The Golden Girls Share Signature Stories:
Narratives of Aging, Identity, and Communal Desire

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2010, Volume 9, Issue 2


Christyne A. Berzsenyi
Pennsylvania State University, Wilkes-Barre

Lives are storied.... The stories we have are essentially the stories we are.

-William L. Randall


Messages on greeting cards of being “over the hill” at forty are but one illustration of the privileging of youth over maturity in American popular culture.  However, at the age of 69, Ronald Reagan, career actor turned politician, was the oldest person to have been elected President of the United States. Co-existing with this popular President during the 1980s and into the 1990s was a new trend of appealing, mature central characters fifty-five years of age and above in American television series.  In particular, there were several long-running programs such as Columbo (11 seasons and TV movies of 69 episodes, 1968-2002), The Equalizer (4 seasons with 87 episodes, 1985-1989) Matlock (9 seasons with 195 episodes, 1986-1995), Murder She Wrote (9 seasons with 263 episodes, 1984-1996), In the Heat of the Night (8 seasons with 146 episodes, 1988-1995), Jake and the Fat Man (5 seasons with 106 episodes, 1987-1992) and its spin-off Diagnosis Murder (8 seasons with 178 episodes, 1993-2001), The Golden Girls (7 seasons with 180 episodes, 1985-1992), and its spin-off sans Dorothy, The Golden Palace (1 season with 24 episodes, 1992-1993) (TV.Com).  

Certainly, these shows and their networks provide entertainment to a television consumer desiring to watch and engaged in watching representations of characters that are beyond adolescence and young adulthood, roles that routinely continue to engulf the popular entertainment market.  Uniquely, besides being a situation comedy, The Golden Girls distinguishes itself from all of the above listed shows with its all-female ensemble cast of characters (Dorothy Zbornak, Rose Nyland, Blanche Devereaux, and Sophia Petrillo) and its character-driven and dialogue-driven structure (not action or detection).  In particular, the dialogue is in the form of story exchange, which is at the center of this essay in terms of exploring how these narratives function to present serious topics, construct character identities, and create intimacy and community among the characters and their viewers as the aging characters mix fantasy with memory to share with, teach, and entertain each other and viewers alike.  In examining the rhetorical, stylistic, and ethical dimensions of “the girls’” storytelling, I consider how the show idealizes as well as confronts social and physical aspects of the aging process, community building and mutually supportive communal living, nontraditional families, and the process of growing older in middle-class American society - in particular, as white, heterosexual women.  The show is not without complications and contradictions as well - some of which actually undermine The Golden Girls' more positive messages.

Representing Maturity on Television

While limited in demographic scope, all of these characters contradict several of the negative and over-generalized stereotypes of aging that are reflected in binary oppositions against those of the young: able bodied/physically declining, sane and rational/demented and senile, healthy/sick, goal-oriented and ambitious/contemplative and resigning, sexually adventurous and active/impotent and without desire, optimistic and trusting/pessimistic and cynical, and so forth (see Bell; Gubrium and Holstein; Waters and Huck; Cassata; Dail).  Importantly, John Bell has a concern for the social impact of the changing stereotypes about the elderly on television: “Findings suggest that although reverse positive stereotypes seem to be prominent, images of patriarchy and the affluent elderly still hold sway on TV” ("The Elderly").  While the previous negative stereotypes of the aging as more “comical, stubborn, eccentric, and foolish” than the other characters have been replaced by more positive images of “robust, physically active, powerful people,” he is concerned that these characters do not reflect the problems of today’s aging population, people who suffer physical, mental, and social impediments that the television elderly, by and large, do not (Bell, "In Search" 305-306).  

