The Golden Girls: A Critical Tribute

About The Project

As a capstone course for my Communication and Digital Studies major, I pursued a qualitative research project that explores the representation of Otherness in Television. This project is centered around exploring Otherness as portrayed in the TV sitcom The Golden Girls (1985-1992).

The goal of this project is two-fold. First, is to understand how mediated depictions of Otherness affect our social understanding. Second, I’m interested in challenging traditional methods of publishing research by presenting my findings as a content-rich website, while maintaining the rigor and expectations of a formal analysis.

The findings published on this site are the result of a content analysis of select episodes...which is a fancy way of saying I watched a lot of Golden Girls.

Guiding Research Question

During my scholarly binge-watching I noted...

Who or what in the series is identified as Other, how the main characters shape the idea of Otherness, and whether these fictional interactions reflect, reinforce, or rebuke our social understanding of marginalized groups.

Why study The Golden Girls?

Full Disclosure: I am a huge fan! But besides that...There are several reasons why I believe this series warrants a closer look. The series is set in Miami, Florida, a city known for both celebrating and resisting its cultural diversity. It uses humor to address prominent social issues including the AIDS crisis, homelessness, and the immigrant experience.

The series is, rightfully, recognized for breaking barriers by having a female-lead show that garnered awards, consistently high ratings, and featured unfiltered commentary about women and aging.

In early 2017, the digital streaming service Hulu secured the rights to the show adding the entire series to its catalog and introducing it to a new generation of viewers and hopefully fans! Popular internet memes have contributed to its longevity in popular culture, cross-generational appeal, and sparked new conversations in the digital space.

Not bad for a show that's been off the air for over 20 years.

What is 'Otherness' ?

The term “Otherness” is understood to mean a group, or individual, deemed fundamentally different by a dominant group and usually subjected to stereotypes, bias, and prejudice (Kastoryano, 2010; Latham, 2002; Tyson, 2015). The topic of Otherness and it's process, Othering, has always fascinated me because of my personal experience with it even before I understood it's scholarly definition.

In practice, Othering can foster exclusion from a dominant system or segregation from within it. A dominant system is based on a shared identity which can take on many forms in society including class, race, ethnicity, or politics to name a few.

For Example

Let's say you lived in a society where everyone in positions of power, socially or politically, had blue hair. But you decided to dye your hair pink and this didn't sit right with members of the dominant system.

The Blue Hair Society might start telling their members that individuals with pink hair are irresponsible, immoral...perhaps even dangerous? You and anyone thinking of changing their hair color have just been othered.

Traditionally marginalized groups may be familiar with this generalization because unfortunately, the practice of Othering still occurs. At it's most extreme, it underpins bias beliefs such as; racism, homophobia, and xenophobia.

I chose this research topic because I observed subtle and blatant examples of Otherness through my casual viewing of the show. I saw the potential to use a piece of pop culture history to explore this sensitive topic through an objective lens.

I annotated each episode based on three main themes of Otherness; The 'Sexual' Other, The 'Cultural' Other, and an emerging concept identified as Intragroup Othering. Each theme is grounded in existing research and analysis developed by scholars across the social sciences.

The 'Sexual' Other

Part of my analysis included notating sexuality in all its recognized forms. Television representations of sexuality have evolved exponentially over the last few decades. One of the main barriers The Golden Girls traversed was how female sexuality was portrayed on television.

Initially, I wanted to look at sexuality using principle ideas found in Queer Theory which recognizes members of the LGBT+ community, and the community in general, as a uniquely oppressed group whose voice deserves attention (Joyrich, 2014;Tyson, 2015). It has been noted that the show appeals to an LGBT+ audience with several episodes, including one deemed the AIDS episode, that directly address LGBT+ characters.

While the representation of the LGBT+ community was vital to my analysis, I wanted to expand my definition of 'The Sexual Other' to include sexual behaviors and attitudes that go beyond sexual orientation.

Coding Criteria for The 'Sexual' Other:

References to sexual orientation, sexuality, desire, or attraction.

Presence or absence of LGBT+ individuals or groups. Portrayal?

Tropes, Stereotypes, Bias (i.e ‘The Homewrecker’, ‘Closeted LGBT+’, 'The Slut', 'The Cheater')

The 'Sexual' Other- Key Findings

The 'Cultural' Other

One of the most visible forms of Otherness in media is racial difference. It can be observed through the use of stereotypes, marginalization, and framing of 'good vs. evil' race relations.

I recognize that race and media play a crucial role in our social understanding of racial types (Croteau and Hoynes 2014; Latham 2002; Macionis 2010; Tyson 2015). However, I did not want to limit myself to representations of race and sought to expand this definition as well.

Trying to define 'culture' is tricky business but it 's deep connection to how we construct and describe our identity cannot be ignored. Culture is comprised of people’s actions, thoughts, and material objects made, possessed, and circulated that inform a way of life (Macionis 2010)

Ethnicity is “a shared cultural heritage” (Macionis, 2010, p.358), which allows “people to define themselves – or others- as members of an ethnic category” (Macionis, 2010, p. 358). While racial types are based on physical traits ethnicity is rooted in “common ancestry, language, or religion” (Macionis, 2010, p. 358).

My definition of The ‘Cultural’ Other is meant to consider all aspects of identity.

Coding Criteria for The 'Cultural' Other:

References to race, ethnicity, and/or culture

Presence or absence of Non-White individuals or groups. Portrayal?

Racial Tropes, Stereotypes, Bias (i.e ‘Latin Lover’, ‘Aggressive Black Male/Female’, ‘Accented-Immigrant’, ‘Racially Insensitive Elder’)

The 'Cultural' Other- Key Findings

Intragroup Othering

The concept of 'Intragroup Othering' or othering that happens within a group dynamic has yet to be fully defined by social scientists.

In general, Otherness is largely focused on the framing of groups and individuals as working in opposition to the understood 'norm'. Whether it's distinguished by a difference in race, sexual behavior, cultural identity, or beliefs, the topic occupies a firm position in the world of Social Science regardless of the discipline.

Anyone familiar with The Golden Girls, or the hilarious memes that may pop up on your social feed, already know that snappy one-liners dominate most of the dialogue between it's formidable characters. They joke about each other's age, sexual behavior or lack thereof, intelligence, and cultural traits.

Intragroup Othering is an open definition that includes th following.

Coding Criteria for The 'Cultural' Other:

References to shared identity

Presence or absence of characters, Who is excluded or included and Why?

Bias, Insults, Bullying, Altercations, Arguments

Intragroup Othering- Key Findings