30 Years Later, ‘The Golden Girls’ is Still the Most Progressive Show on Television

“I had to write ‘Golden Girls’…I’ve never gotten excited about a network idea before, but this was compelling. I could write grown-ups.” — Susan Harris, creator of ‘The Golden Girls,’ September 1985

Still from The Golden Girls, NBC
Credit: NBC

A Feminist Show

The very premise of The Golden Girls four women navigating life after marriage and finding companionship in one another — is feminist in nature. While the women exchange quips and get into fights, the overarching message of the show focuses on the importance of chosen family, and women supporting other women. Further, we see the women enjoying life after marriage. Over the course of the series, we see the characters focus on career ambitions, new hobbies, and more often than not, their unapologetic enjoyment of sex. So much so that the blog Refinery29 recently tallied how many men each character slept with (naturally, Blanche had the most at 165). What made their love lives particularly important was the fact that television shows rarely portray older women as sexual beings.

The very premise of The Golden Girls four women navigating life after marriage and finding companionship in one another — is feminist in nature.

“Television is always several steps behind life. When do you see passionate older people on television?” Susan Harris told The New York Times in a 1985 interview shortly after the show’s premiere. “There is life after 50. People can be attractive, energetic, have romances. When do you see people of this age in bed together? Eventually on this show, you will. It’s kind of pathetic that this show is television’s baby steps.’’

PEOPLE Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 1, January 6, 1986

Portrayals of Aging

“Probably the single most effective product to come out of Hollywood in terms of turning around the cultural stereotypes about older women was the hugely popular and successful television show The Golden Girls in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” activist Ai-jen Poo wrote in her book Aging with Dignity. “Those four women, each with her own distinct history and personality…shattered the silence and the invisibility around aging in the most hilarious and endearing ways.”

While the entertainment industry pressures actresses to go to great lengths to maintain or restore their youth, The Golden Girls embraced aging and all the humor, wisdom, and vulnerability that comes with it.

This is evident in the episode “Rose Fights Back,” when Rose is cut off from her deceased husband’s pension plan and must find a new job. She is soon faced with age discrimination and the fear of not being able to make her rent. In a poignant scene, Rose discusses often seeing an older woman digging through the trash. She tells the other ladies, “I wondered, what did she do to get herself into a fix like that? I thought, well, she must be lazy, or she must be pretty stupid to let something like this happen to her. The truth is: she’s me.”

Gay Rights

While the show’s message about women and aging is tied to its premise, The Golden Girls was often ahead of its time on other social issues. Twenty-four years prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling on marriage equality, The Golden Girls defended same-sex marriage before it was a mainstream position. In this episode, Blanche’s brother Clayton pays a visit and announces that he is engaged to his partner, Doug. In one scene, Sophia perfectly explains marriage equality to an upset Blanche:

Confronting Race

Much like the show did with gay rights, The Golden Girls confronted issues related to race in honest ways, rather than the imaginary “post-racial” interactions many sitcoms favor today. In one episode, Dorothy’s son Michael announces he’s getting married to Lorraine, a black singer in his band. The news causes Dorothy to cringe and cry out “Oh God,” but she recovers to explain that her race doesn’t matter. The scene portrays the complexity of prejudice, and dispels the idea that racism is something only “bad people” are guilty of — a recognition that is necessary in order to truly overcome prejudice.

Still from Season 6, Episode 5, “Wham, Bam, Thank you, Mammy.” NBC.

Rarely is America’s complicated history with race woven into a sitcom storyline, much less as part of a white character’s backstory.

In another episode, we are introduced to Blanche’s “Mammy” from growing up, Viola Watkins. When Viola reveals that she had an affair with Blanche’s father, she explains, “In another time and place, we would have been married. But at that time in the South, it wasn’t an option.” The episode highlighted how often white children grew attached to their black caretakers, while underscoring the racial animosity that existed around them. Rarely is America’s complicated history with race woven into a sitcom storyline, much less as part of a white character’s backstory.

Disability Visibility

One subject matter that most television shows ignore altogether is disability. The Golden Girls, however, had multiple episodes revolving around characters with disabilities, usually as part of the women’s love lives. In these episodes, the women are forced to confront their own prejudices and misperceptions around what it means to be a person with a disability.

Fighting Poverty

Finally, as someone who does research and advocacy around fighting poverty, I am often frustrated by the myths and stereotypes that persist in film and television. The Golden Girls is not one of those shows. On many occasions, the show discusses poverty, but there is no better scene that demonstrates how well they did on the subject than in the episode “Have Yourself A Very Little Christmas,” when the ladies volunteer at a church to serve Christmas dinner to the homeless. They soon discover that Dorothy’s ex-husband, Stan, is among the people in need. The Church’s Reverend goes on to perfectly explain how poverty is an experience (rather than a moral failing, which is often the message), how public policy plays a role, and closes the scene with a direct jab at then-President Ronald Reagan:

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Bikes, bourbon, & improv | Associate Director for @amprog's #talkpoverty team | Co-host of @TalkPoverty Radio | https://traceyrosswrites.wordpress.com/

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Tracey Ross

Bikes, bourbon, & improv | Associate Director for @amprog's #talkpoverty team | Co-host of @TalkPoverty Radio | https://traceyrosswrites.wordpress.com/