Happy anniversary to our favorite silver-haired residents of Miami, the Golden Girls. The series, created by Susan Harris, premiered on September 14, 1985, and ran for seven seasons. “I had to write Golden Girls,” Harris told the New York Times in 1985. “I’ve never gotten excited about a network idea before, but this was compelling. I could write grown-ups. Television is always several steps behind life. When do you see passionate older people on television?” The elderly in popular culture are often dismissed as a joke, but Harris’ show presented older women having the time of their life, openly discussing sex, death, and everything in between. Here are just a few of the most progressive Golden Girls episodes that were way ahead of their time.
“Adult Education,” Season One
Writers took their most provocative character and placed her in a situation that millions of women have faced before. Blanche asks her psychology professor for help in class and is met with sexual harassment instead. She takes the issue up with the school, but is made to feel like a burden and is dismissed after filling out some routine paperwork. Blanche’s humiliation is sadly all-too relatable. Eventually Blanche tells the teacher to shove it and aces the class on her own.
“Isn’t It Romantic?,” Season Two
Dorothy’s lesbian childhood friend Jean visits the girls in Miami. The show has featured LGBT themes several times, but here the writers put Rose — who basically represents the average person in Middle America — in an intimate situation with Jean to open a dialogue about loss (Jean’s partner recently died) and relationships. Rose is flattered by Jean’s affection for her, but opts to choose friendship instead — treating the potential relationship as something worth consideration and not something to be laughed at.
“End of the Curse,” Season Two
Women talking about their periods on network TV in the 1980s just didn’t happen. Older women talking about menopause as though it were just another natural part of life was unheard of — until this episode where Blanche’s vanity is put to the test when she starts to go through the experience herself.
“Old Friends,” Season Three
This heartbreaking Golden Girls episode details the frustration and sorrow that family and friends experience when a loved one starts to fade away from Alzheimers.
“Mixed Blessings,” Season Three
Dorothy’s son Michael becomes engaged to an African-American woman twice his age. The episode has its share of uncomfortable jokes about race and even employs a reference to black face, which we don’t endorse. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a lot of TV series discussing mixed-race families in the ’80s in such an open manner.
“Blanche’s Little Girl,” Season Three
Blanche is treated to a visit by Rebecca, her estranged daughter and a former model who is now overweight and has taken up with a verbally abusive man. He belittles her constantly, while Blanche holds her tongue for fear that Rebecca will shun her again. Sophia and Blanche’s fat jokes are made in jest, but the writers use them to show how abuse can come in all forms — even from family.
“High Anxiety,” Season Four
Rose had a back injury 30 years ago and has been taking pain pills for it ever since. When Sophia accidentally knocks her pills down the drain, Rose flips out, and the girls stage an intervention to get her to quit the medication. The episode aired during the end of the Reagan era while Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign was still going strong. Every TV series took a crack at the drug addiction episode with mixed and sometimes hilarious results (we’re looking at you, Saved By the Bell). But Golden Girls was perhaps the only series to deal with drug addiction and the elderly — a group of people who are often prescribed high-doses of multiple medications by their doctors.
“Sick and Tired,” Season Five
Dorothy feels ill, but none of her doctors will believe her. She’s even dismissed as having a mental illness and not a physical one. And she’s told that she’s just getting old — something one of your own elderly loved ones has probably experienced (ask them). Thankfully, she finds a doctor who is willing to work with her and even diagnoses her with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome — something still relatively unheard of for most people at that time.
“The Accurate Conception,” Season Five and “Blanche Delivers,” Season Six
Blanche’s daughter Rebecca takes ownership of her life and desires to become a mother and have a baby by artificial insemination. The episode posits that family and motherhood mean many different things during a time when the changing social landscape saw a rise in divorce and other familial shifts.
“Rose Fights Back,” Season Five
Rose loses her husband pension plan and is tasked with finding a new job to recover from the financial strain. But she faces age discrimination and ponders a frightening future.
“Not Another Monday,” Season Five
“You wanted me to be here for your death, how about letting me be here for your life?” Sophia asks her friend Martha. The troubled woman asks Sophia to help her commit suicide — something we almost never see addressed in popular culture regarding the elderly, apart from sensational headlines about Jack Kevorkian.
“72 Hours,” Season Five
Rose had a blood transfusion several years ago and is told by the hospital that she may have received HIV-infected blood. The episode aired in 1990 at the tail-end of the AIDS epidemic. “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins,” Blanche tells her hysterical friend.
“Scared Straight,” Season Four and “Sister of the Bride,” Season Six
Blanche struggles to accept her gay brother Clayton, but his coming out eventually brings them closer and makes her realize they have more in common than she ever thought. In Season Six, Clayton gets married to his partner. This was 1991, well before gay marriage became legal. The idea was still shocking and almost never talked about on network TV. The Ellen DeGeneres coming-out episode didn’t even air until 1997, for example. Sophia offers Blanche her usual words of wisdom, making a simple, but profound speech about sam-sex relationships.