The Subversive Pleasures of “The Golden Girls”

When I was growing up, one of my chief television pleasures was The Golden Girls.  Though I was quite young at the time (I was only a year old when it premiered) those four delightful women still stand out as one of my favourite things about childhood.  As I got older, my appreciation for the series grew, as I recognized not only how powerful these women were, but also how queer-affirming the series was in many ways.  Indeed, it provided me with some much-needed solace during the turbulent years of undergrad.

Then came graduate school, and I started to turn my analytical lens on my favourite series, somewhat afraid of what I might find.  To my surprise, however, I found the series even more subversive than I had remembered, and Kathleen Rowe’s influential book The Unruly Woman finally gave me the vocabulary I needed to elaborate upon the series’ subversive gender politics.  Now I not only felt a deep spiritual connection to these women (especially the oversexed Blanche), but now also recognized the ways in which their actions and speech challenge the ideology that dictates what behaviour(s) our culture expects of elderly women.  These four women refuse to accept the limitations imposed by age, maintaining their sexual interest in men, laughing at themselves, and embracing the earthier, more visceral sides of their aging bodies (the numerous scatological jokes made by Sophia are excellent examples of this).  In short, they are everything that we as a culture train women not to be, and in doing so they call attention to the ways in which those expectations are constructed by our culture.

Viewing this series with my students recently, I was amazed at how well this series holds up, and how the transgressive/subversive pleasures it offers continue to pack a political punch even now, 30 years (30!) after it premiered.  After all, we are continually told that we now live in a postfeminist society in which the strident feminism of an earlier generation is no longer needed nor desirable (nor, some would say, “cool” or “stylish”).  The Golden Girls continues to serve as a potent and powerful reminder of the ways in which women can and do challenge the structures designed to police and discipline their behaviour.

Perhaps most subversively, these women actively desire men without sacrificing their closeness to each other.  In one particularly poignant moment in the episode “Brotherly Love,” Dorothy reprimands herself for letting a man (Stan’s cad of a brother) come between her and her friendship with Blanche.  This is a recurring theme throughout the series, as the women turn to each other in their times of greatest need, recognizing in the process the ways in which men continue to attempt to manipulate them.  In a world in which female friendships are constantly thrown over in favour of competition between women, The Golden Girls continues to reminds us of the power that can be obtained when women both recognize and emphasis their closeness to one another.

Of course, the series isn’t perfect, and it remains unclear to me, even now, just how much it challenges patriarchal ideologies.  The series does end, for example, with perennial spinster Dorothy being married off and leaving the house.  However, I’ve come to realize that it is almost as important to continue finding those points of contention and tension within mainstream culture that pose a challenge, however temporary those challenges might be.  This is not to excuse the shortcomings of the series just because I love it (though that is, I must admit, quite tempting), but instead to argue that there always limitations to just how subversive a text produced by the mainstream media can be.  Part of our job as critics and as consumers, I would argue, is to continue finding those points where the cracks in the dominant ideologies that structure our everyday lives are made evident in these cultural texts.  They might not be perfect, but they can at least give us a glimmer of what is possible if we continue to struggle against the forces, both explicit and implicit, that continue to oppress us.  The Golden Girls, for me, is just one such text.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some binge-watching to do.

19 thoughts on “The Subversive Pleasures of “The Golden Girls”

  1. “Part of our job as critics and as consumers, I would argue, is to continue finding those points where the cracks in the dominant ideologies that structure our everyday lives are made evident in these cultural texts.”
    Yup. Agreed. Subversion will always be limited in anything legible enough to reach a wide audience; as viewers we need to look for the cracks. And then widen them, in our role as consumer.

  2. It’s almost funny (almost) that normal women, doing normal women-stuff, would be considered subversive by society but then society has pissed me off on a regular basis about a constant parade of normal things–the variety of body shapes, the breadth and depth of loving human partnerships, the different ways children learn, the ability of the human body to heal without intervention, the wonderfulness of cheese, you name it.

  3. The Golden Girls used to be a favorite show of mine. Also, I have been meaning to read the Unruly Woman for quite some time now. Thanks for reminding me of both.

  4. Just be careful what you wish for. I recently read a blog where the author, an avowed “Nerd” himself, advocated for the destruction of “nerd culture”. Why? Because they won. They went from being uncool outsiders to being the ones who own everything (think – Bill Gates). I would also argue that “The Big Bang Theory” is a further proof of the concept. Not being outsiders, nerds no longer hover in the cliques that made innovation and development so speedy and possible. Now they hang out with MBA’s who want to look at P&L ledgers.

  5. Friendship is a rare commodity. It does not have to do with sex but with companionship. No person is an island and although there are hermits they are in fact a rarity. We need community. Someone to share the sunset with and discuss the days activities. Even Robinson Crusoe needed someone and Tom Hanks invented a person in the shape of a ball.

  6. “In short, they are everything that we as a culture train women not to be” – yet isn’t it ironic that perhaps that’s the exact reason why we all identified with them and loved them? For being our inner selves outwardly. I recall when I was going back and forth in my 20’s into an unhealthy relationship with a douchey guy my cousin saying to me “He’s your Stan” that snapped me out of it because I always thought Dorothy deserved better and finally I realized I didn’t want to settle for a Stan.

  7. Great write! It was my grandma’s favorite show and has become one of mine from watching it with her. I’m so glad you wrote this and will be following your blog. Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  8. I too, enjoy watching Golden Girls and agree that these women have much to teach about powerful women. Now that I am a Golden Girl myself, I can appreciate the teachings. I wonder how many girls today would understand the concept that women were taught to be silent.

  9. I just wanted to stop by and thank all of you so much for your comments. I’m so glad that you enjoyed my post about one of my favourite shows. Stay tuned for more posts about my favourite films, TV series, novels, and whatever else occurs to me to write about. 🙂

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