” The episode highlighted how often white children grew attached to their black caretakers, while underscoring the racial animosity that existed around them. Rarely is America’s complicated history with race woven into a sitcom storyline, much less as part of a white character’s backstory.

Disability Visibility

One subject matter that most television shows ignore altogether is disability. The Golden Girls, however, had multiple episodes revolving around characters with disabilities, usually as part of the women’s love lives. In these episodes, the women are forced to confront their own prejudices and misperceptions around what it means to be a person with a disability.

According to Lawrence Carter-Long, an expert on disability and media, “The best writing about disability focuses on character. Not a rehash of the same two-dimensional tragic or heroic movie-of-the-week stillness we’ve all seen a hundred times before.”

This sentiment is perfectly demonstrated in the episode “Stand By Your Man.” Blanche is nervous about dating Ted, a man in a wheelchair, played by Hugh Farrington, an actor who was paraplegic in real life. In the episode, Blanche gets past her prejudices and discovers that Ted is no different than anyone else, for better or worse. After learning that he has a wife, she says, “It never dawned on me that you could be a jerk in a wheelchair.”

In another episode, Rose is dating Jonathan Newman, a doctor at the grief center where she works. Rose is initially embarrassed to reveal their relationship because Jonathan is a little person, but she is determined to make it work. In the end, however, Jonathan breaks things off with Rose because she isn’t Jewish.

Fighting Poverty

Finally, as someone who does research and advocacy around fighting poverty, I am often frustrated by the myths and stereotypes that persist in film and television. The Golden Girls is not one of those shows. On many occasions, the show discusses poverty, but there is no better scene that demonstrates how well they did on the subject than in the episode “Have Yourself A Very Little Christmas,” when the ladies volunteer at a church to serve Christmas dinner to the homeless. They soon discover that Dorothy’s ex-husband, Stan, is among the people in need. The Church’s Reverend goes on to perfectly explain how poverty is an experience (rather than a moral failing, which is often the message), how public policy plays a role, and closes the scene with a direct jab at then-President Ronald Reagan:

REVEREND AVERY
You’d be surprised how many people are only two or three paychecks away from being on the street. The suddenly poor are all around us. Once you’ve been knocked down like that, it’s very hard to recover.

DOROTHY
What’s going to happen to all these people?

REVEREND AVERY
I don’t know. There’s no affordable housing, the rents keep going up and up, and the minimum wage has been held down.

ROSE
Seems so unfair.

REVEREND AVERY
Well, that’s because it is. There are three million homeless, hungry people in this country.

BLANCHE
What bothers me is, those people out there are being fed today because it’s Christmas, but what will they eat tomorrow?

REVEREND AVERY
When the great communicator talked about his vision of a city on a hill, I wonder if it included people sleeping on gratings in the street.

Over the past few years, many politicians have credited television for advancing their views on gay rights. And a growing body of research confirms that “as we grow emotionally attached to characters who are part of a minority group, our prejudices tend to recede.” In other words, television has the power to change the world. This makes what The Golden Girls accomplished even more critical. While the show wasn’t perfect on every issue, particularly on perpetuating hurtful plot lines around trans characters, The Golden Girls was an unapologetically progressive show. The show gave visibility to older women while using this unique platform to champion a number of progressive ideals that often go untouched by television shows. Not only is this level of progressivism unmatched on the small screen, the entire show was made possible by the understanding that older actresses have value and women can be funny.

The strength of the characters, the incorporation of storytelling, and punch lines delivered with a simple facial expression are among the many devices that make The Golden Girls one of the funniest sitcoms of all time. But it’s progressive message makes it one of the most important.

As a loyal fan, I’ll be celebrating the show’s 30th anniversary with my favorite episodes and a slice of cheesecake.

Tracey Ross

Tracey Ross is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

Share This Article