Old enough to be a mystery to kids but contemporary enough to hold wisdom which said kids can relate to, the 1980s sitcom “The Golden Girls” is a fruitful resource in terms of teaching: While teachers and professors across the country grapple with the best way to teach complex subjects, from gender and sexuality to race and class, humor provides a pathway that could ameliorate that struggle—along with allowing students to pinpoint tropes, stereotypes, and discomforts in comedy that was popular in another time.
Enter “Women & Aging: Lessons from the Golden Girls,” a course at Cal State Long Beach that attempts to use the sitcom as a platform for discussion in exploring ageism, sexism, racism, homophobia, self-image and more.
Headed by Maria Claver, the director of the gerontology program, and Long Wang, an assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics, each class begins with one episode of the sitcom followed by deep discussion.
“I’ve been wanting to teach this course for years,” Claver said. “Now that I’ve built up my career and the university is so open to creative ways to engage students, this was the perfect time—and with each semester, we learn and love more about the way the course best operates.”
Each weekly session involves the showing of an episode followed by a 15- to 20-minute lecture that frames it academically and topically, followed by discussions led by invited guests with the students of the course.
“Centering around humor as the agent for analysis and discussion has actually caused students to open up about things they weren’t comfortable with otherwise,” Claver said. “Young students fearing menopause in their coming years. Students fearing loss and aging. Students connecting other issues like income and class disparities to health care access… It’s truly helped them contextualize their existence.”
And the humor of “The Golden Girls” has led the way for that contextualization.
On the surface, the sitcom’s main breakthrough was its most apparent one: It was showcasing four older women as vivacious, sexual and independent—a direct contrast to the return of the hyper-traditional families during the Reagan years. However, the show’s nuances became some of its strongest aspects, frankly discussing and advertising perspectives that were both heartwarming and radical.
One of its most famous and impactful episodes, “72 Hours,” is the source for one of the course’s sessions, which focuses entirely on HIV.
Character Rose (played by Millennial stan favorite Betty White) believes she might have been infected with HIV from a blood transfusion.
Rose’s questions and concerns, expressed aloud, embodied the misled, misinformed national dialogue surrounding the disease: “Dammit, why is this happening to me?” she said. “I mean, this shouldn’t happen to people like me.” And by people, she meant older, middle-class, heterosexual women—and that she must be getting “punished” for some sort of “bad behavior.”
Blanche (played by Rue McClanahan) then offers up, at the peak of the AIDS crisis when even Reagan refused to utter the word, something that would go down in history: “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins.”
This episode alone could allow students to not only discuss female infection and sexuality during the HIV/AIDS crisis—something widely dismissed by both media and politicians alike—but also examine the role women play in adding empathy to tragedy, how diseases affect our older populations differently, and how our presumptions can be detrimental.
“My best friend is a nurse and served during the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis,” Claver said. “Her work not only helps student contextualize that part of our history but reconnect it to the common misconception that seniors aren’t sexually active when, in fact, they very much are—and that’s proven by the rise of STIs amid senior care facilities and nursing homes. The old adage was, ‘Don’t get knocked up’ and they weren’t informed of sexual protection.”
This ability to attack complex, if not outright emotional topics—in one episode, Rose’s addiction to painkillers is prescient given the nation’s current opioid crisis while in another episode, Dorothy has to confront head-on her white son’s marriage to an older black woman—is one of the core components of the course’s character.
And it isn’t just younger generations taking in the lessons through the lens of a different era: Claver has said that the age range in her class ranges anywhere from those in their 20s to seniors taking the course (via the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s program that allows seniors to take eight-week semesters at the university) to invited guests.
“One student brought her mom,” Claver said. “How awesome is that?”
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