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  • Writer's pictureSarah Royal

Gender, Stigma, & Illness in The Golden Girls: A Chat with Scholar Miles Martin

How do you write a paper with “scholarly flamboyancy”?

Well, just ask Miles Martin. As a huge fan of The Golden Girls and a healthcare and science scholar in his own right, his self-described scholarly flamboyancy drove him to write a paper called The Golden Girls: Addressing Issues of Gender, Stigma, and Illness on Network Television. It specifically unpacks the show as a great vehicle to discuss social issues, such as healthcare, that affect women differently.

In this paper, he discusses how three major healthcare issues covered in The Golden Girls are portrayed specifically with regards to women:

  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which affects Dorothy in the two-part episode “Sick and Tired”

  • Addiction, which affects both Rose in “High Anxiety” and Dorothy in “All Bets Are Off”

  • HIV/AIDS, which affects Rose in “72 Hours”

As Miles — Martin, not Webber — himself puts it:

What better choice of vehicle to transmit ideas about gendered discrimination within our healthcare system than four women who embrace their womanhood unabashedly and unapologetically?

We sat down with Miles to talk about the intersection of gender and healthcare in The Golden Girls, watching Lifetime TV movies in health class, and sitcoms as PSAs:

Enough Wicker

Can you tell us about this idea for your paper? How did it develop?

Miles Martin

There were two different things that happened. Number one was kind of a practical concern — I needed an honors project. I was a biology major primarily, not a pop culture scholar, and I had been working on another honors project where the sponsorship had fallen through. So I had to come up with something new.

Previously, I had taken a class on HIV/AIDS by this amazing interdisciplinary professor and she gave what I think is the best type of assignment you can give — she said that our midterm was to write a paper that analyzes something related to HIV/AIDS. And so everybody else was like, “Well, what movies and books did we read in class?” and I'm like, “I don't care what we read in class. I’m going to watch The Golden Girls.”

Enough Wicker

So did you just have the idea instantly?

Miles Martin

Basically instantly, because I had been such a Golden Girls super fan for so long. I can't necessarily recite whole episodes verbatim, but I can definitely recite swatches of things verbatim. And if you tell me the plot of an episode, I'll be like ‘that episode is this name and it's from this season.’ I'm a freak. I mean, I'm sure you can relate.

Enough Wicker

Absolute kindred spirits here.

Miles Martin

So I wrote the paper on The Golden Girls episode 72 Hours. And going back to the research project, I pulled that paper apart to form the content about HIV/AIDS, and then said, ‘let me branch out from there and see what else in the Golden Girls universe would sort of fit along with this.’

I thought about covering LGBTQ issues, I thought about going even broader and discussing dementia and elder care. I just sort of watched all the episodes again and thought, ‘what angles can I take here?’ I sort of settled on the idea of health and illness, since it worked really well for the length of the project.

My initial project, which my advisor axed, was me saying, “I’m going to write about all of the social ill issues in The Golden Girls!” And she was like, “Uh, sounds like there’s a LOT — so you need to pick a smaller facet.” So covering the intersection of gender with three major health issues of HIV/AIDS, addiction, and chronic fatigue syndrome turned out to be the way to go.

Here's an excerpt about translating health issues to the public from the paper:

[Dorothy’s doctor friend Harry] prescribes one more set of tests, saying that “if those results are abnormal, that, combined with the exclusion of the other diseases, will compose a profile that actually thousands of people fit”. This last statement is critical insofar as it relates to the broader culture surrounding this episode. Thousands of people at this time fit into the same profile as Dorothy. Phrasing it this way is not only important to her sense of reality but also makes specific reference to thousands in the audience who may have been suffering from an unacknowledged illness and lacked validation. Rather than simply telling Dorothy she has a disease, framing the response in terms of the larger population takes the episode from the fictional realm of The Golden Girls into the broader culture surrounding it.

Enough Wicker

You mention in the paper that since the writers weren’t going for continuity per se, but rather episodic storylines, that unbeknownst to the audience, two of the four women are dealing with addiction at the start of the series. Rose is addicted to painkillers, and Dorothy is addicted to gambling.

