There’s a Full List of All of the Dark, Heavy Themes Covered in The Golden Girls
2020 was something else. We laughed, we cried (mostly cried), and we watched hours upon hours of reruns of The Golden Girls. (As did everyone else: In April alone, Hulu viewers watched nearly 11 million hours of Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia.)
One thing we observed — while watching this show for the umpteenth time — was how many dark plot points came up. Like, REALLY dark. Sure, maybe you’d expect some health scares or dating woes in a show about four single women over 50. But deep-seated abandonment issues? Sexual assault? HIV/AIDS? I didn’t realize we were making a podcast about the Euphoria of the 1980s!
Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration.
But seriously, The Golden Girls touched on some pretty heavy subject matter.
Perhaps one of the most well-known instances is when Rose Nylund— the lovable, naïve Minnesota farm girl played by National Treasure™ Betty White — gets word she may have received blood that was tainted with HIV during a transfusion. The aptly titled episode 72 Hours details the silent agony of the time between taking a blood test and waiting for the results. There’s a very powerful exchange in which Blanche, known chiefly for her sexuality and promiscuity, says, “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease. It is not God punishing people for their sins.” She is talking directly to Rose, but really, the intended recipient was everyone at home watching network TV who held their own prejudices.
Speaking of everybody’s favorite Southern Belle, Blanche Devereaux, played by the vivacious Rue McClanahan, experiences a number of hardships during the show’s seven season run. In the first season alone, Blanche has to decide: whether or not to give a kidney to her dying sister, how to confront a professor who has sexually harassed her, what to do after her house gets broken into, and how to recover from macing oneself in public. ALL IN THE FIRST SEASON. Later, she deals with infidelity by both her husband and her father, struggling with menopause, watching her mother suffer through Alzheimer’s, and a nun who scams her out of money. Sweet Jesus, does she have her share of trouble.
The Petrillo women have their own laundry list of strife. Sophia Petrillo, played by the delightful Estelle Getty, often laments about the utter squalor of Sicily; we hear of arranged marriages and mafia-orchestrated violence. In one of the heaviest episodes of the whole series, Sophia’s dear friend confides in her that she is considering suicide, and Sophia is tasked with formulating a thoughtful, life-saving response.
THIS IS A SITCOM, PEOPLE.
Meanwhile, Sophia’s daughter Dorothy Zbornak, played by the incomparable Bea Arthur, enters the series on the heels of a bitter divorce from an adulterous yutz husband. Infidelity comes up again later in the series, as do financial troubles, sibling rivalries, gambling and smoking addictions, abandonment issues, and the struggle to posthumously forgive her father for his behavior during her childhood. Plus, there’s that whole teen pregnancy thing that she had to deal with back in the day.
But, I digress.
The point here is while many of us (rightly) regard The Golden Girls as a comforting crescendo of snippy one-liners and hilariously delightful plot points, it actually hit on a lot of heavy and heady topics. So many, in fact, that we put together an entire list.
Here’s a taste of some of the darker and sobering topics in The Golden Girls:
Homophobia (Gay Acceptance)
Breaking ground in an era where the only gay characters you saw, if any, were hopeless stereotypes, The Golden Girls portrayed several multi-dimensional characters — such as Blanche’s brother, Dorothy’s friend, and local Miami Image Consultants — and focused storylines on bringing homophobic characters around to accepting that gay people are just people. Even Danny Thomas.
Motherhood (Discomfort & Doubt)
Blanche Devereaux’s stories and siblings make it clear that she had a wild ride during her own upbringing, and though she loves her children she’s quite uncomfortable with the role of being a mother. And why wouldn’t she be, when society tells her that women have to give up their own personalities and ambitions to raise another human? She did have a governess helping out, though, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Nuclear War (World Peace)
The vast majority of this show takes place while the Berlin Wall is still intact — the wall being the thing that might have prevented the Cold War turning nuclear. Regardless, Rose is worried about it and writes a letter to Gorbachev who thinks she’s nine years old. Subsequently, Blanche is worried about the Russians using it as a propaganda ploy to convince the whole world that all Americans are as dumb as Rose and try to undermine us and topple our democracy. Silly Blanche! That didn’t happen until 2016.
Prostitution (Sex Work)
Turns out the kind of fashion you’d wear to meet Mr. Burt Reynolds in the 1980s also easily gets you mistaken for attempting to satiate the sexual needs of clothing conventioneers from Kenosha. Rose helps Meg get out of the sex work biz and start anew with her family back home, although not sure they’re going to welcome her back with open arms (see also Slut-Shaming).
Sophia grabs money out of Dorothy’s purse all the time, but she also grabs money out of the mailbox when they mistakenly deliver social security checks (see also Fraud). Plus, Blanche keeps an expensive bed when the company charged her for a cheap one, and when she feels guilty enough to do something about it, she ends up having kinky sex instead.
Especially with the year we’ve had, it is important to hold onto what makes you laugh.
Remember, whatever you’re going through, there are people (real and fictional!) who have come through the other side.