“Back in St. Olaf…” -Rose
When preparing to find the actress for the character of Rose Nylund, writer and producer Susan Harris told the then auditioning Betty White, “Rose is so naive. She’s totally naive; she never gets the double meaning of anything, no sarcasm.” And on the spot, Betty White created one of the most beloved and confounding characters in television history. Originally, Betty had been auditioned as the vamp Blanche Deveraux, but because Rue McLanahan knew that Blanche was the role she was born to play, the girls switched and magic was what followed. If you have seen a single episode of The Golden Girls, you know that Betty hit the role of the dim-witted, innocent Rose right on the nose, and yes, at times, it did hurt a little. There were many instances where it seemed likely that Blanche, Dorothy or Sophia were about ready to murder Rose just to shut her up. In one episode Sophia made an attempt with a cleverly disguised story and a stove-pot, but much to her disappointment, she was interrupted by Blanche.
From her rambling and confusing “back in St. Olaf” stories to believing that she was the daughter of Bob Hope, Rose makes for one brilliantly entertaining, odd duck character. Her childlike innocence and scattered brained tales of impossibly out-there situations may make her seem like a rather dull knife with little to contribute, but that is not the case. I will admit that when I originally started drafting my ideas for this project, I felt a bit like Dorothy when she was telling her boyfriend about the lessons the girls had taught her; Blanch had taught Dorothy to be comfortable as a woman, her mother had passed on the wisdom of life, but when she came to Rose, she concentrated intently and gave up after a considerable span of time to move on to a different topic, but mid-sentence she realized that Rose had indeed taught her something; “A square knot.”
Funny as that may be, Rose was not a mere square in the plots. Indeed, it is time that we look at Rose in a very different light than the mere comic relief in a comedy. Leaving the countless charities in which she was involved aside, some of the most dramatic issues that occurred within the series happen to Rose. She was addicted to pain killers. She was nearly taken advantage of in a case of false identity. She struggled with finding work after being laid off at a grief counseling center. She was tormented by the paranoia of being robbed after a break-in at her home. She was groped by her dentist. Worst of all, sweet, innocent Rose was confronted with one of the scariest diseases of modern times: AIDs. Yes, the child-like character goes seventy-two hours with the dark shadow hanging over her. But how? Now, you may be thinking that we know generally how HIV spreads, we learn that in our ninth grade science classes, but there was another way the disease was spreading and it was brought up TWICE in the Golden Girls. Any ideas? If you guessed via transfusions, then you are correct. If you thought Rose Nylund was needle-sharing, then in the words of Sophia Petrillo, you botchagalloop! Go back to Golden Girls 101 and review your character notes.
That’s right, transfusions. How could that be? Don’t hospitals screen blood donors and test the samples before they put blood from one person into another? Well, the answer for today is yes, but the reason did not seem necessary until the AIDs pandemic that left the world in shock. For my Millennial readers and back, we may not remember the fear and the hatred, the lies and the misinformed stereotypes that spun out from the early days of AIDs in the 1980s. Today, we know that it is spread by unsafe sex, the exchange of blood, plasma, or other bodily fluids, and from needle sharing. But in the early ‘80s when AIDs was the new terror on the scene, it was shamefully referred to as “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.” Why? because the first several cases of patients being admitted with symptoms of HIV in the US were homosexual men. After a short while, scientists and the health community began to realize that this was not a disease that was limited to the gay-male community, but who were these other victims? Some were users, but, as the years went on, quite a few were hemophiliacs, people whose lives depended on blood transfusions, as well as people who needed any sort of transfusions. The main focus on television (news media especially) was not on those victims, save for the Golden Girls, who again, did so twice.
In the first episode, Sophia brings a boy in a hospital a nectarine. His name is Sam. He can’t be more than twelve years old and he is living in the hospital, wheel chair bound. Sophia visits with him, but the boy is sad because, “no one’s ever beat it before.” It’s a short scene, but important. For those who were paying attention as they watched in the ‘80s, this little boy gave a new face to a seriously misunderstood virus. The general public failed to realize the amount of children AIDS patients in the 1980s. Between the mid-80s and the early 1990s, there were almost 7,500 cases of children being diagnosed with AIDS, of them, 601 through transfusions, the rest, from their mothers (CDC). All of these victims were the silent victims. They experienced cruelty and terror that no human deserves, deemed by the general public as enemies to be feared and ostracized.
