Older Women Week: How ‘Golden Girls’ Shaped My Feminism

Golden Girls

Golden Girls

This originally appeared on Bitch Flicks. Republished here with permission 

A child of the 80s, I grew up watching TV shows like Murder She Wrote and Love Boat. Living with my grandparents for 6 years clearly influenced my television viewing habits! But my favorite series of my childhood — and one of my absolute faves as an adult — was Golden Girls.

Humorous and feel-good, I didn’t realize at the time that Golden Girls was such a cutting edge show. It’s not often that a movie or TV series focuses solely on female characters. It’s even rarer when those women are over the age of 50. Following the lives of four single female friends living together in Miami, Golden Girls showed us that grandmothers are sharp, funny and sexy, that they still have goals and dreams. It forever shaped the way I view women.

Created by Susan Harris, the series’ quartet featured smart, sarcastic Dorothy (Bea Arthur), sexy, feisty Blanche (Rue McClanahan), sweet, clueless Rose (Betty White) and sharp, jaded Sophia (Estelle Getty). These women formed a tight-knit family. They teased one another and supported each other through tough times, all while gossiping and eating cheesecake. Sidebar, it was great to see women unabashedly eat on-screen. Dorothy Zbornak, a bibliophile with her witty quips and shrewd outlook on life, was the one I could identify with most. But the show gave equal time to delve into each woman’s life and her perspective with a palpable chemistry between them.

Golden Girls was ahead of its time. We rarely see female actors over the age of 50 portraying characters embracing and owning their sexuality. Reduced to our appearances, women are told time and again that beauty, youth and thinness determine our worth. When the media body shames and bodysnarks female actors’ bodies, it’s clear how how far we need to go in featuring women’s stories. And so in our youth-obsessed society, it’s revolutionary to see women over 50 on-screen as beautiful, vivacious and sexual.

A groundbreaking show, it dealt with issues such as safe sex, ageism, sexism, mental illness, domestic violence, interracial relationships, homelessness, HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ rights, immigration and animal rights. Yet it was equally revolutionary for focusing on women and their friendships.

Too few films and TV shows feature female leads. It’s even rarer to see a series focus on female friendship. Golden Girls paved the way for TV series like Sex and the City (even down to conversations revolving around the diner, echoing Golden Girls‘ late-night cheesecake chats), Living SingleGirlfriendsDesigning Women, and Girls. While it might be easy to brush off the four women as caricatures or archetypes, each role was nuanced and complex. It’s important to see ladies celebrating ladies.

Women’s dialogue and plotlines in film and (to a lesser extent) in television, don’t typically focus on other women or even themselves. If women talk to each other, it’s often focusing on men. While imperfect, this is why the Bechdel Test matters. Dorothy, Blanche, Rue and Sophia cared about their careers and volunteered in their communities. They talked about current affairs, social issues, motherhood, family, their aspirations and goals. They swapped stories on dating, marriage and sex. But they were never defined by the men in their lives. They defined themselves.

In the series finale, Dorothy tells Blanche, Rose and Sophia, “I love you, always. You’ll always be my sisters. Always.” It was that kind of powerful sisterly camaraderie that resonated with me throughout my years. It informed my feminism.  

Golden Girls reinforced the importance of women’s opinions, that their lives and stories matter. It highlighted the value of female friendship, proving that women’s lives don’t revolve around men. It showcased social justice, conveyed the detriments of patriarchy, and proved that women don’t have to abide by confining stereotypical gender roles. It taught me that it’s never too late to start over. You’re never too old to live the life you wish or to forge new friendships.

So Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia…thank you for being a friend to us all.

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  • Sarah Morgan

    Yes!! These ladies were the bomb. They had so much FUN! It was awesome to see women who really loved each other, even if they did get on each others’ nerves sometimes, rather than the flat-out cattiness or shrewish tropes that are so often shown instead.

  • Jackie Crawford

    Love the Golden Girls!!
    They definitely had a hand in shaping my views as a woman! I really love
    watching shows and reading books with a strong female presence. Actually, you
    should check out this book I just finished reading. It’s called “The Children
    of Gavrilek” by Julie Kirtón Chandler, http://www.juliekirtonchandler.com/. It’s a great read and perfect for my female peers!
    Thanks for the great post, I miss this show and catch reruns whenever I see it
    on!