Four women, one house, and enough one-liners to put any comic to shame. The adventures of Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia are not without their ups and downs.
True, they share a level of comradery worthy of envy. But part of the glue that holds them together is their open criticism of each other. I wanted to challenge myself to explore three broad themes of Otherness.
Two of them, The “Sexual” Other and The “Cultural” Other, have been explored from various angles by social scientists. I was able to find a number of scholarly sources, some that directly related to the show, to ground my analysis.
But! there was one possible angle to that hadn’t been formally explored and uniquely fit into my research. What does othering look like when it occurs in a group? Initially, I named this theme “Intergroup Othering” and I consulted my advisor about my idea.
She was on board but said I needed to alter my definition to properly reflect the process I wanted to observe.
Quick note on prefixes. Inter- Group describes group to group interactions. Intra- Group describes internal group interactions.
Thus, “Intragroup Othering” was born.
Key Concepts for Intragroup Othering
I was unable to locate specific sources for this concept. Although, I did notice that it was becoming an emerging idea in communication studies albeit not by name. I chose to let the evidence come to me.
As the main characters in the show, Dorothy (Bea Arthur), Rose (Betty White), Blanche (Rue McClanahan), and Sophia (Estelle Getty) were recognized as, one of many possible, dominant systems with a shared identity.
Their shared identity includes, “an awareness of belonging to a specific group that asserts its difference with regard to its cultural, social, and economic environment” (Kastoryano, 2010, p.80).
Gender & Sexuality
Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia are females who are characterized as heterosexual. They only express sexual desire and attraction for male characters. They can generally be described as unmarried, Dorothy is a divorcee while Blanche, Rose, and Sophia are widowed. They also share the experience of motherhood from these previous relationships.
Despite their progressive attitudes toward social issues they are often seen performing actions that reinforce traditional gender roles (i.e. doing the dishes, talking in the kitchen, or fretting over the latest suitor).
Race & Culture
They can generally be described as White Non-Hispanic, although their ethno-cultural backgrounds provide some nuance to this racial characterization. Rose often references her Scandinavian heritage telling the women she’s descended from Vikings.
Dorothy is first generation Sicilian-American and Sophia, her mother, tells stories about her immigrant experience, coming to the United States as a young woman from Sicily. Blanche offers a different cultural perspective that is rooted in American Southern values.
References to her upbringing conjure images of the Antebellum South (i.e. country estates, sipping tea on the veranda, and social balls).
Their socio-economic status can be described as middle-class. Even though, they are on a fixed income and share a home to reduce housing costs, they often attend special events indicating disposable income.
Everyone except Sophia is employed and all of them are involved in the community either through volunteer work or advocacy.
Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche are characterized as in their 50s and Sophia at around 80 years old. As older women, they share a generational perspective that includes values, norms, and ideas that predate their contemporary period, late-80s to early-90s.
Their religious affiliations vary (i.e. Dorothy and Sophia are Roman Catholics) however, their faith is rooted in Judeo-Christian beliefs. They discuss their own ‘church weddings’ and occasionally speak about their own relationships with a Christian God.
Additionally, there are several episodes throughout the series that center around, or feature, a member of the clergy (i.e. priest, pastor, or nun).
I noted the following in my formal sample.
- References to shared identity
- Presence or absence of characters, Who is excluded or included and Why?
- Bias, Insults, Bullying, Altercations, Arguments
- Implicit Othering: i.e. exclusion from activities
- Explicit Othering: i.e. name calling, bullying, insults
Rose, The "Nice" One
”There I was listening to my yodeling tapes”- Rose, Forgive Me, Father; Episode 18, Season 2
Rose Nyland is compassionate, nurturing and often serves as a moral compass when the women find themselves in a compromising position. None of these virtues serve her well because she is the most undermined member of the group.
She’s been called “a nutjob”, “an idiot”, even the opening credits show Dorothy tossing her into a closet to keep her quiet.
The othering extended as far as her upbringing in St. Olaf, Minnesota. In Sick and Tired: Part 2, Blanche tries her hand at writing a romance novel. After staying up all night she proudly shares her manuscript with Rose.
Rose tries to read it but can’t make sense of any of it. Blanche snatches the notebook from her and snaps, “You’re from Minnesota, what have you read for God’s sakes? Silas Marner? Paul Bunyan? Nothin’! You know nothin’! People from Minnesota are considered well-read if they get through the Sears catalog!”
But Rose, being the ‘nice’ one, lets the insult roll off her back and insists Blanche lay down on the sofa. Ever the gracious friend, Blanche agrees and says “tell me one of your boring stories” so she can get some sleep.
