Thank you for being a friend, and a trailblazer
Since its conception, television has been influential in shaping, reinforcing and challenging the cultural status quo.
So much so, that the themes and demographics represented in some TV shows have gone on to inspire writers and networks to diverge from the tired old narratives and character tropes shown time and again, and portray meaningful, complex characters and plotlines.
The Golden Girls, which ran from 1985-1992, was not entirely revolutionary for having older female characters in its core cast. What was completely daring was the choice to have a main cast comprised solely of women over 50, on primetime television, whose identities weren’t wholly confined to mothers and wives, and whose purpose extended beyond their reproductive and home-keeping abilities.
More daring still, was the idea that four ageing women might still have a sex drive, feel sexy and act on their desires. It’s also worthwhile mentioning that beyond the challenging, flawed and delightful characterisations of each of the main cast, the subject matter the show chose to deal with was also quite progressive for its time, and might even be considered that by some audiences today – such as the AIDS crisis, homosexuality, immigration, and homelessness.
The fact that showrunner Susan Harris broached the concept of sexuality and desire in ageing women was groundbreaking in itself, but the way in which it was portrayed and fleshed out was doubly impressive and significant for the way it reshaped the cultural discourse surrounding ageing and sexuality.
Sexuality and ageing, especially where women are concerned, are concepts which are often only connected to point out the lack of the former as the latter occurs. In a world where women are defined and measured by their fertility and sexuality – key epithets of female performativity – ageing women are pushed to the margins as these are exactly the same two roles presumed to be lost by them. Not only is the sexless older woman trope in direct contrast to overwhelming evidence that shows people of all genders and orientations enjoy healthy, active sex lives well into their 80s; where older women have been portrayed to have sex lives in pop culture, it’s often been the butt of a joke, because how disgusting and ludicrous an idea that Grandma could possibly be having sex!? Yuck!
The ways in which the act of sex and the cast’s sexualities are explored are neither stagnant nor one-dimensional. It’s not just a matter of ‘sex is good and women are allowed to enjoy it’ – though, that alone was certainly revolutionary enough in the 80s.
Even the girls disagree sometimes about experiences and approaches to dating and sex. Blanche is most overtly emboldened by her sexuality, but the writers avoided making her the amoral slut and hypersexual geriatric stereotype by exploring the embeddedness of slut-shaming and identity around female pleasure in a number of episodes – for example, victim blaming herself when she is sexually harassed and propositioned by her professor at night school, or fearing her loss of worth when she begins menopause as she feels her worth is entirely tied to her sexuality.
Rose, the sweet farm girl from Minnesota, often acts as the contrarian to Blanche’s hypersexual views, representing the spectrum of attitudes towards sex and sexuality. In the episode Rose the Prude, Rose becomes worried when she starts seeing a man and wants to sleep with him, but feels insecure in her sexuality since being widowed. The slower, more tender moments in the show such as the earnest discussion between Rose and her partner Arnie allow room to explore the intricacies of dating and sex that people of all ages and genders can related to, and the various feelings and attitudes towards the act of sex and sexual pleasure.
The one-two punch of making the plotlines around sex both realistic and still bitingly hilarious comes when Dorothy explodes, “who cares, Rose: did you and Arnie hit the sheets or not?!” The writers – most of whom are women – affirm the idea that sexual empowerment isn’t necessarily about the performativity of being overtly sexual.
The Golden Girls arguably set up a successful formula of an all-female ensemble whose stories revolved around their colourful dating and sex lives (Designing Women, Sex and the City, Hot in Cleveland), proving that audiences are interested in seeing themselves as subjects and appreciating different lived experiences. At the very least, it makes for very entertaining television.