Tattle Tales: Tabloids and The Golden Girls

This post is a part of Fashion In the Broad Sense: a series of posts that explores how The Golden Girls relates to important topics and issues surrounding women and fashion.

Picture it: the supermarket check out line, 2022. There I was, humming the St. Olaf fight song and placing my cans of Le Sueur peas and boxes of Mallomars on the conveyor belt, when suddenly I noticed four familiar faces smiling at me from the magazine rack. Yes, indeed it was The Golden Girls on the cover of Closer Weekly! It’s truly a testament to the show’s enduring popularity that it’s still front page news nearly 40 years after it first aired. While Closer isn’t really a tabloid as such, the headlines on this particular issue reminded me of several lines from the show and the real-life relationship of celebrity gossip to its stars.

Blanche: I almost forgot. I need a Globe and a Tatler and a Midnight Star and an Enquirer, and I guess maybe one serious news magazine so we know what’s going on in the world. One People!

The Way We Met (season 1, episode 25)

Closer Weekly is “an entertainment magazine for readers 40+ that focuses on the stars you grew up with and love.” Now, if you ask me, as someone who is in their inaugural “comma 39” year, they should probably up that to 50+ since I don’t think many folks from my generation are regular readers of this magazine. Certainly I wouldn’t have picked this issue up to read about George Hamilton or Michael Learned. I mean, I’m pretty sure most people around my age have never even heard of Ms. Learned! She played the mom on The Waltons, a popular 1970s TV show referenced by Sophia in the second season episode, “Twas the Nightmare Before Christmas.” Break out your copy of Matt Browning’s Golden Girls Cultural Reference Guide if you haven’t already! But I digress. Closer also features some current content with a focus on “positive and uplifting celebrity content.” In that way, the content is closer to People magazine, which was referenced several times on The Golden Girls.

Rose: Girls, was this the only mail today?
Blanche: Yes, can you believe it? People magazine is late again. I’m going to have to give that mailman another talking-to.
Dorothy: This time you might want to try something a little more forceful than asking him in for a Café Vienna and a warm bath.
Blanche: Dorothy, the man had just recovered from a hernia operation, and he was having trouble carrying his sack!

Love, Rose (season 2, episode 10)

I grew up reading People magazine with my mom so it has a special place in my heart as something we shared together for many years. We made our family trip to the supermarket every Sunday, and the latest copy of People always found its way into our shopping cart. Even as an adult when I would visit my mom and dad on the weekends I could still catch up on an issue or two that would inevitably be on their coffee table. Like Blanche, my mom and I always looked forward to reading this “serious news magazine” for all of our celebrity gossip.

In contrast to tabloids like the National Enquirer and others, People has always been the “trustworthy” source. Bea was popular enough thanks to Maude that she made the cover in 1975. People is also known as the magazine that celebrities will actually talk to, granting it the coveted “exclusive” interview after a marriage, divorce, or scandal. Basically, if it’s in People then you can be reasonably sure that it’s true, whereas the tabloids will often just make things up for shock value to catch your eye in the checkout line. Who remembers Batboy? Still, looking back, The Golden Girls were so popular that the tabloids honed in on the cast almost immediately.

Like The Golden Girls themselves, the National Enquirer was a Florida transplant. Generoso Pope, Jr., the paper’s owner since 1952, moved the entire operation from New York City to the town of Lantana, Florida in 1971. Lantana is just a little over an hour and a half up the coast from Miami, and the publication’s proximity to the setting of the show likely helped keep it on the writers’ minds. The area also came to be known as Tabloid Valley after five other rival publications set up shop in the Palm Beach area.

Blanche: Now, Dorothy, if you’re saying you can’t get stimulating conversation around this house, I beg to differ.
Rose: I can’t believe it. It says since Michael Jackson can’t buy the Elephant Man, he’s now put in a bid for the remains of the Big Bopper!
Blanche: Rose, you can’t believe everything you read in that rag. It caters to people of the lowest intelligence.
Rose: Then why do you buy it?
Blanche: Because it’s the only newspaper Elvis will talk to from beyond the grave!

Dorothy’s New Friend (season 3, episode 15)

In terms of typical tabloid fodder, Rue’s love life certainly fit the bill. Her romances made the covers of the Enquirer and a rival publication, the National Examiner, a few times over the years. Rue didn’t end up re-marrying her first husband, Tom Bish, and she was actually on her fifth divorce in 1986, but the tabloids have never been known for their accuracy. She married her sixth and last husband, Morrow Wilson, in 1997. They separated in 2009 but were still married when Rue died in 2010. Of course, Rue wasn’t shy about sharing her struggles to find love as she dished in her appropriately titled memoir, My First Five Husbands…And the Ones Who Got Away.