However, in The Golden Girls, unlike most television shows, impediments Bell describes above such as Alzheimer’s Disease, immobility, isolation, institutionalization, fixed and strained incomes, death, and the like are represented and discussed as staple topics amongst the central and supporting characters, though typically minimized through humor and compressed into a given episode without follow up or more thorough and authentic portrayal.  On the one hand, as a comedy, The Golden Girls enables the address of these harsh realities of the aging experience but in a characteristically lightened fashion to remain entertaining for its viewers. On the other hand, as a comedy, if the show focused on depressing but real problems faced by middle to senior Americans, the series would not be funny but sad, i.e. would not be a comedy.  Comedic actresses, in fact, were key in defining a  new market of viewers: “The series was commissioned by NBC chief Brandon Tartikoff to reflect the changing attitudes in the USA by, and toward its growing population of 'over 40' female divorcees” (Marcus).  Given this target viewer, the show balances binary elements of mid-to-late life realities in a socially responsible way and fantasies of healthy and fulfilling aging in an entertaining way that viewers found appealing, as evidenced by its success.  While in prime time, the show ranked high on the Nielsen Ratings, between fourth and thirtieth for all seven seasons, and won ten Emmy awards (Marcus). 

Perhaps even more profound is the fact that the show has been in syndication since 1989 - three years before leaving prime time - to the present.  According to one of the show’s actresses, Betty White, fans are from all around the world include young people of a new generation: “Even when we first went on the air, I think the network was surprised. They put these four older ladies together, thinking they would address an older audience, and the kids picked up on it immediately” (Huguenin 32).  Popular culture demonstrates an interest in the storied lives of these older female characters ranging from later “middle age” (“Blanche”) to early retirement years (“Dorothy” and “Rose”) through older “golden years” (“Sophia) as white, generally physically healthy, social, sexually-active, and maturely attractive women. 

As researchers generally agree that “ways of aging” are not universal across cultures or individuals, the all-female cast members of The Golden Girls (Beatrice Arthur as Dorothy, Betty White as Rose, Rue McClanahan as Blanche, and Estelle Getty as Sophia) portray versions of aging through visual representation and personal narratives, which identify them as unique characters and as members of a defined household community.  For these mature female characters, telling stories of their pasts offers structure and substance for each episode, as the housemates sit down at the kitchen table, as a matter of course, to share and relive their personal histories.  So central is narration to this group’s interactions that characters routinely ask, “Do you have a story to tell us?” ,  “You’re about to tell us another one of your stories, aren’t you?”, or simply “Tell us one of your stories.”  One teaser emphasizes the storytelling aspect of the show: “This all-time favorite comedy series focuses on four women spending their golden years in Miami, who share their house, their stories and a whole lot of cheesecake” (  Such recounting offers audiences a vivid, intimate viewing experience that constructs each character's personality - revealed through different storytelling styles - while also allowing applications of those stories to achieve various purposes both for the characters in the show and for the viewing audience.

Cultivation Theory and Popular Culture 

As America’s baby-boomers age, television shows with older characters will continue to be syndicated; however, the reasons why The Golden Girls attracts young adult audiences are not as obvious.  With seven seasons of prime time, plus two decades of syndication still going on to this day, large audiences return to watch television broadcast “repeats” or purchase the widely available DVD sets of every episode for potentially unlimited re-viewings. This routine exposure can be influential to audiences, a process explained by “cultivation theory”: “Aging is a process that starts with birth and goes on throughout life.  Life styles associated with different stages of the life cycle are roles learned in a culture. Images of old age cultivate our concept of aging and the age roles we assume” (Gerbner et al. 37).  These shows offer models of behavior and group interaction that audience members process repeatedly along with other communicative forms exposed to them.  In The Golden Girls, each roommate reflects different attitudes about aging with varying versions of mature adulthood. 

The show portrays Americans changing in the way they age with lengthening lives, evolving lifestyles, and advancing allopathic and cosmetic medical care.  Indeed, The Golden Girls reflects but provides an alternative for contemporary society’s fears of losing nuclear family members to be left to live alone in institutionalized settings.  The show and its characters face and overcome physical, emotional, mental, economic, and social challenges experienced as an older person.  Through the stories retold during repeated audience viewings, “the girls” quell their fans’ fears of aging while offering hope for socially active and shared “prime of life” ways of being that serve as ideals for many of their viewers.

