What ‘The Golden Girls’ Taught Us About AIDS
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because HIV was a scary topic in 1990, and our favorite four ladies in Miami made us talk about it — and laugh a little, too.
“Dammit, why is this happening to me? I mean, this shouldn’t happen to people like me.”
This desperate question from a beloved character (Rose) on a beloved show (The Golden Girls) is the defining moment in yet another landmark episode in the critically-acclaimed series. The show known as much for its hilarious comedy as for fearlessly venturing into taboo TV territory was tackling its next sensitive topic: AIDS.
In “72 Hours,” Rose receives a letter alerting her that she may have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion during gallbladder surgery six years ago, and she is advised to get a test. As she waits for the results, worry and a deep-rooted panic take hold, and a pivotal scene takes place between the delightfully dimwitted Rose and saucy southern belle, Blanche.
The ever-tactless Sophia reacts by using Dorothy’s bathroom so she won’t have to share with Rose.
Rose’s dialogue embodies several misconceptions about HIV infection, pervasive at the time: that “people like her” — an older, middle-class, heterosexual, “innocent” woman — shouldn’t get such a disease, that none of her friends will want to associate with her with now, and that she is being punished for some kind of bad behavior.
To which Blanche thoughtfully replies, “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins.”
In 1990 when the episode first aired, AIDS testing was still relatively new; just five years prior the FDA licensed the first commercial blood test. And since 1981, over 100,000 deaths from AIDS had been reported to the CDC — almost one third of them during 1990. It was a scary time, and despite efforts to educate the public, myths and misinformation ran rampant.
Cue the ever-tactless Sophia who reacts by using Dorothy’s bathroom so she won’t have to share one with Rose and prominently marking her coffee cups with an “R.” The kind of groan-worthy moments of TV that make you want to crawl under the couch. After a verbal slap from Dorothy, Sophia admits, “I know intellectually there’s no way I can catch it, but now that it’s so close to home, it’s scary.”
But this is what The Golden Girls was so good at: bringing home those topics that often made people uncomfortable — racism, homosexuality, older female sexuality, sexual harassment, the homeless, addiction, marriage equality and more — and showing us how interconnected and utterly human we all are at any age. Served, of course, with that delicious trademark humor which infused the show throughout its groundbreaking, taboo-busting seven-season run.
Thank you for being a friend
Traveled down the road and back again
Your heart is true, you’re a pal and a confidant.
And also, in true kickass Golden Girls fashion, the storyline as always reinforces the importance of friendship — in this case, staring into the face of a terrifying disease. Because of course Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia showed up at the hospital while Rose took the AIDS test and supported her during the nail-biting three-day wait for the results.
Then the happy ending: Rose gets the all-clear and we’ve all had a hearty laugh. But in 21 minutes we’ve also learned something: AIDS is not just a “gay disease” and it can happen to anyone. Understanding is vital. A pretty good lesson from a show about four older women living together in Miami, Florida, don’t you think?
Today’s rapid HIV antibody tests can deliver results in 20 minutes. Learn more at AIDS.gov.