Murphy, Sara E.
The Golden Girls; Television, Illness, Gender
Over thirty years after its 1985 premiere, The Golden Girls remains an alluring and nostalgic presence in the cultural consciousness of America. In this work, I investigate exactly what it is about this magical show that has caused it to endure across generations, and in so doing, illuminate how television in general can transcend incidental popularity and have a lasting impact on those who view it. I frame this examination within the topic of disenfranchised illness, a subject that, given events such as the rise of HIV/AIDS, the emergence of crack-cocaine addiction, and the discovery of chronic fatigue syndrome in the 1980’s, was highly relevant to contemporary audiences of The Golden Girls.
I argue that The Golden Girls was uniquely capable of transmitting ideas to audiences, particularly ideas concerning and of consequence to women, as a result of its intersectional position in the range of programming available in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I fortify this argument by bringing focus to the topic of disenfranchised illness in American culture of the 1980’s and 1990’s; I claim that the topics of illness and gender are inextricably linked, and thus The Golden Girls was well prepared to address the complex and gendered social issues surrounding addiction, HIV/AIDS, and chronic fatigue syndrome in this period. Finally, I engage in close readings of five episodes of The Golden Girls that feature representations of these illnesses. Through each episode, I demonstrate that this series both facilitated and complicated its audience’s understandings of these conditions and the stigma, discrimination, and hierarchies attached to them.
Ultimately, whether we view the four wonderful, witty women on The Golden Girls as our long-lost sisters, mothers, or grandmothers, they are ingrained in our collective cultural memory due to their terrific humor, relatability, and nostalgia. No other scholarly work has specifically unpacked this show as a vehicle for social issues. This work aims to fill that gap and jumpstart academic discourse about this classic American sitcom.