‘Golden Girls’ at 35: 5 ways the classic sitcom was way ahead of its time

Thirty-five years ago, four geriatric gal pals came into America’s living rooms and won our hearts. 

Monday marks the milestone anniversary of the premiere of NBC’s “The Golden Girls,” which debuted Sept. 14, 1985. The groundbreaking sitcom ran for seven seasons and centered on four single, older women – Dorothy (Beatrice Arthur), Rose (Betty White), Blanche (Rue McClanahan) and Sophia (Estelle Getty) – living together in Miami.

The show was progressive in its time for its depictions of four confident, sex-positive women over 50, and its willingness to tackle social issues, even imperfectly. (Hulu pulled Season 3 episode “Mixed Blessing” earlier this summer over blackface concerns. In the episode, which centers on an interracial marriage, Blanche and Rose appear wearing mud masks and say they’re “not really Black.”) 

Here are five times when the show got it right. 

1. When the girls taught us about gay rights 

“Golden Girls” prominently featured LGBTQ characters and issues right from the start, beginning with its pilot episode featuring out-and-proud gay cook Coco (Charles Levin). Dorothy’s lesbian friend, Jean (Lois Nettleton), visits in Season 2 episode “Isn’t It Romantic?” and falls for Rose, who doesn’t reciprocate Jean’s feelings but warmly embraces her as a friend all the same.

The show also tackled the coming out of Blanche’s brother, Clayton (Monte Markham), and her own homophobia, in a pair of episodes: Season 4’s “Scared Straight” and Season 6’s “Sister of the Bride.” The latter is particularly hard-hitting, as Blanche struggles to accept Clayton’s partner Doug (Michael Ayr) and makes herself the victim. “What did you mean when you told me you could accept my being gay?” Clayton asks Blanche. “Did you mean it was OK as long as I was celibate? OK as long as I don’t fall in love?”

2. When Blanche challenged stigmas about HIV/AIDS

“Golden Girls” tackled the AIDS crisis head on in Season 5’s “72 Hours,” which aired in 1990. In the episode, Rose is informed that she may have contracted HIV during a blood transfusion years earlier and is told to get a test. Anxiously awaiting the results, she asks Blanche, “Why is this happening to me? I mean, this shouldn’t happen to people like me.” To which Blanche replies, “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins.”

3. When Rose confronted her addiction 

In Season 4 episode “High Anxiety,” Rose shocks the group when she reveals she’s been hooked on painkillers for more than 30 years, starting with a back injury. The girls try to get her to kick her habit by staying up with her all night and ensuring she doesn’t use for 24 hours, but Rose eventually caves. After saying she’s “too embarrassed” and “ashamed,” she reluctantly checks into rehab. “What is there to be ashamed of?” Dorothy tells her. “You have a medical problem.”

4. When Dorothy’s star student was deported 

Years before President Trump enacted his “zero tolerance” immigration policy and kids in cages made headlines, “Golden Girls” tackled the cruelties of deportation in a Season 2 episode, “Dorothy’s Prized Pupil.” Dorothy secretly enters her favorite student, Mario (a young Mario Lopez) in a writing contest for his essay on what it means to be American. He wins and earns media attention, but soon gets a visit from U.S. immigration officials, who deport him for his illegal status. “I read a story once that said that in America you always feel like you’re among friends,” Dorothy tells Mario near the end of the episode, referring to his essay. “That was just a story,” Mario replies.

5. When Sophia faced a friend’s potential suicide 

In Season 5 episode “Not Another Monday,” Sophia’s friend Martha (Geraldine Fitzgerald) reveals that she is planning to end her life and wants Sophia to be there when she does. Afraid of growing older and feeling she has nothing to live for, Martha nearly goes through with the suicide plan, until Sophia talks her out of it, saying, “You’re not as ready to die as you think you are. You still wanna live, kid.” They promise to be there to comfort and talk to each other as friends, reminding viewers that depression is a very real struggle for senior citizens that often goes unnoticed.

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