by Cameron Cowan
Like many long-time viewers and fans of The Golden Girls, I have watched this show repeatedly. After that much consumption of The Golden Girls, you start to notice things and compare the writing and activities of the show to other parts of your life.
In my case, I've been studying the enneagram for ten years. The Enneagram is an excellent tool for personal development. I began my study of the enneagram in my early 20s to better understand myself and my own personality. I often found other people confusing and hard to understand, and the enneagram gave me an intellectual resource to understand other people.
Later, I studied it again to write better characters in fiction. It can be difficult, in fiction, to write a character that has a different perspective than your own. The enneagram, which focuses on motivation, is a wonderful way to understand how a fictional character might handle a given situation – which is why its such a great tool to better understand Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia.
What is the Enneagram?
The enneagram of personality, or just simply the enneagram, is essentially a model of the human psyche taught through nine personality types. The enneagram system as we know it today pulls from a variety of ancient wisdom traditions.
Its history stretches back as far as Plato and his divine forms, which he defined as the unknowable essences of everything, particularly great virtues and passions like beauty or love. The modern enneagram in widespread use was created by a South American teacher named Oscar Ichazo in order to transmit the inner work that he had embarked upon in his travels and his upbringing in Peru. The enneagram was introduced to the United States by Claudio Naranjo and John Lilly, and was later made famous by Russ Hudson, the co-founder of The Enneagram Institute. There have been a number of books and articles published on the enneagram, and the system has become quite popular as an analysis of personality and a spiritual path. Businesses use it to help find strengths for employees -- like whether you're more book-smart or people-smart, for example -- similar to Myers-Briggs and other systems.
In modern enneagram, there are nine personality types organized around three different “centers”:
8, 9, 1: The Anger center
2, 3, 4: The Shame center
5, 6, 7: The Fear center
Each center represents an overarching motivation of those types.
In the Anger center, types Eight, Nine, and One may face anger issues or act out from anger. They may also feel anger at things based on the motivation of their type. Someone who is a type One will become angry at social injustice, while an Eight might be angry if someone cuts in line or doesn’t follow a rule. A Nine might become angry at a disruption of a personal conflict.
The Shame center is a primary motivation for type Two, Three, and Four. For example, Twos might feel shameful if they can’t care for their family they way they want to. Threes will feel shame at a lack of social or financial success, and Fours may feel shame at being emotionally exposed and vulnerable.
While everyone might experience fear, the Fear center for Fives, Sixes, and Sevens can be existential. Five will fear vulnerability or not knowing enough information. Six will fear that they aren’t prepared enough for the worst disaster, and Seven will fear commitment, being tied down, or missing out on things.
As Russ Hudson points out, people can and do express all parts of the enneagram. This becomes evident as one studies and meditates with the form and begins a journey of self-discovery. When someone self-discovers a type, it is their most dominant behavior and preference. It also reflects their strength and where they excel the most.
Like any part of humanity, there is a developmental aspect of the enneagram. Children will settle into their dominant type, and then as they move through the stages of development, they will continue to express their type in all its variance, in healthy and unhealthy ways, their whole lives.
This is what makes storytelling, especially for a sitcom like The Golden Girls, so helpful. We have a natural character arc under which to see the development of these types.
The Enneagram Types
Each “personality” type is as follows in numerical order:
1: The Reformer
Great virtue: Serenity
Great Passion: Anger
One who lives on their principles, is disciplined, and often gets caught in perfectionism to a fault. Ones are great for leading a campaign to get something done, and are generally organized and orderly.
2: The Helper
Great Virtue: Humility
Great Passion: Pride
Twos are generous, tend to please and care for others and their issues, project everything outside themselves and tend to be possessive of people they care for (which can be especially dangerous for parenting).
3: The Achiever
Great Virtue: Truthfulness
Great Passion: Deceit
Endlessly adaptable, they are the most Machiavellian of the different types. Threes live in a world where the end justifies the means, and others can get hurt along the way. This puts them in an awkward place because they are image-conscious, are the life of the party, and like to appear popular. The challenge for them is to self-reflect.
4: The Aristocrat
Great Virtue: Equanimity
Great Passion: Envy
This type is a challenging way to live. Fours are deeply expressive, dramatic, selfish to a fault, and are often subject to their internal mood swings, making them temperamental.
