Being fortunate enough to grow up in the 1980s and 1990s, both during the show’s original run and its start in syndication, I have no memory of a time when The Golden Girls wasn’t on the air.
We watched it as a family on Saturday nights, then in high school and college when it aired on Lifetime approximately 46 times a day. When I moved out of the country, the DVDs came with me and surfaced whenever I was feeling particularly anxious (i.e. frequently). My very first night in my first apartment in New York City, I slept on an air mattress surrounded by boxes, and unpacked two things: my laptop and my Golden Girls DVDs. Everything was new, and I just wanted to feel like I was at home.
When someone asks what I do for a living and I tell them I’m a bioethicist, I’m usually met with blank stares. Even after I describe what I do — examining complex ethical issues related to medicine and new technology — many people don’t realize that they have also considered similar issues either in their own lives or through popular culture.
Undoubtedly, shows like House and Grey’s Anatomy overtly address bioethics issues — whether or not viewers realize it, the ethical dilemmas doctors and patients face make for much of the compelling narratives unique to medical dramas. But what many also don’t realize is the fact that certain comedies — with strong writing and characterization — are also capable of prompting the same awareness and understanding of multifaceted ethical issues. The Golden Girls is a perfect example of that.
The Golden Girls depicted life in a household of a nontraditional family consisting of four mature women. This wasn’t a seven-season-long old lady joke, but rather a depiction of a completely acceptable and normal living arrangement. Whether they were trying to get visitation rights at the hospital, seeking joint home ownership, or making arrangements for end-of-life care, the women were very clear that despite the fact that they had their own children and grandchildren, they were a family.
The portrayal of these women as a family unit is comforting for those who found it difficult to identify with their biological family — including many LGBT individuals. It presented the possibility of finding a group of people to serve as a surrogate but very real family, even later in life. Living in a society with such an emphasis placed on heterosexual romantic relationships as the most authentic and the only basis for being considered a family, The Golden Girls emphasized the importance and legitimacy of a family falling outside those rigid parameters.
Going beyond offering just a handful of Very Special Episodes featuring addictions to caffeine pills or getting locked inside a refrigerator, The Golden Girls made complex ethical and social issues a staple of the show. It didn’t shy away from difficult discussions, providing the audience with examples of dialogue surrounding topics such as marriage equality, HIV stigma, and assisted reproductive technologies.
Although the show’s handling of LGBT issues — including making a transgender politician the punch line of an entire episode — was not perfect, it went far beyond most other sitcoms of the period. One of the main characters — Blanche — has a gay brother who announces that he is engaged to his partner. After Blanche questionswhy her brother wants to get married, Sophia, the show’s matriarch and oldest character, gives Blanche a now well-known speech on the importance of marriage equality, informing her that her brother and his fiancé want to get married for the same reasons she wanted to marry her husband. “Everyone wants someone to grow old with, and shouldn’t everyone have that chance?” Sophia asks the audience, via Blanche.
At the height of the HIV epidemic, The Golden Girls addressed the stigma resulting from misunderstanding that surrounded the diagnosis. Rose is notified by a hospital that she may have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion she received during a gallbladder surgery. Each character reacts in her own way. Sophia marks Rose’s mug with an “R” so she doesn’t accidentally drink out of it and contract HIV. Dorothy is supportive, but Blanche very clearly articulates to Rose — and the audience — in no uncertain terms that “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease” or “God punishing people for their sins.” At a time when false information and panic enveloped many discussions about the disease, the show — via Blanche — makes a very clear statement against the stigmatization of those with HIV or AIDS.
In true sitcom fashion, the pharmacist had to use the loudspeaker to request a price check on the condoms, leaving the women looking embarrassed about their sexually active statuses in front of all the patrons in the pharmacy. In true Blanche fashion, she takes the microphone and makes an i
The women got away with many topics that may not otherwise have gotten past network censors not only because of their advanced age, but also because they managed to address difficult topics with a combination of their signature witty dialogue with liberal undertones and a comforting relatability.
Recently, I showed my mother a onesie with the faces of all four Golden Girls that I bought for a friend’s baby. My mother took one look at it and said, “Who are they — the baby’s aunts?” While that is genetically inaccurate, she also had a very valid point; at this stage, these four women are members of our family.
Photo courtesy of Out on the Lanai