There was plenty of outrage when the Sex and The City reboot landed last year and brought Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte back to our screens in And Just Like That … Billed as “a new chapter” of SATC, reviews of the writing, character development and awkward woke moments were mixed, but the main cast was always impeccably styled in flatteringly on-trend fashions.
Then there was a kerfuffle of a different kind when someone figured out that the chic figures of AJLT were the same age or slightly older than the walking tea cosies in The Golden Girls.
For anyone who’s never come across TGG, it was the Emmy-winning sitcom that ran between 1985 and 1992, depicting the zany scrapes of four mature women sharing a house in Miami. It was considered ground-breaking for daring to suggest that women “of a certain age” were of any interest at all, let alone entertaining. (For some nostalgia, watch the title sequence here.)
Looking back at TGG, it emphasises that these women are of advanced years, if not outright ancient, single through divorce or death, and struggling with declining resources to enjoy their personal twilight zones. To drive the point home, the opening credits featured a glowing sunset. There are plenty of snappy lines, but with an undercurrent of sadness. In the first episode, Dorothy (Broadway and film star Beatrice Arthur) talks about seeing “this old woman in the mirror”, and Rose – played by the recently deceased Betty White – ruminates on how kids leave, husbands die, and they’re left alone. And Rose was the ditzy one.
Blanche in TGG was only around 50 when the series started in 1985, making her several years younger than the AJLT women. Under the heading of “Only In Hollywood”, Estelle Getty, who played 80-year-old Sophia, was a year younger than her screen daughter Dorothy.
“Golden girls” has evolved into a kind of shorthand for oddballs and women cruising the countdown to death. In Orange is the New Black, another show lauded for portraying the varied experience of women’s lives, the prison tribes were introduced as “whites”, “blacks”, “Latinas” and “golden girls” – older women and whoever else was left.
Death strikes early in AJLT, but there’s no question of Carrie shuffling off to an assisted care facility because Big’s passed on. She’s sad, sure – partly because Chris Noth who played her screen husband was accused of sexual assault and messed up all the show’s dream sequences – but Carrie’s getting to grips with podcasts, moving into glossy post-modern apartments and still keeping Manolo Blahnik in business.
Miranda has cast the law firm aside and returned to study. She’s also left her husband for a non-binary queer comedian, played by Sara Ramirez, who did an interview with Vogue talking through various aspects of her look and how the female cast members got “to be fashionable and fashion-forward” – no one imagines that conversation taking place on the set of TGG.
Meanwhile, Charlotte’s still Charlotte, a vision in florals, still in love with Harry, and coming to terms with her child’s evolving gender identification and planning a “they-mitzvah”.
The differences between the two sets of characters indicate how far the pendulum has swung in terms of how older women are perceived. At one end we have the prematurely geriatric with fluffy perms, put out to pasture in cardigans and pastel polyester. At the other, the AJLT ladies wear designer outfits, hung on rigorously exercised and dieted frames, topped by faces injected with enough Botox to paralyse the inhabitants of Paraguay.
One distracting element in AJLT is a change in the face of Kristin Davis, who plays Charlotte. An article in Grazia sighed over criticisms of both grey hair and surgical enhancement in AJLT, asking as Carrie might once have done a la SATC: “Can women ever win when it comes to ageing?”
Female worth is forever integrated with appearance, but there must be a middle ground between elasticised waists in TGG land and the punishing parameters of physical perfection in AJLT. Looks are of course important in professions such as acting, but by the age of 50 most women have accepted any limitations in that department and made peace with not being a supermodel. While we don’t want to look like we just crawled out of a dumpster, many of us have got better things to do than fret about fine lines, sheer frock trends or exposing underboob in a cut-out PVC playsuit. There’s satisfaction in accomplishments and polishing talents, but little joy in being broke and exhausted chasing vanished youth.
Older women tend to be rendered invisible if they don’t battle the horrors of ageing, or hailed as unicorns for somehow holding the shameful repercussions of staying alive at bay. The American feminist Gloria Steinem got so fed up with being told how miraculously fresh she looked after five decades that she threw a party with the theme of: “This is what 50 looks like”.
Ultimately, 50 and over should look any way you want it to. Every woman is different, and a range of variables, from genes to stress levels, affect how we age.
In The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, Naomi Wolf argued that as women gained more power for themselves, the demands to conform to unrealistic physical standards increased. Wolf’s focus was the pressure to be thin, but virtually any aspect of female appearance can be weaponised as a goal where no amount of effort is ever enough.
The TGG position underestimates women’s value. In AJLT they have more agency, but appearance is still all-important, when women have so much more to offer in terms of skills and experience and knowledge.
A woman’s worth is more than measurements or lip contours. Despite the many criticisms, ALJT has just been renewed for a second season. It will be interesting to see where the show’s producers take these women next. They may not get it right, but they are at least getting us to recalibrate ageism.
Are you a fan of ‘The Golden Girls’ or ‘And Just Like That…’? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
A former theatre and comedy critic, Carolyn O’ Donnell was a senior journalist at The Times and has written extensively on arts and culture. Her travel writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and many airline magazines. In 2021 she won the Christopher Hewitt Award for fiction.