Deconstructing HIV and AIDS on The Golden Girls

In 1990, the much-beloved sitcom, The Golden Girls — a show about four older women, Rose, Blanche, Dorothy, and Sophia, living together in Miami, Florida — was in its fifth season. On February 17, the “72 Hours” episode aired. In it, Rose receives a letter from the hospital where she had gallbladder surgery notifying her that she needs to take an HIV test because she had received a possibly contaminated blood transfusion. While Rose endures waiting the requisite 72 hours to receive her test results, tensions run high as the women deal with fear and confusion surrounding HIV and AIDS. Their anxiety about was understandable. By that time, women accounted for about 40% of AIDS cases worldwide, and reported deaths from AIDS had reached 120,453 by the end of 1990.1

The Golden Girls was not the first network television show to deal with HIV and AIDS, but this episode has become one of the most memorable for the way that it portrayed so many of the emotions surrounding the epidemic with both humor and sensitivity. Behind the scenes, writers and crew members were also dealing with struggles of their own. Writer Tracy Gamble shared that his mother went through a situation similar to Rose’s. Peter D. Beyt, the episode’s editor, also related that his partner was dying of AIDS at the time and the episode helped him deal with his own fear and shame.

“HI…V…wait a minute. You’re talking about AIDS!”

In the opening scene, Rose (Betty White) reads the letter from the hospital and stammers, “HI…V…wait a minute. You’re talking about AIDS!” This line deftly addresses the developments in understanding that had taken place since the epidemic was first reported in 1981. The CDC would use the term AIDS for the first time in 1982 and, by the time the show premiered in September 1985, the FDA had approved the first commercial blood test, and screenings at blood banks in the United States had begun. Scientists did not discover the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS, until 1986, and confusion about the progression of the disease would persist for many years.

“Silence = Death” poster by Gran Fury, published by ACT UP in 1986. (Silence = Death Project/New York Public Library Digital Collections)

When Rose arrives at the hospital for the test, the receptionist informs her that she can check in with a fake name if she wants, and there is a moment of humor when she gives Dorothy’s name instead. Rose confides to Blanche (Rue McClanahan) that she thinks this is “creepy.” Blanche responds, “Honey, it makes sense. People who test positive have trouble getting insurance, jobs. It’s terrible.” This line recalls how discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS was rampant at the time.

More importantly, we can see on McClanahan’s face that she truly empathizes with how that must have felt. All of the actresses were supporters of the LGBTQ community, but Estelle Getty, who played Sophia, was the one most known for her AIDS activism. Getty called it her “most important cause right now” at a benefit in 1987, and she cared for her nephew until his death from AIDS in 1992.

“I know what the F stands for in William F. Buckley.”

While The Golden Girls was still in its first season in 1986, conservative journalist and author, William F. Buckley, wrote an op-ed calling for “everyone detected with AIDS [to] be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common needle users, and on the buttock, to prevent the victimisation of other homosexuals.” Although I was familiar with Buckley’s reputation, I had not known about that article until I read Alexander’s Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Chee writes about his activism with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in the late 1980s and his experience as a gay man working for the Buckleys in the 1990s. ACT UP is a groundbreaking organization founded in New York in 1987. By December of that year, a Los Angeles division formed in the wake of the historic March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

A smiling woman with short curly brown hair wearing classes and a blue shirt.
Estelle Getty at the 41st annual Primetime Emmy Awards in 1989. (Alan Light/Wikimedia | CC BY)

The Golden Girls was filmed in Los Angeles, and ACT UP’s activism would not have escaped the notice of anyone involved with the show. They would also have experienced the rage of being confronted with Buckley’s horribly offensive statements at the time. The secondary storyline of this episode involves Dorothy’s (Bea Arthur) attempt to organize a Save the Wetlands fundraiser to preserve the Everglades. Blanche’s response (that she knows “what the F stands for in William F. Buckley”) to Dorothy’s request for help with donations of celebrity auction items can seem like just another quip from dealing with men in her life, but it was also a smart way to subvert Buckley’s bigotry with humor.

“But now that it’s so close to home, it’s scary.”

For younger viewers, it can be hard to recall a time when fears surrounding HIV and AIDS loomed so large. I was in elementary school in 1990, and my memories of the time highlight Ryan White. In 1984, White was diagnosed with AIDS contracted from a contaminated blood transfusion to treat his hemophilia; following his diagnosis, his school in Indiana refused to allow him to attend. Although White died in 1990 at age 18, his experiences and personal advocacy were used in schools to educate families and assuage lingering fears about “catching” AIDS.

A page from a printed journal by the Centers for Disease Control titled Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The cover page of the July 3, 1981 issue of the US Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which reported on what would later be called “AIDS.” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Wikimedia)

To address such fears on the show, Sophia admits that she’s painted a mug with a large R for Rose in case the test was positive. Dorothy scolds her, saying “it’s attitudes like that that add to the panic.” Sophia relates that “intellectually” she knows she can’t catch it “but now that it’s so close to home, it’s scary.” Dorothy’s benefit on the show offered a parallel to celebrities’ efforts that helped bring widespread attention to AIDS at the time. Celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Elton John (who befriended White) also held fundraisers that raised money for research. This put pressure on Congress, who, in 1990, passed the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, increasing federal funding for treatment. The Americans with Disabilities Act also passed in 1990 and included people with HIV and AIDS in protections from discrimination.

“AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose!”

Although Betty White herself noted it was “interesting that they picked Rose” instead of Blanche as the subject of this episode, that choice allowed the show to use Blanche’s trademark sexual experience in a new way. At the hospital, after Rose tells one of her infamous St. Olaf stories about being “the town’s dumbest virgin,” Blanche takes her aside and shares that she also got tested and now discusses her partners’ history and uses protection. This scene tackled the sexually transmitted aspect of HIV and safe sex practices without stigma. These conversations also contributed to the episode’s success due to the straightforward writing and honest portrayals of the characters.

Back at home, Rose vents to Blanche that “this isn’t supposed to happen to people like me. You must’ve gone to bed with hundreds of men!” Blanche is hurt and asks if she meant that it should be her and not Rose who might have AIDS. Rose says no but also states that she’s “a good person.” This leads to Blanche’s fiery, memorable response that “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose! It is not God punishing people for their sins!” a line that still feels revolutionary. The episode ends happily when Rose’s test comes back negative and, while the episode did not depict characters living with HIV or AIDS, it still resonates in a universal way thanks to the willingness of the writers to present a controversial and complicated topic without judgment.

Further Reading

A Timeline of HIV and AIDS, HIV.gov.

ACT UP Oral History Project

Corea, Gena. The Invisible Epidemic: The Story of Women and AIDS. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2007.

Strub, Sean. Body Counts: A Memoir of Activism, Sex, and Survival. New York: Scribner, 2014.

Notes

  1. Benita Roth, The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA: Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 73. Return to text.

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