A Golden Girl’s Guide to Growing Old
A few months ago, I decided to stop dyeing my hair. There were a couple of reasons behind this decision. In March, I started my new job as assistant professor of history for an online university, which means I work from home. One of the advantages of this position is that I don’t have to get dressed. Working in yoga apparel and/or PJs is oddly liberating, although I have to remind myself to wash my face and brush my teeth. There is a freedom in forgoing a professional wardrobe, but I began to wonder if I still needed to color my hair, which I’ve done in one way (Sun In) or another (Clairol #108) since I was 13. Now that I work from home, the box of dye is sitting in the bathroom. I think laziness is driving my decision more than wanting to make some sort of statement about embracing middle age.
I also just recently celebrated my 42nd birthday, which in many ways is not a big deal, right? 40 is the big birthday for many individuals, but 42? So what? Yet, this birthday made me realize that the gray really was more realistic, and as I said, I have mixed feelings each time I look in mirror. The prominent streaks of gray in my hair stir both pride and ambivalence because as an older woman in America, I experience conflicting images of and messages about aging and femininity. With each passing year, my identity as an aging woman will continue to develop, and I will look to not only friends and what family I have left, but also to larger cultural ideas and beliefs about the female aging process. There seems to be a dearth of identities for aging women to choose from. I don’t want to suggest that older women should only follow specific examples, but the choices are limited and are not necessarily positive in their portrayals.
The history of aging has focused on the establishment of Social Security, Medicare, and its influence on the elderly population. Even when the cultural history of aging is examined, it merely traces the shifts in norms, beliefs, and ideals about aging rather than exploring the experience of aging itself. Aging has always been a stage in life, full of mystery, but with the advancement of science by the late nineteenth century, it has become something to overcome.  What this examination misses, though, is how gender shapes cultural beliefs of the aging female.
To help demonstrate my ideas, I want to discuss one of my favorite shows that I used to watch as a kid with my mother. The Golden Girls was one of the smartest and funniest shows on T.V. during the late 80s and early 90s, and it was the only show at the time that had the courage to address aging in America (using comedy, of course, because aging is funny, right?). I highly doubt it would find the same popularity today because television celebrates death, sex, beauty, and youth. However, as much I loved (and love) The Golden Girls, the show placed each character into a fairly nice, neat box that allowed us to develop a one dimensional definition of each woman’s relationship with aging. The show introduced four types of aging women to America: the cougar, the innocent, the intellectual, and the matriarch, which compartmentalized the aging process and femininity. Of course, The Golden Girls were white, and surely an analysis of gender, race, and aging is in order, but perhaps in another post.
Who can forget Blanche Devereaux? The Southern belle who conquered one man after another, while paying fastidious attention to her looks. She was proud of her sexuality. While she instilled several eye rolls amongst her friends, she never apologized for being a sexual woman.
Blanche’s overt desires elicited laughs, but made the sexual aging female real. Sex did not end for women once they reached a certain age. They could still be hot and wanted by men of various ages. Today, there is more comfort in female aging sexuality. As Elizabeth Reis points out in “Sex in the Nursing Home,” libido does decline with age, but it in no way disappears. Aging men and women do indeed still like to have sex, but thinking about older women having sex makes us squeamish, unless it is couched in humor. We are only comfortable with the aging female as sex goddess when she funny. Recent shows like Hot in Cincinnati and Cougartown help audiences come to terms with the aging female’s sexual desires through comedic situations.
Audiences could always rely on Rose Nylund for a laugh. From her stories of St. Olaf to her naiveté about a range of subjects, Rose provided levity in serious and even not so serious moments. She gave us chances to laugh at growing old. In many respects, Rose embodied a lasting girlhood in an aging female body.
Rose viewed life in an innocent manner, which reflected her upbringing, but also demonstrated that being “young at heart,” really did make aging easier and less doomsday like. In many respects she was the sweet old woman, who would bake cookies served with warm milk.
I was in my late teens, early twenties when I watched The Golden Girls, and even though these characters were 35-40 years older than me, I most identified with Dorothy Petrillo Zbornak. Some of it was because she reminded me of my mother, but mostly I loved Dorothy’s sharp wit and biting commentary. She always drew the loudest laughs from me and my mother.
Dorothy was the intellectual of the group, whose life experiences colored her viewpoints. She used sarcasm to point out the idiocies of contemporary culture’s viewpoints of sex, aging, and femininity. But at the same time, Bea Arthur’s portrayal made Dorothy an aging everywoman because although she was definitely cynical, she was not bitter. She was a smart, sassy survivor.
Sophia Petrillo-Weinstock embodied the typical elderly woman. She wore the cardigan sweater, carried the small pocketbook, and served as the matriarch of this band of women, giving advice even if no one asked for it. She mirrored some of the attributes of Blanche, Rose, and Dorothy, but she also had a slightly curmudgeon demeanor that reflected what it was like to be an 80 year old female.
Sophia’s experiences hardened her viewpoints, but added wisdom to her commentary. As the matriarch, Sophia epitomized elderly femininity; the other women and their families could learn from her experiences.
Even though the show categorized aging females, it did not dismiss them, though it used humor to address some of the uncomfortable aspects of women growing old. Today, as baby boomers and Generation X females age, these four characters have evolved, as aging women are defining this period in their lives on their own terms. However, although older women might have more choices, some of the characteristics from The Golden Girls have become more prominent. The “cougar” now has her own cruise, and she has also captured the imaginations of plastic surgeons, cosmetics companies, and pharmaceutical researchers.  The “intellect” is found in many arenas of American society, and we may very well finally have one as president in 2016. The “matriarch” and the “innocent” never disappeared as new television comedies need these characters to serve as outlets for laughter about aging and femininity. We should keep in mind that as much as these identities are celebrated or laughed with (or at), nothing should take the place of having real conversations about — and with — aging women.
1. Thomas Cole, The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
2. I am not sure how the name developed, but according to this listserv thread, the term emerged in Canada in the 1990s.
Cheryl Lemus earned her PhD from Northern Illinois University in 2011. Her dissertation, “‘The Maternity Racket’: Medicine, Consumerism, and the American Modern Pregnancy, 1876-1960,” examines the rise of the modern pregnancy in 20th-century America. She is mainly interested in gender and women’s history, the history of medicine in America, and the rise of consumer culture.