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[Grace Kao] The Golden Girls in 1980s Miami vs 2020s Seoul

By Korea Herald

Published : April 23, 2024 - 05:30

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Older women generally fade from view in the media, but the Korean and American shows “(The) Golden Girls” are two exceptions.

“Golden Girls” is a popular show on KBS that features Park Jin-young (JYP)’s goal of bringing four famous singers -- Insooni (66 years old), Park Mi-kyung (58 years old), Shin Hyo-bum (56 years old), and Lee Eun-mi (57 years old) -- back as members of a new female idol group. The show’s title and premise reminded me of the popular 1980s American TV show titled “The Golden Girls.”

In fact, anyone watching American television at that time would be familiar with this popular sitcom, which ran from 1985 to 1992, with 180 episodes in total. The main characters, Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur), Rose Nylund (Betty White), Blanche Devereaux (Rue McLanahan), and Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty) were four divorced or widowed women, ranging in age from 50s to 80s, living together in Miami, Florida. What was radical about this show was that it normalized the lives of older women. They lived together in a single household, independently of a male breadwinner. The premise was that Blanche could no longer afford the mortgage on her house after her husband died, and she had to find roommates. The four women eventually become close friends (Sophia was Dorothy’s mother). They had active dating lives, but the men came and went while the friendships among the women endured. The show’s theme song began with the lyric, “Thank you for being a friend.” In fact when the lead actress Bea Arthur decided to leave the show, the writers ended the series with her wedding.

Among my friends, people of various ages, genders, and sexual orientations loved this show. It enjoyed extremely high ratings during its seven-year run. I remember watching it with my then 6-year-old sister. Even my husband enjoyed it when he was an adolescent, and while writing this article, I learned that my brothers-in-law also watched it. Maybe it was the novelty of seeing older women exist as more than just someone's mother or wife, but as women with their own lives. The women were played by seasoned actresses who were actually roughly the age of their characters (except for Sophia, who was played by actress Estelle Getty, who was in her early 60s at the time). This is before the age of botox and fillers, and they looked more natural (except for the giant shoulder pads of the 1980s). They were also extremely funny and had many personal stories which they shared with each other. Dorothy often spoke with regret about marrying Stan as a teenager -- perhaps her life would have been very different. Rose’s stories about St. Olaf (a fictional city in Minnesota), a fantastical farming town, were hilarious. Blanche reminisced about her days as a beautiful young woman in the South with exaggeration, but she also clearly loved her father, known as “Big Daddy.”

Of course, these female characters were still trapped within the confines of common stereotypes of female personas on TV -- Dorothy was the smart and sarcastic one, Rose was the dumb blonde, Blanche was the slutty one, and Sophia was the wise and snarky one.

They were actively looking for male romantic partners, and much of the comedy was built around their hijinks in trying to impress their current love interests.

To be honest, I’ve only seen clips of JYP’s “Golden Girls” on YouTube. I can’t find the complete episodes in the US. However, I have noticed some similarities between it and its American counterpart. There are also four women, all of whom were well-known to an older generation. They had to live together during this show as they trained for their new roles, and the show featured their insecurities and the friendship bonds that grew from this experience. Their husbands and partners were not featured in the segments I saw. For me, the interactions between the women (and with JYP) were the most entertaining part of the show. I found them to be charming, and they seem genuinely surprised by their popularity. In fact, according to the Korea Herald, their second episode enjoyed a 5 percent viewership rating -- the highest of any entertainment show on a Friday night on KBS. I wrote about Boys Planet recently, and that show averaged about a 1 percent viewership rating throughout its run. Clearly, “Golden Girls” appealed to Korean audiences.

As a young person, I enjoyed the novel premise of “The Golden Girls.” The characters were hilarious, and as my sister Mary Kao puts it, “they supported each other unconditionally.” Her husband Wendel Tse found it “unusual to see older women who were so funny.” Now that I’m in the age range of these women, I realize that what was most refreshing was that they were individuals first and their lives did not revolve around a single man (instead there were many men!) or their children. What mattered most was their friendship with one another.

Given that the population of both the US and South Korea are aging, it makes sense for TV producers to increase content featuring older characters. Both shows were/are popular because they remind us of the value of older women as individuals and as friends to one another.

Grace Kao

Grace Kao is an IBM professor of sociology and professor of ethnicity, race and migration at Yale University. The views expressed here are the writer's own. -- Ed.