“The Girls” Tell Their Stories While We Listen and Watch Again and Again

Within the sitcom generic formula of “establishment, complication, confusion, and resolution,” each episode of The Golden Girls introduces a crisis through conversation and moves into problem solving with the group telling stories face-to-face, reflecting values and attitudes toward the prevailing subject and each other (Hough 204). Storytelling is used both to explain the problem to others (and viewers) as well as to offer solutions or lessons to the character with the problem.  With the women telling their living histories, The Golden Girls is a show that explicitly displays oral traditions but through the broadcast of electronic mass communications, television, in a process Walter Ong refers to as “secondary orality.” Set as a conversation with specific group dynamics, the show invites audiences to be voyeurs of “the girls’” private moments, communicated in the stories that present slices of their lives in action - narrations with sequences, causes, effects, consequences, motivations, emotional responses, dialogues, and significant details. By telling stories, viewers gain access to the characters’ problem solving processes, priorities, fears, joys, etc.  

More emphatically, social scientists and clinical practitioners Kenyon and Randall argue that individuals reveal themselves through their stories in a metaphorical relationship.  Enacting their analytical method, “narrative gerontology,” offers insights into ways the characters use stories to illustrate what motivates them and why; how they lived through traumatic, vulnerable times; and how they have been shaped by their experiences.  These identity shaping narratives are what William L. Randall calls “signature stories”: "Whether they concern events that we construe as tragic, romantic, or just simply odd, these are the stories we have repeatedly recounted across the years, around which we tend to compose our autobiographies, and by means of which we often reveal ourselves to someone new...such stories provide peeks into our inner world and convey a vast amount of information concerning a host of things at once: our values and beliefs, our self-concept, our emotional make-up, our habitual 'storying style'" (48). While there have been multiple writers since the show’s creation by Susan Harris, signature stories have been a staple for developing distinct but consistent characterization, familiar relationships among characters, and a sense of their home community.

To demonstrate, one of Dorothy’s signature stories involves her repeated disillusionment at her mother’s false promises of ponies or the like to manipulate her into doing something.  A Blanche piece involves her receiving abundant “gentlemen callers” as an exceptionally beautiful, young woman in the Old South.  A characteristic Rose story lovingly and uncritically depicts her childish social celebrations such as the St. Olaf annual watermelon seed spitting competition.   Finally, Sophia’s character defining stories describe her epic-like journey from Sicily to Brooklyn.  Through signature stories, core character traits are established, presenting identities that generally remain consistent with some exceptions.  However, the stories are the vehicles for establishing not only character or identities but also intimacy and sometimes conflicts that characterize the particular relationship dynamics among the women and, in turn, the devoted viewers.

On the one hand, with some “restorying,” or the modifying of the original story, individuals can alter their perspectives to change their lives for the better or to deal with their pasts in a more positive or productive manner.   On the other hand, one can “restory” in order to deny the past or manipulate the audience.  Applying this concept to the show’s characters, it is apparent that Blanche and Sophia often change details of past events to re-imagine themselves and their younger days, which shows their desire and penchant for romantic fantasy and self-reinvention.  Contrarily, Dorothy and Rose give more factual and consistent accounts of their pasts but tend to emphasize the importance of particular details, revealing their mistakes, regrets, moments of pride and accomplishment, and lessons learned.  These narrative techniques distinguish cast members, construct various versions of aging, define membership within the new family household, and provide context for relationship to the larger contemporary American society. 

Sophia Petrillo

Often referred to as the most popular of the characters, Sophia is the spirited, sharp-tongued, wise woman in her 80s and mother of Dorothy.  Played by Estelle Getty, Sophia is a native to Sicily, Italy, born poor but cleverly resourceful and reasonably content.  Unlike images of the benign grandmother, Sophia’s character as a senior woman is caustic and ego leveling, even to her own children, siblings, and grandchildren (Keyton).   As the eldest woman, Sophia is allowed to be “colorful” and even rude, attributes that mark her advanced age, associating it with physical discomfort, frustrations from loss of faculties, and depression from emotional losses (Harwood and Giles).   Having survived but socially affected by her stroke, Sophia is blunt, curt, and impatient but imaginatively nostalgic for her youth as the “beautiful peasant girl from Sicily” and frequently tells obviously embellished stories about her impoverished but happy childhood and the pervasive presence of “the mob” along with her connections to it.  She details an epic migration to the United States; her family’s resourceful struggle to survive during the Great Depression; unlikely and incredible acquaintanceships with famous people such as Picasso, Mama Celeste, and Golda Meir; and her heroic resiliency after traumatic experiences - stories that provide insight to Sophia’s caustic, opportunistic, and practical survivor character.  However, occasionally, her hyperbolic reinventions of her past give way to genuine expressions of feelings.  For example, she displays anger that transforms into admission of embarrassment, guilt, and mourning for having alienated her deceased, cross-dressing son, Phil, and his widow, Angela, who saw him as a “good man” and loved him anyway. Her last words of the episode were said with tears of loss and regret: “my baby’s gone,” (“Ebtide’s Revenge,” Season Six).

