Life Lessons from The Golden Girls

For those who don't know, I am a huge fan of The Golden Girls. I could spend hours talking about why I love the show. I could talk about the fantastic dialogue, the impeccable cast, and perfect comedic timing. I could talk about how the show tackles issues like gay rights, elder care, age discrimination, sexual harassment, AIDS, and a whole host of other relevant and hot-button issues while never failing to make us laugh. I could talk about all of those things, and perhaps I a future post.

For now, I want to focus on something else. I've been thinking a lot recently (actually, I've thought about this casually for a number of years) about the specific moral and social code delivered by the show. It is never heavy handed, but the characters and story lines are consistently crafted in a way that, if you're familiar with several episodes, provides very simple, and quite powerful, rules to live by.

Here, in my opinion, are the most important ones.

Never Underestimate the Importance of Female Friendship

I'm listing this first because it is by far the most obvious and the most important. For one thing, the entire show is predicated on the idea of four grown women living together after their husbands have passed away (in three cases) or they've gotten divorced (in one). While there are recurring male characters, most notably Dorothy's good-for-nothing ex-husband Stan, there is no male lead. I'm not a TV expert, so I could be wrong about this, but I can't think of a sitcom that predated The Golden Girls where this was the case. (Designing Women, for the record, started a year after TGG and featured main male character). But I digress.

The fact that the show's main characters are women means the main narrative centers around the relationships between these women. Sure various episodes (in fact, most of the episodes) follow at least one of the character's romantic exploits with a man, but only on a few occasions do these relationships last past one episode. (Notable exceptions being Rose's relationship with Miles in later seasons, Dorothy's on-again-off-again romance with her ex, Stan, and Dorothy's relationship with Lucas in the show's final episodes.) And even when an episode deals with a man, a good chunk of the same episode will be spent showing the girls chatting with one another over cheesecake about the details of said relationship. Yes, at its core, The Golden Girls is a show about women and their relationships with other women. The men come and go; the women are indispensable. 

Always Admit When You're Wrong and Be Prepared to Say "I'm Sorry"

While Blanche, Dorothy, Rose, and Sophia generally get along and often support and confide in one another, there are several episodes in which tension arises between one or more of the characters. By way of example, in the episode "Dorothy's New Friend" from Season 3, Dorothy befriends a novelist named Barbara Thorndyke. Although she loves Rose and Blanche, it's clear from the start of the show that Dorothy is the smartest and most educated of the group, and she is thrilled that this smart and successful woman would take an interest in her and relishes the opportunity to discuss literature and philosophy with someone she considers her intellectual equal. 

Things go fine for a while, and Dorothy introduces Barbara to her roommates. But Rose and Blanche find Barbara to be insufferable and snobby, and she consistently talks down to them. At one point, in a moment of comic brilliance, Barbara starts to explain to Blanche what a metaphor is. Blanche says she knows but, seeing that Rose is confused, decides to explain: "It's when you use a phrase to mean something else. Like when I say men are blinded by my beauty? They're not really blinded. They get their sight back in a day or two."

Blanche and Rose commiserate with each other about their dislike of Barbara but initially decide to spare Dorothy because they know how much the friendship means to her. But after a while, the tension rises, and Blanche and Rose come clean about their feelings (see below on always being honest with your friends). At first, Dorothy dismisses them as being jealous of her friendship with Barbara, but she soon realizes the girls were right when Barbara admits that she belongs to an elite club that is "restricted" (i.e. Jews aren't allowed). Dorothy lets Barbara have it, and then immediately apologizes to her friends. Blanche and Rose accept the apology and the friendship is repaired.

Which brings me to a related lesson: know when to forgive. When one of the characters offers a sincere and heartfelt apology to another, grudges melt away. There is no sense ruining a wonderful friendship just because you're too proud to say "I'm sorry" or "I forgive you."

Be Honest and Straightforward With Your Friends

This is kind of a tricky one. Sometimes a little lie is necessary to keep the peace or because the issue at hand is not that important. But in other matters, it's best to be upfront about your feelings or concerns. If someone is a true friend, they will hear you out and appreciate your candor--even if it takes them a while to come around.

This lesson is first presented in the pilot. Quick summary: Blanche gets engaged to Harry, a man she has only known for a few weeks. She and Harry plan a quick wedding, staged in the girls' house. Sophia, Dorothy, and Rose help her plan the event, but Rose begins to harbor suspicion about Harry. She voices her concerns to Dorothy, who tells her to keep her mouth shut and not ruin Blanche's happiness. Rose protests and repeatedly tries to tell Blanche how she feels, but she is consistently thwarted by Dorothy, who, at one point, shoves her into a closet. Just before the wedding is about to start, a cop arrives at the house to inform Blanche that Harry has been arrested on charges of bigamy because he has six other wives. Blanche is, of course, devastated, and the girls comfort her. Rose never says I told you so, but it's clear that her suspicions were valid and Blanche's heart might have been spared if she'd had a chance to communicate them. 

