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The Golden Girls & HIV/AIDS

The Impact of The Golden Girls Discussing the Topic of HIV During the Height of the AIDS Epidemic

“AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sin!” declared Blanche Devereaux during an argument with Rose Nyland in season five, episode nineteen of The Golden Girls.[1] On February 17, 1990, The Golden Girls aired the episode “72 Hours,” the main topic of this episode was HIV/AIDS. The episode aired in 1990 which was at the beginning of the height of the AIDS epidemic, making the fact that one of the most popular and watched television shows of the time tackled the topic a point of interest. Research that currently exists about the AIDS epidemic contains very little information on the impact of the representation of HIV/AIDS on television. Exploring the public’s response to The Golden Girls will help better understand the influence of the shows and their ability to educate the community and bring awareness to certain topics and the importance of the representation of HIV/AIDS on television.         

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is spread through certain bodily fluids like semen, vaginal fluids, or infected blood; it cannot be spread through the exchange of saliva or contact with tears, mucus, or sweat. It is a sexually transmitted infection as it is most commonly spread through sexual intercourse. The HIV infection attacks the body’s immune system. While there is no cure, there are now ways to manage HIV and keep the affected from infecting others, something that was not true for decades[2]. If not managed, HIV will eventually turn into AIDS or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), AIDS is also considered stage three of HIV and the most severe stage. When someone with HIV reaches the point of AIDS, the immune system is severely damaged, and the body is highly susceptible to what are known as opportunistic infections; while there are suggestions for those with the infection to help avoid these opportunistic infections, the eventual result is death.[3]

On June 5, 1991, the CDC published an article about Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), a rare lung infection. In Los Angeles, five previously healthy young gay men were found to have this disease. When the report was published, two of the five had already died from the disease, and the last three died not long after; this is considered the first official documentation of what would officially be known as AIDS. The disease seemed to gain traction quickly, and by the end of the year, there were 337 known cases, almost half of those people were dead before the end of the year. During this time period it was not known how that disease was spread, while people knew it could be spread through sex there were also other cases being found of people contacting the disease without sex, such as through a blood transfusion or drug use. The number of people that were dying was rapidly increasing but not much was being done to research the nature of the disease and therefore the public had to come up with their own conclusions on how the disease was spread based on their knowledge. There was also a large fear of stigmatism that followed AIDS. Before being given the name AIDS, the disease was known as GRID or gay-related immune deficiency; at the beginning of the epidemic, AIDS was primarily being seen in ethnic minorities. These ethnic minorities, such as the gay community and those involved in sex work, were involved in behaviors that was not considered appropriate by society. People who contracted the disease without being connected to these minorities still did not want to receive help or let their diagnosis be public out of fear of being associated with their minority groups. With not much being known about the disease and how it spread, a large percentage of the public began to take out their fear of the disease on the gay community because all that was officially known about HIV/AIDS by that time was that it was primarily found in gay men. Lillian Faderman is an America historian and scholar of lesbian and ethnic history and literature and was a professor at the California State University, Fresno and the University of California, Los Angles. Her 2015 book The Gay Revolution explores the connection of AIDS to the fight for gay civil rights.[4] The Gay Men’s Health Crisis was created in 1982 and reached out to the gay community to help support those struggling with AIDS and were receiving little to no medical care. As Faderman puts it, “in the hospitals, people with AIDS were pariahs.[5]” Los Angeles and San Francisco, which had large gay populations, saw a number of activist groups rise to help support the community and fight for AIDS research.