As the oldest of “the girls,” Sophia is maternal and valued for her life experiences that she shares as lessons and sources of inspiration to “all of her daughters” in the house.  Being a storytelling pedagogue is so much a part of Sophia’s character, interactions, and relationships with others that the Lifetime Television Channel’s website about The Golden Girls has a “Fun and Games” feature called “Sicily Time Line,” which has “Picture it: All of Sophia’s stories in a year-by-year time line!” Promotional websites such as this one offer fans opportunities to extend their relationship with the “girls” beyond the show and relive select stories.  

While routinely displaying confusion in the form of mixing up her daughters, the names of her roommates, and details about her past life in Brooklyn, she tells stories with sharp, quick wit as well as minute details often proven to be true.  While these contradictions in identity serve the genre of the situation comedy with her snappy but often caustic one-liners for humorous deflections of her misinformation, they offer conflicting messages about her mental abilities as an eighty-something.   Overall, it’s not always clear if Sophia is acting out and making things up in her stories because of her stroke or because she’s creative, alert, manipulative at times, deliberately critical, and pedantic - perhaps there is even a "need" in her hyperbolic stories as well - they may be necessary to heal her or to help a listener. 

Rose Nylund

Through her stories of small town life in St. Olaf, Minnesota, and her earnest desire to help others, Rose is defined as a nurturer, grief counselor, companion to animals, and naïve roommate.  She is adamant about honesty, unable to keep secrets from others, and insists on several occasions: “I don’t lie!” Only unwittingly has she passed on details that are not factual when telling stories such as the one in “The Way We Met” about the Great Herring Circus with the herring that was shot out of a cannon.  When challenged about the veracity of the details that she never questioned before, Rose admits that the story was told to her by an uncle who sometimes wore his underpants over his pants (Season One).  Typically, accepting people’s words at face value, unable to imagine why someone would lie, Rose’s approximate sixty years of life, thirty-year marriage and widowhood, and rearing of three daughters has not resulted in her loss of innocence.  In fact, she still refers to sex as “making strudel.”  Expressing gullibility, naiveté, and “the golden rule” (assuming that others think, behave, and want the same as she does), Rose narrates stories of idyllic farm life with animals as her friends and a loving, adopted family in the insular, homogeneous little Scandinavian town that possessed occasional, bizarre inconsistencies - such as Hitler and his wife as her teachers.  Despite the lack of worldliness, Rose is kind and accepting of all people.  For example, Rose tells a story about her father showing intolerance for mixed race couples.  Upset, Rose witnesses her father turn the hose on some friends who were very different while they were engaged in sexual activity, an event that horrifies and mystifies the girls.  However, to Blanche and Dorothy’s frustration, Rose’s story turns out to be about the breeding of two dogs, a Schnauzer and a Dalmatian, resulting in a litter of “Schnaulmatians."  Rose’s love of animals is a key part of her down-to-earth, simple, and childlike nature, which is expressed in her 4H diary entries as well as her oral stories.  Nostalgic but realistic, unsophisticated, and drawn out with “successively endless and irrelevant details,” Rose’s storytelling style frustrates the other roommates. However, the humor for audiences involves the unexpected twists at the end, the absolute disassociation from the topic at hand, and her sincerity in telling the story to help her friends through a problem.  

