How The Golden Girls Broke New Ground

When I was in my last year as an undergrad at Temple University, I decided to take a course called TV Criticism. It was fascinating, and it was also the first time I was introduced to Lost, which is now one of my favorite shows of all time.

For my final paper, I decided to write about what I consider to be the greatest sitcom ever, The Golden Girls. For the purpose of this blog post, I rewrote some parts and cleaned it up. Thankfully, I’m a better writer now than I was four years ago. Enjoy!

Final PaperThe Golden Girls

On September 14, 1985 one of the greatest sitcoms was born: The Golden Girls. Not only did this show win 4 Golden Globes and 11 EMMYS, it was also one of the highest rated television programs during its run from 1985-1992. Furthermore, The Golden Girls was the first and only sitcom to feature a mature, all-female cast at the time. The show’s lead actress was the multi-talented Bea Arthur (Dorothy), who was best known as the bra-burning feminist Maude. The supporting cast included Betty White (Rose), Rue McClanahan (Blanche) and Estelle Getty (Sophia). Some may argue that all these ladies were leading actresses, and they were. However, going into the show the writers wanted star power, and they got it with Bea Arthur.

The show’s creator Susan Harris had written for All in the Family and Maude before The Golden Girls. These shows were known for their edgy humor, and The Golden Girls was no different. Many episodes featured Sophia saying words like “slut” and “tramp” in reference to Blanche. The writers realized this kind of language wasn’t offensive when it came from an old lady; in fact, it came off as being outrageous and funny. When you cut past the edgy humor and outrageous one-liners, you find a show that related to its audience in unique ways.

The Golden Girls has been widely documented as having a strong following in the gay community. There have been sociological documentaries about the portrayal of gay characters throughout the history of television, and The Golden Girls is regularly referenced. This isn’t surprising since the show depicted women who didn’t feel they had to be married or live with men to have a happy existence. They were single, sexually active and fabulous. It kind of sounds like Sex in the City, doesn’t it? More importantly, the show related to its target audience of women and the gay community through episodes that unapologetically dealt with taboo subjects.

While The Cosby Show featured issues focused on the nuclear family, The Golden Girls had shows about homosexuality, AIDS, aging, artificial insemination, guns, and transvestites. Moreover, these episodes were masterfully executed with style and substance. By having meaningful episodes spread throughout the show’s existence, The Golden Girls became a program viewers could identify with.

The most commonly addressed social issue on The Golden Girls was homosexuality. There were at least three episodes with storylines involving gay characters – two were about Blanche’s gay brother Clayton, and one was about a lesbian that fell for Rose. In addition to these episodes, there were endless gay references throughout the series.

The first episode featuring Blanche’s brother, Clayton, was in the fourth season and it was titled “Scared Straight.” It was about her brother coming to stay with them in Miami. Upon his arrival, Blanche sets him up on a date with a female friend of hers. The date doesn’t turn out so well so they go their separate ways. Rose bumps into Clayton after his date ends prematurely, and he tells Rose that he’s gay and that he feels conflicted about telling Blanche. Rose and Clayton go home and Blanche asks him why he’s late and what he’s doing with Rose. Instead of coming out, he lies and says that he slept with Rose. The next day Clayton confronts Blanche and says:

Clayton: “Nothing happened between me and Rose. Just like nothing happens between me and any of the women you set me up with. There’s a reason.”

Blanche: “What are you saying, Clayton?”

Clayton: “I’m saying…I’m gay, Blanche.”

Blanche then goes into denial about her brother’s homosexuality. By the time the episode ends, she comes to terms with the idea that her brother is gay. A subsequent episode featured Clayton wanting to marry another man. This storyline was years ahead of its time. Gay rights, in relation to marriage, have recently become mainstream, but this episode came out in the early 1990s. This progressive material is exactly what set The Golden Girls apart from the countless sitcoms that played it safe. The writers and the cast never shied away from taboo subjects.