The media was an important source of how information about AIDS and while newspapers were consistent on their updates on case numbers, political involvement, medical research, etc., AIDS also began to slowly appear on cable television. The 1980s provided a few AIDS related dramas, but these shows are less focused on information and educating the public but were more caught up in the misconceptions of the disease. However, in the 1990s, it is seen that popular television shows, like Designing Women and Doogie Howser M.D., have special episodes dedicated to the main characters having some contact or interaction with AIDS. One of the first situational comedies to have an episode dedicated to AIDS is The Golden Girls, created by Susan Harris and Paul Junger Witt; the sitcom was on NBC and ran from 1985-92. The show is about four older women who live together in a house in Miami, Florida, and it follows their lives during their “golden years.” This was the first time that single older women were the main characters unaccompanied by men and portrayed as intelligent, independent, sexual women on television. In a New York Times interview with Richard Vaczy, one of the writers who wrote “72 Hours,” he stated that the hope for the show was to “educate certain areas of America that these communities with these problems exist and need our attention.”[6] The main cast Betty White (Rose Nyland), Rue McClanahan (Blanche Devereaux), and Beatrice Arthur (Dorothy Zbornak), were famous, sought-after actresses, and the characters were created with them in mind. There was a belief that because the main character were older women, that the primary audience would be older as well, but as Richard Frank, who served as president of Disney Studios and oversaw the development of the show, said in an interview, “just because you have older people doesn’t make it old.”[7] In interviews with actresses Bea Arthur and Betty White, they both spoke about how they would receive hundreds of letters from children who were fans of the show. In a 2005 interview with Emerson College, Betty White said, “I think what shocked the network, it shocked all of us, is that the kids picked up on it.[8]” In the same interview, she also talked about how the show was “a college cult now, they have Golden Girls evenings, and I mean it’s fascinating.”[9] Even a decade after the show ended, it was still popular and with younger audiences. Today in 2021, the show still has a large fanbase; whether it is older adults watching reruns and reminiscing, young adults watching on streaming services and reconnecting, or teenagers discovering the show for the first time, the popularity of The Golden Girls has not waivered since it first aired.

The Golden Girls was no stranger to approaching topics that were considered especially controversial in the 1990s. In the article “West Virginia author creates ‘Golden Girls’ reference guide” in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Matt Browning, author of the reference guide, summed up the show’s approach to controversial topics,

They dealt with issues relating to race, the AIDS crisis, gay rights, menopause, divorce, marriage, relationships, being sexually active past 50, 60 years old . . . those are things we all still deal with. I don’t think a lot of shows of that era had dealt with them in that way.[10]

Their inclusion of gay and lesbian characters in storylines is particularly referenced by scholars works when looking at the array of controversial topics covered by the show. During the late 1980s and the 1990s, especially with the founding of new gay/lesbian activist groups, there was a push from these groups for television to “stop promoting bigotry by marginalizing and denigrating lesbian and gay lives.” This came from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) while they were bringing attention to a large number of hate crimes against gays and lesbians.[11] Research showed that with the positive inclusion of gay and lesbian characters on television, there was a positive response from viewers. Jason Shavers, a Pittsburgh-based singer who played Dorothy in a Golden Girls live show, said about the show’s inclusion of gay and lesbian characters, “It was very progressive tackling LBGT issues in the ’80s. . . . And I think, growing up and seeing that for the first time ever, and not even realizing I was identifying with them as a gay man, seeing that on TV and seeing them pioneer, that was wonderful to watch.[12]” Actor Monte Markham who guest-starred in the series as Blanche’s gay younger brother said that, “those episodes with Clayton, Dorothy’s friend Jean, and Rose’s HIV scare were the first peek into gay culture and history I got long before I became a ‘Rent’-obsessed teen.”[13]

Season five, episode nineteen, titled “72 Hours,” aired on February 17, 1990, written by Richard Vazcy and Tracy Gamble.[14] The episode focuses on the main character Rose Nyland and how she received a letter from the hospital where she had had her gallbladder removed. The letter informed Rose that she may have contracted HIV antibodies and should come in for testing. The episode then follows the seventy-two-hour period in which Rose had to wait for her results and gives insight into the emotions many people in the country were feeling. In the 2016 book Golden Girls Forever by Jim Colucci, he provides interviews with a number of the cast, writers, producers, and editors, about the show and many episodes, including “72 Hours.” In the chapter on the episode, writer Tracy Gamble reveals that the episode is based on her mother’s real-life seventy-two-hour experience.[15]