In another episode from Season 1, "The Triangle," Dorothy's boyfriend, an attractive doctor, makes a pass at Blanche while over at their house one evening. Blanche tells Rose who tells her she needs to tell Dorothy, but when she does, Dorothy accuses her of jealousy and refuses to believe it. The truth finally comes out, as it always does, and Dorothy apologizes (see above).

I will admit that this lesson is often trickier to practice in real life. After all, not all problems are as black and white as "Your boyfriend tried to cheat on you with me." I don't know how many times I have dated and broken up with someone only to find out that none of my friends thought much of my now-ex. Sure, if they had told me sooner, I might not have wanted to hear it, but at least I would have been able to choose what to do with the information.

I guess all I'm saying is that friendship is a responsibility. You cannot control what someone else does, but good friends love each other enough to know when they need to be honest, even if it's hard or uncomfortable. Real friends look out for each other. 

If Necessary, Break Your Own Heart

Oh man, this one is so much easier said than done. Luckily, The Golden Girls serve as great role models. 

One of my favorite story lines on the show takes place over the course of two episodes in two different seasons. In the first, Dorothy starts dating a gym teacher, Glen, at the school where she substitute teaches. They fall in love, but Glen then confesses that he's married. He swears he feels nothing for his wife and that he's only staying with her for the kids, and Dorothy continues to see him because she believes the emotion is real. Finally, however, it becomes too much and she tells Glen it's over. She is sad, but she knows the relationship will never be what she wants it to be and knows she deserves better.

Flash forward a couple of seasons and Glen calls Dorothy to tell her he and his wife have separated. She's thrilled, and the two immediately resume their relationship. Things are going fine until one day when Dorothy is at his apartment and Glen gets a call from his ex wife. "I'm alone," he says on the phone, even though Dorothy is in the room. Dorothy realizes she's still playing the role of mistress and, once again, leaves, despite how painful it is for her to do so. 

I love these episodes because I admire Dorothy's character so much in them. We've all been there--clinging to a relationship that we know is not good for us because we can't bear the thought that it's not enough. We compromise our happiness and explain away doubts because the truth is just too ugly to face. I can't count the number of times I wish I had chosen to act like Dorothy in this situation. 

Love Yourself but Don't Be Afraid to Laugh at Yourself

The characters of each of The Golden Girls are clearly defined: Dorothy is the smart, sarcastic, homely one; Blanche is the sexy Southern Belle; Rose is the naive but good-natured Minnesota farm girl; and Sophia is the wise-cracking Sicilian matriarch. The characters are completely self aware. They know who they are, their friends know who they are, and they are proud of it. Dorothy shows off her smarts; Blanche is constantly speaking in Southern idioms and telling stories about her epic sex life; Rose reminisces about life in St. Olaf and proudly tells stories about her town's idiotic pastimes; Sophia regularly reminds the girls that she's in her 80s and therefore entitled to behave a certain way. 

At the same time, the girls often make fun of one another. Dorothy's sense of style is criticized; Blanche is called a slut; Rose is reprimanded for telling bizarre St. Olaf stories; jokes are made about putting Sophia in a home.

But that doesn't stop the girls from being who they are. Dorothy's style never changes and she often riffs on it herself; Blanche doesn't shy away from announcing her sexual conquests or bringing over a new date; Rose continues to tell her St. Olaf stories (though she sometimes pauses knowing the girls will interrupt); and Sophia continues to use her age as an excuse to get away with practically anything. 

I like to think that, by virtue of loving The Golden Girls as much as I do, I live by this last principle. I will tell anyone who sits still with me long enough that I love this show. I often get weird looks (especially from men), but they don't bother me. In fact, I'm the first to joke that I must be a 70-year-old woman at heart. But I wish I could do more. So often, we hide the quirks that get us noticed because, sometimes, they attract negative attention. But anything that is different attracts attention, but that's what makes us special. The same quirks that attract negative attention are often the ones that attract positive attention because they allow those who are like us to find us more easily. 

I realize that I'm drawing real life lessons from a sitcom that took place in convenient 22-minute, nonlinear chunks. I realize that problems and relationships are not scripted, and that resolution rarely happens according to plan. However, I genuinely believe that if one made an effort to live by the five ideas outlined above, they would be happier and have more friends than those who don't. Perhaps I will test that theory myself.

For now, thanks for reading. And thank you for being a friend.