‘Golden Girls’ is back — but for some, it never left

By Sharyn Jackson

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Every morning, even before he has breakfast, Elliott Powell starts his day with four piano chords and a sunny view of Miami ushering in another rerun of “The Golden Girls.”

“They’re just part of my routine,” said Powell, 31, who teaches gender studies at the University of Minnesota, and has a shrine of photographs from the show on his office wall.

To the delight of die-hard fans, the 1980s sitcom about four female roommates living it up in South Florida during their golden years is now available for 24/7 streaming on Hulu, priming a new generation of fans to join those who have been obsessed for years.

Since the show ended in 1992 (with an estimated 27.2 million watching the finale), it has repeatedly cycled back into popular consciousness, in large part thanks to fans.

All around the world, fans continue to get together to watch the show or dress up like the characters in it.

Shannon Arend and Lee VanLith posed as the daughter-mother duo Dorothy and Sophia for Halloween. Charles Frame of Minneapolis flew to New York City just to see a “Golden Girls” puppet show. Derek Scott keeps a “little horde” of memorabilia from the show.

Now with its entree into streaming television, fans are feeling validated that the show they’ve long loved is getting yet another push into the spotlight.

“It’s been fun to watch the rest of the world figure out that ‘Golden Girls’ was amazing,” said Bradley Traynor, a self-described “super fan” and co-host of a Twin Cities radio show.

A hit is born

Starring television royalty, “The Golden Girls” ran from 1985 to 1992 on NBC. At the time, its success was like “lightning in a bottle,” said Jim Colucci, author of “Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind the Lanai.”

Everything from the venerated cast and the edgy writing to the shoulder-padded nightgowns “all came together magically” to make an unexpected hit, he said.

It launched a trope seen on many shows since, in which four women with vastly different personalities act as a sort of surrogate family to one another. There was brainy Dorothy, flirtatious Blanche, naive Rose and wise Sophia. All of them were bitingly funny and overtly sexual, a rare depiction of women of a certain age, both then and now.

“It was subversive that they dated a lot,” said Kevin Murphy, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, who hopes to develop a course on the show with Powell. “The characters were unabashedly sexual and inhabited bodies that were not supposed to be sexual,” he said.

Patti Reynolds, 62, always appreciated the characters’ candor.

“They were way ahead of their time as far as being vocal about their sexuality,” she said. “Also, they were honest with each other in a kind way.”

Ian Thielke, 38, would watch the show as a child alongside his buttoned-up grandmother, who has since passed away. He remembers his surprise at her “laughing her head off” at a sex joke. “My grandmother would never say stuff like that,” he said.

Empathy and family

For many fans, the show’s ability to confront the social and political issues of the 1980s helped them see themselves on screen. The characters frequently addressed issues of the day head-on, including ageism, poverty and HIV/AIDS. By having empathetic, older women sharing their views, hot-button issues became relatable to diverse swaths of viewers, Colucci said.

“It seems every audience, particularly minority audiences, all feel like the show was made for us — even if it was about four old white ladies — because they are so personal and coming from a place of love,” he said.

Powell was born the year the show premiered, and he first watched it in reruns with his mother.

“As I got older, I would notice things going on in the show,” he said, “like how the show re-imagines the notion of family.”

During the Reagan era, when a family meant dad, mom and the kids, people who lived outside of the norm saw themselves reflected on a show in which men consistently played second fiddle to independent, single women, Powell said.

For gays and lesbians, the show served as a kind of validation that family could be nontraditional. In one episode, Rose has heart surgery, and the other women aren’t allowed to see her in the hospital because they are not related to her. Their frustration mirrored that of same-sex partners at the height of the AIDS epidemic who could not visit their loved ones in hospitals.

Traynor, 41, came to view the characters as “my TV aunts” who were there to guide him as he discovered his sexuality.

“Being a gay kid in the closet and trying to figure out what that meant, ‘The Golden Girls’ spoke to me in a way,” he said. “They were speaking to me at that young age about speaking your mind, living your true self.”

He would return to his TV aunts years later for their comfort and guidance.

“I got sober in my late 20s, and one of the things that kept me alive at that time would be to put in a DVD of ‘The Golden Girls,’” Traynor said. “That would be my security blanket.”

Controversial Topics

“The Golden Girls” was radical when it was launched in 1985 just because of its cast of characters: four older women living together, without husbands. Health problems, the indignities of ageism and the struggle of being cash-strapped in one’s later years were obvious material for episodes. But the writers went further, pushing the envelope for sitcom subject matter into some of the biggest controversies of the 1980s. Here are just a few of the issues tackled on “The Golden Girls.”

Health care

Season 5, Episodes 1 &2. Dorothy’s (Bea Arthur) doctor doesn’t believe her when she tells him she is sick. When she finally gets a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome, she tells off the doctor, in one of Arthur’s all-time great speeches.

HIV/AIDS

Season 5, Episode 19. Rose (Betty White) learns that a blood transfusion could have been contaminated with HIV. “This isn’t supposed to happen to people like me,” Rose says. “I’m a good person.” Blanche (Rue McClanahan) angrily responds, “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease.”

Homosexuality, same-sex marriage

Season 4, Episode 9; Season 6, Episode 14. Blanche’s brother Clayton comes out to her and she supports him, but two seasons later, she has a tantrum when he announces he is marrying a man. It takes older, wiser Sophia (Estelle Getty) to help Blanche come around. “Everyone wants someone to grow old with,” Sophia says, “and shouldn’t everyone have that chance?”

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