Playing off of Rose’s unique orations, Lifetime Television’s website has had a multi-media Flash feature in their The Golden Girls section called “Rose’s St. Olaf Stories,” which have an interactive game with downloadable transcriptions of stories Rose has told such as “the deep rooted vegetable festival” at which Rose got the prize of “most appealing yams."  Here, fans replay/relive Rose’s offbeat stories that illustrate her humble roots, indelible optimism, loyalty, integrity, and nurturing instincts, making her both an enduring and endearing friend but outlandish and frustrating storyteller.  Even today, Betty White continues to be a huge star with a Facebook campaign to get her on SNL as a host, featured roles in such films as The Proposal, and a new television show: Hot in Cleveland.

Blanche Devereaux

Blanche’s character centers on her being the sexiest, prettiest, and youngest in the group, a point she obnoxiously and often reiterates to the others.  The stories that Blanche tells have vivid, literary details to arouse our senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, eliciting audiences’ imaginations to experience the memory, even if dressed in the fantasy of nostalgic longing or pride - citing “the air thick with perfume,” “magnolia blossoms,” southern porches and verandahs, chivalrous behavior, heaving bosoms, and magical and rebellious adventures with former beaus.  In response to Blanche’s Southern tales of Gone with the Wind-like romances, Rose trustingly expresses astonishment, Sophia characteristically insults her about being sexually indiscriminate, and Dorothy typically challenges Blanche on her overly romanticized view of the socially oppressive Old South.  

In this mystique of glorified remembrance, audiences are occasionally given glimpses of the reality behind her youth: that she “wasn’t easy to love”; she had an ongoing competition over boys and beauty with her sisters, Charmaine and Virginia; and she was not always “devastatingly beautiful,” as evidenced by the Hollingsworth family photo album (“Ebtide,” Season Four).   In these cases, prideful Blanche prefers to rewrite her story to give her the happy ending and romantic heroine status she wishes to maintain. While Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia demonstrate a greater ease and acceptance of the changes that come with age, Blanche expresses the greatest fears of losing youth and beauty as she goes through “the change” (“The End of ‘the Curse,’” Second Season). When Sophia teases Blanche about getting old and Blanche denies that she is old, Sophia emphatically refuses to support “[her] vain, narcissistic fantasy of still being in your 40s” (“All Bets Are Off,” Season Five).   Seeing Blanche’s recurring reluctance to accept her changing status as a maturing woman, the audience gets a representation of many women’s panic over becoming devalued in American society for what she cannot help: living life and growing older as a natural and inevitable process. 

In this struggle, Blanche’s tales establish her in the traditional competitive role with all other women, including her roommates, for male sexual attention.  Relevant are the feminist cultural criticisms of Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, published just two years after the broadcast of this episode. In this work, Wolf identifies how American girls’ and women’s self-esteem are under constant assault due to their socially acculturated need to fit the beauty and sexual ideals portrayed by young, waif models that are marketed for men’s judgment and criteria for romantic partnering.  Wolf explains how the economic opportunities gained by the feminist movements and the sexual revolution have been accompanied by backlashes of increasingly demoralizing and unhealthy double standard expectations of beauty (10).   Such unrealistic physical ideals of femininity (young, thin, physically exposed, sexually available, soft) leave few options for women to develop strong self-esteems, which are marred by constant, learned self-ridicule for not measuring up and reinforced by men’s socialized attraction to such figures.  The damage of the “beauty myth” is aging women’s disappointing realization that they fit less and less the image of attractiveness, lovability, and desirability reinforced in mass culture.  Though, outside of the scope of this essay, more recent shifts in popular culture to male models of “metrosexuality” - the well dressed, extensively groomed urbane male - have expanded beauty expectations for men as well.  However, the crisis of losing attractiveness is certainly less for aging men than women, particularly for those men who become “distinguished” with grey hair and maturity, but, most importantly, confident in their financial stability as economic providers, a superior trait for males socio-evolutionarily. 

While conflict over men always resolve with friendship reigning supreme over a passing affair, the scenario replays in different episodes, sending a conflicting and confusing message.  As a vivacious, youthful, charming, and flirtatious Southern woman, Blanche is the character who most reassures audiences of the existence of beauty and allure in late middle age.  However, her identity, stories, and relationships with the other “girls” are conservative, replicating mainstream popular American heterosexual male-centered cultural values and attitudes.