Miles Martin

I mean, nowadays, we have these really high expectations of continuity, because we can watch things continuously. We can binge them and in the course of, like, a few hours, you'll realize the continuity errors. But back then nobody really noticed because it was just week to week.

Enough Wicker

Same with reusing actors.

Miles Martin

Oh yeah, I live for that, too. And honestly, I kind of miss that style of non-binge TV. And relatedly, I also kind of miss that very explicit, on-the-nose style of television-as-PSA, where it’s like, “This is the AIDS episode.” Some people complain about that, like, the movies you watched in health class from Lifetime, like, “This is the eating disorders movie.” And yeah, that stuff is dated sometimes and it’s a little bit behind, but there’s something sort of comforting about that, like “this is what this is going to be about.” You know what you’re going to get.

Enough Wicker

You talk about how that’s done in the framework of these characters you already know, so it's delivering it in this familiar way. Like, it's a ‘very special episode,’ but because you're so familiar with these women and these characters, it’s a vehicle for the information.

Miles Martin

I think The Golden Girls is somewhere in between the Lifetime movies and our modern expectations that everything has to be very sophisticated. I don’t think The Golden Girls is very sophisticated or nuanced — but I think it’s very good. I think the reason it works so well is that it is also very funny. I mean, I love the chronic fatigue episode — Dorothy’s storyline is serious but Blanche’s storyline is hilarious. I live for her storyline: “little balls of sunshine in a bag.”

I mention this in the paper, and I don’t know if they do it on purpose, but Blanche is caricaturing this very ill person while Dorothy still looks great but is actually struggling day to day. I don’t know if that was deliberate, if the writers were thinking of that in particular. But they might have done that just for the one joke:

Sophia: [Dorothy's getting ready for her doctor's appointment] Wipe off your lipstick.

Dorothy: What?

Sophia: You look too healthy, maybe that's why nobody believes you, you don't look sick.

[Blanche stumbles in in her nightclothes, bleary-eyed and disoriented]

Sophia: She should go, they'd believe her.

Here's an excerpt from the paper about “invisible” illness:

This invisibility connects to Edward Jones’s dimension of Concealability, where “at one extreme, markable persons can be in a position where no one knows about the problem, or, at the other extreme, they must always be ‘on stage,’ contending with the social effects of their affliction”. Here, Jones points out that invisibility of a stigmatized condition can benefit that individual; the stigmatized quality becomes concealable from peers, thus the sufferer is spared from external judgment. However, Jones misses a critical feature of invisible illnesses, that one who does not look sick will not be acknowledged as sick. Thus, Concealability can actually be detrimental to a person living with a chronic, invisible illness if those on whom they rely for medical or social support do not acknowledge their status as ill.

Enough Wicker

That joke is the one intersection of those storylines! I had never caught that before.

So, relatedly, in the paper, you touch on the idea of laughing at the stigma surrounding some of this illness versus laughing at the illness itself. Can you talk a bit about that?

Miles Martin

I like the idea that it gives us permission to sort of laugh and enjoy the episode, because laughing at a person who is actually sick would feel wrong. And especially looking back, we would look at it and find it kind of gross. Because there is stuff where we look back and it’s kind of dated — the Blackface joke from “Mixed Blessing,” for example.

I think part of it is that it’s sort of setting up those moments that we can laugh at in the context of a more serious issue. By giving us those moments, where they give us permission to laugh, it lets us sort of take the stuff with Dorothy more seriously, but still have enjoyed the episode — because no one would want to watch an episode that is wholly sad, right? I think pretty much all of the episodes I wrote about in the paper strike that balance really well.

Enough Wicker

You cite the line in the paper from the All Bets Are Off episode along these same lines:

Sophia: Dorothy Zbornak, you're in big trouble.

Dorothy: What? What did I do?

Sophia: You lied to me, that's what you did. I was going through your purse and look at what I found. Betting slips. You went to the track again. How could you, Dorothy? I spent the best years of my life trying to give you a sense of moral responsibility.

