Ever notice how many landmark sitcoms feature four female friends? The generations change. The original “Sex and the City” was mostly Generation X, and “Girls” were millennials. Their trailblazer was “Golden Girls,” about older women sharing a midcentury home in Miami. But the stories all center on single women (never married, divorced or widowed) trying to get through the day.
The formula rests on conflicting personalities. The women each face their age-appropriate humiliations, but at the end, they limp home to the warmth and comfort of their all-female pod.
Betty White was the last surviving principal of “Golden Girls.” The obituaries track her 99 years in movies and on television but also her personal history as a spirited daughter of the Midwest, who drove a truck during World War II. White embodied decency, for example, brushing off racist practices in show business. She was well groomed and wouldn’t give up on manners. She could make the saucy remark but didn’t throw around the “F” word.
White may be best remembered for her role in “Golden Girls” as the clueless Rose, an innocent from the fictional town of St. Olaf, Minnesota. As in all these sitcoms, personal traits provide funny contrast. Rose, Blanche (the Southern sexpot played by Rue McClanahan), Dorothy (Bea Arthur’s retired schoolteacher) and Sophia (Dorothy’s feisty mother acted by Estelle Getty), all bounce off one another.
The gathering of women from such distinct backgrounds also provides for group therapy of the highest order. We love the portrayal of a society where social activities are done in person, not through media.
One big factor sets “Golden Girls” apart from other female-friend sitcoms: The characters are seniors who don’t strut their stuff in pricey four-inch heels or engage in adventurous sex. Sure, Blanche makes references to some lively trysts, but those stories were largely in the past.
Unlike the more future- oriented younger women of other sitcoms, the Golden Girls inhabit the demographic zone between work/child-rearing and the impending end-of-life. But between their disappointments and fears, they have a grand time.
The girls chase away the terrors of old age with humor. There are always jokes about medications, sexual malfunction and even tragic losses. The four reminisce about past failures and give updates on romantic possibilities that rarely pan out.
And the wisecracks keep coming. Dorothy complains that her mother Sophia is slow at cards. Sophia responds, “The blood pressure medicine whacks me out.” When Dorothy suggests that she take less of it, Sophia fires back, “I like being whacked out.”
The fluttery Blanche tries to cheer up a housemate with a boast. “Crying is for plain women,” she intones. “Pretty women go shopping.”
Rose asks innocently, “Dorothy, was Sophia naked just now, or does her dress really need ironing?” White knew all about at comic timing.
These are the sort of women that our culture tends to ignore or, worse, pity. There is an episode in “Sex and the City” where the four friends, on a bus to the Atlantic City casinos, sit behind some elderly women who are also pals. The younger women express horror that they would someday be them.
The life lesson of “Golden Girls” is the message that overcoming loneliness — not old age or job setbacks — is the key to contentment. True stories now abound about single Americans looking to establish a home with friends who care deeply for them. Some gay guys hunting for real estate in California said they wanted a “Golden Girls” house.
Betty White represented the communal America so many yearn to get back. I will always picture her as Rose at that retro kitchen table, saying comforting things to Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia — and sigh.