I was a senior in high school when the The Golden Girls aired 30 years ago today. The NBC hit about four female retirees who shared a home in suburban Miami debuted back in 1985 to widespread critical acclaim, which it sustained for seven seasons, earning two Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series.
In 2014, the Writers Guild of America ranked the show No. 69 on its list of “101 Best Written TV Series Of All Time,” not least of which is due, in part, to its unconventional and forward-thinking premise. For all its sweet humor, there was something uniquely revolutionary about casting four senior-aged women to lead a network sitcom, in the throes of what one could argue was a culture still struggling to relinquish the Boys Club mentality.
The top three shows in 1985, after The Golden Girls, according to IMDB, were: Growing Pains starring Alan Thicke, MacGyver with Richard Dean Anderson, and Small Wonder with Tiffany Brissette (in which Brissette isn’t even human; she’s a robot created by her inventor father). Other popular shows in the ’80s: Cheers, Hill Street Blues, The Cosby Show, Newhart, and Star Trek. Count at least one male lead in each of the aforementioned shows. That’s not to suggest it was all male, all the time (The Facts of Life and Murder She Wrote stand out as two prime examples). By most executive’s standards, though, The Golden Girls was a huge gamble, a roll of the dice that ultimately paid off.
The Golden Girls predated some radical changes in the legal world, too, that would ultimately come to fruition in the early ’90s, and later, the 21st century. Back in 1985, Sandra Day O’Connor was the only female Supreme Court Justice on the bench; Janet Reno was still eight years away from becoming the first female Attorney General of the United States; and Ruth Bader Ginsburg wouldn’t be appointed to the Supreme Court until 1993. Today, three female Supreme Court Justices (Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor) are making history; Loretta Lynch is serving as the first female African American Attorney General, and a formidable former Secretary of State (who graduated from Yale Law in 1973) is making her second run for the Presidency in 2016. Times have changed for the better and in much more radical ways.
It would be a stretch to suggest that The Golden Girls was, on its own, an agent for change in a world coming into its own. But part of me believes that a show like The Golden Girls, so timeless in its humor and so revolutionary in its concept, was able to inform popular thinking because of its mainstream fame; we saw them as larger-than-life in the twilight of life, and even then, there was never more to live for. It was dependence, independence, and freedom in its own way.
Before Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia ever hit the screen, I think a lot of TV executives couldn’t believe that four retirees living in Miami could be anything but a tepid plot. Could anyone conceive, at the time, of a female Attorney General that would go on to make some of the most consequential policy in the history of our country? And would anyone believe that three Supreme Court Justices would be doing the same in 2015? Or that Loretta Lynch could take on a giant like FIFA? I think a lot of us believed it, even if it took too long to get there. Thanks to shows like The Golden Girls, we were maybe able to get there sooner than expected.