A look at how “Orange is the New Black” is the next generation’s “Golden Girls.”
In 1985, the prime-time sitcom The Golden Girls became one of the very first American television shows to feature an all-female lead cast and it was wildly successful. Starring Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty, its 177 episodes aired from September 14, 1985 to May 9, 1992, and continues to entertain audiences in its syndicated format. But perhaps most surprisingly, the amazingly popular show was not focused on car chases, sex, drugs, or violence. Instead, the sitcom was predominantly about relationships, in particular the friendships between four “older” ladies who shared a home in Miami, Florida. Overall, The Golden Girls received 68 Emmy nominations, 11 Emmy Awards, and four Golden Globe Awards throughout its run. It has been ranked among the best TV sitcoms of all times by TV Guide and the Writers Guild of America.
Behind all these accolades are four women who were daring enough to take a chance on a television sitcom featuring women’s relationships. And it paid off for them too. Not only did all four of the lead actresses win Emmy Awards for their performances on the show, legitimately securing each of them a place among America’s primetime television elite, but also, these four women and the characters they played made history. For perhaps the first time, a show dominated by women was monumentally successful and daring enough to showcase women and their relationships. This successful maneuver in 1980s television was unparalleled, except perhaps, until now.
The Girls of OITNB and The Golden Girls
Orange Is the New Black (often abbreviated to OITNB), the comedy-drama series that premiered on Netflix in 2013, was originally based on Piper Kerman’s experiences at a minimum-security federal prison following her conviction for money laundering and drug trafficking. The series has evolved over time and although Piper’s character, played by Taylor Schilling, remains a prominent fixture in the plot, the story has taken on a life of its own. Instead of being about one well-to-do blonde haired, blue-eyed WASP’s experience in prison, more recent seasons have featured other women prisoners and their life stories including their relationships with the other female inmates, their children, and their romantic partners. One key and distinguishing feature of OITNB is its focus on women. With an all-female lead cast, OITNB stands out amongst other prominent television and Netflix-platform shows, and is following in the footsteps of the all-female cast of The Golden Girls. And it has the accolades to boot. OITNB is touted as Netflix’s most-watched series and it has garnered more than 20 Emmy Award nominations as well as four Golden Globe Award nominations, a Producers Guild of America Award, and a Peabody Award in the few short years it has been in production.
And just like the golden girls of Miami Beach, these girls “in holding” are snarky, hilarious, heartwarming, and endearing—but with a much more edgy and modern twist. Take for example, golden girl Sophia Petrillo, played by Estelle Getty. A Sicilian-born feisty woman whose blunt, uncensored, and brazen remarks are only matched by her quick wit and Italian mafia connections, she serves as the show’s wise mother-figure who regularly offers advice to all the women embedded in stories from the “old country.” It isn’t a stretch to imagine this character’s modern-day contemporary as inmate Galina “Red” Reznikov, played by Kate Mulgrew, right down to their similarly-dyed red hair and decorative glasses chains. A Russian-born fiery master chef whose life outside of prison was entwined with Russian mafia bosses, Red runs the prison kitchen just like Sophia—she’s in charge and her cooking is superior to everyone else’s. She even doles out advice, but only to a select few and not without a harsh edge.
Then there’s golden girl Dorothy Zbornak, played by Bea Arthur, a strong, smart, but nearly always sarcastic woman who is tough but compassionate. Due to her height and somewhat deep voice, Dorothy is often mocked about her “masculine” homely features and her inability to attract men. Inmate Sophia Burset, played by Laverne Cox, parallels Dorothy in many ways. Sophia is also a kind and obviously intelligent woman. She runs the beauty salon and although she is a bit stubborn, she is caring and helpful to the women of Litchfield Prison. Sophia is also a tall, but strikingly beautiful transgender woman who is sometimes the target of gender-bashing insults and abuse. Both women must navigate the complexities of living outside the rigid gender norms of society—whether it be those of the 1980s or the 2010s. And outside of acting, both Bea and Laverne have been outspoken advocates for LGBT people. For example, thanks in part to Bea’s generosity, in 2016, an 18-bed home for homeless LGBT youth named in her honor, the Bea Arthur Residence, will open in New York City and Laverne regularly speaks at events about transgender advocacy.
And don’t forget Blanche Devereaux, played by Rue McClanahan, a southern debutante with an affinity for men, she is the most sexualized of the golden girls and she is also the most self-centered of the crew. Litchfield inmate, Nicky Nichols, played by Natasha Lyonne, also comes from a privileged upbringing but her socialite mother’s selfish ways left her permanently struggling for attention, which is perhaps why she uses sex with the other inmates as a coping mechanism, amassing large amounts of sexual partners in Litchfield throughout the series, not unlike Blanche’s notorious and consistent man-hungry behavior. More self-destructive than Blanche, Nicky struggles with drug addiction but both ladies are true friends to their gal-pals, willing to go the extra mile for them despite their self-centered qualities.
Finally, there’s Rose Nylund, played by Betty White, an always upbeat woman who is a bit of a simpleton but a truly lovable character. Her doe-eyed look is a staple of the show, she is consistently picked on for being oblivious about various things throughout the series. Albeit not a perfect counterpart, Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, may be the modern-day Rose. Although she is educated, when she enters Litchfield Prison, she is met with her own vast ignorance about “real” life and she is reminded of this frequently. Her wide-eyed and dumbfounded look is repeatedly met with hostility as she frequently sticks her foot in her mouth in interactions with other inmates. She even acquires a flower-themed nickname, “Dandelion,” however, unlike Rose, who is deeply empathic, Piper appears to be truly selfish.
From orange groves to orange jumpsuits, together, the ladies of Miami and the ladies of Litchfield cultivate complex and diverse relationships throughout their respective shows. While sunny Miami and the cold, gray walls of an upstate New York Litchfield Prison may seem like they couldn’t be any different from one another, both The Golden Girls and OITNB focus their story lines on women’s lives and the comedy and drama that unfolds within them by tackling complex issues, including HIV/AIDs, mental illness, poverty, addiction, interracial relationships, gay rights, ageism, and sexism.
The Golden Girls made history as one of the very first all-female lead casts of 1980s prime time television. Thirty years later, a new generation of women’s friendships is also making history, only this time, the girls aren’t golden, they’re “in holding.” The parallel of the women of OITNB and the golden girls was even captured in a 2014 viral video mashup by Robert Jones that set The Golden Girls’ theme song against the OITNB introductory sequence.
With a focus on women’s relationship shaping the plot lines of both The Golden Girls and OITNB, it is clear that an all-female led cast was a daring but successful choice for both 1980s primetime and contemporary Netflix-platform programming. And their focuses on women’s lives marks the historical significance of both shows and a truly exciting way to showcase female actresses and lead characters of the past and present.
The fourth season of “Orange is the New Black” premieres on June 17, 2016.