Dorothy: Ma, what were you doing in my purse?

Sophia: Stealing.

Miles Martin

It’s such a good joke! It’s the point of, oh, Sophia is doing the very real thing that people do to people who have addictions, which is calling out their behavior, but it also gives us a good moralizing joke, too. I'm glad that they put something like that to very subtly kind of prod at the fact that, again, behavioral addiction like gambling is also a medical problem in the same way that an addiction to a drug is. It's less about the chemicals entering your body and more about the chemicals in your brain.

Enough Wicker

How did the paper’s topic of intersection of gender with healthcare come about?

Miles Martin

It was eye-opening, and one of my female professors with MS helped me see the privilege I had, as a white male who was always taken seriously in medical settings. So in a sense it was a feeling of obligation that I needed to dig into this and present my research — in a way, it’s the only thing I can do, in order to empathize. When I presented it at a conference, I was going to submit it to the television section but I eventually submitted it to women’s and gender studies, which I think is where it belongs.

Enough Wicker

You mentioned that one of your first pitches was covering all of the societal ills of The Golden Girls. There’s honestly so much they cover — either directly or indirectly, as a ‘very special episode’ or just inside regular storytelling.

Miles Martin

Some of my favorites are actually some of the ones where it’s not the ‘very special episode’ moment — like age discrimination! It’s in multiple episodes. I’m also very interested in dementia and Alzheimer’s — that was a subject I knew was going to be beyond the scope of the paper. They do feature a few characters with dementia where they address it directly, but also they’re, like, low-key making fun of it the whole time with Sophia and her stroke. I think the distinction between laughing with and laughing at old people forgetting things in The Golden Girls is very complicated, and varies scene to scene.

I think the idea of aging and society for women is a. I mean, I think the whole show in its very premise was sort of making a statement about that. And it became so mainstream popular. I wouldn't even call The Golden Girls a cult classic. I would call it just a regular old classic.

Enough Wicker

Speaking to the universal appeal of the show, you had a line in your paper that said, “They are people first, mothers, widows, and divorcées second.”

Miles Martin

We still have problems in television shows with tokenism, but I also think sometimes it’s the nature of a 30-minute format. This character had a purpose and they filled it. But in the wrong hands, without talented writers, without them actually being interested in women that age themselves, without those actresses, it could have flopped. It's really important that they were just really interesting characters. You could talk about the personalities of these four people without ever really revealing their gender or age.

Enough Wicker

Where are you at now, in terms of your career?

Miles Martin

My whole brand is essentially that I've never been sciencey enough to be a science person, and I’ve never been into arts and humanities enough to truly commit. I’ve bounced around from loving science content and health content, obviously, but not wanting to work in a research lab. Never see the light of day, lots of numbers — really not for me. So where that led me was to creative ways to deliver that science and medical information. Today my job is essentially communicating the ideas of scientific papers to non-scientists.

Looking back, I do think there’s something to be said for the power that television could theoretically have in terms of delivering medical information.

There are a lot of studies on how, in parts of Africa today, they’ve used plays and television and storytelling to get life-saving HIV/AIDS information to young people. There is something to be said for how writing this Golden Girls paper gave me perspective in terms of broadening the way I look at how any creative performative product — television, theater, whatever it is — can impart this information. It informed the way I looked at those things moving forward, both in terms of how I consume them but also informing how I create science communication products.

Enough Wicker

What does the TV landscape look like these days as compared to the 1980s?

Miles Martin

It’s so different. In my paper, I refer to The Golden Girls as being unique in transmitting ideas to audiences because of its “intersectional position in the range of programming available.” These days, someone can suggest you watch something, and you never have to, because there’s a thousand other things you could be watching. I don’t watch anything anyone tells me to! I say I’m gonna ‘add it to the list’ — there’s no list. And I feel like you can relate to this, being a pop culture scholar: We can only watch so much, because we have to watch the same thing 100 times.

I mean, how can I try a new show when I have to go back and look for this one particular minute instance I just remembered in The Golden Girls?

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