I am about to be TOTALLY INDULGENT. Ain’t that fun for me? But not for you. I have finished going all the way through The Golden Girls for the hundredth time and am taking a break by watching Hot in Cleveland, the pale imitation recent show that I have only watched all the way through twice. And it got me thinking about how women age, and how they are perceived to age, and isn’t that a fascinating topic for all of us? Read on if you know The Golden Girls, or are interested in thinking about women aging, or just like my writing.
Hot in Cleveland is not a great show. It’s a soothing throwback sitcom, not a push the envelope sitcom. The biggest advantage it has is the same advantage The Golden Girls had, this massive bench of incredibly talented actors who are “too old” to be cast on any other show even for guest spots. The Golden Girls backed that up with top of the line comic dialogue, weirdly cheesy/awesome costumes, and a lot of surprisingly deep storylines around women aging. Hot in Cleveland just has amazing actors, okay dialogue, light storylines, and boring costumes.
Looking at the bigger picture, the light storylines and boring costumes are really significant! They are a sign of how culture changed for older women in the 30 years between the two shows. In The Golden Girls, the costumes were insane because there was no simple way to dress older women in high fashion. And the storylines were deep because there was no way to write about women in the 50s and 60s without getting deep. But in the 2010s, that has changed. Good or bad, it has.
If you haven’t seen the two shows, they have basically the same set-up. 3 women in their 50s share a house, with one woman in her 80s. In The Golden Girls it was 3 former housewives who retired to Miami, one divorced and 2 widowed, sharing a house with one of their elderly mothers. In Hot in Cleveland, it is a former actress, a former housewife, and a former aesthetician who quit their jobs in LA and move to Cleveland and share a house with an elderly caretaker. But the idea is a household/family of older women living together, not the usual sitcom set-up of a perfect nuclear family. Or the hip young people in the city.
What is most different is right there in the character descriptions. In The Golden Girls, they were defined by their marriages. In Hot in Cleveland, they are defined by their jobs. Even the “housewife” is defined by her job as “Housewife”. From which she has now retired. And changing the elderly mother into an elderly caretaker, giving even an 80 year old woman a job as a description, is really radical.
The depth of The Golden Girls came from showing older women dealing suddenly with the massive changes in woman’s roles over their life time. Here are three women raised to be wives and mothers and nothing else, expecting their lives to always be defined that way. And now they are suddenly adrift, their children grown up and their husband’s gone. At age 60, they get all the joys and responsibilities of independence. They eat what they like, they hardly ever cook, they hardly ever clean, they go out on dates and other fun activities whenever they want. But they also worry about surviving on a job market they were never trained for, about finding the money somewhere to fix their roof, to pay their medical bills, all the things that were taken care of for them in the past. For their mother’s generation, as we can see with the Sophia character, this was never a problem. She went from her father’s house to her husband’s house to her daughter’s house. It’s not so much that she was always taken care of, as that she always had someone to take care of. She still cooks, she still fusses, she is still a “housewife”. But Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose are not wanted by their children. They went from their fathers’ house to their husbands’ house to….nothing.
That shift from full lives to empty ones is what adds to a melancholy joy in Golden Girls. Melancholy, because of the loss and grief. But joy, because there is nothing left to lose, nothing more to worry about, a sort of nihilistic pleasure.
This is a broader statement about changing female identities. Something I don’t think pop culture has really addressed well is that folks are living A LOT longer than they used to. The average life expectancy in North America went from 68 in 1955 to around 75 in 1985. That’s 7 years and, not coincidentally, that is also the length of time The Golden Girls ran on television. It was those empty 7 years, that’s what it was showing. In the 1950s when these women got married, they expected to marry, have kids, send the last child out of the house, spend 5 years in happy retirement with their husbands, and then die. But now they have sent the last child out of the house, their husbands are dead, and they are still around. They are out of money, they are out of purpose in life, but somehow they are still living. That was the whole world of The Golden Girls, this universe of Miami with older people from all over America who have run out of life goals and purpose but are still alive.
And then there is Hot in Cleveland. Which is really not a deep show and never intended to be a deep show. But when you are saying “let’s update The Golden Girls” in 2010, you just naturally start with “okay, what were their jobs?” not “who did they marry”. And then you move on to “what are their jobs now” and “what are their plans and ambitions for life” and “why did they have a sudden life change”. Because women no longer look at a life ending at 68, no longer rush into marriage and motherhood and then out again, they have control over their own fertility, they have control over their own careers, the “freedom” the Golden Girls gained by losing everything is already there.
Hot in Cleveland is talking about women the same age as The Golden Girls. But in the 1980s and 90s, being early 50s/early 60s meant being a grandmother, having had a long marriage at some point, and now being considered “old” and “useless”. Hot in Cleveland (such a stupid title) is showing women who have no grandchildren, who could still reasonable think about starting a new family (maybe not biologically, but by adoption), and who are smack in the middle of their careers. The central gimmick of the show is that they are 3 women from the artificial world of LA where beautiful women over age 40 are considered invisible, who come to the real world of Cleveland and rediscover feeling young and vibrant. It’s saying that they truly ARE young and vibrant, LA is the crazy place. Because in 2010, being 50 means you can expect to live for another 30 years on average, long enough to raise a child to adulthood and beyond, long enough to start at the bottom and rise to the top of a whole new career, long enough to build a deep bond in a new relationship.
The thing I find really fascinating between the shows is the different meaning of motherhood over time. In The Golden Girls, motherhood was a given. Of course they all had kids, of course they were stay at home Moms. What was a revelation (to me, the little innocent) is that they had such different and complicated experiences of motherhood. It’s not an identical experience for each of them, even if each of them married young, had kids young, and spent 3 decades raising children before branching out on their own. The end result is different because the women are different.
But in Hot in Cleveland, motherhood is NOT a given any more than marriage is. So you have a woman starting her first career at 50 because she was previously a mother. And another woman having ended a successful career at 50 now considering motherhood. When I first watched the show, years and years ago stumbling across an out of context episode, I thought this was WEIRD. But seeing the whole thing now, in context, and more grown up myself, it isn’t weird at all. Women’s lives have changed so much, you can have two close friends of about the same age, one of them having finished raising her children and one of them not having started yet. You can go back to school and start a new career at 50 and it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
The Golden Girls, the original show, was really lightening in a bottle in terms of capturing the exact moment that older woman in society found themselves with life and energy left post-children and post-widowhood. Hot in Cleveland is less special, but for good reasons. Living longer, having multiple careers, motherhood on your own terms, it’s just everyday. The only way to make it exciting is to throw in a gimmick like 3 kooky ladies moving from crazy LA to sane Cleveland.
Oh, and the real lightening in a bottle that many more shows should be doing, 4 women hanging out together and planning to live together for their rest of their lives because Friendship can be just as fulfilling, important, and lifelong (especially for women) as a romantic relationship.