These covers also feature celebrities that were referenced on the show. Zsa Zsa Gabor and Liz Taylor both had moments in the Miami sun in jokes told by the Girls. Celebrity gossip is a national pastime, after all, so it makes sense that the writers would include it as a foil for Rose and Blanche’s intelligence compared to Dorothy, who looked down on their tabloid habit. And while the cast did have issues here and there with the writers, it seems highly unlikely that any of them would have stormed off the set. Thankfully, an article in the Los Angeles Times from 1987 gives us a more accurate picture of what went on around table reads for the show.

Dorothy: I want to thank you all for holding this event on a night when my hang-glider is in the shop, and Congress is in recess, and the lepers are on Geraldo.

What a Difference a Date Makes (season 6, episode 22)

Thanks again to Matt Browning’s fantastic book for detailing the Geraldo fiasco! I had a vague recollection of that incident from his talk show in 1988 “in which the guests included white supremacists and Black activists [and] led to a brawl that resulted in [Geraldo’s] nose being broken” (Browning, 339). This cover is such a fascinating intersection of pop culture references and proves just how timely so many of the jokes were on The Golden Girls. The “What a Difference a Date Makes” episode aired in 1991, but here the Girls are right alongside Geraldo in 1988. It’s also pretty hilarious that the Enquirer made one of its classic “shocking” headlines out of Sophia’s quickie marriage to Max Winestock in the early part of the fourth season. Spoiler alert: the pizza-and-knish stand burns down and they get an annulment! The first part of the “Sophia’s Wedding” arc also features the unofficial Elvis Presley Fan Club. Elvis was not only an obsession for Rose and Blanche but for the tabloids as well. The Enquirer infamously published a photograph of Elvis in his coffin in 1977, and stories questioning his death or claims of him speaking to various psychics from “beyond the grave” were popular cover stories for decades after that.

Of course Barbara Bush didn’t end up making an appearance on The Golden Girls, but President H.W. Bush got his own storyline in the season five two-parter, “The President’s Coming! The President’s Coming!” The show was nearing its end by the time of the second cover above so it was easy to trot out the cast conflict rumors again. While we all know that the Girls certainly had their moments with each other in real life, it’s hard to imagine jealousy being an issue between them. So even though stories of conflict between Betty White and Bea Arthur continue to be greatly exaggerated, we can see that the tabloids actually had a hand in creating them throughout the show’s original time on television.

Stan: Dorothy, I’m seeing a psychiatrist. I’ve discovered that the old Stan really wasn’t Stan. He was merely a Stan trying to be the Stan that everyone thought Stan should be.
Rose: Hey, I’ve been there.
Stan: But now, with a little bit of help, I’m becoming a new Stan.
Sophia: Oh, great. I’ll take a People magazine and a Morning Herald.
Dorothy: Ma, he is not a newsstand. He’s a new Stan.
Stan: Then you can see the change?
Sophia: I’m waiting for the change. That was a fiver I handed you!

Mother Load (season 7, episode 6)

Finally, this last Enquirer cover is a doozy! It’s pretty funny to me that this one exists at all considering Dorothy’s line about Vanna White’s autobiography from the “Sisters and Other Strangers” episode. Vanna is actually mentioned twice on the show, the first time being in season 2 in the “It’s a Miserable Life” episode. It’s hard to convey the level of interest there was in Vanna White’s life if you didn’t grow up in the 80s and 90s, but “Vannamania” was definitely a thing. This was partly fueled by the tabloids, but Playboy magazine also published a lingerie photoshoot that Vanna did before she starred on Wheel of Fortune that caused something of a scandal at the time.

Although Vanna’s marriage didn’t last, her book became a bestseller and she’s been turning the letters on Wheel of Fortune for 40 years now. She even holds the Guinness World Record for Most Frequent Clapper, which totally sounds like something straight out of a St. Olaf story.

It’s amazing to think about how The Golden Girls has been on television and remained popular for all this time. The Closer story also puts a nice spin on the familiar rivalry myth between the actresses, choosing instead to focus on stories from their personal assistants. I’m also surprised at how quaint this style of celebrity gossip seems now compared to today’s digital environment. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes, but The Golden Girls continues to outshine anything the media can come up with.

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