Going for the Gold: The Golden Girls are a Hit!


This article originally appeared in Issue# 45

But some viewers find them more brassy than sassy.

"I like this program because it gives me hope that there's life after 50!"
–40-year-old woman

"The Golden Girls is supposed to be about women who can get along without men – and all they do is talk about them."
–40-year-old man

Only a few years ago, anyone pitching a prime time program around the unlikely concept of three aging females sharing a household in Miami would have been considered ripe for the great TV asylum in the sky.

Despite the accelerating graying of America, the youth culture reigned. Asidefrom a few bright spots — Angela Lansbury of Murder, She Wrote among them, television's few 50-plus characters were negative and stereotyped.

Then NBC President Brandon Tartikoff invited writer Susan Harris to create a comedy series with serious overtones about what it means to grow older in America. With this recognition of television's new stage of maturity came a new strain of controversy: Does a comedy series centering around the issues of aging enhance or demean the identity of older people, especially older women?

Right from its September, 1985 debut the show's popularity has never been in question, and it's been a big Emmy winner as well. Among other awards all of its leading actresses have won Emmys for their portrayals.

The Golden Girls' high ratings indicate that its hoped-for popularity with viewers of all ages has been more than realized. As expected, the show has consistently rated higher among the older set, especially women, but it also held the attention of younger women, and, somewhat unexpectedly, the teen-age audience, who as a matter of record gravitate toward situation comedy.

Playing in Buffalo

Even with this financial success and critical acclaim, divergent viewer opinions about the show focused on the personalities and occupations of its strong-willed and lively female characters. After listening to the reactions of friends, students and acquaintances, I concluded that you either love The Golden Girls or you hate it, although a few comments demonstrated a love-hate relationship. As a communications professor with a long-time interest in the portrayal of the elderly, I wondered about this seemingly schizoid response. The small convenience sample used as the basis for this article was an attempt to read the pulse of the show's audience.

In all, my research team interviewed 34 people in the greater Buffalo, New York, area at such sites as a large municipal hospital, state university, shopping mall, a hairdresser's and a senior citizen's center. The sample was composed of 19 women and 15 men ranging in age from 16 to 88 years. They were asked: "Do you watch The Golden Girls? Would you tell us what you like about the program — or dislike?" Overall, 65 percent of the sample liked the program, while 35 percent disliked it. More women (59 percent) than men (41 percent) held favorable opinions, while those who disliked the show divided evenly between the genders.

Buffalo seemed to be fertile ground for such a sample, since the show's local Arbitron ratings were even more dramatically positive than the nationwide Nielsens. According to Arbitron, the program climbed from a 21 rating and a 35 percent share (of the audience tuned in during its time slot) in the Buffalo market in November, 1985 to a 28 rating and 49 percent share in November 1986 and an even higher 29 rating and 50 share in November 1987. Once again, in Buffalo, older women and men were the show's heaviest viewers, followed by younger women and teens.

If Buffalo viewers liked the show so much, what did they like about it? Generally, for our pool of interviewees the hopeful message of "there's life after 50" seemed to be the key. As one 53-year-old married woman put it, "Exaggerated or not, I think the basic premise holds up:

There are a lot of golden girls out there, full of life and mischief, not ready to roll over and play dead. They have sexual desires, too, destroying the myth that they're nonentities just because they're growing older!"

Viewers also appreciated the friendships and full lives of the characters. As one 42-year-old woman put it, the program "tells us that women without men in their lives need not be lonely." As a female hairstylist, 26, offered: "I like it because it's so realistic. I know people just like them. Two of my friends - divorcees - live together because they figure, 'Why struggle and be lonely when you can team up with someone who's in the same boat?'"

New Beginnings

The older adults in our sample appreciated the fact that aging does not mean throwing in the towel. It seems obvious that The Golden Girls has stamped an indelible message on the national consciousness of what it can mean to be aging and female in America. All the girl talk about sexual desires must surely have awakened the entire country to the notion that sexuality is not the exclusive province of the young.

