Bea Arthur passed away this weekend, and the reaction to it has been kind of amazing. She was eighty-six, old enough to be a grandmother to people my age. The Golden Girls went off the air when I was seven and still watching PBS. And yet my Facebook newsfeed is flooded with status updates and posted links in her memory—all by people close to my age.
I only started watching The Golden Girls reruns recently, but I loved it immediately. Twenty years ago, I suspect people loved it for the witty dialogue, likeable characters, and great acting. People still do, but it’s kind of taken on a deeper meaning years later. For one thing, it was surprisingly ahead of its time. Watching it now, I notice the lack of cell phones and the Internet (on one I just saw, a character was going to call the airline to change her flight, and I was just thinking, “Oh, yeah…I guess that’s what people did before you could book flights online.”), but I also notice how little has changed since the 80s. They did a fair number of Very Special Episodes, but the issues don’t come off as annoyingly preachy as they do on a lot of other shows—partly because they don’t end with a sappy parent-child scene, but also because they’re things we’re still talking about today: homelessness, illegal immigration, gay marriage.
Weirdly, I don’t think this show would be picked up if it were introduced today, even though people are living longer, healthier lives than ever and you’d think there’d be a large market for shows about AARP members. But TV today is more Gossip Girl than Golden Girls. Teenagers are the ones who are buying things made by the companies paying for the shows, and advertisers won’t pay a lot to market products to people who’ve already made up their minds about what they like.
I think one reason this show resonates with people my age is that the women on the show are actually in a position similar to a lot of us: single, dating, living with roommates. We see these grandmothers in their fifties and sixties (and, in Sophia’s case, eighties) dating and having relationships that don’t usually last, or having some argument with a family member, or getting into some crazy situation like being mistaken for prostitutes, then going home to their best friends and talking about it over cheesecake. And the thing is, it doesn’t look so bad. The Golden Girls never beat its audience over the head with the message that you don’t have to fade into obscurity and become boring and irrelevant once you have gray hair and your children have grown up, but it still got that point across. The girls all had interesting lives. They had jobs, took classes, did charity work, and dated—and we never questioned that men would still be attracted to them at their ages. Sure, we’d laugh at Blanche pretending to be younger than she was, or at the numerous jokes about how many men she’d slept with, but not at the fact that she was sleeping with men at all.
The other reason, I think, is that we enjoy watching shows about groups of female friends no matter how old they are. How many books, movies and TV shows are there about groups of four girls? Now and Then, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City and its knockoffs Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle…I could go on and on. The Golden Girls showed us that those types of friendships exist at any age. Come to think of it, if Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte from Sex and the City had married and had children young and then become single in middle age, they might have ended up something like Blanche, Dorothy, and Rose, respectively.
We’ll miss you, Bea. At least we have moments like this one to remember you by: