30 Years into Life & 30 Years of 'The Golden Girls'
A version of this story originally appeared in The Riveter. Cover art by Kate Worum.
The Golden Girls went on the air September 14, 1985 on NBC, featuring four female leads older than 50 — which, as you can imagine, was quite radical in the era of youthful yuppies and Thirtysomething, a series that followed the lives of baby boomers turned urban professionals. Over the next seven years, the Girls broke through all senior citizen stereotypes, openly talking about and engaging in sex, fashion, jobs, and social lives, and generally just oozing vitality. Each of the four stars received an Emmy Award throughout the show’s run (a distinction shared only by Will & Grace and All in the Family), and, while sporting shoulder-padded dresses and gobbling cheesecake, they passed the Bechdel test with flying colors that even was a thing.
My first experience with these four gallant grandmothers was with my own grandmother, who babysat me when I was a little girl. We binge-watched episodes about the life of three widows and a divorcee living as roommates in Miami that mostly went over my head, but were still mesmerizing. We did this, actually, with the TV at full volume due to my grandmother’s refusal to procure a hearing aid, seeing it as an admission of old age.
Years later, when I started re-watching episodes of The Golden Girls in high school, I saw one in which Dorothy begs her mother Sophia to get her hearing tested but then ends up needing a hearing aid herself, and laughed so hard my gut nearly exploded. I imagined my grandmother watching this, and bowling over in a bout of self-awareness at Dorothy protesting the advice to purchase a hearing aid by saying, “Look, I really don’t want to hear this, OK?” and Sophia coming in quick with the piercing retort of, “Good news — you can’t.” There was something about my grandmother seeing herself represented on television, and me seeing her represented, that provided a sort of goofy-yet-revealing perspective into a more enigmatic age bracket. Grandmas could be funny, and fallible.
It seems silly at times to put so much stock into four fictional characters. To the uninitiated, my infatuation with The Golden Girls comes off as if I’m proselytizing the concept of “sisterhood” solely on the basis of drinking cosmopolitans and banging dudes á la Sex and the City, or tapping Snapchat photos and attending Brooklyn hipster parties á la HBO’s Girls. But it’s a different concept of sorority — one that’s less accepted as a reality in the lives of ladies in our society than the misadventures of 20- or 30-somethings. It lies with the ages of the women: They’re mature. They’re life experienced. And they still bang dudes.
On an even more basic level, the show depicts four women that each find themselves suddenly thrust into a life narrative that they didn’t expect, much less ask for, who band together in the face of it to create a new and vibrant life. Hearing aids or not, who can’t relate to that?
Beyond the fact that the premise of the show hinges on restoration and rebirth, it’s more that because the Girls aren’t young, because they’re not living in a traditional arrangement, because they’re such different personalities, the ladies simply radiate resilience in the face of universal human experience: the fear of being alone. And with that, they invite the viewer to see them as archetypes for reflection in their own life, own personality, own reawakenings — and, most importantly, how that intersects with hoarier times.
In the last year of my twenties, I grappled with a friend suddenly passing away, eight friends moving away simultaneously, my brother shipping off to war in Afghanistan, and a love triangle with me landing squarely in the unrequited corner, culminating in the fraught decision to leave my home of the past seven years. Sitting with a cold beer and slunk low on my couch, I began to look for counsel in the folds of my favorite familiar episodes, and correlate data of my life with the lives of my four favorite fictional women. The Golden Girls was on the air for seven years; I had spent seven years in my current home. The girls were each other’s adopted family when their real family was distant, just like the network of friends I had 3,000 miles away from my East Coast birthplace. The very circumstance that the girls found themselves in to converge in the first place — leaving an old, solid life and finding something wholly unexpected and beautiful on the other side — is exactly how I both originally ended up (and stayed) in my current home in the first place, and the reason that I had now decided to move on.
I recognized mirrors of myself in each of the girls. Of course, I found comfort in Dorothy, the anchor of the show, as she was the most grounded (Bea Arthur herself even said so of the character) — but I also found myself responding to difficult feelings with a prescribed measure of sarcasm, as she did. Just as Blanche was often defined solely by her looks, I had begun to feel like I was defined solely by my friends, and wanted to understand myself better, to grow and expand. I threw myself into the problems of others at the expense of my own personal health, like Rose. And I topped many of my interactions off, after some pontificating on the wisdom of the world, with a hearty belly laugh like Sophia, recognizing that nothing’s too serious to dwell on for too long.
It’s for precisely this analogue that I go back over and over to watching that same set of 180 episodes. I first thought I was a lunatic (which, let’s be sure, is still within the realm of diagnostic possibility), but then Scientific American unearthed a substantiated explanation. “I was very surprised,” says Cristel Antonia Russell, a marketing professor at American University who worked on a study to determine why folks dig reruns. “I thought that people reconsumed these things for nostalgia, to go back to the past. But they were actually very forward-looking and prospective.” Russell posits that people return to old, familiar entertainment to measure how their lives have progressed and changed in positive ways — in other words, it sparks contemplation when one can remember the feeling of watching something both then and now. Each time I sit with The Golden Girls, despite the references to obscure 1980s TV and political personalities, they reflect some portion of my life that is wholly in the present. The relative order of importance of their status as complex individuals, as friends, as enemies, as mothers — as women — has waxed and waned through the years depending on my life circumstance, but some element of their personalities always harmonizes with mine in every re-watching. Russell paraphrased the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, in helping to explain this re-consumption phenomenon, “You never cross the same river twice — it’s not the same river, and it’s not the same you.”
And — from the first time I heard the theme song of “Thank You For Being A Friend,” to binge-watching as a moody high-schooler, to end-of-her-twenties me about to make a life-changing move — I’m categorically not the same me. The ladies of 6151 Richmond Street taught me and everyone else that you never stop learning, never stop making mistakes, never stop being reborn. The show’s producers proudly proclaimed that the show proved that life doesn’t end at 50. I suddenly realized that my life struggles at 29 — which, in particularly histrionic outbursts, felt like, “Oh my god my life is ending” — looked insanely similar to the ones the girls had at 65, and, contrary to what you might think, that wasn’t disheartening. It gave me a window to the future, and hope. It made me understand my grandparents, my parents, my elders — myself — better. Because those venerable vixens overhauled the distorted fairytale that you point your life in one direction and that’s that, I was able to rest a bit easier knowing that the nebulousness is real, and valid. And through that, I was able to finally take comfort in the love my friends had provided me for the past seven years, and move on.
In the end, Dorothy — strong, often unlucky-in-love, possibly the most vulnerable at the outset of the series — is the one to leave them all; to move into the new and unknown. She tells the girls, as she’s moving out, that their friendship was something she never expected at this point in her life, and that she “could never have asked for a better surprise.”
I agree. We’re both the better for it.