A Bioethicist Explains All the Important Lessons We Can Learn from 'The Golden Girls'

Who would've thought that you could learn so much about life's Tough Questions from an 80s sitcom about four older women?

Jenna Marotta

Jenna Marotta

Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur, and Betty White. Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Set in the Miami home of relocated Southern belle Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan), The Golden Girls— which premiered 30 years ago this week—presented Blanche's capers with her best friends, New Yorker Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) and Minnesota-bred Rose Nylund (Betty White). The final roommate in the foursome was Dorothy's Italian mother, Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty), as each woman found herself past middle age and unexpectedly single. An immediate hit, the show ran for seven seasons, lives on in syndication, and might soon be the subject of its own mass-produced LEGO set, of all things. Female archetypes portrayed by the characters (the libertine, the brain, the innocent, the wise-ass) paved the way for programs like Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives (whose creator, Marc Cherry, wrote for The Golden Girls).

Fordham University bioethicist Dr. Elizabeth Yuko will commemorate the anniversary Friday night at the Astoria venue Q.E.D. with a lecture called "Everything I Know About Bioethics I Learned from The Golden Girls ." Since June, 32-year-old Yuko has brought the sold-out presentation from Queens to Cleveland and back, introducing audiences to the previously unexamined intersection of her personal and professional passions.

Last week Yuko gave VICE a preview of the lecture over drinks at Grey Dog in the East Village.

VICE: First off, what is bioethics?
Dr. Elizabeth Yuko: Bioethics is the study of challenging issues related to medicine and things dealing with the human body and science and technology. Like stem-cell research, artificial reproduction, end-of-life issues. Anytime there's a challenging ethical issue in medicine, that's bioethics.

Why should young people care about bioethics?
Whether it's making a medical decision for yourself or for a loved one, everyone encounters it at some stage. Frequently, especially in more difficult illnesses, there are a few different options the doctor can give you. You can have this experimental treatment or you can have this [routine remedy], which we know works X percent of the time.

One of my big issues is paternalism in medicine. Treatments are based on research conducted on men primarily. Or vulnerable populations that unnecessarily receive the burdens of research [without] the benefits. Heart disease is a good example of that. The symptoms are different [for each gender], but if women present with stomach pains and not-male-heart-attack symptoms, they could be pushed away. "Oh no, there's nothing wrong with you." Like [what happened with] Dorothy's chronic fatigue syndrome [on The Golden Girls].

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko. Photo by Karen Novak

"Blanche gives a speech saying, 'AIDS isn't a bad person's disease, Rose. It's not God's punishment for doing something wrong.' And that's at the height of the AIDS epidemic." —Elizabeth Yuko

What was your first exposure to The Golden Girls?
I don't think I ever was not exposed to The Golden Girls. I was two when it debuted. My parents watched it every Saturday night. If they were going out, they went out after the show was on. If they went out, I stayed with my grandparents and they'd watch it. I remember part of the first run, and then immediately the reruns on Lifetime. So it was all through high school. It's just always part of me. It's like my security blanket if I'm anxious.

Why do you like the show so much?
[Unlike] other 80s and 90s sitcoms, right off the bat in the first season, Blanche's sister Virginia comes and asks her for a kidney. They didn't wait for the show to get popular until they started coming out with these bigger issues. It's something that was inherently integrated in the show from the very beginning, which was interesting. They didn't shy away from LGBT issues at all, which was unusual for the time, and it wasn't just a punch line.

In the episode where Gil Kessler is running for city council, and, like, Sophia knew something was off with him and in the end they found out he's transgender. So that wasn't great [laughs], but there were regular gay characters and in that way it was pioneering.

And Bea Arthur remains a gay icon.
Yeah. They all were heavily involved in AIDS and HIV research. [In one] episode, Rose thinks she has HIV. That's an iconic one. But the biggest part about that is the way that they spoke out against stigmatization of people with HIV right away. Blanche gives a speech saying, "AIDS isn't a bad person's disease, Rose. It's not God's punishment for doing something wrong." And that's at the height of the AIDS epidemic. That was huge to have a mainstream television character saying something like this on a highly rated national sitcom. Because there was so much misinformation out there.