HIV is another touchy subject the show dealt with head-on. During season five, an episode aired titled “72 Hours,” in which Rose receives a letter from the local hospital asking her to come in for an HIV test. The reason they want her to be tested is because when she had her gall bladder removed, several years back, they gave her a blood transfusion that may have contained HIV antibodies. Rose is embarrassed that she might have HIV and is petrified of what the results might say. The episode deals with the 72 hours Rose must wait to find out if she has HIV. At one point, Blanche tells Rose to “take it easy.” Rose replies, “I don’t feel like taking it easy. I might have AIDS and it scares the hell out of me!” This episode dealt with the many myths surrounding this disease.

The first myth addressed by the writers is that AIDS is contagious and can be caught like a cold. During the episode, Sophia labels Rose’s coffee mugs with a big “R” out of fear of catching AIDS. She eventually realizes this is silly and drinks from one of the mugs. The second myth the show debunks is that AIDS is a disease that only bad people get for sinning. This is exemplified when Rose says to Blanche:

Rose: “This isn’t supposed to happen to people like me. You must’ve gone to bed with hundreds of men. All I had was one innocent operation.”

Blanche: “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins.”

Rose finds out that she doesn’t have the HIV virus and is relieved. This episode took the least serious character and put her in the most serious of situations; it was brilliant.

Season five premiered with a two-part episode centered on an illness that affects more than one million Americans: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). The show’s creator Susan Harris, who is afflicted with CFS, wrote this episode. In the beginning, Dorothy tells the girls how she can’t get rid of this flu she’s had for five months. She’s gone to several doctors, and after one of them tells her she’s fine Dorothy replies:

“I am at a point now were I am so exhausted that sometimes I cannot speak. Literally, cannot speak. There are days when I can’t get out of bed. Raising my arms, to wash my hair in the shower, is too exhausting for me. I can’t even do that.”

After hearing this, the doctor tells her to go see the man that trained him because he’s the best and he’ll be able to diagnose her illness. After going to see his mentor, Dr. Budd, she starts to feel like she might be crazy. Dr. Budd tells her that she is just getting old and that maybe she should color her hair. Sophia says to Blanche and Rose, “Dorothy could be dying and they just don’t know it.” This gives viewers a glimpse of the pain endured by those those directly and indirectly affected by CFS.

Finally, Dorothy goes to a doctor who diagnoses her with CFS. He says that it is a relatively new disease that is dismissed by many doctors because of lack of research. Dorothy feels relieved that she can finally put a name to her pain and that she isn’t crazy.

The episode ends with Dorothy confronting Dr. Budd in a restaurant that they both happen to be eating in. One of the greatest lines I’ve ever heard is then vehemently stated by Bea Arthur’s character Dorothy:

“You know, someday Dr. Budd you’re gonna’ be on the other side of the table, and as angry as I am and as angry as I always will be, I still wish you a better doctor than you were to me.”

This excellent writing and acting is what enables TV shows to become something greater than entertainment. It allows them to become a forum for which important social issues can be discussed.

Artificial insemination is a subject most writers wouldn’t touch with a hundred-foot pole. Then again, most writers aren’t as talented as the writers who wrote for The Golden Girls. “Blanche Delivers,” an episode that aired during season six, addressed this issue.

Blanche’s daughter, who came to visit, reveals that she was artificially inseminated. All of the girls find the idea of artificial insemination to be gross. Much to Blanche’s chagrin, her daughter decides to have her baby in Miami. Blanche doesn’t want her to do this because she’s embarrassed by the way her daughter got pregnant. While her daughter is giving birth, Blanche tells the doctor, “The baby’s father is busy.” The doctor responds, “I read the file. I’m pretty sure I know what he’s busy doing.” By the end of the episode Blanche and her daughter are back on good terms.

The Golden Girls was a brilliant show that had a perfect balance of humor and drama. It won numerous awards and more than 27 million people tuned in to see the series finale. These people watched because four of the greatest characters ever created were going off the air. But they weren’t just characters, they were reflections of who viewers were or wanted to be. Some were level headed (Dorothy), some were sarcastic (Sophia), some were naïve (Rose), and some were sexually liberated (Blanche). However, the storylines and writing were what brought these characters to life. They were ahead of their time and dealt with issues that many Americans felt more comfortable addressing through humor. These four luminous ladies brought important issues and gut-wrenching laughter to viewers for seven golden seasons that will not soon be forgotten.

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