Every other year or so it seems that there’s a new virus that is blown-out of proportion on the media to be the next walking dead bringing Apocalypse. Between 2000 and 2017 alone, we’ve had Mad Cow, Bird Flu, Swine Flu, Ebola, Zika, Hepatitis, and the good ol’ regular flu. Now, this is not to downplay the serious and absolutely devastating effects these abhorrent afflictions have plagued the human race. This is instead to point out that historically, our focus on these diseases do not center around prevention, treatment, or information. Instead, we focus on the deaths and the carriers of the diseases. Granted, our streets are not filled with panic stricken folk running about madly, but things are substantially different today than they were thirty years ago. For starters, we have far greater access to information via any electronic device we posses. This wasn’t the case in the eighties. People relied on the papers and the TV to tell them what was going on. The information from doctors, scientists, researchers was not as accessible to the general public as it is today, so fear of this new plague, AIDs, was tremendous. People, even scientists of the day, just did not know what was going on. Unfortunately, fear quite often fills the void that lack of knowledge leaves behind.
The producers and the writing team of Golden Girls knew that they had the attention of the globe; they had been in the top ten spot since their first year and in their 5th season, they had upheld their desire to portray real family and real people problems with humor and with the episode “72 Hours,” that’s exactly what they did. They did not have the answers to the AIDs pandemic, but they knew two things: AIDs was not a “bad persons” disease and no one could get through the process, whether they be waiting to be diagnosed or pushing through, without the support of their loved ones. Unfortunately, for far too many AIDs victims, they were forced to suffer and die alone.
For Blanche, Dorothy, and Sophia, they knew that no matter the outcome of Rose’s test, she would not be alone. There were quite a few stereotypes within the episode that the Girls addressed: Sophia doesn’t want to use the same bathroom as Rose for fear of catching AIDs, which Dorothy helps her mother to debunk. Sophia labels cups with Rs to keep herself from using Rose’s under the same fear of AIDs being spread via sharing dishes, which is debunked by Dorothy and Blanche. There are a few instances in the episode where Rose expresses her fear of becoming isolated as no one would want her around if she is diagnosed as people back then had a difficult time finding work or maintaining their jobs due to the stereotypes that existed, but solidarity and the tight bonds of their friendship help prove to Rose that no matter what, her girls would be there for her.
Rose is eventually declared clear, but over 100,000 American people from 1981 to 1990 were not so fortunate and fell to the subsequent degenerations of the virus. Today, we do know substantially more about AIDs, but still, people are being diagnosed. Approximately 40,000 were diagnosed in 2014, but this is a significant decrease from previous decades.
It is our duty as informed citizens to not let information about AIDs slip. Parents need to talk about safe sex with their children. We cannot depend on the school system to tell our children about the real dangers that are out there. Even Dorothy makes this point to her mother during the episode, after which Sophia proudly says that she has come a long way from telling her daughter to not let boys touch her “you know w-h-e-r-e” (yes, she spelled out where), and proves it by giving to Dorothy a bag of condoms. That may indeed be a bit of an extreme example of talking safe sex, but it makes a good point.
TV is highly influential in our lives and the writers of Golden Girls knew this. For better or for worse, we learn a LOT from our TVs. Using innocent Rose as a banner for people who are scared and possibly very sick remains to be one of the most brilliant episodes of the Golden Girls, if not television history, in this author’s humble opinion. It showed how misinformed minds become subject so quickly to fear and to panic. In 2016, look at how drastic the measures were to prevent Ebola from entering our country. Look at the words used by the media about the victims. Would it not make more sense to inform and instruct people about an extremely serious disease, rather than make those suffering out to be the enemies? The next time our zombie-making disease arises, think of Rose Nylund, an adult woman who had a teddy bear named Fernando. Think about her when you hear about the victims who need love and support, not condemnation and neglect. Learn what you can about the disease itself and the preventative action that you may take. Learn from the Golden Girls, who sought nothing else than to show us how compassion and friendship can make the world, even a sick world, right.
We’ll see you next week when we take a peak at family from the perspective of Dorothy Zborknak, a divorced substitute school teacher who still lives with her mother, and hey, as someone who still lives at home with her mom, let me tell you now, it’s perfectly normal…even if at times, our family drives us nuts.
Your humble author,
PS – As I’m editing these, I’m realizing that my DVD player is in storage and it seems sacrilegious to be writing these without the Girls on in the background! Will I brave my storage unit to find my DVD player? Will I be lazy and subscribe to Hulu and stream them from that instead? Follow this blog and find out next week!