There are many emotional ups and downs during the plot of the episode as well as the creation and filming of the episode. HIV/AIDS is known primarily as a sexually transmitted disease, even though it can also be transmitted in other ways. However, during the 1980s and 90s, many people knew it as being transmitted only during sexual activity. The Golden Girls brought light to the struggles that people who were facing an AIDS diagnosis and was able to tackle stereotypes that existed due to a lack of knowledge about the disease and that the disease was an issue for everyone, not just the gay community. There were also many emotions during the week that the episode was filmed. In Colucci’s book, Richard Vazcy stated that “we thought that everyone would appreciate and therefore love it. We guessed wrong. It turned out to be the darkest week I ever experienced on that stage.[16]” It was also said that Estelle Getty, the actress who played Sophia and was a prominent AIDS activist and did not like the plot line about Sophia’s negative reaction to Rose. Sophia had spent most of the episode following Rose where she went, cleaning everything she touched. However, this was not an uncommon response around the county. People did not understand how the disease spread; some people with AIDS were fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes by landlords because they feared being around them. In Faderman’s The Gay Revolution, she mentions how police officers were so afraid to catch the disease and bring it home to their families that when dealing with homosexual arrests, they would wear gloves and masks[17]. The article “Health Notes” of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published on May 9, 1992, included a report from the CDC that there had been fifty cases of hospital workers getting HIV through accidental sticks with infected needles. HIV/AIDS patients were not welcomed at hospitals and, in many instances, were refused care because the hospitals’ workers were afraid of being in a room with those infected. In some of the few instances that those infected were admitted into the hospital, doctors would not enter their rooms without wearing full hazmat suits[18].

Throughout the episode, there are a variety of different reactions from the characters. Not long after receiving the letter, Rose says, “I might as well get used to being by myself. . . If that test turns out positive, you won’t want to be around me.” Although her friends were there to comfort her, this statement reflected that in the country, people were being excluded and unwelcomed because of their diagnosis or potential diagnosis. When Rose arrives at the hospital with Dorothy and Blanche for testing, the receptionist encourages her to use a fake name when signing in. Rose tells Dorothy about how unsettling it is to use a fake name that and Dorothy tells her “people who test positive have trouble getting insurance, jobs.” People during the 1990s were afraid being connected to AIDS because it could affect how they were not only seen but ale to live. Businesses were able to fire their employees for having AIDS, and there are recorded instances of landlords kicking a tenet out because they had AIDS. This scene shows the great lengths that people were willing to go through to not be connected to AIDS. Another instance of this fear of AIDS is when Blanche tells Rose that she had already been tested for AIDS out of precaution. because she had been with so many men. The core of The Golden Girls is the strong bond between these four women, for Blanche, who was never afraid to talk of her sexual exploits, to not tell her closest friends that she had gotten tested shows how deeply people were afraid of being connected to AIDS.

This episode was filled with several educational moments that could have had an impact on those who watched it. The scene about Blanche getting tested out of precaution was a good way for the show to acknowledge this fear while also stressing the importance of getting tested, even just as a precaution. While Rose and Blanche went back for Rose’s test, Dorothy and Sophia talked about parents who do not teach their kids about sex. Dorothy, in dismay, says, “I mean, this is so important you’d think they’d get past their embarrassment.” Sophia then praises herself for being a progressive parent, but Dorothy calls her out for her lack of use of technical terms instead of using the phrase “you know where.” Again, this was another moment of the episode where they could encourage parents to have technical talks with their children about sex to make sure that they were educated and knew how to protect themselves from diseases.[19]

In the next scene of the show, the tone of the episode begins to change and get more serious. Rose and Blanche are waiting in a room after Rose gets her blood drawn and the interaction and mannerisms of the character’s movement portray the growing anxiety in Rose. When she tries to express her anxieties to Blanche, Blanche tries but makes little progress in helping Rose relax, the doctor then enters the room, and Rose learns she has to wait seventy-two hours for the results. Rose’s emotions begin to move from anxiety to anger, and when Blanche tells her that there is not much to do and rose then exclaims that there is something she can do, “like, sit around the house for the next 72 hours, scared to death he’s gonna tell me I have something that’s gonna kill me.” This shift in the tone of the episode helps cement the seriousness of the episode, and while there are still comedic moments in the show, The Golden Girls is attempting to bring attention to something bigger.

