How Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls is the Ultimate Sucker for the American Dream
Put down your bootstraps and brace yourself, we have some bad news.
As Gen-X hypothesized, Millennials proved, and Gen-Z embraced, the American Dream is a myth.
It’s not real, never has been. This is probably not a shock to you, reader, but imagine trying to convince everyone’s favorite Minnesota farm girl, Rose Nylund, of this truth.
She’d never believe you. Her heart beats true for the red, white, and blue, regardless of the fact that it is unrequited love.
Rose’s steadfast belief in the American Dream is unshakeable, as it was for many of her contemporaries. The Silent Generation, as they are known, are smackdab between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers. They grew up during the era of McCarthyism and the Great Depression. They internalized the idea of putting your head down and charging forward as The American Way™. They wholly believed that if you work hard and follow the rules, well surely, good things will happen for you.
Of course, especially for women of this generation, the reality was not so rosy (pun intended). As scholar Kate Browne says in her TV Milestones Series book, The Golden Girls, by the time these women reached retirement, “many of the social and economic supports… such as family systems and spousal income began to fail through divorce or widowhood, loss of a company pension, or reduced retiree health benefits.”
Despite making all the ‘right choices,’ Rose finds herself miles away from where she imagined she’d be in mid-life.
Economic stressors are present for all the girls, in some form or another — but Rose seems to be on the shakiest ground. In the 22nd episode of the first season, Job Hunting, Rose is laid off from her job at a counseling center. Because she’s such an inherently good person, she continues to provide services to her clients for free for weeks, until the rest of the girls essentially stage an intervention and tell her it’s time she finds paying work. It’s then revealed that Rose has already been looking, relentlessly, with no luck. Besides being endlessly frustrated, Rose feels there is something profoundly unfair about the situation. She’s not supposed to be here, to be having these kinds of money problems in her fifties — and yet, here she is.
It’s not the only time Rose finds herself in a predicament she’s ‘not supposed to be’ in. Multiple unemployment stints, an HIV scare, a thirty-year-long drug addiction; none of these scenarios are what the audience expects for a character who is chiefly defined by kindness and naiveté, but that’s the point — the American Dream tells us that we should expect this kind of strife for some people. Just not for someone like Rose.
That’s where the falsity lies.
As Browne says, “The Golden Girls shows us that many of the circumstances that carry a message of only happening to ‘bad’ people — poverty, drug addiction, job loss, homelessness, and infectious disease, for example — have no such threshold.”
Even after everything she has been through, Rose’s morality, which is so utterly entangled with her Americanness, remains intact. She never questions why the system failed her, because she never even entertains the idea that it could fail.
Rose represents the best and worst aspects of the fantasy that is the American Dream. Goddamn are we glad that Kate Browne wrote about it.
This is the third installment of a four-part series on Kate Browne’s TV Milestones book, The Golden Girls.