Thank you for being a friend — and for brightening our lives, Golden Girls.
It’s been 30 years since the premiere of the NBC show that followed four older women sharing a house in Miami, but the characters have remained strong in fans’ memories. Fans sell Golden Girls inspired fan art on Etsy like religious candles with the characters’ faces and cross-stitches. One artist even launched a series of Golden Girls art projects in September 2013.
Perhaps it does have an intense fandom, but when you’re a television program that took on several myths about old age and womanhood, you’re bound to turn a few heads.
To celebrate the 30th year of giving the world a gift of snark, sisterhood, St. Olaf stories and midnight cheesecake, here’s 15 episodes that cement Golden Girls in pop culture history.
- “Adult Education” (Season 1, Episode 20)
(To see a scene from the episode, from :58 to 1:46)
Blanche (Rue McClanahan) got a lot of mileage out of being the sexy vamp on the show, but this episode is the first time it wasn’t played for laughs. Blanche goes back to school to earn a degree and get a promotion at work. She’s struggling with a class and asks the professor for help — where he offers her a A if she sleeps with him. Getting no help from the dean, she studies harder than she’s ever done and aces the class. It’s an awesome moment showing that Blanche, an sexually active woman, has self-respect to handle the situation with grace.
Oh, bonus points for having the first St. Olaf story, too.
- “Job Hunting” (Season 1, Episode 22)
It’s possibly one of the earliest episodes filmed due to it’s loose structure, but it deals with a topic not too many sitcoms touched in its day — older people struggling to find a job. Rose (Betty White) loses her job as a grief counselor, a position she’s held for so long, and she re-enters the job market. Quickly she realizes that her age is the main reason that she’s not getting hired, and she ends up as a waitress. This episode opened the door for conversation about the struggles people over 50 in the job market struggle with.
Also: “So you’re a bit thicker in the middle. So is Blanche…..”
- “End of the Curse” (Season 2, Episode 1)
(For a scene about the M-word, start at 9:56 to 12:13)
When do you remember women talking about their periods on national television? In the 1980s, it happened even more rarely than it does today — like never. This episode had a double-whammy in dealing with menstruation and menopause, both major changes in women’s lives. Blanche goes to the doctor after a false positive on a pregnancy test and discovers that she’s entering menopause. Her vanity is dented and she believes her life is over until her friends talk some sense into her.
McClanahan won an Emmy for her performance in this episode.
- “Isn’t It Romantic?” (Season 2, Episode 5)
There’s a ton of moments that the ladies openly discuss homosexuality throughout the show’s run — most listed below — but this one was the first. The premise is simple: Dorothy’s friend comes for a visit, and she quickly becomes attracted to Rose. Most of the situation humor comes from the girls’ ignorance (“Not Lebanese, Blanche. Lesbian!”) to the fact that the friend is attracted to the “Little Miss Muffet.” Blanche is mostly offended that the friend chose Rose over her, rather than making the friend a predatory stereotype. The character’s nonchalant assessment of the friend’s sexuality is decades before its time and when same-sex marriage was legalized in America.
- “Old Friends: (Season 3, Episode 1)
The show never shied away from what terrifies its younger audience — aging and the loss of independence. Sophia is no stranger to that loss of agency, since she was put in nursing home Shady Pines. She’s even tried to help some friends escape from retirement homes. Here, she meets a new friend and slowly realizes that he’s struggling with Alzheimer’s. It’s a honest and heartbreaking look at an illness that causes someone to slip away — and that sometimes the support from loved ones is not enough to make it manageable for daily life.
- “Blanche’s Little Girl” (Season 3, episode 14)
(To see a moment, start from 7:18 to 10:09)
In this episode, Blanche is visited by her daughter Rebecca, after they had a falling out when Rebecca decided to go to Paris as a model four years earlier. Now overweight, she she brings her jerk boyfriend who verbally belittles her at every moment. It’s a rare example of emotional abuse on the small screen — then and now. Blanche finds herself struggling to stand up for her daughter and fear of driving her away. There’s some expected fat jokes from the girls, but it drives the point home that abuse can come in many forms.