5: The Investigator
Great Virtue: Non-attachment
Great Passion: Avarice
This type is the best informed of all the types. Fives obsess over information and knowing all the methods and options. The child version of this type always had their nose stuck in a book. The most introverted of all the types, they tend to self-isolate with their computer and books as a safety mechanism. This type is stereotypically introverted, and are the happiest working on their own.
6: The Loyalist
Great Virtue: Courage
Great Passion: Fear
A healthy Six is a beautiful thing to behold, but an unhealthy one is frightful. Their primary motivation is fear and phobias. Some of this type will do something just because they fear them, and others will lock themselves in their houses. They are incredibly responsible, but are plagued by anxiety and suspicion of others due to their extreme loyalty.
7: The Enthusiast
Great Virtue: Sobriety
Great Passion: Gluttony
This type is the most scattered, disorganized, spontaneous, but incredibly fun of the types. Sevens like new things, people, and situations. They will bounce from relationship to relationship and thing to thing with enthusiasm and gusto. This type does not want to be tied down for too long, and their fear of missing out is genuine. They like to consume life and all it has to offer as much as possible. The challenge for them is committing and handling their feelings of missing out and enjoying what they have more than what they think they might get.
8: The Challenger
Great Virtue: Innocence
Great Passion: Lust
Filled with self-confidence and self-assurance, Eights are incredibly decisive, which makes them great leaders. They are willing to confront any problem head-on, but they also suffer from being "in or out." Either they are doing something to the fullest extent, or they just stay home and don't bother. They thrive in a structured environment with a clear set of rules to follow.
9: The Peacemaker
Great Virtue: Action
Great Passion: Sloth
This type is probably the oddest of all the types. Nines have a reputation in the community for being lazy, but their laziness has nothing to do with motivation. Instead, they prefer homeostasis and harmony. This leads them to not stand up for themselves and go along with other people's flow just to stay in balance, although it might make them unhappy. Their happy place is a nap, and they will tell you that it is their happy place.
The Enneagram Type “Wings”
Once someone has identified what type they are, it doesn’t mean that definition exclusively defines their personality.
Each type has a "wing," which is where any given person who has discovered their primary type will also express secondary characteristics of a type on either side of that type.
For example, I personally have a primary Three type. This leaves an opportunity for a Two wing or a Four wing. In my case, it is the Four wing that is expressed.
The Golden Girls & Their Enneagram Types
One of the most exciting things about watching The Golden Girls is seeing women learning to live independently of marriage and children. Women like Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche who were in their 50s in the 1980s were members of the “Silent Generation,” who were responsible for giving birth to many second and third wave boomers (late 50s, early 60s). Sophia is an example of the “Greatest Generation” that fought through the depression and the war. Much of Sophia's honesty and "suck it up" attitude stems from escaping a dangerous world in Italy and surviving a tenuous existence in the United States.
And now -- what you’ve been waiting for: The enneagram types of The Golden Girls:
Each of the Golden Girls has their enneagram type and wing expressed as XwX: The first number describes their dominant type, and the number after the "w" represents their wing.
Sophia Petrillo's Enneagram: 8w7
Sophia expresses classic Eight tendencies (with a possible Nine wing, but I still think it's closer to a Seven wing). She respects rules and norms, but is quick to push back when she thinks you’re wrong. Eights tend to be traditionalists and have an excellent understanding of what is fair and just, although in a different way than type One (we'll get to her daughter in a minute). Her Seven wing gives her a remarkable ability to be flexible, as Eights tend to have some trouble there.
Another manifestation of Sophia’s Seven wing is in her sense of adventure and how responsive she is to changing situations, like when she decides to go live with her son Phil (“Golden Moments,” Season 3, Episodes 18-19). She can also move with the punches like in “High Anxiety” when she agrees to do a pizza commercial with a local pizzeria (Season 4, Episode 20). However, in classic Eight form, she tastes the pizza for the first time and declares it not fit for human consumption, and leaves the commercial shoot as only Sophia can.
Another aspect of Sophia that is also a classic -- but unhealthy -- Eight behavior is reminding people of all the various ways they have failed. Eights love rules and prefer when people follow the accepted set of rules. This is in focus throughout the series in her various criticisms of Stan. It also comes up constantly with Dorothy's inability to get a date and her lack of classical beauty. Her struggle to accept her son’s cross-dressing habits (“Ebbtide’s Revenge,” Season 6, Episode 12) causes her to do a harrowing thing: be introspective about her feelings of failing as a mother. She avoids it by blaming her daughter-in-law and demanding money for a dowry that wasn’t paid at the wedding. However, just as Sophia reaches peak irrationality, she finally breaks down. This is a crisis point in the show and is especially challenging for her type.