Dorothy (Petrillo) Zbornak

As the show’s main protagonist and staunch opponent of “the beauty myth” that relegates women’s worth to their physical appearance, Dorothy is the daughter of immigrants who have worked hard, practiced Catholicism, and instilled in her a strong conscience for responsibility, accountability, and civility.  She is an educated teacher, smart, tall, masculine with a deep voice and serious face.  Often, she is acknowledged as possessing the most modern, rational point of view in the house.  While Dorothy is not forward thinking about all topics such as artificial insemination (“The Accurate Conception," Season Five), she does break many traditional codes such as having sex and getting pregnant before marriage, pursuing an education and career, displaying an open mind regarding sexual orientation and race, and choosing to live collectively with women.  Despite Sophia’s harsh criticism of her daughter’s “mistake” of getting pregnant before finishing college and marrying a “yutz” (ex-husband Stan Zbornak), Dorothy’s own history narratives have humor and compassion about her youthful judgments and acceptance of the consequences.  For example, during season three in the episode “Golden Moments Part II," each character recounts experiences about sex, during which Dorothy humorously details the brief, unexciting, and infrequent encounters she has had with her living ex-husband, Stan.  While she consistently portrays herself and her life as far from ideal, she also reaffirms her survival and lessons learned.  Dorothy remains realistic rather than pessimistic and generally content with things, accepting responsibility for decisions she has made.  Aware of her new life stage in her sixties, Dorothy distances herself from her past and makes the most of her life on her own terms in a process of “restorying."

During the first season, Dorothy is a fairly recent divorcée, characteristically expressing resentment and anger toward her ex-husband, who left her and replaced her with a younger wife.   Her road to healing and independence differs from her widowed roommates.  Throughout the series, Dorothy must continue to face her marital loss with Stan’s intermittent but recurring arrivals, typically unannounced.   Her stories are about surviving a degrading loss and moving on from her previous state of marital dependence to financial and emotional independence. Many times in a precarious position, Dorothy simultaneously defends her role as Stan’s former wife - reiterating that there were good times - even as she is disturbed by his visits, unsettling reminders of his unfaithfulness, rejection, and struggles with regaining a sense of herself.  However, Dorothy’s narrative of divorce is a heroine’s tale of victim-turned-survivor of adversity and abandonment.  Her actions and stories reveal that she is a professional with a self-supporting income, good relationships with her two adult children, the peace of mind from choosing not to settle for just anyone to avoid being without a man, and a home with her mother and good friends who are her loving family.  Further, as Stan plays suitor to Dorothy again, proposing remarriage to her - a temporarily appealing proposition for her - she declines with the effects of self-rejuvenation and empowerment.  Importantly, this decision to remain romantically separate from Stan confirms the end of their marriage narrative but allows for his reappearance in her life as a “haunt from the past” that may be a part of her but no longer as a sign of failure or abandonment.  

Over seven seasons of episodes, audiences tune in to watch Dorothy’s underdog stories.  Besides her marriage, Dorothy’s narratives of dating men is a recurring story about a no-show senior prom date (“What a Difference a Date Makes,” Season Six), her inability to get a date for a family wedding (“The Mangiacavallo Curse Makes a Lousy Wedding Present,” Season Five), or a once-appropriate suitor who transitions from lawyer to circus clown (“Love Under the Big Top,” Season Five).   Despite her short-lived or missed opportunities for romance, Dorothy continues to rewrite the narrative of her own life story beyond her marriage, recasting herself as a feminist, heroine, survivor, friend, and a sexual woman who flourishes in the company of friends and a true equal.  Unlike her marriage, Dorothy will not settle for less than the kind of man with whom she can be happy. 