You talked a little about chronic fatigue syndrome. What other bioethics issues did the show delve into?
A lot of it was the decision-making process surrounding these difficult issues. Because each character was so purely well developed, you knew if Sophia reacted a certain way to something, she's a woman in her 80s in the 1980s—that's why she's writing an R on Rose's mug, so she doesn't drink out of her AIDS cup. Or Blanche is acting this way when her sister asks her to donate a kidney because Blanche can sometimes be selfish and vain and doesn't want a scar. They've developed the characters to the point where they can play out different scenarios in the decision-making process without coming across as mean or belittling. You're just like, "Oh, that's the way Sophia would react. It's realistic to that character."

And it's not always the same person being the progressive one. In the episode where Blanche's brother announces that he's getting married to a man, Sophia gives a speech on marriage equality. [That speech] was making the rounds a lot a few months ago when the Supreme Court passed [ Obergefell v. Hodges ]. He wants to get married for the same reason you'd want to marry your husband—people want to have someone to grow old with.

So at that stage Sophia, the old character, was the liberal voice of reason. And then Blanche was that person in the AIDS episode. And in another relatively famous episode where they buy condoms in a pharmacy, Blanche gives a little speech on safer sex and sexual health and sex positivity. That itself is making a statement because you know these women aren't going to get pregnant, so the reason they're using condoms is for safer sex purposes, which is a great message.

It seems like Blanche was often the progressive voice on the show. When Dorothy's son slept with Rose's daughter, Blanche was the only one who saw that as no big deal. All the other characters were so disappointed.
That was slut-shaming. I didn't like how they handled that, because they were like, "Oh, Kirsten. You couldn't possibly!" Kirsten can do whatever she wants. She has agency.

I guess since Rose worked as a grief counselor, at some points she had to be progressive.
Yeah, they all kind of had their moments. Or they came to terms with things together, like when Blanche's daughter, Rebecca, says she's going to go have in vitro fertilization and they all go to the sperm bank. And ultimately they end up supporting Blanche and her daughter, saying, "Don't you want a role in your grandchild's life?" What's handy about The Golden Girls is it tackles these different issues in 22-minute sitcom episodes.

"They were able to get away with topics because they were older women, and a lot of it was sexual innuendo, double entendres." —Elizabeth Yuko

As a viewer, I never felt like I was being educated in a heavy-handed way.
Exactly. When you watch shows like medical dramas—ER, Grey's Anatomy , House—the drama comes from these difficult issues, and you know what you're getting yourself into. Whereas when you're watching a sitcom, it kind of sneaks in the back. Like you're watching these people have these conversations around these issues and talking things through, and then resolving it, because it's a sitcom—granted that isn't realistic, usually. Like in Blanche's sister's kidney episode, she finally decides, "OK, I'm going to go through with this. I'm going to give Virginia my kidney." Then she goes to the hospital and it ends up she's not a match and magically, someone has donated a kidney who's a perfect match. So she gets to keep her sister and her kidney, within minutes. So [ laughs] that was sitcom magic for you. Or there's an episode where Sophia's friend Martha asks her to be there when she kills herself.

When you start to count them up there are a lot of ethical issues broached. Why do you think that is? Because the show was about old ladies?
They were able to get away with topics, I think, because they were older women, and a lot of it was sexual innuendo, double entendres. It was so progressive and it was essentially a feminist show, with old ladies who were seen not as gross, smelly old women, but as sexually active, smart, vibrant, still-working, still-social beings. And especially anytime they had any medical issue, you got to see a glimpse into the inherent paternalism in medicine.

I'll always associate Bea Arthur with feminism because of Maude [Maude Findlay was the first TV character to have an abortion, in 1972]. Bea Arthur seemingly wouldn't put her name on a project unless it moved the feminist conversation forward.
They were all like that. Rue McClanahan—I don't know if you've read her memoir? It's very good.

I want to. My First Five Husbands?
Yes. She talks about having an abortion in that in the 50s. She's very open about that sort of thing as well. You have this group of women who were very [into activism] outside the show, too.

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"Everything I Learned About Bioethics I Learned from 'The Golden Girls'" takes place Friday, September 18, at 7:30 PM at Q.E.D. in Astoria, New York. Tickets are $6 and available here.