Later in the episode, there is a scene where Dorothy asks Sophia why she was using her bathroom, and Sophia tells her because Rose used hers, but said that she was making progress by not using the gas station down the road. Dorothy tells her that that is just “ignorant paranoia” and “it’s attitudes like that that add to the panic about this.” Blanche then enters the room with a coffee mug with an R on it, and we learn Sophia marked the cup as used by Rose. Sophia then says, “I know intellectually there’s no way I can catch it. But now that it’s so close to home, it’s scary,” and tells Dorothy and Blanche that she will try to get over it and that she is not normally like this. This moment was an accurate reflection of what was happening in the real world that once AIDS got too close to home, people, having proper knowledge on the disease, were still paranoid and would go to great lengths to try to protect themselves.[20] The lack of proper knowledge on how the disease had a major impact on how high the levels of fear and panic rose at the height of the epidemic because people knew nothing about this disease that continued to take more and more lives.

In the following scene Rose frustratedly tells Blanche about how she regrets not taking care of her gallbladder and going to the hospital. She then blames the hospital for giving her blood without asking and not ensuring that it would not kill her afterward. Rose then asks Blanche, “Why is this happening to me?” She then proceeds to indirectly ask Blanche why it was not her who got AIDS because she had been the one to go to bed with hundreds of men and stated that it should not be her because she was a good person. This anger that Rose was expressing, and her behaviors earlier in the episode, can reflect the stages of grief. She has already been experiencing denial and isolation, but her outburst towards Blanche shows the stages of anger and bargaining. While she can truly not bargain away the situation, she attempts when she asks why it was Blanche and not her. Blanche then declares to Rose, “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sin![21]” In Colucci’s book, one of the show’s editors, Peter D. Beyt, said about this episode that “but it was really ’72 Hours’ that for me showed what TV can do, and how far a sitcom can reach out.[22]” He then talks about the shame he already felt as a gay man from Louisiana, and how he also felt shame for the feelings towards his partner who had contracted AIDS. But he said when he heard Blanche say that line,

My heart stopped. All of a sudden, unexpectedly, here was this woman on a sitcom I was cutting, talking about what I was feeling. . . . a character I’d come to know so well was saying what I needed to hear. I broke down, of course. . . .and from that point, right in the middle of my partner’s battle, I no longer thought I was a bad person. The show changed me in that moment of desperation. And my God, dd the world ever need that to be said![23]

This line from Blanche helps settle Rose’s anger and the girls share how they would always be there for Rose no matter the results. Dorothy then runs into Rose praying and “trying to put in a good word,” and they talk about a slogan Dorothy was working on for a banquet the girls had been planning, and how it sounds like Dorothy is attempting to sell mosquitoes. Dorothy then says, “Not that they don’t serve a purpose. All life is precious.” This was a beautiful reminder that those who are contracting the disease are still people and their lives still matter. Then shows ends at the end of the seventy-two-hour period where Rose finds out that she did not have AIDS. The doctor then praised the girls for supporting Rose, and then Rose gave heartfelt thanks to the girls for always loving and supporting her.[24] This praise from the doctor is essentially the show attempting to stress the importance of being there for those who are struggling and need support because it can make all the difference to their lives.

