The Biggest Gift: The Gold that Keeps The Golden Girls Golden
Many sitcoms endure and still many others fade away. There are certain things about a sitcom that give it a longevity or a shelf-life that allow it to resonate with generation after generation. How surprising it is, then, that an unlikely comedy about four 50 + women living together in Miami, tackling contemporary issues and asserting the vitality of life long after to empty nest syndrome, had continued to appeal to television audiences more than three-decades after its debut.
The Golden Girls, starring Beatrice Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty, was enormously popular even upon its debut, often topping the ratings in its first few seasons. The stellar cast and the sassy, sarcastic writing made it an instant ratings success. The show won countless accolades including Emmy Awards for all four ladies, and two wins for Outstanding Comedy Series. In all, it received 68 Emmy nominations over its seven seasons. Many sitcoms have enjoyed this kind of popularity over the years, but what exactly is it about The Golden Girls that makes it as fresh, relevant, and poignant today as it was in 1985 and why has it enjoyed the success that it has?
The first part of its longevity can be traced to its syndication and its popular placement on The Lifetime Network. It was aired several times a day, often conveniently in time slots that were sporadic throughout the day: mid-morning, early evening, and late at night. Lifetime (“Television for Women” as it was known in those days) kept The Golden Girls alive for a healthy run. This also happens to be where many gay men that I know (including myself), who had grown up on the The Golden Girls, fell in love with the show all over again and vociferously embraced its themes. This is not to say that The Golden Girls became the exclusive property of the gay community, but there is something in its themes that resonated there and the show became iconic within its circles. Perhaps it was the zippy sarcasm and loveable, if imperfect, characters? Perhaps it was the home and community these four ladies found together in an unconventional way that appealed? Certainly, Beatrice Arthur had a gay following harkening back to her days in Broadway musicals and on the TV show Maude. Betty White was also an alumnus of a beloved program of the gay community, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Was it the diva fest and the chance to see such masterful ladies of comedy square off with each other that reeled us in? Maybe it was because the show was not afraid to address boldly and honestly the issues of the time, including homosexuality. Through comedy and sincerity, “The Girls” were acknowledging us and giving real credence to our world.
Let’s also remember that, at the time that The Golden Girls debuted, television pandered almost exclusively to the younger audience. Characters like Dorothy, Blanche, Sophia and Rose were absent from the television schema. A grandmother here, or a maiden aunt there, usually reserved for guest spots was about all you knew of the world of the fifty-plus woman. With The Golden Girls, a new audience was cultivated in the older crowd and the success of the show proved that this audience was viable and craving for entertainment that represented who they were. Where the real genius came in The Golden Girls was that the writers never once went for the caricature of old ladies, but instead rendered them vital, libidinous, career women that were affected by the changing world around them. They were contemporary. They were dealing with all the same things that ANYONE and EVERYONE was dealing with in the 1980s. Somehow being a grandmother no longer meant you only baked cookies and wandered around in a housecoat until it was time to play Bingo. The Golden Girls washed away many stereotypes of the retiree set. Life still happens after fifty. So, perhaps it was the inclusion of an older audience that made The Golden Girls so accessible and beloved?
I would be remiss to stop there, because, although I think these two audiences played an enormous part in The Golden Girls’ success, I don’t think they can take full claim to its longevity. The Golden Girls had something going for it that spoke to almost everyone, and that appeal has spanned generations. What is it exactly that has kept The Golden Girls “golden” more than thirty-years after its premiere? I think it plays to our fear of growing old and dying alone. It shapes a new perspective that family doesn’t need to be our blood, that we can grow to love our friends as family. It gives us hope that we can enter our golden years and, even if we’ve lost a spouse or companion, we can find comfort in others and perhaps share a life with them. It reminds us that our best years never need to be behind us and that there are always adventures to be had. Most of all, it assures us that humor, tenacity and heart are the best ways to tackle life. The Golden Girls is always there to give us that lift that carries us through to the next day. That’s the “biggest gift” it provides and why it continues to delight audience long past the expiration date of many sitcoms.