The Golden Girls: Friendship, fundraisers and...HIV testing anxiety? 🎗
I can remember sitting on the living room floor of my Nan's house as a child watching The Golden Girls over and over again as she had tea and biscuits. I doubt I understood much of any of it at the time, given its topical storylines and surprisingly adult content, but revisiting it always makes me nostalgic for my Nan. And whilst the content is fun and full of self deprecating humour the show managed to tackle some pretty serious issues for its time - particularly around ageing female sexuality; health issues like chronic fatigue syndrome, menopause and HIV; gay rights; and most importantly friendship and connection. Join us as we take a deep dive into Season 5: Episode 19: 72 hours which explores HIV/AIDS, stigma, anxiety, and ageing female sexuality.
The Golden Girls, a TV sit-com which ran from 1985-1992, explored the friendship between Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur), her mother Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty), and housemates Rose Nylund (Betty White) and Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan) as they face life and love as single women in Miami during their twilight years. The success of the show was two fold in that it tackled serious issues with a humorous twist. The character differences complimented each other so beautifully between the ditsy Rose, the tactless Sophia, the prudent Dorothy and the vivacious Blanche. Whilst they had their differences these ladies were unified in their connection and support for one another.
In this episode Rose receives a letter from a hospital she had gallbladder surgery at years ago advising that she may have been infected with HIV following a blood transfusion that was latter found to be positive for HIV antibodies. The episode follows Rose's experience of testing anxiety as she waits for her potentially life changing results. Her friends rally by her side in their own unique ways and the show explores stigma associated with HIV through these exchanges. There's a side story for Dorothy who is lumped with organising a "Save the Wetlands" fundraiser which attempts to add some comical relief to Rose's main, and darker, storyline. Ultimately Rose learns that she is HIV-ve and after a stressful 72 hours of waiting all is well.
Thank you for being a friend!
Is there a more memorable theme song?
I think not!
Adapted from Andrew Gold's song "Thank you for Being a Friend" this theme song has made its way on replay into our nostalgic hearts and memories and will forever be intrinsically linked with these four special women as a musical symbol of friendship and connection.
Thank you for being a friend Traveled down a road and back again Your heart is true, you're a pal and a confidant
And if you threw a party Invited everyone you knew Well, you would see the biggest gift would be from me And the card attached would say
Thank you for being a friend
So sitcoms follow a pretty standard flow form episode to episode. There's usually a main plot and one or two sub plots, the characters are pretty concrete and archetypal showing little change or development from episode to episode, and each storyline usually provides one or more characters with a problem or issue which plays out in the episode until its resolution.
This episode is a pretty clear example of this set up.
We get Rose with the main presenting problem, the process of testing and waiting in the middle, and the negative results as the resolution at the end. The archetypal characters provide the humour and a subplot about the disaster of the fundraiser adds to this ... but only marginally. For me the episode could have been more powerful without the fundraiser subplot. It seemed out of context to the main story and frankly added little humour. It was probably fine for its time but the explosion of the sitcom in the 90's definitely saturated this viewer with this particular set of rigid rules. Newer sitcoms like Schitt's Creek provide similar but more flexible structures which work better for the modern audience.
HIV testing anxiety
Rose's anxiety about potentially having HIV is completely understandable, especially when you consider this episode was first released back in 1990. At this stage in the HIV/AIDS epidemic a diagnosis was basically a death sentence with effective antiretroviral treatment not available until around 1997 - and even then treatment was pretty brutal with severe side effects like chronic diarrhea and fat redistribution. And for Rose the idea is even more shocking for her because she's just not the type of gal who gets HIV as explored in the dialogue below:
Blanche: Now, now, Rose, take it easy.
Rose: Why does everyone keep saying that? I don't feel like taking it easy. I might have AIDS, and it scares the hell out of me. And yet every time I open my mouth to talk about it, somebody says 'There, there, Rose, take it easy'.
Blanche: I'm sorry, honey.
Rose: Why me, Blanche? I'm tired of pretending I feel okay so you won't say, 'Take it easy', and I'm tired of you saying 'Take it easy' because you're afraid I'm going to fall apart. Dammit, why is this happening to me? I mean, this isn't supposed to happen to people like me. You must've gone to bed with hundreds of men. All I had was one innocent operation.
Blanche: Hey, wait a minute! Are you saying this should be me and not you?
Rose: No! No, I'm just saying that I am a good person. Hell, I'm a goody-two-shoes!
Blanche: AIDS is not a bad person's disease, Rose, it is not God punishing people for their sins!
And what it all boils down to is stigma.
HIV/AIDS has been stigmatised since it's discovery in the 80's due to it's lethality (if untreated), the way it's transmitted, i.e. through sex and blood to blood transmission practices like injecting drugs, as well as its prominence in certain communities in various countries, e.g. the gay community in Australia, the Afro-American community in the USA, and the injecting drug community in Russia.
For Rose distancing herself from these communities as a "goody-two-shoes" serves as a self protective cognitive defence in reassuring herself that she won't ultimately have the virus when in fact this is really a cognitive bias leading to a fallacy in thinking. In truth anyone can get HIV if exposed, regardless of their morality. I'm glad the showrunners chose to explore this topic primarily with Rose, the "goody-two-shoes", instead of Blanche, or as Sophia would put it "the slut". By using Rose as the catalyst the show reinforces and normalises HIV as an 'anybody' disease, and in this way whilst exploring stigma in the episode it also worked to counteract it.
