The internet is littered with “Which Golden Girl Are You?” quizzes, and with good reason -- any casual fan of the show can easily identify the personality types of The Golden Girls:
But what if we told you these aren’t just TV Tropes, or even Myers-Briggs personality types, but ancient archetypes that represent Western patterns of the feminine?
Truth be told, they show up in television programming again and again and again: You recognize them in The Golden Girls, but they can also be seen in the 1990s Fox TV show Living Single, or the famed HBO series Sex and the City.
We spoke to scholar Deborah Macey, who wrote the paper Ancient Archetypes in Modern Media: A Comparative Analysis of Golden Girls, Living Single, and Sex and The City, about these archetypes, what makes The Golden Girls the most feminist show of the three, and why Laszlo the sculptor truly had it right.
Check out some highlights from our conversation with Debbie — and some excerpts from her scholarly paper on The Golden Girls — below.
Or listen to the Very Special Episode of the podcast right now:
What are the Ancient Archetypes in The Golden Girls?
How did you discover these four archetypes that map to The Golden Girls and the other shows?
I was in graduate school at St. Louis University in an undergraduate gender communication course, where the textbook was Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture by Julia T. Wood. She talked about stereotypes of women in the workplace, and she called them the Iron Maiden, the Sex Object, the Child, and the Mother. And so that is that first moment where I was like, ‘oh, wow, we see these things everywhere -- it’s not just in the workplace. I kept seeing them everywhere, and that just became my lens.
And then -- maybe it was as I was watching the robbery episode -- I just said I need to look at the different series that have these archetypes and compare them. These archetypes were roaming around in my head, different things that I was reading made those connections for me, and I was like, ‘this is it.’
Once I read Wendy Doniger’s The Implied Spider: Politics & Theology in Myth, I was like, ‘oh my gosh, they connect to all these mythological goddesses!’ These stories, these mythologies, these narratives have been a part of our culture for so long, it reinforces the idea that they're really saying something about how the culture sees women, and really how women see themselves.
In The Golden Girls episode The Artist, with the sculptor Laszlo, there’s the importance of 'ah no, the perfect woman embodies all of these qualities combined.' That’s what Goddesses in Everywoman: Powerful Archetypes in Women's Lives by Jean Shinoda Bolen and The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine by Christine Downing taught me.
These aren't just modern stories. These are stories we've been telling about women for ages. And that says something really important about who we think women are.
FROM THE PAPER:
The most pronounced group of characters I see recurring on television involves a quartet of women. Within this grouping, there is 'the smart one,' 'the sexy one,' 'the naïve one,' and 'the motherly one.' In this dissertation, I argue that the similarities among characters are no accident and are important to understanding our culture, not only because of their prevalent re-productions, but also because the variations among these representations point to significant cultural differences in society.
I believe these characters represent ancient, Western archetypal patterns of the feminine, and the narratives consistently illuminate prevailing U.S. views of women's lives and interests, particularly notions of femininity, feminism, family, and friendships.
The Iron Maiden is defined as unfeminine, independent, ambitious, competitive, and masculine or similar to men. The iron maiden in the workforce is generally the woman who rises through the ranks in male dominated professions. She is often portrayed as a bitch. Familiar to Western audiences, the iron maiden is the symbolic equivalent of Artemis, the goal-oriented, confident, and independent goddess, the embodiment of feminist ideals. She does not need, or particularly want, a man in her life.
The Sex Object characterizes women solely by their sexuality; and appearance counts more than intellect. Women as sex objects are hyper-sexualized and expected to conform to heterosexist norms of beauty. Flight attendants and hostesses are jobs that have the sex object built into the job requirements. The sex object can be traced back to the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite. For Aphrodite women, power comes from their sexuality.
The Child represents women as less competent decision makers than men in the workplace. The child's work is trivialized and undervalued leading to decisions being made for them by men or patriarchal institutional policies. The child embodies the characteristics of Persephone. This goddess is the passive, compliant child who allows others to act for and upon her. She represents the girl who is waiting to be transformed and rescued by others.
The Mother provides comfort and support to co-workers. In addition, and despite her professional title, the mother's duties might involve fixing coffee, acting as secretary, and planning social events. Administrative assistants incorporate these maternal expectations. Three-fourths of women in the workforce inhabit this type of job. The Mother represents Demeter, the maternal goddess. Women represented as Demeter provide material, psychological, and spiritual nourishment for those around them.
How Well Do These Archetypes Match Up to The Golden Girls? And Where Do They “Slip”?
So sometimes there's some slippage with Sophia and Dorothy becoming the Mother and the Iron Maiden. And I argue that where Sophia might be the Iron Maiden is because she's old, and she's not beholden to those feminine requirements so strongly, because she's aged out of them.
She doesn't have to be the most beautiful woman in the world, she doesn't have to act perfect. She doesn't have to act nice. She can do whatever she wants, because she's 80. And it doesn't matter.
And so one of the things that I did in the beginning was develop these definitions, which is how I operationalized the archetype. I counted the number of times per episode that Dorothy exhibited Iron Maiden qualities -- either looked so in dress, looked so in speech, whatever -- every time she did anything that was kind of Iron Maiden-related, she got a little check.
And the same is true of all the characters, whatever archetype they were acting in, or dressing like in any given moment in the series, they would get marked. I used my unit of analysis as ‘predominant archetype per episode.’ And if that's your unit of analysis, then it's a lot easier to see that Dorothy is the Iron Maiden, Sophia is the the Mother, Rose is the Child, and Blanche is kind of extraordinarily the Sex Object.
