TV Shows, Pop Culture

Here’s why I love watching old white women live

What do these old white women have to offer a 23-year old black woman?

When The Golden Girls first aired in 1985, I hadn’t been born yet. I wasn’t even conceived by the time the series finale aired in May of 1992, but still that show – about four white women living together in Miami – is still a favorite. When the Hallmark channel runs its marathons, it doesn’t matter what my other viewing options are, I’m watching The Golden Girls instead. 

I met and immediately loved Rose’s ditzy optimism, Dorothy’s witty sensibility (the quizzes say I’m like her!), Blanche’s confident sexuality and Sophia’s unfiltered honesty. I watched them compete over men only to decide the object of their affection wasn’t worth much anyway; be mistaken for prostitutes and arrested; chase a lost, winning lottery ticket around Miami; talk each other through their children’s life choices; throw barbs and fight and not speak to each other; flirt and fall in love and get married; gather around their kitchen table for laughs and cheesecake.

 I thought The Golden Girls was just a special show, and it was only when I started watching Netflix’s Grace and Frankie – about two women whose husbands of forty years suddenly announce that they’re leaving their wives for each other – that I realized I just might love watching chronologically advanced white women live their lives.

[bctt tweet=”I realized I just might love watching chronologically advanced white women live their lives.” username=”wearethetempest”]

To be fair, The Golden Girls were hardly old when the show aired. They were past fifty, which was pretty old if you asked 1985, and the look of television (and wardrobe and set design) in the 80’s doesn’t make them appear any younger. But it had a kind of odd charm when I first watched it, unlike anything I’d seen before. Granted, I was watching a lot of Disney Channel at the time, but these women and their lives took on a glow that made me tune in for hours and be disappointed when the episodes gave way to a bad TV movie. On a very basic level, it’s hilarious, and that was all I needed. It was only later when the pathos started sinking in. When we meet The Golden Girls, Blanche (Rue McLanahan), Rose (Betty White) and Dorothy (Bea Arthur) are already living together, and they’re soon joined by Dorothy’s mother, Sophia (Estelle Getty). Excepting Dorothy, the women are all widows, and their children are grown and at a distance. Guest stars come and go, but the core four remain. They laugh together, make fun of one another, fight with each other, and love each other.

AV Club

Like The Golden Girls, Grace and Frankie is about white women of advanced age, living together after their lives have been thrown into a tailspin by their husbands coming out and announcing their love and engagement.  Unlike The Golden Girls Grace and Frankie are in their seventies (which is way old if you ask the 80’s) and don’t like each other. For forty years they’ve merely tolerated one another for the sake of their husbands’ business partnership, neither of them suspecting the depth of that partnership. Grace (Jane Fonda) is what you’d expect of a fictionalized WASPY white woman:  dignified, coiffed, chilly on the emotional front and dismissive of the ultra spiritual and bohemian Frankie. Frankie (Lily Tomlin) is what you’d expect of a fictionalized hippie white woman: scatterbrained, smokes pot, wants everyone to be in touch with their feelings and their bodies and doesn’t have much patience for Grace either. But they become reluctant roommates and eventual friends as they navigate a whole new world as seventy-something divorcees. 

So what do these old white women have to offer a little black girl, now a 23-year old black woman?

Well, when you have no idea what you’re doing most of the time, watching women almost half a century older than you still struggling is very comforting. You might not have it together right now, but these ladies don’t have it together either (and they’re like, way older) so you’re fine. The Golden Girls and Grace and Frankie, despite their many years on planet Earth, can still be pretty profound fuck ups. Which is what you’d expect from women who have achieved all they’ve been told to achieve: marriage, kids, jobs, etc. Now boomeranged back to their starting point, their flailing through their advanced years looks a lot like flailing through your twenties. Plus all the fears of your mortality. If you ignore what the uncertainty and floundering of these old white ladies may imply about your life as a senior citizen, it works out pretty well.

[bctt tweet=”Watching women almost half a century older than you still struggling is very comforting.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Anxiety and worry aside, what these shows make plain is that the same way lots of us survive our twenties is the same way these women are surviving their later years: friends. Yeah, it’s old white ladies versus the world. Most of The Golden Girls episodes barely leave their house, and the guest characters who roll through are often impermanent. Even love interests (some of whom last multiple episodes) don’t compare to the bonds of the women. There’s a reason no one else is invited to their late-night cheesecake parties where Rose bores everyone with stories of her hometown and Sophia offers advice based on her life in Sicily. Grace and Frankie is lighter on the cheesecake and parables, but Frankie and Grace are each other’s closest allies in this new stage in life. There’s a whole episode (in which Grace fears reaching peak old lady by breaking her hip in a fall) devoted to them accepting one another as friends and realizing how special they could be to one another.

But you can’t talk about these ladies without talking about all the sex they’re having. Just like twenty-somethings, these women getting their lives together has a lot to do with their romantic ambitions and their very active sex lives. It was a big deal when the ladies were getting laid pretty regularly on Golden Girls, but Grace and Frankie has the benefit Netflix’s MA rating that allows it to casually discuss dildos, lube (“Personal lubricant is for everybody!”) and the pains of masturbating with arthritis and for Grace to hilariously come around to using the word “clitoris”. This might pain you to imagine (it certainly distresses Grace and Frankie’s children), but when you and I are in our seventies and looking to get some, you’ll be glad to have seen that there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t be sexing it up all over the place.

But as you’d expect, both of these shows are very white. Lily white. As white as a graying hair. The Golden Girls had no regular or recurring characters of color though there was a POC guest star here and there. Grace and Frankie is barely any better with the recurring appearances of Frankie’s love interest/yam supplier and her son, both black men. This is of course annoying. My still-running interest in The Golden Girls, unlike lots of other shows I once loved, is its ability to stand the test of time and wokeness (though I do side-eye some of its treatment of Blanche’s sexuality).  And Grace and Frankie, despite its dismal representation and nonexistent attempts at acknowledging LGBT issues, isn’t immediately and consistently offensive. So it’s easy to take joy in these old white ladies. 

[bctt tweet=”My interest in The Golden Girls is due to it standing the test of time and wokeness.” username=”wearethetempest”]

But I do wonder about a time when I’ll see black women, or any women of color, put in the same position as these white ladies. Up there in years but still kicking in all the ways that count (probably not literally kicking very much). By the time I do, I’ll probably be an offiical fifty something myself.