“Dammit, why is this happening to me? I mean, this shouldn’t happen to people like me.”
This desperate question from a beloved character (Rose) on a beloved show (The Golden Girls) is the defining moment in yet another landmark episode in the critically-acclaimed series. The show known as much for its hilarious comedy as for fearlessly venturing into taboo TV territory was tackling its next sensitive topic: AIDS.
In “72 Hours,” Rose receives a letter alerting her that she may have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion during gallbladder surgery six years earlier, and she is advised to get a test. As she waits for the results, worry and a deep-rooted panic take hold, and a pivotal scene takes place between the delightfully dimwitted Rose and saucy Southern belle Blanche.
Rose’s dialogue embodies several misconceptions about HIV infection, pervasive at the time: that “people like her” — an older, middle-class, heterosexual, “innocent” woman — shouldn’t get such a disease, that none of her friends will want to associate with her now, and that she is being punished for some kind of bad behavior.
To which Blanche thoughtfully replies, “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins.”
In 1990 when the episode first aired, AIDS testing was still relatively new; just five years prior the FDA licensed the first commercial blood test. Since 1981, over 100,000 deaths from AIDS had been reported to the CDC by that year — almost one-third of them during 1990. It was a scary time, and despite efforts to educate the public, myths and misinformation ran rampant.
Cue the ever-tactless Sophia, who reacts by using Dorothy’s bathroom so she won’t have to share one with Rose and prominently marking her coffee cups with an “R.” The kind of groan-worthy moments of TV that make you want to crawl under the couch. After a verbal slap from Dorothy, Sophia admits, “I know intellectually there’s no way I can catch it, but now that it’s so close to home, it’s scary.”
But this is what The Golden Girls was so good at: bringing home those topics that often made people uncomfortable — racism, homosexuality, older female sexuality, sexual harassment, the homeless, addiction, marriage equality and more — and showing us how interconnected and utterly human we all are at any age. Served, of course, with that delicious trademark humor that infused the show throughout its groundbreaking, taboo-busting seven-season run.
In true kick-ass Golden Girls fashion, the storyline reinforces the importance of friendship — in this case, staring into the face of a terrifying disease. Because, of course, Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia showed up at the hospital while Rose took the HIV test and supported her during the nail-biting, three-day wait for the results.
Then the happy ending: Rose gets the all-clear and we’ve all had a hearty laugh. But in 21 minutes we’ve also learned something: AIDS is not just a “gay disease” and it can happen to anyone. Understanding is vital. A pretty good lesson from a show about four older women living together in Miami, Fla., don’t you think?
Watch the full episode here.