- Dorothy’s New Friend (Season 3, Episode 15)
Dorothy befriends a fellow intellectual, while her snooty behavior rubs Rose and Blanche the wrong way. It’s a classic sitcom problem — except in this case, the friend is anti-semite. What’s refreshing about the situation is that while the girls don’t like Barbara Thorndyke, they don’t force Dorothy to choose sides. Instead they accept Dorothy’s choices like mature adults rather than pitting girl against girl. In turn, Dorothy is smart enough to stand up for Sophia’s Jewish date and her own principles in the classiest way possible.
- Mixed Blessings (Season 3, Episode 23)
(To see a small clip, start 10:41 to 12:41)
In a more upfront conversation of race, this episode features an early representation of a mixed-race marriage. Dorothy’s son Michael becomes engaged to a older African-American woman. When both families meet, it’s a tense conversation of what each family considers a suitable match for their children. There’s uncomfortable jokes that mirror the delicate situation, but it’s one of the rare moments in television that discuss mixed-race marriage at all.
- Sick and Tired, Part one and two (Season 5, Episodes 1 and 2)
Apparently these episodes are on a lot of fans’ dislike list, but I think of this episode as one of the first demonstrating “mansplaining” in action. Dorothy feels ill but her doctors (Jeffery Tambor is one!) dismiss her, telling her she’s getting old. She goes to a specialist and finds out she has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which was a little-known disease at the time. The real crowning moment is Dorothy confronts her doctor while he’s out to dinner with his wife. Earlier, he told Dorothy to dye her hair, like his wife did, and she’ll perk her up. When his former patient confronts him, the wife tells him to shut his pie hole.
- “The Accurate Conception” and “Blanche Delivers” (Season 5, Episode 3 and Season 6, Episode 1)
(Start at 2:40 to 5:18)
I’m placing these two together because it’s sort of a two-parter even though they’re a season apart. Blanche’s daughter returns and decides she wants to start a family. The problem in Blanche’s eyes is she’s having the baby through artificial insemination instead of finding a husband. It’s a great look at how society was shifting in views of what motherhood and families are becoming. When Blanche reacts outrageously and Rose humorously shudders at Rebecca’s life choices, it emphasizes the differences in points of view — and the judgement posted on alternative families.
- “Not Another Monday” (Season 5, Episode 7)
Sophia’s friend Martha comes to visit and asks her of a very important favor — to be with her as she ends her life. Sophia, as a pretty big Roman Catholic, obviously is conflicted with being there in an important moment for a friend or going against her morals. Suicide, let alone elderly suicide, is almost never talked about in life, never mind pop culture. Props to the show for tackling a very real subject, and Sophia for doing her best in a rough situation.
- “72 Hours” (Season 5, Episode 19)
The godmother of all progressive episodes, “72 Hours” details the following days after Rose is awaiting her results on a HIV test. Rose received a blood transfusion years ago and may have gotten HIV positive blood. Not only does it show the terror of waiting for the results, it also shows a lot of the country’s reaction to the disease. There’s a lot of awesomeness to go around for the ladies for overcoming their own paranoia but the queen here is Blanche. She firmly puts her foot down and tells Rose the one thing people in the 90's were struggling to hear: AIDS is not a bad person’s disease.
- “Sister of the Bride,” (Season 6, Episode 14)
In a previous episode that didn’t make it on this list, Blanche’s brother Clayton had came out as gay after a long struggle. In this one he comes to announce a committment ceremony to his husband. Blanche, who had a hell of a time accepting it, has a harder time understanding why her little brother wants to share his relationship with the world. In a frank conversation, Sophia makes it very clear that, despite their sexual orientation, everyone should be with the ones they love. In 1991, no less.
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