Why Millennials Love ‘The Golden Girls’
Picture it: Miami, 1985. A pastel-wicker bungalow where four senior women commiserate over cheesecake, tell stories about Sicily & St Olaf, and juggle adventures, crises and countless salt-and-pepper suitors over seven seasons. Two years after Hulu introduced Sophia, Dorothy, Blanche and Rose to a streaming generation, a new demographic that could be their grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) has embraced The Golden Girls.
The Susan Harris-directed NBC hit has a tighter hold on pop culture than Sophia’s grip on her purse. Consider the ever-memeable Betty White, clearly the alivest elderly actress in Hollywood. The show’s sharp one-liners are perfect for mobile consumption. Seemingly more than half the merchandise in Spencer’s and Walmart has the faces of the cast members plastered on it. The Golden Girls are the subject of podcasts, Etsy shops, and social media fan groups boasting thousands of members. You can’t say that about other retro shows like Cheers or All in the Family. So what is it about the Girls that’s found a devoted new community in their younger audience?
A Soothing Hang on the Lanai
Fans say it’s mostly a comfort thing. The show is either a soothing reminder of warm relationships with the funny women in their own lives, or a surrogate in the absence of a stable home life. For longtime viewers, the poor editing, repeat actors playing multiple characters, and plot inconsistencies play out like Gramma’s lovable quirks that become inside jokes over the dinner table. For most of us, The Golden Girls is a return to the simple and familiar, a calming visit to Nana’s house in a growingly complex world. Maybe we just need a hug, like the women hugging at the end of the opening credits while a commercially neutral female voice thanks us for being a “pal and a confidante.”
If that sounds simplistic, witness the viral impact of “Dad hugs at the Pittsburg Pride parade” and Ken Nwadike Jr.’s Free Hugs Project, and videos of folks blindfolding themselves and spreading their arms on city sidewalks to initiate human touch. Lots of trends reflect this reactive urge for reconnection through “analog experiences”: DIY crafts, tiny off-grid homes, vinyl, the resurgence of board games, cookie-decorating videos on YouTube. But for me and so many other millennials, The Golden Girls is our favorite escape.
A Woman-Centered World
The girls show us how to thrive in a roommate economy, and remind us of healthy supportive friendships that we sometimes neglect in our disposable digital reality. We can enjoy stories that center on womens’ lives and experiences, with male characters cycled through the set mostly as plot devices or foils for laughs. The Girls are women of a certain age doing things of no particular age, like dancing, working out, and having active sex lives. And for trivia buffs, the show contains plenty of pre-celebrity cameos like George Clooney, Mario Lopez, and a young, gangly Quentin Tarantino swinging his hips with a dozen other Elvis impersonators in the Season 4 episode “Sophia’s Wedding.”
The show has mostly aged well: the girls tackled sexual harassment, genetic testing, AIDS, anti-Semitism, chronic illness, suicide, addiction, and LGBTQ+ issues with frankness and wit. But the writing steered away from finger-wagging catechisms and showed the girls’ earnest struggle to handle big human questions without easy answers, from artificial insemination to assisted suicide.
The one sticking point for many millennials’ fandom lies in the many problematic episodes involving race. From crass R&B references to Caribbean witch stereotypes, it’s the ugly side of the show that highlights another modern problem: divorcing retro from retroregression. As many of us are doing with our own family members, the show forces us to honestly reassess our relationship with nostalgia in light of the world’s changing values.
In a country where political and social divides are estranging folks from their blood families, in a culture where loyalty is disposable and values are dispensable, it’s a Good Thing to see four women choose to create their own special family and work to keep it. The show’s perennial charm lies in the wish fulfillment of a golden ideal, a bridge spanning today’s growing culture gap that’s grounded in the retroactive hope we have for our own elders: that they can grow and learn to love us as we are, and show us how to navigate a changing, challenging world with humor and love. And cheesecake.