Rose’s opinions are always dismissed and her stories greeted with a collective eyeroll. Not a single episode went by without someone insulting her intelligence.
Dorothy, The ‘Smart’ One
“Be a Woman!” – Blanche to Dorothy, Forgive Me, Father ; Episode 18, Season 2
Dorothy Zbornak is smart, sarcastic, and full of social commentary. Her assertive wit sometimes translates to being the ‘odd’ one out. Unlike the rest of the women, she doesn’t date as much and is rarely shown with a steady boyfriend.
I noted most of her relationships, if any, fell through by the end of the episode.
Compared to Blanche’s many suitors and Rose’s eventual relationship with Miles, Dorothy’s romantic life borders on asexuality. I observed only a handful of examples where she openly expressed sexual desire towards someone.
Dorothy is often insulted for her failure to meet certain beauty standards. She’s too tall, too masculine, and too direct for her own good. Nobody takes aim at Dorothy like her mother Sophia.
In Dorothy’s New Friend, there is a scene where Sophia is getting ready to leave the house for an evening out. Dorothy, the concerned daughter that she is, asks where she’s going.
Sophia retorts “It’s Saturday night, I’m all dressed up, there’s a car honking for me. Think Dorothy, remember something called ‘a date’!?”
She ridicules Dorothy for not wearing enough makeup to attract a man or being too intimidating to keep one. As the only divorcee of the group, Dorothy’s failed marriage is a fact Sophia uses as proof she has zero skill in attracting a decent man.
Blanche, The ‘Sexy’ One
Blanche Devereaux is part seductress part Southern belle. She exudes a level of self-confidence that borders on delusional. Her idea of a good time is having multiple men fawn all over her while she powders her nose.
Her sexual behavior is a constant source of mockery. She’s been the subject of some of the most explicit forms of othering. She’s been called “a prostitute”, “a harlot”, and “a slut” by more than one member of the group.
In Yes, We Have No Havanas, Blanche is all dressed up to meet her new beau. She presents herself to the group wearing a fitted dress with a plunging neckline and asks them “is this me?”
Sophia retorts, “It’s too tight, too short and it shows too much cleavage for a woman your age.” Dorothy adds, “Yes Blanche, it’s you.”
Blanche represents a shift in sexual norms from the generation she represents, the so-called Silent Generation (b. 1925-1945), to the contemporary world she lives in, the vibrant 1980s. But the women never let her forget how her age and sexuality intersect.
For more on Blanche’s Sexuality Read The ‘Sexual’ Other
Sophia, The “Elderly” One
”Look at her! The woman is hundreds of years old!” – Dorothy, Hey, Look Me Over ; Episode 1, Season 7
Sophia Petrillo may be the oldest in the group but she stands on her own two feet… for the most part. As a woman in her 80s, age is her greatest obstacle.
No question, she’s the raunchiest of the bunch but she’s also shown cooking for everybody, knitting on the sofa, and visiting the local ‘senior center’.
She doesn’t work and has to rely on the little bit of allowance Dorothy gives her. Who, by the way, is always threatening to send her back to Shady Pines, her former retirement home, whenever she steps out of line.
She is usually excluded from special events Blanche, Dorothy, and Rose attend. And has to wrangle whatever slice of independence from Dorothy’s supervision.
In The Actor, Blanche, Dorothy, and Rose are excited to work with a renowned actor in a local play. In the opening scene, Sophia comes home wearing a gimmicky pirate costume, saber and all.
Dorothy asks her about the get-up and Sophia confesses she’s working at a seafood restaurant for money. Furious, Dorothy forbids her from working there because of her age.
Later, Blanche, Dorothy, and Rose are flirting with the actor, in his dressing room, competing for the role of leading lady. When Sophia arrives with flowers for him Dorothy demands she leave.
To be fair she is still wearing her pirate costume.
Sophia pushes back, “You’re ashamed of your own mother?” Dorothy retorts, “When she’s dressed like Vasco De Gama? Yes!” She remains in the background for the rest of the episode.
Her position as the wise elder, who tells Depression-Era stories, reinforces her generational difference among a group of women already considered “of a certain age”.
Intragroup Othering, may not be formally defined but I hope my analysis contributed to the emerging conversation about this topic. The Golden Girls offers scholars from all disciplines the opportunity to explore the nature of connection within a group.
My findings were meant to be an overview of what I noted during my content analysis. I forsee myself pursuing this topic for future research because I think we've all experienced a bit of Intragroup Othering at some point in our lives.