The Dark Side of ‘The Golden Girls’

Would some of the sitcom’s un-”woke” jokes have made it on air today?

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The Golden Girls circle the cheesecake (Photo: NBC)

Who doesn’t love The Golden Girls? The NBC sitcom was binge-worthy television before binge-watching was even a thing.

I’m old enough to have watched it sporadically during its original run, from 1985 to 1992, when high school and college took priority over TV. If that had been the end of it, I now might regard it the way I do other shows from that era, like Moonlighting and The Wonder Years: fondly remembered but notable mostly for its nostalgic value. Sitcoms like The Cosby Show and A Different World were even bigger hits at the time, and they were far more relatable and culturally significant to me.

Then something unexpected happened in the late ’90s. I got hooked on Golden Girls reruns on Lifetime. The network would air an old episode at 11pm and another right after, at 11.30, and occasionally, they’d do an entire weekend of nothing but The Golden Girls. (Am I the only one who’s always dreaded the two-part series finale, not because its bad but because it truly was the end of an era?)

A for-the-rest-of-my-lifetime love — and habit — had begun. The Golden Girls was the first time I can remember binge-watching anything, and by the time I left the United States and moved to Buenos Aires in 2006, I must have watched every episode at least several dozen times.

While living abroad, I was lost without Dorothy (Beatrice Arthur), Blanche (Rue McClanahan), Rose (Betty White), and Sophia (Estelle Getty), until my friend Zena bought me the seven-season DVD collection and shipped it to me in BA. It became my lifeline, my connection to home in a strange land where few people spoke English. I spent the next 13 years living in Australia, Bangkok, Cape Town, and across Europe, and if there was any pop-cultural artifact that connected me with people on every continent, it was my love for The Golden Girls. There literally were fans everywhere.

Now that I’m back in the U.S., and DVD players in furnished rentals are passe, I still can get regular Golden Girls fixes via Hulu, Logo TV, and Hallmark Channel, all of which have satisfied my quarantine needs. As I’ve been watching, I’ve noticed that for all The Golden Girls’ ahead-of-its-time-ness (would Designing Women, Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, Hot in Cleveland, and Girls have existed without them?), it was sometimes surprisingly out of touch in hindsight.

It’s hard to imagine some of its race jokes even making it on air today. Two years ago, I wrote a piece for HuffPost called “10 Times ‘The Golden Girls’ Was Totally Tone Deaf About Race,” and upon closer inspection, I realize that race wasn’t the only thing our beloved ladies occasionally fumbled.

Think I’m insane, remembering a show that never was? Well, sit down and let’s sift through the archives, shall we?

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“A Little Romance” (Photo: NBC)

“A Little Romance,” Season 1, Episode 13

This one’s A-story is Rose’s relationship with a “little person.” The first time I saw the episode, I was as blindsided as Rose was when he dumped her at the end because she wasn’t Jewish. I kind of wished they’d built the episode around their religious differences instead of his height. (SATC would wring sharp, clever comedy out of Jews and marriage with Charlotte and Harry more than a decade later.) “A Little Romance” was pretty funny anyway, but if social media had existed back then, I suspect the outrage over the “little people” jokes would have been thunderous.

“Blanche’s Little Girl,” Season 3, Episode 14

The show’s constant slut-shaming is one thing. Blanche actually seems to pride herself on being loose. But when her daughter Rebecca comes to visit, and she’s a lot rounder than she used to be, Sophia goes to town with the fat jokes (as she also does with one of Blanche’s old boyfriends in “The One That Got Away,” Season 4, Episode 3). Alas, the overweight digs are no funnier coming from Sophia than they are coming from Rebecca’s fiance, who, unlike Sophia, gets the boot at the end of the episode.

“Scared Straight,” Season 4, Episode 9

This is the one where Blanche finds out her brother Clayton is gay. It’s actually pretty well written, and kudos to the writers for even touching the then-taboo topic of homosexuality. If only they’d excised that one bit where Sophia walks into the living room as Blanche is blowing into Dorothy’s ear. We know she’s only teaching Dorothy how to turn a guy on, but Sophia doesn’t, and she says, “I’m going to be dead in 24 hours. Couldn’t you stay in the closet for one more day?” For a show so beloved by gays that so often got it right when tackling LGBTQ issues, this was a groaner of a punchline.

“You Gotta Have Hope,” Season 4, Episode 17

Rose thinks Bob Hope is her father (seriously), and the girls go to the locker room of a men’s club dressed as men, hoping to persuade Hope to perform at a charity fundraiser. As Dorothy and Blanche are comforting Rose in a group hug, a couple of guys walk in, take a look at them, and one says, “We’ve got to get that antique dealer off the membership committee.” This is a two-for-one offender: First, there’s the blatant bigotry, and second, the implication that antiquing is a gay thing, or a feminine thing, or whatever.

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“Fiddler on the Ropes” (Photo: NBC)

“Fiddler on the Ropes,” Season 4, Episode 18

In this one, Sophia buys a Cuban prizefighter who turns out to be a budding violin virtuoso. When the girls find out he’s been spending his nights practicing violin to get into Juilliard, Sophia says, “The opposition has kidnapped our fighter and is trying to turn him into a sissy by making him play the violin.” As anyone who grew up gay knows, “sissy” is a trigger word, not funny when Nicki Minaj uses it and certainly not funny in a Sophia one-liner.

“Sick and Tired: Parts 1 and 2,” Season 5, Episode 1 and 2

This is the two-parter where Dorothy is diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, but the funniest bits involve Blanche’s attempt to write a romance novel. At one point, she bemoans her writer’s block by saying, “Now I know why Hemingway killed himself.” I’m sure Hemingway’s family wouldn’t have been particularly amused, and with suicide being such a sensitive subject today and people taking mental health more seriously than they did in 1989, I doubt this quip would make it out of the writers’ room in 2020.

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“Where’s Charlie?” (Photo: NBC)

“Where’s Charlie?,” Season 7, Episode 5

The Golden Girls beautifully mined comic gold out of Dorothy’s brother Phil, a cross-dresser and a never-seen recurring character. Then it flubbed spectacularly in the last scene of this final-season episode. Blanche is training a baseball player named Stevie, and she gets him to wear women’s underwear to be a better hitter. He becomes so good that he decides to play baseball in Tokyo. In the final scene, he returns, wearing women’s clothing and declaring that he wants to stay in Miami and be with Blanche, who declines him saying that he hurt her by initially choosing baseball over her. After Dorothy cracks a cheap, tired Stevie-to-Edie joke (sigh), Blanche insists it’s not the dress. After he leaves, though, she tells Dorothy and Sophia, “It was the dress.” Rue McClanahan’s comic timing and delivery are so perfect (as usual) that she sells the punchline, but by 2020 standards, it isn’t particularly “woke” about sartorial gender fluidity.

“Goodbye, Mr. Gordon,” Season 7, Episode 14

Rose invites Dorothy and Blanche to appear on a talk-show panel about women who live together, but it’s actually a talk-show panel about women who live together as lesbians. When the host takes questions from the studio audience, Sophia raises her hand and asks Blanche, “What kind of pain and embarrassment has this lifestyle caused your mother?” It sounds like something an old lady would have asked in 1992, but it’s still as cringe-worthy today as it was then.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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