The Golden Girls are now on Disney+. Caitlin McBride celebrates their enduring appeal
Before there was Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda – there was Rose, Blanche, Sophia and Dorothy. The Golden Girls, the classic ‘80s sitcom about a group of women in their 50s living together in Miami, is enjoying a renaissance thanks to its recent addition to Disney+.
In the battle of the streaming wars, Disney+ has been relying largely on its illustrious film catalogue and exclusive TV shows expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And while ‘WandaVision’ and ‘Loki’ might be the result of years of planning and millions of dollars in production, it is still The Golden Girls getting the headlines after all these years.
Before re-watching the show over this last week, during which I have fully immersed myself in a haze of Golden Girls-induced nostalgia, I would have referred to the cast as elderly because that is how I remember them as a child. But as a 34-year-old woman, I realise some of them are only 20 years older than I am; an existential reminder of mortality, the swiftness with which life changes and just how we see women over ‘a certain age’.
In the show, widowers Blanche Deveraux and Rose Nylund are joined by divorcée Dorothy Zbornak and her 81-year-old mother Sophia. The women share a home for financial reasons brought on by divorce, death and an ongoing struggle to retain viable employability in a youth-obsessed world.
Blanche, a woman who ‘loves the company of men’, represents the post-modern feminist movement with an unashamed love of sex and the type of self-confidence most of us would kill for at any age. (“Nobody ever believes me when I’m telling the truth. I guess it’s the curse of being a devastatingly beautiful woman”). I can’t think of any other time since that we’ve seen a woman portrayed with such vibrancy after menopause (to which an entire episode was dedicated), after raising children and after the death of her husband.
It also makes for great comedic exchanges and her sexuality is one of the seemingly endless sources of Dorothy’s quick-witted sarcasm. When Blanche wants to sell her bed and asks what to do with it, Dorothy responds, “Put it in the Smithsonian, Blanche. It’s got more miles on it than the spirit of St. Louis.”
The late Bea Arthur, who played Dorothy for seven seasons, should be continuously honoured for her character’s desire for a full and enriched life at any age. Sure, she makes jokes about getting old, but there is no sense of urgency in finding a mate just because. Or getting back together with her cheating ex-husband out of loneliness. After all, she isn’t lonely – she has her friends. And her mother Sophia, played by Estelle Getty, with whom she has a complicated dynamic that makes for laugh-out-loud exchanges.
Betty White, who played the dim-witted, optimistic and enduringly popular Rose, is the only surviving actress from the series. It is her oft-cited quotes about her earlier life at a farm in St Olaf, Minnesota, that can make you laugh even without context because, for our dear Rose, context was always a mere suggestion.
Re-watching this show has hit me in a more complicated way than when I was a child, as I’m now examining everything with a more experienced lens; a combination of age, a little bit of wisdom and countless years’ worth of built-up frustration at the patriarchy.
Why hasn’t this format been repeated? Or even attempted? It seems obvious that a show that aired around the world for seven seasons and 205 episodes wasn’t just a fluke, but rather magic in a bottle. Women have always wanted to see themselves represented in the wider cultural canon, even 30+ years ago. Representation has always mattered and yet, we are still fighting for it: in entertainment, in fashion, in writing, in business, at home – in everything.
Even though ageing is a guaranteed outcome of life for the fortunate, we still treat our older members of society as people whose best days are behind them, as if living life fully is a luxury allowed only to the young. The only contemporary comparable is Netflix’s Grace and Frankie starring legendary actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, an Odd Couple-type who move in together after their husbands come out as gay in their 70s and they are at a loss of how to navigate that period of their life. It has, unsurprisingly, earned them both a slew of consistent prestige award nominations year after year, copper fastening many women’s long-held suspicions that youth is, in fact, not wasted on the young.
Even among the younger all-female casts like the Noughties hit Desperate Housewives, the so-called ‘serious’ issues were tackled with a soap opera lens as it leaned more into the drama side of its ‘dramedy’ label. Absolutely Fabulous relied on over-the-top delivery and focused strictly on comedy with moments of pathos, instead of attempting expansion into anything outside the absurd. Sex and the City’s once cutting-edge storylines had moved into farce by the time it extended into film.
The ‘80s American sitcom was uniquely placed to serve an audience who, as much as entertainment, also wanted special episodes covering the issues of the day, to enhance their understanding of the topics they read about in physical newspapers or watched on the evening news. And in that, The Golden Girls maintains a unique place at the top of the pyramid, still considered lightyears ahead of its era; simultaneously timeless and nostalgic. In its seven-year run, they tackled race, anti-semitism, gender inequality, ageism, homophobia and in every episode, they find themselves on the right side of history.
They were champions of gay rights; Blanche’s brother coming out is a key storyline and an episode in which Dorothy’s lesbian friend develops a crush on Rose won the show an Emmy. Neither are used as fodder or positioned as the butt of the joke, but instead to normalise visibility. Not to mention Rose’s AIDS-scare after a blood transfusion, during which Sophia tells her, knowing they are speaking to America during the peak of the crisis: “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins.”
The Golden Girls know that the world can be an ugly place, but at least for 25 minutes, it can be fun, energetic, encouraging, inclusive and downright hilarious. It is, all these years later, a television love letter to the beauty of female friendship. We live in an entertainment era focused on recycling well-worn content and yet, there has been no attempt to revisit a show formatted around older women living their best lives. Now, none of these women can ever be replaced, but I’d love to see someone give it a shot.