Everyone’s Favorite Golden Girls Grandma, Sophia Petrillo, is a Mischievous Trickster
Ask a casual Golden Girls fan who their favorite is, and there’s a safe bet that they’ll probably answer ‘Sophia.’
Hell, even a storied Golden Girls fan might answer ‘Sophia.’ And why not? Sophia is a fabulous character — she’s funny, quirky, charming, loveable, mischievous, and is one of the best physical comedians on the show.
And, as everyone knows, she tells great stories.
Scholar Kate Browne discusses exactly this storytelling characteristic of Sophia Petrillo in her TV Milestones Series book, The Golden Girls. She describes Sophia being an archetypal “trickster,” who manipulates the trajectory of a narrative using mischief. This manipulation is both in service to her own gain, of course, but it’s also driven by a desire to teach the ‘protagonist’ a lesson.
In the case of The Golden Girls, it’s often Sophia who is helping Rose, Blanche, and Dorothy learn a lesson and get where they need to be.
Browne cites scholar Paul Mattick in describing the trickster of mythological storytelling traditions, where “trickster characters function as boundary-crossers that ‘violate principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis’.
Indeed, Sophia instigates many of the B plots in The Golden Girls that actually end up helping to resolve the A story conflict. For example, in the first-season episode The Flu, Sophia specifically makes a speech while she accepts an award that essentially guilt-trips the other three girls into making up from their episode-long quarrel.
Less directly and more for the audience’s benefit, in The Days and Nights of Sophia Petrillo, Sophia spends all day participating in and advocating for her community as her much younger roommates fail to be productive in the slightest. The kicker, of course, is that her roommates lament that Sophia is getting older, thinking that “all” she did all day was go to the market to purchase a single nectarine.
All of this is extra impressive when you think about how Sophia is, as Browne points out, able to “cross the boundaries of caretaker and someone who is cared for by others.” She subverts expectations of older people, and even uses her trickster power to fight back against unjust institutions, like nursing homes. Because of her wisdom, she can see several steps ahead, and use her storytelling power to inspire action and change, or provide a point that just makes everything make sense.
Browne states that “personal stories make it possible to reflect on past experiences, connect with others, and carry memories into future generations.” Storytelling, as Sophia does it, is really just indirect life advice.
I mean, if you want poetry, listen to Neil Diamond. But if you want good advice, listen to your mother.
This is the final installment of a four-part series on Kate Browne’s TV Milestones book, The Golden Girls.