Last week, The Atlantic published an article by Rhaina Cohen called "What If Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?" It highlighted individuals who place a friendship, rather than a sexual partnership, as the most important relationship in their lives -- and it had The Golden Girls written all over it.
The premise of The Golden Girls (which ran on NBC from 1985-1992) is that four older women find themselves living together as roommates during a 'second act' of life. Three of the women, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia, are widowed and one, Dorothy, is divorced. As the series progresses, it's clear that these four women are more than just roommates or friends -- they're life partners, and consider each other chosen family.
Americans, who’ve long been encouraged to put all their eggs in the marriage basket, may come to rely upon a wider array of social relationships out of necessity. - Rhaina Cohen
In her article, Cohen quotes a woman, Nicole Sonderman, who sums up her relationship with her female friend as “having a life partner, and you just don’t want to kiss them.” Indeed, nowadays we assume that any two women sharing an intimate friendship must be having sexual contact, or at least sexual desire.
In The Golden Girls episode "Goodbye, Mr. Gordon," Dorothy and Blanche are recommended by Rose to go on a morning talk show about women who live together, and are mistaken as lesbians:
Dorothy: Rose, we can't kill you here because there are cameras. Now, how did this happen?
Rose: Oh, I don't know. They just said they wanted two women who loved each other and slept together.
Dorothy: We do not sleep together!
Rose: Yes, you did! Last month, when When Blanche was having her room repainted because the plaster behind her headboard all fell out.
Rebecca Traister, prolific author and journalist, is quoted from her book All the Single Ladies about the role friendship plays in women's lives: “Do two people have to have regular sexual contact and be driven by physical desire in order to rate as a couple? Must they bring each other regular mutual sexual satisfaction? Are they faithful to each other? By those measures, many heterosexual marriages wouldn’t qualify.” It certainly puts society's emphasis on marriage into perspective, and makes one wonder why so many choose unsatisfying marriages over satisfying friendships. (I think of this every time one of The Golden Girls is dating a dud who says things like "The Orient" to refer to Asia.)
Cohen includes a bit of interesting history in her article, pointing out that close friendships, and especially female friendships, weren't always confusing to or judged by others. Boston marriages, where women would live together free from the societal expectation of a man, were a thing. Jane Addams, Daniel Webster, and Frederick Douglass were among the famous folk who wrote love letters to and spoke openly about their intimate friendships in the way we, today, would expect them to be talking about sexual relationships. But it was normal in their era -- people didn't assume immediately that they wanted to bone.
This paragraph in The Atlantic article was particularly fascinating:
The period spanning the 18th to early 20th centuries was the heyday of passionate, devoted same-sex friendships, called “romantic friendships.” Without self-consciousness, American and European women addressed effusive letters to “my love” or “my queen.” Women circulated friendship albums and filled their pages with affectionate verse. In Amy Matilda Cassey’s friendship album, the abolitionist Margaretta Forten inscribed an excerpt of a poem that concludes with the lines “Fair friendship binds the whole celestial frame / For love in Heaven and Friendship are the same.” Authors devised literary plot lines around the adventures and trials of romantic friends. In the 1897 novel Diana Victrix, the character Enid rejects a man’s proposal because her female friend already occupies the space in her life that her suitor covets. In words prefiguring Kami West’s, Enid tells the man that if they married, “you would have to come first. And you could not, for she is first.”
For the era that The Golden Girls lived in, this was not the norm. In fact, all of the women found each other due to the circumstance of losing a male partner -- either through death or divorce -- and only in this manner is their roommates-turned-into-soul-mates situation deemed acceptable, or even realistic. When viewers meet childhood friends (even best friends) of the girls, they never seem to share the type of connection that the four Golden Girls have to each other in the present moment. I don't believe Dorothy ever had a conversation with Trudy McMahon that was quite as intimate or touching as Dorothy's conversation with Blanche about feeling magenta.
The major point Cohen is making about friendship versus marriage is that it might help us as a society -- which former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy deemed as having an 'loneliness epidemic' -- expand our definitions of caregiving and caretaking. After all, if marriage is predicated on sexual activity, but not being lonely and taking care of others is crucial to survival, why the hell is the sex thing considered a priority by the government? I mean, sex is fun and all, but have you tried thriving?
As the article puts it, "because friendship is outside the realm of legal protection, the law perpetuates the norm that friendships are less valuable than romantic relationships." We see this all the time in The Golden Girls. In the episode, "Home Again, Rose," Rose suffers a heart attack and has to have triple bypass surgery. The other three girls, though, aren't allowed to see her before she goes under, because the hospital policy is "family only." In another episode, "That's For Me to Know," Blanche -- the owner of the house the four girls live in -- is on the hook from the city inspector, who says the house is only zoned to have two tenants and not three. By the end of the episode, she sells each of them shares of the house:
Rose: Oh, Blanche, this was so generous of you. I'm so touched.
Blanche: Well, you know, I just got to thinkin'. Yeah, this house was the home of my family. But you're right, you're family now. So, now it's our home.
The Golden Girls weather all sorts of tricky financial, legal, and otherwise "matrimonial" difficulties together. None of them are particularly well off, with Blanche needing to have roommates in the first place, Rose not being able to afford to live without her late husband's pension, Dorothy willing to do anything for $8 an hour, or Blanche and Rose reassuring Dorothy that they will do whatever it takes to take care of Sophia -- Dorothy's mother -- in the event that Dorothy cannot.
Granted, the series does end with Dorothy, the divorcée, leaving the house to marry a man, and have a second chance at that traditional type of relationship. (Luckily for her, the sex is not only present but "so good they named it.") But, quite telling, Sophia, her mother, stays behind with Blanche and Rose, opting for the non-traditional arrangement of their tight-knit friendship. And it's pretty clear that Dorothy -- The Golden Palace not withstanding -- isn't going to fade away; she's still going to maintain these very intense friendships for the rest of her life.
A man named John Carroll is quoted in Cohen's article as calling the reliance upon your spouse for everything from emotional to financial to sexual support as "one-stop shopping." It's an impossible ask -- it quite literally takes a village sometimes. Cohen states that "these expectations also stifle our imagination for how other people might fill essential roles such as cohabitant, caregiver, or confidant." It's impossible to not hear Thank You For Being a Friend playing in my head after reading that.
Forging passionate friendships outside of sexual activity or state-recognized monogamy, like The Golden Girls did, might be one of the best chances we have of reversing the loneliness epidemic. The friendship that Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia shared made them all better people, and radiated outward to form a better society, too.
As Dorothy tells the girls in the finale, "Your friendship was something I never expected at this point of my life, and I could never asked for a better surprise."
Let's look to The Golden Girls for inspiration, and keep surprising ourselves.