“The Golden Girls”: With Friends Like These

“I’m much too young to feel this damn old.” — Garth Brooks

“Sonny Bono, get off my lanai.” —Blanche Devereaux

Last week, I bought a miniskirt for the first time in almost 20 years. (And for 30% off. Thanks, Madewell!) I bought it because I’ve been thinking a lot about the past, and unlike the stereotypical middle-aged man having a midlife crisis, I can’t afford a Porsche.

Two months ago, I turned 42. Between reaching an age that’s decidedly not young and going to my 20th Harvard reunion last month, I’m feeling pretty old these days. Before the reunion, I thumbed through my college photo albums and, to my surprise, realized I looked pretty cute back then — especially in 1997, the summer I had my first internship and lived with several friends and was the closest thing to happy that I’d ever been. My favorite outfit that summer involved a purplish baby tee from (probably) Express, a khaki A-line miniskirt from Target, and my beloved black Dansko Ingrid clogs. I’ve still got Dansko clogs (different ones, obviously), and a few purplish shirts, but no khaki A-line miniskirt. Surely one was out there. After all, 90s fashion is back, right?

After looking at Target clothes online (a long shot, I know), I thought about how my former coworkers loved Madewell. So I went to a store and tried on a few skirts. To my shock, I looked nice in some of them. Maybe not young, but closer to my younger self than I’ve felt in a while. So I bought a khaki, sort-of-A-line miniskirt. (Then I bought a few more, all on sale and with an extra 30% off! Yay for being value-driven.)

The thing about getting older is that we’re doing it for the first time. We have no idea what to expect, so it’s scary, because so much of getting old involves losing things. It’s not just that life is changing — it’s also that things we love are vanishing. Functioning joints, the ability to drink/eat whatever we want, non-gray hair, a sleeker and varicose vein-free physique: you name it. We’re losing a lot and gaining slowness, physical limitations, limited opportunities, and limited time.

We want role models when we’re young — the kind of people we aspire to be when we grow up. But who are our role models for growing older? Who do we aspire to be as we age?

The closest thing I’ve found is “The Golden Girls.”

I didn’t find my old skirt at Target.com, but I did find this.

People love “The Golden Girls.” Seriously. Every friend I told about this post got way more excited about it than they did about “Chernobyl” or “Catch-22.” The show ran from 1985 to 1992, won multiple Emmys and Golden Globes, had multiple future stars featured in tiny guest roles (George Clooney! Quentin Tarantino!) and consistently ranks on top-whatever lists of best TV shows ever. It was also the first time I saw older people represented on TV in a fun and positive way that didn’t make them the butts of jokes. The GG have grandkids and late or former husbands, but their relationships to their kids and former partners don’t define their lives. Their friendships with each other, however, do.

I’ve temporarily become an expert in the show, as I left it on in the background in May as I recovered from my dog’s death, then kept it on while doing freelance work in subsequent weeks. I’ve seen all seven seasons (and still hate the very last episode) and started again; I’m currently back in Season 2.

What fascinates me about the show now is its paradessence. In the brilliant novel “The Savage Girl“, Alex Shakar creates the word “paradessence” — a combination of paradox and essence — to describe clever marketing strategies that combine two totally different things to create the perfect experience and, thus, the perfect marketing pitch. (My favorite example in the book is a coffee commercial that combines early-morning peace and comfort with caffeinated energy and enthusiasm. Boom! Paradessence.) That’s pretty much “The Golden Girls.” It mashes together wistfulness and nostalgia with ridiculousness and modern-day fun. You meet a grandmother who, in the same breath, mourns her late husband and flaunts her a voracious sexual appetite. The show challenged how we saw the elderly, but it did so in a comfortingly formulaic way. It’s racy and cozy, together at last.

Plus, the four main characters conflicted with and complemented each other in a way that set them up perfectly for maximum comedic effect. I’m certainly not the only person who’s noticed this.

!!!!!!! (Source: Twitter, obviously)

The more episodes I saw, the more tropes and quirks I started noticing. Not long after my dog died, in my first post-loss moment of energy, I put together a bingo sheet of common things said and done on “Golden Girls” episodes. My friends loved it so much that I made three more sheets. You can download all four of my “Golden Girls” bingo sheets, though I ask that you donate at least $5 to my veterinary clinic’s fund for people needing help with their vet bills.

But after rewatching the entire run of “The Golden Girls,” I discovered a dark side to the show that most of us don’t remember. Yes, the show is about loyalty and the tenacity of female friendships…but the women are kind of jerks to each other. So many of the plot lines come down to embracing toxicity as love, whether Dorothy hits Rose with a newspaper before saying she’s her best friend, Sophia shames Dorothy for her teenage pregnancy (and sexual assault?!? It sounds like Dorothy was unconscious during it!) before Dorothy tells her mom how much she loves her, or anyone makes fun of Rose to her face before holding hands and proclaiming their never-ending friendship over cheesecake. And I have a problem with that.

As a kid, I though this show was hilarious (though I didn’t get all the sex jokes). As an adult, I appreciate how the show presented serious issues in its many Very Special Episodes, even when done in a lighthearted way: ageism, money worries, not taking women’s medical complaints seriously, homelessness, even AIDS. But the clearer lens of adulthood also exposes the casual racism as well as the meanness and cruelty disguised as love and friendship.

However, I would love to spend the last part of my life living it up in a lovely house with good friends, constant galas, and a lanai you can dine on any time of the year. So I’m Marie Kondo-ing “The Golden Girls,” choosing what to take from it and what to throw away.

  • Dorothy: Keep her sense of humor, her drive, her loyalty, and her fabulous tunics. Throw out her meanness and physical abuse toward Rose.
  • Blanche: Keep her healthy sex drive, her graciousness, and her shiny dresses. Throw out her racism, her vanity, her passive-aggressive insults.
  • Rose: Keep her kindness, her sweetness, her love for her husband, her adoration of animals, and her incredible dancing and singing. Throw out the occasional long-winded story about St. Olaf, but not all of them; I don’t think they’re that terrible. (Maybe I am Rose. Deal with it, flurgen.)
  • Sophia: Keep her wisdom and her sense of fun. Throw out her constant mocking of Dorothy’s teen pregnancy, her cruel comments to everyone, and…honestly, I’m okay with like 25-50% less Sophia. She’s my least favorite character. She feels like the Scrappy-Doo of the group.
Follow me on Instagram (@quailschool) for more gems like this.

The other day, in that twilight stage just before waking up, I dreamed I was on the beach from the 1996 Romeo and Juliet. Benvolio had an arm around me, trying to say he loved me in that fabulous So-Cal accent that made him almost trip over Shakespeare’s lines. Being evasive — just like I was in 1996-97, except back then, it was from grief and PTSD instead of grief and regret — I refused to let him say, “I love you.” He kept opening his mouth; I kept talking over him. Finally, after receiving a pleading look, I removed his arm from around my shoulders and said, “I know what you want to say. But first, tell me this: What’s the meaning of love?”

He looked at the ocean as, somewhere in the back of my head, “You & Me Song” started playing. In decidedly non-Shakespearean words, he said, quietly and sincerely, “Well, love is knowing that nothing’s going to last, and finding joy in it anyway.”

I wasn’t sure if he was right. But the music was crescendoing, so I shrugged, said, “That sounds good,” and kissed him just before I woke.

I’m still thinking about that dream. What felt like something a guy made up at the last second while trying to win a girl over now feels alarmingly true. Maybe love really IS about how everything changes and finding a way to appreciate it anyway. Maybe that’s what life is really about, too. After all, Sophia (of all of the GG!) is the one who said the line that sticks with me most:

“We’re not in this life for peace.”

A khaki A-line miniskirt won’t take me back in time or erase my regret, just like Blanche’s shimmering outfits won’t keep her in her 40s. At the end of the day, life isn’t going to give us the peace we want, the comfort of familiarity can wear out, and casual racism can’t be overshadowed by a good double entendre.

If you do it right, maybe life is a constant process of purging the bad and embracing the good, of trying to make your past mistakes right while still walking bravely toward whatever the future brings. Of Marie Kondo-ing our hearts, taking with us the joy, the best zingers, the piano-playing chicken, the surprise tap-dance routine, and the outfit that reminds us that middle age does not come with a uniform. Everything else can be composted. After all, today’s compost feeds tomorrow’s plants, helping them grow and thrive. Even on the lanai.

Copyright 2019 – 2020, Sarah A. Ruiz & What the Kids Were Watching/Quail School Media. All rights reserved.