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  • Writer's pictureSarah Royal

The Magic of The Golden Girls: Deconstructing the Sitcom with Scholar Nicole Kypker

Golden Girls scholar Nicole Kypker has written not one, but two academic pieces on The Golden Girls -- her thesis paper on representations of second-wave feminism and a journal article on the show's humor. There's just too much to say about the ladies of Miami in just one scholarly essay.

Kypker was kind enough to answer a few questions about what makes The Golden Girls -- as both a television show and cultural phenomenon -- so damn magical.

Can you talk a little bit about how your thesis paper studying The Golden Girls came to be? Do you consider yourself a Golden Girls 'scholar/fan'?

The Golden Girls is one of three sitcoms I researched for my PhD thesis. The central research question sought to establish how the second feminist wave was reflected in the twentieth-century sitcom genre, and I took an ‘a sitcom a decade’ approach.

I already knew I would study the very feminist Maude and Cybill for the seventies and nineties respectively. Compared to those two decades, there were very few feminist sitcoms in the eighties, and Designing Women seemed the obvious choice. But I somehow kept coming back to The Golden Girls, a show I had grown up with and, in retrospect, dismissed as apolitical and escapist.

The more I watched, the more I realized just how wrong I was. This was a show about four truly liberated, old women beloved the world over, by all ages, decades after its first broadcast. Effectively, it was about as feminist a sitcom as could be, but in a deliciously stealthy way, and deconstructing that feminist sitcom magic was really intriguing. Within the context of my thesis, it was also fascinating to see Maude’s Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan reunite a decade on, in a show created by Maude writer Susan Harris.

And yes, I’m definitely both a The Golden Girls fan and scholar!

You state that your paper "seeks to somewhat disenchant The Golden Girls’ unfathomable success". How did you go about selecting which portions of the show and its style to pull apart and analyze, specifically?

I looked for episodes and scenes that epitomized the main themes of the show – the friendship, the outrageous humor, the quasi-realism in portraying old age. It involved watching a lot of The Golden Girls. It was a tough job, of course, but someone had to do it.

You literally counted laughs per minute for certain portions of scenes. Tell us a little bit about measuring the rapid-fire joke-telling mixed in with quite serious themes.

There’s a beautiful quote about Norman Lear, the seventies producer who politicized the sitcom genre with shows such as All in the Family and Maude: according to Todd Gitlin, Lear had a ‘great proclivity for placing tears and laughter side by side’ in his shows. This is true both in terms of plot/ narrative and of individual characters: during the polarized seventies, Lear never ‘monstered’, or othered, even dubious characters such as Archie Bunker (and how I wish contemporary Hollywood would take note).

As said, Susan Harris, prior to creating The Golden Girls, wrote for Lear and I do think there is a perceptible lineage: there are countless serious or even quite dark themes in The Golden Girls, such as homophobia, sexual harassment, euthanasia and homelessness, among many others, which are blended with the show’s irresistible humor – no small feat, and one which only the sitcom genre can accomplish.

I loved the idea of ‘political and ideological “smuggling” in the show with "implicit propositions". Can you highlight some examples for us of how certain scenes with moral or political messages in the Golden Girls are written implicitly rather than explicitly?

My analysis started by looking at that which remained unsaid, that which was presented to the audience as common sense, as not meriting questioning. In The Golden Girls, that includes an all-female, chosen family arrangement – which just happens to exemplify the radical-feminist concept of a matrilocal household. Also the idea that older women are self-sufficient, self-assured, mutually nurturing, sexual actors, and the absence of narratives of vulnerability and victimhood– these too are radical notions when compared to mainstream cultural portrayals. While other sitcoms, such as Maude and Cybill, spelled their politics out didactically (and divisively), The Golden Girls just posited a utopian, post-patriarchal universe, which, combined with its superlative joking, nonchalantly redefined that most unappetizing of archetypes, the old woman.

It's amazing how you bring Aristotle/Aquinas and ancient philosophy into this analysis, and the show's discussion of 'what is right' being able to stay relevant for decades. Are there any other philosophical themes that come to mind in The Golden Girls, and particularly surrounding its humor?

While philosophy is rarely discussed or identified explicitly, the, sometimes millennia-old, ideas of a select few have shaped human history for better or worse, and can be discerned in popular culture. The Golden Girls' humor could be classed as mindless escapism but I don’t think that would do justice to, or clarify, the show’s stratospheric success. The 18th century moral philosopher Francis Hutcheson held that the effectiveness of humor is not contingent on the might of the joker but on the virtuousness of the object of the joke: ‘Let any of our wits try their mettle in ridiculing […] integrity and honesty, gratitude, generosity, or the love of one’s country […]. All their art will never diminish the admiration we must have for such dispositions’. This I think at least in part explain the show’s success: there is something right, indeed moral, about The Golden Girls' joking – these four women never punch down, and viewers never feel compromised for laughing with the girls.

"Women accomplish in the privacy of their friendship what is publicly denied to them." (This line really resonated with me, and it makes me think of some criticisms of the show citing calling each other "sluts" and such as examples that the show isn't feminist.) Can you speak a little bit more about this line in your paper, and the masculine/feminine energy of the characters?

Yes, I think most women can relate to this quotation. In terms of uses of humor, there is plenty of evidence that women chose to dumb themselves down in male company which includes not being funnier than the guy, and, again according to the literature, that this makes for healthy relationships. In all-female settings however, all bets are off, and we know that raucous vulgarity was common among women as far back as ancient Greece. Similarly, in The Golden Girls, Blanche jealously guards the misogynistic insult ‘slut’ as a credential, a strategic reclaiming of defamatory language which has long enabled oppressed groups to redefine their identity. As regards the show’s dynamics of humor more generally, while Dorothy and Sophia are the more recognizably masculine, rational characters, the joking overall is very egalitarian and thus feminine: any one character’s one-up-man-ship only lasts so long, as it is swiftly followed by an equally funny riposte. Such complex and subtle synthesizing of seeming opposites abounds throughout the show, which I believe is another factor underlying its huge appeal.

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