Rose being the main focus of the AIDS plotline was an interesting choice made by the writers that surprised many of those involved in the creation of the show. In the article “Golden Girls: Feminine Archetypal Patterns of the Complete Woman” by literary historian Anne K. Kaler she explains that each of the four characters made up the complete “four-fold nature of human personality, typified by each of the characters—virgin, spouse, mother, and wise woman.”[25] Rose is the virgin (although once married), Blanche is the (widowed) spouse, Sophia is the mother and Dorothy is the wise woman. Throughout the show’s seven seasons, Rose is portrayed as sexually innocent and quite naïve about sex (among others.) When looking more into the writer’s decision to choose Rose is became clear that were a few potential reasons that Rose was the character chosen to be highlighted in the plotline about HIV/AIDS. In an interview with Television Academy Interviews, Tony Thomas, one of the show’s producers, talks about NBC’s standards and practices and how they were able to get away with certain lines. One of the things he says is that the writers and producers tried to keep an air of innocence when it came to certain topics, and Thomas said that Rose’s delivery always had this air of innocence to it, so she could get away with saying some pretty outrageous things. The age of the characters also carried some weight; the fact that it is sixty-year-old women, not twenty-year-old girls, discussing topics about sex and the age difference affected how the audience perceived the characters. Blanche Deveraux was known for her sexual promiscuity throughout the show’s run, and even though the other characters were known to joke about it, the fact that she was a matured, widowed mother and grandmother affected the perception of her sexual promiscuity, and it was not negatively received. Lastly, Tracy Gamble, of the episode’s writers, said that she and her partner Vazcy thought Rose would be a good choice because she was the unexpected choice. 

While there is more knowledge about and research in 2021 on HIV/AIDS, it is still a taboo topic in certain circles. The Golden Girls is still a popular show and is no shortage of interest in the show today, online articles are being published looking at the different aspects of the show and there are also more recent scholarly works written about the show. In the West Virginia article Browning states that the fact the show handles controversial topics is the reason that “the show was revolutionary and in that sense, it’s as relevant today as it was in 1985.[26]

Examining The Golden Girls’ episode “72 Hours” aired in 1990 during the height of the AIDS epidemic when there was a large gap of knowledge about the disease and how it spread, and fear-filled the public. Exploring the public’s response to The Golden Girls to help better understand the influence of the shows and the importance of the representation of HIV/AIDS on television made it clear that there was an impact on the public. Although there are not many recorded instances of people discussing the impact of the show on how they viewed AIDS, there are still a few that tell how this episode affected their life. Talking about HIV/AIDS, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, was considered taboo, and there are no records on this topic that were not openly discussed because if this is something they would not discuss out loud then was not a need to write down people thoughts. When looking at those who are quoted, they were people who had some connection to the show, or it was decades after the height of the AIDS epidemic when it became less taboo in certain circles to discuss out loud. Even though there is not a large number of records, by looking at what the writer, actors, and producers say about the creation of “72 Hours” it can be seen that the episode not only did its best to reflect what was happing in the world and try and influence how people saw the epidemic and educate them on the topic but it can be seen that there was an impact.

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Colucci, Jim. Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind the Lanai. New York: Harper Design, 2016.

Chisholmwomen, Elsie T. “Women, AIDS and Sex Writers Blind to AIDS?” The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, July 26, 1992.

D’Acci, Julie. Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacey Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Dow, Bonnie J. Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement Since 1970 Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

Eberson, Sharon. “The Golden Age of ‘The Golden Girls’.” Pittsburg Post-Gazette, October 10, 2019.

Faderman, Lillian. The Gay Revolution: the Story of the Struggle First Simon & Schuster. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

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Haralovich, Mary Beth., and Lauren Rabinovitz. Television, History, and American Culture: Feminist Critical Essays Durham [N.C: Duke University Press, 1999.

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Johnson, Peter, Brian Donlon, and Jefferson Graham. “Living with AIDS on ‘Life Goes On’.” USA TODAY, March 12, 1992.

Kaler, Anne K. “Golden Girls: Feminine Archetypal Patterns of the Complete Woman.” The Journal of Popular Culture vol. 14, no. 3 (1990): 49–60.

Lauzen, Martha M., David M. Dozier, and Barbara Reyes. “From Adultescents to Zoomers: An Examination of Age and Gender in Prime-Time Television.” Communication Quarterly 55, no. 3 (2007): 343–57.