Thankfully a lot has changed in the HIV space since this episode was released. Treatments are now so effective that most people living with HIV and on treatment have near same life expectancy as their non-infected peers and undetectable viral loads mean that people living with HIV are unable to transmit the virus to others. Testing is easier than ever with fast turn around times and multiple testing options including free sexual health clinics, rapid finger prick testing and home testing kits more widely available. Medication to prevent HIV is also available to at risk individuals in the way of Pre-Exposure-Prophylaxis (PrEP).
However, stigma still exists despite the medical advances and continues to contribute to testing anxiety and avoidance.
Testing can lead to a significant amount of anxiety even in low risk situations. Some individuals go on to have persistent anxiety, despite negative results, and continue to test and seek health information and advice for reassurance. On the flip side some people find testing so stressful because they fear a diagnosis that they avoid testing altogether, even in high risk situations. If you find yourself having anxiety around testing here are some pro tips:
consider your support network - do you have friends/family/partners that you can talk to or service providers that can work through your concerns with you.
avoid "Dr Google" - searching online for information about your symptoms or HIV is usually unhelpful. If you do have questions make sure to write them down and check with the clinician at your testing appointment for advice specific to your circumstances.
don't avoid testing - HIV will usually show up within 6 weeks after an incident of concern. Delaying testing only puts you at risk of developing symptoms related to HIV if you have been infected. Knowing that you have HIV doesn't change the fact that you have it but it does give you the capacity to take control, seek treatment and reduce the spread.
the result is the result - if you're having trouble believing that the result is accurate than you may need to explore further counselling around your anxiety.
what next? - testing can be a good opportunity to consider your current risk and strengthen your sexual practices to prevent future risk e.g. by using condoms more effectively and considering if PrEP is right for you. For more info on PrEP head to: https://www.pan.org.au/
What's a friend to do?
Whilst all rallying around her it's safe to say the girls struggle to provide support to Rose in the way the she needs to be supported - and we've all been there, right? A friend tells us some bad news and we clamber to find the right words to say to show that we care.
It's easy to jump to reassurance. The old "there there", a tap on the back, and a "It'll be alright" thrown in for good measure. But this generally does more to reassure you than the friend disclosing the problem. Reassurance makes us feel like we've done the right thing when in fact we could actually be doing the opposite. Whilst theoretically a good idea reassurance can actually come across as belittling and dismissive. We might say "everything is going to be okay" but what the friend hears and interprets is "you don't understand me" and/or "you're not hearing how serious this is for me."
So what's a friend to do?
Next time, instead of reassurance, try empathy. Rose found Blanche so helpful in this episode because she shared her own personal experience with testing and used this to shape her understanding of Rose's experience.
Empathy sounds like:
"That sounds like it's really difficult for you, tell me more"
"I'm here to support you, tell me what you need"
"I'll give you space if that's what you need"
"That must have been difficult to tell me, thank you for trusting me with this"
Sexuality: Aren't you a little old for that?
The best part of The Golden Girls for me is the representation and celebration (self-deprecating as it may be) of sexuality among older women. In most mainstream media, and society as a rule, the older generation is usually portrayed as asexual. Older women are given mixed messages about chasing eternal youth through beauty regimes and plastic surgery mixed with opposing messages framing older women as unattractive, passive and carers for grandchildren or their husbands. But with The Golden Girls we get, by and large, fiercely independent women, single and dating, sexual and flirtatious.
And why shouldn't we celebrate sexuality as we age? It's as if we forget that we're all getting older (and for most of us more quickly than we'd like). But that doesn't mean our sexuality just turns off after we hit a certain age. It doesn't ... but it definitely changes. For most of us sex in our 20's is different to sex in our 30's and 40's. So it stands to reason that it will be different in our 60's to 80's.
Different. But not gone.
In fact evidence suggests that people who retain sexual interest as they age have better mood and functional scores than their disinterested counterparts. So there's good reason to stay in the game, even if the rules change.
Summary and Ratings
The Golden Girls was really ahead of it's time. I loved that they took a hard hitting issue like HIV and made it relatable to a wide mainstream audience whilst normalising the disease and showing empathy. This episode could have done without the side plot for me but overall it was such a fun throwback - I think we'll be returning to Miami, Florida, again some day to explore some other episodes because these ladies sure have a lot to teach us.
A really heartwarming display of friendship. Hard hitting issues mixed with comedy. Satirical acting but not overplayed during the emotion filled scenes. Could have done without the side plot though so a 3/5 this time.
Talking about HIV with such empathy and openness at a time when it was so feared and stigmatised was truly groundbreaking stuff. Rose particularly portrayed such an honest account of a difficult experience and the display of friendship was so raw and truthful I couldn't help but be touched.
HIV is so often portrayed in the media through the lens of illness or criminal intentioned transmission - I hope we see more of what The Golden Girls portrayed in future media representation. A well deserved 4/5.
Sources and additional reading
Dominguez LJ, Barbagallo M. Ageing and sexuality. European Geriatric Medicine 2016; 7:512-518.
#TheStagGeek #goldengirls #bettywhite #beaarthur #ruemcclanahan #estellegetty #hivaids #hiv #hivtest #hivanxiety #friendship #ageing #ageingsexuality #FilmCritique #SexTherapy #sexology #StaghornSexology #blog #BibliotherapyBlog
Disclaimer: All material posted is the author's opinion and should not take the place of tailored advice, unique to your situation, from a medical or healthcare professional. Where information is sourced elsewhere it is referenced in the source list. All images and gifs are sourced through wix.com, Canva and the author's private photo collection unless otherwise stated.