Sophia is iconic for her cutting commentary and being the mother of women who have lost their mothers (except for Dorothy, obviously). She is mature and well-adjusted, all things considered. She is the rock on which the rest of the girls rely.
Blanche Devereaux's Enneagram: 7w6
Seven is spontaneous and fun with little thought for the future, instead living mostly for today's pleasures. A quintessential Seven is the life of the party. However, much of this is a front for avoiding their inner world. We see this throughout the series but most notably in “Mrs. George Devereaux” (Season 6, Episode 9). The entire episode is a dream sequence of Blanche thinking that her dead husband George had not died but had instead disappeared, and he shows back up again. This causes her hell, because she has to confront her feelings about him and her final thoughts. She has to face her love for him and the fact that (although it’s not directly mentioned in the show) no matter how many men she dates or sleeps with, she's still just looking for George in every man she meets. Of course, no one quite fits the bill.
We see Blanche's Six wing in her loyalty to the girls. When Rose is looking for a new job because her husband's pension has been cut off (“Rose Fights Back,” Season 5, Episode 4), Blanche and Dorothy agree to keep Rose on as long as they can so she isn't homeless. This is also evident in “That's for Me to Know” (Season 7, Episode 4) when Blanche, faced with losing a renter or making expensive modifications to her house, adds the girls on as owners so that they don't have to move. That's very real and very costly loyalty.
A big storyline for Blanche is her obsession with looks and beauty. As the show goes on, we see her relationship with vanity changing. She decides not to get a facelift, chooses to keep her breasts the same size to save Sophia's friend, and learns that she is more than her looks -- largely through her experience with men (this is Blanche, after all), like when she dates a blind man in “Blind Date” (Season 4, Episode 12).
Blanche is also the most open to new ideas and experiences than the other girls. This is especially apparent when it's suspected that Rose might have AIDS (“72 Hours,” Season 5, Episode 19), and Blanche utters one of the best lines ever said about the crisis: “AIDS is not a bad person's disease.” Of all the girls, she is the quickest to accept the new situation and realize that it can happen no matter how good or bad you are.
Although the show sort of casts Blanche in a tragic light due to her vanity and constant carousel of men, she can be quite deep. But being a Seven, she isn’t comfortable being that emotionally vulnerable with just anyone. Emotional vulnerability requires introspection and deep honesty, and that is a hard place for Seven to stay in for any length of time.
Dorothy Zbornak's Enneagram: 1w9
Type One is a master of righteous anger. In “Sick & Tired” (Season 5, Episodes 1-2), Dorothy is battling Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. At the conclusion of episode two, she confronts her original doctor, who said there was nothing wrong with her, and demands that he listens. This sort of righteous confrontation is absolutely in the wheelhouse for a type One. Throughout the show, we see Dorothy in a confrontational role, but it’s not in the same mode as Sophia. It is from a place of principle rather than a strict interpretation of the rules.
Dorothy is often seen throughout the show as a peacemaker between passionate Blanche and caring Rose. She will frequently step in and bring peace and order back to a chaotic household. In “Three on a Couch” (Season 3, Episode 11), Rose and Blanche both criticize Dorothy for being the peacemaker, and she claims that the whole household would fall apart if she didn't take charge. At this moment, we see both Dorothy’s One and Nine present as a peacemaker and a keeper of order.
Dorothy's wing to Nine expresses itself in odd ways. This is especially true in her desire to date Stan again. One of the reasons that she stayed for 38 years with a man who rabidly cheated on her is that for type Nine, the old and the familiar is much better than something new and unknown. It takes Dorothy the show's entire run to land a fulfilling and unique relationship that she can accept. Blanche goes through various men, and Rose has Miles reasonably early on -- even Sophia manages to land a significant catch or two. It is difficult for Dorothy to get off that wicker couch and go out and meet men and engage in life.
The Nine wing also expresses itself in unhealthy ways through addictions and bad habits, as we see with Dorothy's gambling in “All Bets Are Off” (Season 5, Episode 24). Nines can easily fall into addiction, and in the show, we see addiction from both Dorothy's perspective and Rose's perspective. For Dorothy, these habits are easy and comforting. We also know that she was a smoker for many years (I mean, who wasn’t in the 1950s?), and she falls off that wagon on the show, too, much to Sophia’s consternation.