During the show’s finale, “One Flew Out, Part II," Dorothy abandons the victim narrative of abandoned wife and replaces it with a genuine romance.  Dorothy’s story culminates in her saying to herself, “I’ve finally conquered my desperation,”  finding a partner who loves her as much as she loves him.   The resolution to Dorothy’s narrative of a heroine’s quest for fulfillment is a marriage, a conventional ending for comedies as a genre as well as traditional fairytales such as Cinderella, which promise that marriage leads to eternal happiness.  However, this conservative culmination of the show in romantic union undermines the show’s overriding emphasis on friendship.  Are friendships the appropriate relationships for women, regardless of age, until the “right man” comes along?  While Dorothy moves out of the communal women’s home to establish again a more traditional family life as a “Yankee” from Brooklyn in the American South with husband Lucas, the final scene portrays “the girls” sobbing in a mixture of joy and mourning, vowing their everlasting love for each other as a family.  Dorothy’s departure is devastating and contradictory to the show’s message of the primacy of friendship but also underscores the show as a romantic comedy.  This final image of affection among the girls reinforces the enduring communal living arrangement among Sophia, Blanche, and Rose but without Dorothy - at least for the one-season spin-off: The Golden Palace.

Stories, Aging, and Communal Desire

Their intertwined lives and story exchanges over the seasons of episodes create a shared recent past as well as present.  They tell stories of what they experienced together, comment on each other’s narrations of events, and engage in mutual self-disclosure, which develop these mature characters and their relationships before audience’s viewing eyes.  Indeed, as a mode of constructing character, narrative draws viewers into an intimate spectatorship with them.  While stories make the characters familiar to audience members, intimacy is further enabled by the staging method in the kitchen set of a rounded table and three chairs, conspicuously missing a fourth chair that was removed shortly after the show’s beginnings.  If occupied by a character on stage, she would have been someone with her back to the audience.  Indeed, it is the audience who symbolically occupies the invisible fourth chair.  Audiences sit at the table with them, listening to their first-person narratives, getting to know their personal histories.  The great accomplishment of the show is that through storytelling, viewers express involvement in the storied lives of “the girls” and an intimacy with them as audience participants.

However, the show complicates some of the more progressive aspects. Despite popular praise for the show’s appealing depictions of elderly women, the dialogue and comedy are mostly negative with self-deprecating and mutually insulting humor. More specifically, the jokes focus on “age-markers” such as senior status, age-appropriate behaviors, preferences and recollections that date someone in era, physical traits and abilities that indicate youth or older age, explicitly saying someone’s age, calling someone an “old lady," commentary on being wrinkled, pointing out that someone is unable to do something they were once able to do, or the like (Harwood and Giles).  On the one hand, the show responsibly addresses health issues associated with aging as well as loss of beauty concerns.  On the other hand, viewers can see that Blanche does not learn the lesson about her own value as a person apart from her external attractiveness.  Rather, she re-enacts the crisis cycle of panicking over aging, worrying that no man will find her attractive again, being reassured by “the girls," and meeting a man who gives her sexual attention, which results in her rebounding from the crisis over and over in numerous episodes.  Therefore, viewers are left with the sense that valuing inner-self is not a lesson that Blanche can learn; rather, she remains entrenched in the negative self-talk of popular culture, potentially reinforcing it in viewers who repeatedly view the show in a process of cultivation.  Granted, while Blanche’s self-image hinges on physical aspects culturally ingrained, resulting in an emotional oscillation between vanity and self-doubt, her love and appreciation of her “best friends” are not defined by these superficial standards.  These are the same criteria for beauty within which American women of popular culture are immersed as well. The process of “restorying” from the acculturation is easier said than done.  Perhaps it is an ideal to overcome language and behaviors that make women feel under valued when beauty fades, and the reality is more like an ongoing process of good days and bad days during the search for new terms on which to base self-worth as an older woman and new discursive forms to express those concepts. 

While reflecting typical attitudes about gender, The Golden Girls also promotes positive ways of aging in all four characters through their strength, love, intelligence, and endurring commitment to friends.  As the show’s theme song, “Thank You for Being a Friend” pronounces, the greatest gift is friendship.   Ultimately, they assert the greatest reassurance one can ask for: not to be left alone.  Obviously, age is a strong factor in narration, revealing the storyteller’s point of view.  Importantly, what results from these orations is a shared, personal, and evolving life story as a newly formed, nontraditional “family.”  The Golden Girls demonstrates to American viewers ways to recount meaningful moments in our lives through storytelling, expressing identity and cultivating intimate fellowship with friends who become “family."  Contrastively, in a “Living Arrangements” statistical report produced by the Administration of Aging, the study indicates the following: "About 30.5% (11.2 million) of all noninstitutionalized older persons in 2008 lived alone (8.3 million women, 2.9 million men). They represented 39.5 of older women and 18.5% of older men. The proportion living alone increases with advanced age. Among women aged 75 and over, for example, half (50%) lived alone."