It then started me thinking about the idea of sexuality, and the Child's sexuality in the show, and how that is used. And one of the ancient archetypal themes that I did find is that the Child is to maintain this kind of virginal aspect, you know, like, but if they're with the right person, then you know, sex is okay. And then it's like, they become better at sex than any kind of Sex Object, right?
Like they're just so good at sex when they're in this sanctioned relationship. And you saw that with Rose and her husband when she talks about like, how they had sex every day, for the entire time they were married. She becomes the most, you know, experienced sexual being to ever walk the planet.
I think it's interesting to our culture, because you know, we constantly tell young women and girls, 'oh, you know, sex is bad, it's bad. It's bad. Save it for someone you love.' Right? Like, it's the worst messaging ever. Terrible messaging about sexuality and your body.
I never even thought of it like that until you just put it that way. 'It's the absolute worst thing until it isn't.'
And then you know, the reality is, then, where and when do you get that experience to be that? Because decades of training to be virginal doesn't put you in a space where you're comfortable with sex. And yet what television is telling us through the classic archetype of the Child is that it does.
FROM THE PAPER:
Archetypes "evoke feelings and images, and touch on themes that are universal and part of our human inheritance". Bolen also suggested that these shared understandings of our human experiences are conveyed through archetypal stories. If we think about television as a modern day storyteller, then it makes sense that producers of television and other media would use evocative archetypes to capture audiences. In addition, the lack of interrogation allows the patterns to persist and become naturalized within the cultural norms, thus ringing true to our understanding of human nature.
While I argue these archetypes, or aspects of them, are prevalent throughout popular culture, Kaler (1990) asserted that Golden Girls was the first to portray the "pattern of the complete woman -- the four dominant stages of a woman's life -- as virgin, spouse, mother, and wise woman". These stages reflect the Child, the Sex Object, the Mother, and the Iron Maiden respectively. Kaler used Jung's "quaternity" to describe the four character representations that make up the psychological pattern of completeness".
Why does The Golden Girls stand out as a feminist show?
I do think Golden Girls was the most feminist of the three shows that I looked at, by far.
Why is that?
I mean, and that's the argument of my dissertation, right? It's that these archetypal characters have a narrative function. And Dorothy's function is to bring out that feminist ideology. At worst, the Iron Maiden character can be a cautionary tale of what feminists, you know -- what might befall on you when you're feminist.
Like Stanley Zbornak.
Yes, Exactly! You know, Dorothy is a real feminist icon. And as much as she is ridiculed -- like how she's called Fess Parker and all these different masculine people's names, and she's always told she's ugly -- she still is, in some ways, the most respected character. The others really respect her. And so when she talks, people listen.
Whenever she carries a dialogue, like the narrative about fixing the toilet or sexual harassment, or whenever it is that the dialogue has import -- it becomes really important.
FROM THE PAPER:
The Iron Maiden brings forth the most feminist perspective of all the other archetypes.
While Dorothy does date periodically throughout the series, her lack of romantic life also reflects her independence. This independence comes through in her strength to take a stand against things she thinks are unjust.
Dorothy serves as the connecting character in the show; this role generally goes to the mother archetype. While her appearance may be ridiculed, her progressive ideas rarely are, thus privileging a feminist perspective in the series. Of the three series, I argue that Golden Girls is the most feminist, in part because of Dorothy and her privileging, and in part, because the series tackles many social issues and specifically addresses the impact on older women.
Why Does The Golden Girls Still Resonate with Young Audiences, 30+ Years After Airing?
It's fascinating to think about the negative critiques of The Golden Girls being of the 1980s and looking back now, but also the reason it does resonate and has resonated even with new younger people. Like I mean, like, people younger than us, people who weren't born when it came on the air, weren't born when it went off the air and into syndication, you know. Some some of them know the lines like better than Lauren and I --
No, that can't be true.
The youth are coming for us! And it's amazing. You know, people are constantly asking the question, why does this show still resonate? I think it's because of the recombinant nature of the characters that give you that baseline of good morals and progressive ideas like the ones Golden Girls is constantly citing. They talked about marriage equality before it was even on the lips of people making laws. They constantly talked about all of the issues of the day that, like you said, we're still dealing with.
We're still dealing with women not being trusted. We're still dealing with people not accepting gay people. We're still dealing with vulnerability of women, or asshole ex-husbands, or whatever is going on. Shitty policies are still being enacted, and some even worse now than the critique was back then. So I think it's really interesting, where it's like, there's so many things they get wrong with our lens now, but also they helped us become who we are now.
They covered all these tough issues -- but again, it's a sitcom, right? I mean, to your earlier point of how it was on NBC with a primetime audience, their demographic was essentially 'America'. Like, it's so not what it's like now. It’s not what it was like, on Fox in the 90s for Living Single, and it's definitely not what it was like on HBO for Sex and the City.
So The Golden Girls is just this perfect blend of humor with a perfect blend of seriousness, and these perfect rearranging of archetypes that we recognize. But they also push the envelope in all of those areas, which is -- I mean, that's one of the many reasons why I think we have a friggin’ podcast about this TV show 30 years later.
And people are so connected to it. And I think you're absolutely correct that it's the resonance that comes from the longevity of these archetypes, that they are such a big important part of our humanity in a way. We've been telling these stories forever. This is just one version of these stories about who these archetypes are for women, and you can be one in one sense and another in another.
It's fascinating -- that whole idea of there's more to you than just this archetype. There's more to you than just this single label.
And that's the beauty of womanhood. This full and complete human being.
Yeah, exactly. And then your friends bring out the best in you. All the different sides.
What did Laszlo say?
That 'It is all of you.'
For further scholarship:
For additional takes on archetypes: