Book Review: “The Golden Girls” (by Kate Browne)
Kate Browne’s new book from Wayne State University Press sheds important light on the classic sitcom.
Ask anyone who knows me even reasonably well, and they’ll tell you that I’m a devout fan of The Golden Girls. It’s one of those shows that I return to time and time and again, and it always offers me something new, even as it comforts me with the warmth of the familiar. I’ve always wanted to write a book about the series (and I still might, at some point), and I’ve been on the lookout for a new book on this series, with a mix of both fear and excitement.
That being said, I went into this academic book about my favorite show with more than a little trepidation. Despite the fact that I’ve done my own scholarly study of the series, I tend to be a bit defensive about the object of my affection, and I was a little worried that she would take what I thought was an overly critical view of my series. There’s nothing I can’t stand more than an work of academic criticism that seems to absolutely hate the object of its analysis (of which there are more than a few out there, let me tell you).
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Browne has a clear eye for the sorts of detail that matters in an analysis of television series, ands he brings that considerable knowledge to bear in her discussion of The Golden Girls. In particular, she wants to give this classic series the attention it deserves, especially since it has been frequently overlooked within the discipline of television studies. As she points out in her introduction, there is a tendency among many television critics to dismiss the sitcom as a hopelessly conservative form, one that is too mired in its own traditions to be able to offer anything new. Browne argues, however, that that is an unfortunate misreading, one that doesn’t give nearly enough credit to the series for the ways in which it uses its characters to critique and subvert the culture that produced it.
The book is divided into four chapters, each of which discusses one of the four women. Dorothy, though she appears to be the ugly duckling of the group, in fact uses her appearance to add a subversive — and often a very queer — cast to this sitcom type. Blanche is an equally complex character, one who embodies in one person the dynamics of the madonna and the whore, a dynamic made most explicit in her conflicted relationship with motherhood. Rose, as the character who seems to have followed all the rules throughout her life, finds herself subjected the vicissitudes of 1980s America and its casual disregard for the elderly. And Sophia, the wisecracking matriarch, is the series’ trickster figure, constantly bending the narrative to her needs, especially through the power of her storytelling.
These are, of course, the characters that we all know and love, four women who manage to forge an extraordinary bond with one another, a bond that, in its warmth and emotional depth, has rarely been matched (let alone surpassed) by any show produced at the time or since. In Browne’s deft hands, we learn more about these characters and the things that make them tick, as well as why they are fundamentally important for understanding the way that the show works as a cultural artifact.
Though the book is brief, Browne still manages to pack in quite a lot of historical detail. I’ve been waiting for years for the person to come along who would give this series the historicist treatment that it clearly deserves, and this book fits the bill. Though the broader context of the 1980s is important for understanding the series as a whole — as well as both the issues that it addresses and the ways in which it represents them — it’s especially important in the chapter on Rose. Of all of the characters, she’s the one that more often feels the pinch of the Reagan era, a period in which the elderly population in particular was feeling the nation’s increasing disinvestment in its well-being. The fact that she endures these privations even though she has done all of the “right” things makes her plight pack a political punch.
There’s a particular sort of pleasure one gets from reading a piece of television scholarship that’s been done well. It’s a reminder of why those of us who are either in the academia or adjacent to it still enjoy thinking about the media that we consume. For us, it’s not enough to just be entertained; we want to understand what a series is doing, what kinds of cultural work it is engaged in, what kinds of discourses it is drawing on. No cultural text stands outside of the moment in which it is produced, and a skilled critic is able to bring those trends out while showing how they intersect with the politics and aesthetics of a particular series. Kate Browne is just such a scholar. She makes even this old hat feel as if they were being guided through this well-loved series by a wise and knowledgeable guide, one who clearly loves the show as much as I do.
Of course, this book is but a beginning, and one can but hope that there will be many other monographs and edited collections written about The Golden Girls. Given the fact that it has had a truly exemplary afterlife on both DVD and via streaming, it’s actually rather surprising that it has received so little attention from television scholars. In fact, it wasn’t until fairly recently that there have been many books, academic or otherwise, devoted to it at all.
It seems to be one of those series that everyone watches (or has watched) at one time or another but which they haven’t really thought of in terms of its cultural politics. In fact, every time I teach this series, my students invariably love it, precisely because it still feels so timely. The issues that it addresses — the plight of the elderly, the AIDS Crisis, the stigmatization of the LGBTQ+ community — all of these are still things that are with us. With Kate Browne’s book in hand, we can see just how powerfully relevant this TV milestone remains.