Dorothy is the most complex of the girls. Her husband is alive and actively a secondary character on the show, and her Nine wing represses many of her true desires. It sabotages her often and keeps her from realizing her real dreams. In some ways, her story is tragic because of her teenage pregnancy and how she was unable to really enjoy life the way she could.
Rose Nylund's Enneagram: 2w3
We see a great example of Rose's type Two behavior in “Before and After” (Season 2, Episode 15). In this episode, we see her working so hard to care for others that she ends up causing herself to become ill and go to the hospital. After she recovers, she decides to live life to the fullest, and that disruption leads Rose to move out of the house. This is Two at its most unhealthy. A healthy Two will balance their natural desire to care for others with their own needs. The challenge for Two is to recognize their own needs and to give them a voice. In the same episode, Rose realizes that she needs friends and people to talk to and that her new friends aren't as loyal as Dorothy and Blanche, which leads her to move back in with the girls.
We also see the negative side of Two again in “Little Sister” (Season 4, Episode 21). Rose's younger sister, whom she does not like, arrives for a visit and promptly sucks all the air out of the room. Rose feels an obligation to care for and like her, but by the end of the episode she realizes that she doesn’t have to be friends with her sister until Holly can commit to an equitable relationship. Thanks to the magic of television, Rose figures this out in 22 minutes, or about four days in the show's time. Twos in real life don't move that fast, if at all.
We see an example of Rose's Three wing in “The Competition” (Season 1, Episode 7). The girls compete in a bowling tournament, and Rose's competitive nature gets the best of her as she teams up with Sophia and focuses only on winning, completely unconcerned with the ladies' overall friendship. We also see the Three wing pop up again when she takes on the TV station job and works so hard to do everything Enrique Mas asks of her, even leading her to overwork and sleepless nights (“All That Jazz” Season 5, Episode 10).
We know Rose best for her caring nature and a certain naivete, which is consistent with Two qualities. They always think others have the best intentions, which often leads them to overlook how they can be taken advantage of by people. We see this in Dorothy’s story through gambling addiction when Rose offers Dorothy her bank card to get as much cash as she wants. Rose knows what is going on, but reinforces to Dorothy that she “was hoping you'd have a hard time taking advantage of somebody who cares about you as much as I do.” Rose leads with her caring, small-town nature first, and this moment exemplifies her healthy Two spirit.
Rose, by far the happiest character on the show, shows excellent resilience, which is helped by her Three wing. She is willing to go the extra mile for those she cares about and loves, and tries to protect them from harm because she cares.
One of the magical things about this series and why it remains so relevant today is that these women come from different backgrounds and perspectives on life, and as a viewer, you get to experience that interplay.
For example, the interactions between Blanche's dominant Seven and Sophia's Seven wing makes for great TV and good personal interplay. Often Sophia's constant criticism of Blanche is because Blanche mirrors parts of Sophia's personality back to her. In life, we can usually find this mirroring to be unpleasant. If you have ever met someone and just didn't connect with them, or they seemed to torment you, they might have been mirroring something unpleasant about yourself.
In the same sense, Sophia and Blanche both do great work in trying to motivate Dorothy to improve her dating life. This is Seven working hard to motivate others to have as much fun as they are having and enjoying themselves.
Conversely, Sophia is much more open to commitment than Blanche. When Sophia goes to bed with a new guy in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun… Before They Die” (Season 6, Episode 10) she is disappointed that he doesn’t say that he loves her but only “cares for her.” Blanche wouldn’t have minded, but for Sophia, as an Eight, this is a slight. Let’s not forget that Sophia married again (“Sophia’s Wedding,” Season 4, Episodes 6-7), too.
Both Sophia and Blanche share difficulty in emotional honestly. In “Three on a Couch,” Sophia remarks that her idea of “a good therapist is a bartender who pours without a spout.” That’s the Seven wing popping out again.
Studying the girls through the lens of the enneagram has been a fun and enjoyable experience. The power of story is a potent way to see ourselves in characters and archetypes and learn more about ourselves and our knowledge of existence on the planet.
I highly encourage everyone to study the enneagram as a tool for personal development. When you're ready, look at the show again with your new enneagram knowledge and see how my analysis matches your own.
Sources and further information can be obtained at the theenneagraminstitute.com or from any number of enneagram books.
About the author: Cameron Cowan is a writer, thinker, and human being navigating the streets of Seattle. To read more from him, visit cameronjournal.com.