O’Connor, John J. “Decent Exposure.” St. Petersburg Times, May 20, 1991.

Matz, Jenni, and Bill Dana. Betty White with Emerson College Part 1 of 1. Television Academy Foundation The Interviews, March 11, 2005. https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/betty-white-with-emerson-college.

McKairnes, Jim. Richard Frank Interview Part 3 of 4. Television Academy Foundation The Interviews, June 29, 2012. https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/richard-frank#about.

McKay, Richard Andrew. Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Mellencamp, Patricia. High Anxiety: Catastrophe, Scandal, Age & Comedy Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

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Mourges, Denise. “Inspiration and Other Talents Behind Comedy Shows on TV.” The New York Times, December 6, 1992.

“Opportunistic Infections.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 20, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/livingwithhiv/opportunisticinfections.html.

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Richert, Lucas. “Reagan, Regulation, and the FDA: The US Food and Drug Administration’s Response to HIV/AIDS, 1980-90.” Canadian journal of history 44, no. 3 (2009): 467–488.

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The Golden Girls. Season 5, Episode 19, “72 Hours.” Written by Susan Harris, Richard Vazcy, and Tracy Gamble. Aired February 17, 1990 on NBC.

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[1] The Golden Girls. Season 5, Episode 19, “72 Hours.” Written by Susan Harris, Richard Vazcy, and Tracy Gamble. Aired February 17, 1990 on NBC.

[2] Ferrel said something about cured in nov 2021

[3] For more information of HIV/AIDS visit the CDC’s website at https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/livingwithhiv/opportunisticinfections.html

[4] Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle First Simon & Schuster (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015)

[5] Faderman, The Gay Revolution, 419.

[6] Denise Mourges, “Inspiration and Other Talents Behind Comedy Shows on TV,” (The New York Times, December 6, 1992)

[7] Jim McKairnes, Richard Frank Interview Part 3 of 4 (Television Academy Foundation The Interviews, June 29, 2012), https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/richard-frank#about.

[8] Jenni Matz, and Bill Dana, Betty White with Emerson College Part 1 of 1 (Television Academy Foundation The Interviews, March 11, 2005), https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/betty-white-with-emerson-college.

[9] Matz and Dana, Betty White with Emerson College Part 1 of 1.

[10] Maria Young, “West Virginia author creates ‘Golden Girls’ reference guide” (Charleston Gazette-Mail, August 7, 2021)

[11] John J. O’Connor, “Decent Exposure” (St. Petersburg Times, May 20, 1991)

[12] Sharon Eberson, “The Golden Age of ‘The Golden Girls’” (Pittsburg Post-Gazette, October 10, 2019)

[13] Eberson, “The Golden Age of ‘The Golden Girls’”

[14] Harris, Vazcy, Gamble, The Golden Girls. Season 5, Episode 19. Scene number

[15] Jim Colucci, Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind the Lanai (New York: Harper Design, 2016)

[16] Colucci, Golden Girls Forever, 221.

[17] Faderman, The Gay Revolution, 420.

[18] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Health Notes” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 9, 1992)

[19] Harris, Vazcy, Gamble, The Golden Girls. Season 5, Episode 19.

[20] Harris, Vazcy, Gamble, The Golden Girls. Season 5, Episode 19.

[21] Harris, Vazcy, Gamble, The Golden Girls. Season 5, Episode 19.

[22] Colucci, Golden Girls Forever, 223.

[23] Colucci, Golden Girls Forever, 223.

[24] Harris, Vazcy, Gamble, The Golden Girls. Season 5, Episode 19.

[25] Anne K. Kaler, “Golden Girls: Feminine Archetypal Patterns of the Complete Woman,” (The Journal of Popular Culture 1990, 49–60)

[26] Maria Young, “West Virginia author creates ‘Golden Girls’ reference guide” (Charleston Gazette-Mail, August 7, 2021)

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