In other words, the reality of unmarried, mature women is that they mostly live alone, even more so with advancing age.  American senior women, who are not their kin, do not live in an independent household community such as on The Golden Girls.  However, the sentiment expressed most among “alternative” fans in blogs, such as the one written by Dawn Right Nasty, is that they would like to live with their friends in their old age, just like the characters in The Golden Girls: "I've decided I want to be like the Golden Girls when I grow up. Wouldn't it be great to spend your autumn years swanning round a big house making acerbic remarks all day with nobody getting uptight about it? Not only that, they have their own housekeeper and ice cream magically appears in the freezer without anyone having to go out and shop for it..."  (6:19pm) While this part of the blog post has a light-hearted start, humorously stating the desire for communal living in the company of friends, such as modeled in the show,  it takes a more serious turn: “So isn't it about time somebody started thinking about retirement facilities for gay people? Where do the gayers go to die?” Representative of many less conventional bloggers’ posts, the writer, a self-declared “queer," calls out for a similar model of communal living with new configurations of “family” such as “the girls” have with more inclusive notions of “family values.” 

Discussing this issue during an interview, cast and writers converse with audiences members who acknowledge that “from the show’s beginning, one of its most vocal and fervent groups of fans has been the gay community . . . with [the show’s] courageous portrayal of gay characters,” (Inside Media at the Paley Center).  Although, comic gags are often stereotypical, such as the flamboyant gay male, the show largely presents “alternative lifestyle” individuals and numerous minority characters with sensitivity as they face substantial social obstacles in mainstream culture.  From a social equity standpoint, nontraditional families living together is a move in the right direction toward transforming  “communal desire” (Faircloth) into actual communal living: a cohesive unit of interdependent adults co-habitating in a spirit of “positive aging” (Gergen and Gergen).  Such residential support communities can replace commonly accepted notions of aging as demeaning, lonely, and static modes of existence.  Instead, with the aid of general good health, The Golden Girls present for audiences an older age that is a time of friendship, kin, healing, growth, “restorying,” romance, and activity that reflect contemporary alternative notions of “family” while conversely offering images of positive communal living. 

Speaking volumes, the headlines on Lifetime Television’s The Golden Girls website read, “We love the Golden Girls” as opposed to “We love The Golden Girls.”  Discernibly, fans’ devotion is not only to the show but to the characters themselves.  The point is to acknowledge the powerful and “real” role that these characters occupy in the lives of their most devout followers. Clearly, even after the show’s conclusion, members extend their involvement with the characters and other fans, mixing fiction with reality, as exemplified in the expressions of mourning and tribute to three deceased actresses (Rue McClanahan, Beatrice Arthur, and Estelle Getty): “This is yet again another sad loss to the world of television. RIP Dorothy. . . . Ma and Stan are waiting with open arms for ya” (Charley28).  Despite our contemporary popular American culture’s undeniable and overwhelming focus on youth, large audiences continue to embrace the show’s biased portrayals of perhaps atypically healthful, personally fulfilling, active, and adventurous experiences of the second half of life in a supportive and engaging communal environment.  Their hope is to create the same living dynamic for their own lives in their Golden Years.  Whether they achieve it is yet to be seen.

Works Cited

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Bell, John.  “In Search of a Discourse on Aging: The Elderly on Television.” The Gerontologist 32.3 (1992): 305-11.

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Booth, Wayne.  The Art of Growing Older: Writers on Living and Aging.  Selected, and with Personal Reflections by Wayne Booth.  New York, NY: Posieden Press, 1992.

Cassata, M. “Introduction: Images in Transition.”  Television Looks at Aging.  NY: Television Information Office, 1985.

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Dawn Right Nasty.  “Redhaired Queer: House of Right Nasty”  26 December 2005.  Web.  2 January 2010.

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