Shut Out of the Shining City On a Hill: "The Golden Girls" and the Plight of the Homeless in 1980s America

Curator's Note

This scene takes place in an episode of The Golden Girls entitled “Brother, Can You Spare That Jacket?,” in which which the four women procure a winning lottery ticket, which Blanche stores in her new jacket. Unfortunately, they inadvertently give the jacket away, after which it makes its way to a homeless shelter, where the ladies pursue it. There, each of the women encounters a different facet of the homeless problem. Dorothy and Sophia encounter one of the latter’s former friends from Shady Pines, Blanche meets a dispossessed and alcoholic doctoral student, and Rose speaks with a fellow Minnesotan.

This has always struck me as one of the most emotionally resonant episodes of The Golden Girls, and this scene in particular highlights the series’ investment in tearing away the veil of supposed economic prosperity of the Reagan era to show the brutal poverty lurking beneath. Each of the encounters the women have explores a different aspect of the causes of this poverty, ranging from simply aging without the benefit of family financial assistance (as is the case with Sophia’s friend) to the pressures of race and class (as with Rose’s fellow resident of Minnesota). These are people struggling to survive, and the episode highlights the capriciousness of Reaganite capitalist America. This sequence in particular, though at times sentimental, is also profoundly sad. There is nothing truly exceptional about these men, women, and children. Instead, the scene’s power lies in the simple fact of their everyday routine.

Further, while the ending (which occurs immediately following this scene), has the women donate their winning lottery ticket to the homeless shelter, the final frame focuses on the homeless. Unlike the four main characters, who get to return to their everyday lives of relative prosperity, we are left in no doubt that, for the other characters, their lives will go on much as they have before, entrapped by the poverty that haunts 1980s American popular culture. While the passing of First Lady Nancy Reagan has initiated a period of national mourning, this sequence from The Golden Girls suggests that it should also encourage us to reflect upon the Reagans, their economic policies, and their continuing legacy in the American cultural and political consciousness.

Comments

Bridget Kies's picture

Timely

This post feels especially timely. All of our posts this week addresssed themes and media we are seeing revisited in 2016, but yours especially calls attention to the ways in which discourses on economic policy so often mask reality. I’m thinking here about the recent long article in The Guardian about Donald Trump’s supporters tending to be victims of the 2008 recession, job outsourcing, and other examples of economic decline that make Trump’s protesting against free trade attractive. I’m not saying here that I think the solution to the realities depicted in your scene from The Golden Girls is to elect Donald Trump - far from it - but this article seems call attention to his appeal for certain Americans that is reflected in the poverty the Golden Girls witness at the shelter.

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