In theory, viewers become involved with the television characters only if they can imagine them as real people. Soap operas are well known for their ability to involve their audiences through carefully drawn characterizations that enlist their sympathies. The Golden Girls, like many successful weekly series, functions the same way. Its characters grow and develop, revealing strengths and vulnerabilities that establish a direct relationship between the fictional character and the real person on the other side of the screen

"Older women on television are nearly invisible. An older man might be seen on TV every 22 minutes, but an older woman would only be seen every four to five hours."
– Media specialist Richard Davis, writing in 1984

Of those we talked to, many of the show's critics also focused on these characterizations. Many, for example, assessed Blanche, Rose and Dorothy as sensitive, mature women who not only show love and respect for each other but share a responsibility for each other. Others, however, see them as insensitive - immature - not golden but brassy, with Sophia's advanced age an excuse for the writers to exercise bawdiness to test how much they can get away with.

"I like it sometimes and sometimes I don't," reflected a super senior in her late eighties interviewed between games of bingo at a senior citizens center. "It's funny, but then a lot of times it's silly. I like Sophia. She doesn't say a lot, but when she does, it's right on the mark!"

It's often said that if a story's characters are strong and carefully drawn they will write a story that can be never-ending. Many of our respondents considered the show's characters more memorable than the storylines. Sometimes the women acted out of "love" and "concern", but often they were just plain "silly" or "foolish." "Fantasy," "unreal," and "stretching it," were terms often used to describe content.

Despite numerous plot stretches, faithful viewers have also been treated to a variety of issues of aging ordinarily ignored by television, ranging from hot flashes to preoccupations with dying mothers and deceased husbands, as well as the trials of widowhood and divorce. Viewers have shared in the bittersweet reflections on mortality that follow the death of a parent. They've also experienced the poignant contrast between the aging of the body and the ever-youthful spirit that follows each of us through life.

Audiences of all ages, but particularly the old, have empathized with the characters' feelings of despair and fear after having their home ransacked by thieves, the conflict between loss of privacy and the camaraderie of having a roommate and the joy of dressing the way you want despite what others may think.

Growing Up

For years, the older age group has been symbolically annihilated by television though sheer under representation of their numbers and negative, stereotypical portrayals. The Golden Girls has done much to present a graying America in a positive light. Despite its humor, the show's strength lies in its ability to present the concerns of older people in a format viewers of all ages can identify with. Its characters shine most when their problems and feelings are real and believable. As role models, they need to be developed more seriously. They need to be shown as capable of development and learning, perhaps through the kind of educational programs, activist or social service volunteering or work with children that many older people become involved with.

The Golden Girls is one answer to the many older people who have asked: "Where am I on television?" It has also made it possible for younger people to see themselves in its post-50 characters. As always, its premise works best when it rests firmly in real feelings and situations instead of sight gags and one-liners. Whether it can find and retain this grounding in realism while showcasing the older adult will be the true test of whether it marks the beginning of a new "Golden Age" for television. Only then can we say that television has truly grown up as well.

What Viewers Love/Hate About The Golden Girls

  • Tight, original writing and witty dialogue. Situations are novel and amusing.
  • Sharply defined characters include three single, mature women and the 80-plus mother of one of them. All are feisty, gutsy and outspoken.
  • The message is loud and clear: Over-50 women can live without men and not be lonely! Viewers appreciate the clear message that aging doesn't mean throwing in the towel.
  • Despite its humor, the writing is often clichéd and situations far-fetched; the writers are straining for the one-liner laugh.
  • The characters are overdrawn and predictable — three immature, single women and their 80-year-old mascot who shocks with scatological language.
  • These single women are supposed to be happy living without men, yet all they do is talk about them!
Author Bio: 

Mary Cassata is Associate Professor of Mass Communication and Director of Project Daytime in the Communication Department, School of Informatics, at the University at Buffalo. Barbara Irwin is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Canisius College and Director of Canisius Video Institute. She also serves as Co-Chair of Project Daytime at the University of Buffalo.