Golden Girls actresses on a tropical leaf print background with text: When the Golden Girls Were Environmentalists"

When the Golden Girls Were Environmentalists

By Claire Sewell

Since its debut in 1985, The Golden Girls has continually aired on television and remained popular with audiences of all ages, genders, and sexual identities. Once it started streaming on Hulu in 2017, younger generations discovered its timeless appeal, and the show’s popularity truly soared into the stratosphere like Captain Planet and the Planeteers. What does Captain Planet have to do with The Golden Girls, you might be asking yourself? Well, I’ll tell you.

Picture it: Miami, Florida, by way of Los Angeles, California, 1990. It’s the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, first held on April 22, 1970. If you grew up in the ’90s, then you probably remember doing things like helping to save the rainforests and cutting the plastic rings from a six-pack of soda to keep them from getting stuck on sea turtles. Come to think of it, I’m not exactly sure what we were doing to help the rainforest, but I recall that it was all very important. We watched Fern Gully a lot when I was in junior high, and that seemed to be enough.

Still, environmentalism in popular culture was an important part of raising awareness at the time. While The Golden Girls is known for its “back in St. Olaf stories,” among many other hilarious happenings, fans have also observed the many ways that the show was ahead of its time: promoting LGBTQ+ issues and discussing sex, aging, and women’s health, among other progressive topics. Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia confronted stereotypes and tackled the tough stuff with their trademark humor. One theme that I see mentioned much less often, though, is when The Golden Girls embraced environmentalism. In fact, their commitment to this timely cause stretches across several episodes and even includes an epic television special.

Golden Girls' foe: Frieda Claxton

Give Trees a Chance

In the Season 2 episode “It’s a Miserable Life,” the Girls face off against one of the show’s most infamous foes: Frieda Claxton. Saving trees is usually an environmental cause that everybody can agree on, but Mrs. Claxton hates trees. And people. Her yard is home to a 200-year-old oak tree that the city wants to remove to widen the street, but she doesn’t care! Rose eventually gets her to agree to save the tree after taking her some homemade Danish.

Once they meet up in the commissioner’s court, though, Mrs. Claxton changes her tune. The insults fly until Rose has had enough and tells Mrs. Claxton to drop dead–and she does! Rose has sort of a reputation for accidentally killing people throughout the series, but in the end she scatters Mrs. Claxton’s ashes around the tree and the city decides not to cut it down.

Dorothy and Blanche holding "Dolphins Not Dollars" protest signs

Save the Whales

As often as The Golden Girls was ahead of its time, it was also frequently right on time with the causes featured in its storylines. In “Love Under the Big Top” from Season 5, Dorothy dates Ken, a lawyer (played by none other than Dick Van Dyke) who decides to leave the profession and become a circus clown. The relationship fizzles but not before Ken defends the Girls in court after they’re accused of trespassing during a protest to save the dolphins.

In 1987, an undercover biologist discovered the tuna fishing industry’s disregard for the dolphins that were injured and killed in the nets used to catch yellowfin tuna. This resulted in protests and boycotts of tuna companies. Blanche’s “Dolphins Not Dollars” sign recalls ones carried in real life by protestors outside the Heinz company that read “Sorry Charlie—StarKist Kills Dolphins,” referencing the company’s well-known cartoon mascot. These efforts worked. Congress signed the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act in 1990, and companies began using the “Dolphin Safe” on their cans of tuna fish to show their compliance with new fishing regulations to protect dolphins.

Golden Girls episode still with caption: "Nobody gives a damn about 'save the wetlands.'"

Friends of the Everglades

72 Hours,” also from Season 5, is one of the most important episodes of The Golden Girls. It aired on February 17, 1990, and is notable for the way it portrayed emotions surrounding HIV and AIDS with both humor and sensitivity. This was only three years after President Reagan finally publicly addressed the disease, so viewers can be forgiven for forgetting that the episode actually opens with a B-story about Dorothy’s attempt to organize a Save the Wetlands fundraiser.

The Golden Girls is, of course, fictionally set in Miami, Florida, but in real life, the state is home to 7,800 square miles of flooded grassland known as the Everglades. Call it a swamp if you must. Still, it’s an ecologically important zone that not only serves as the freshwater source for the Miami metropolitan area but is also home to the aforementioned dolphins and other endangered animals, such as the Florida panther and the West Indian manatee.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Poster art for "The Earth Day Special" with Golden Girls episode stillsBilled as “The Biggest Stars of the ’90s in the Most Important Story of Our Time,” The Earth Day Special aired on ABC on April 22, 1990. It was part of a whole day of Earth Day-themed programming across multiple networks that was designed to raise awareness about pollution, deforestation, and other threats to the environment. The show opened with a town square parade led by Robin Williams as a Harold Hill-esque barker in a scene straight out of The Music Man. What followed was an hour and a half of some of the most bizarre network television programming you’ll ever see.

If you can think of a celebrity who was popular in the late ’80s or early ’90s, then they probably starred in The Earth Day Special. Williams’s character, Everyman, is actually the son of Mother Earth, played by Bette Midler. Everyone from the casts of The Cosby Show, Cheers, and Doogie Howser, M.D. to Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Keaton is caught up in this show-within-a-show. If that’s not enough, Kermit the Frog also stops by in one of Jim Henson’s last performances before his death less than a month later.

Perhaps owing to their popularity, The Golden Girls show up early on, just a bit after the 27-minute mark. If you ask me, their segment is among the most authentic of the whole special. Yes, it’s delivered in character and on the show’s familiar set like the other sitcoms featured throughout, but there’s a genuine feeling of sincerity to the message they deliver.

Dorothy: Gee, I had no idea the Earth was already in such bad shape. Come on, doesn’t this show get you thinking?

Blanche: Yeah, about dinner. What do you say we get something to go from Burgers by Leroy?

Dorothy: Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea.

Sophia: I’ll say. After one of their guacamole burgers, I’m not safe around an open flame!

Dorothy: Oh, Ma, that’s not it. Well, that’s part of it. But the point is somebody should tell Burgers by Leroy that the polystyrene foam that they pack their food in is completely non-biodegradable. And the chemicals used in the process can be toxic.

Polystyrene is certainly still around, but we see much less of it than we did in the ’90s when it was widely used. McDonald’s began phasing out its foam packaging in 1990, and most restaurants have by now switched to paper cups and takeaway containers. Rose mentions that the foam can be recycled and reused for other purposes, like cases for videotapes of all things, and that she’s “determined to start doing something to help.”

Before the Girls turned back to their television for the next segment, featuring none other than Carl Sagan, Dorothy mused: “Sure, we’re determined now, but what about in two days or in two weeks? Will we still be determined to save our planet then?” For their part, The Golden Girls followed through with their messaging from the special. In Season 7’s “That’s for Me to Know,” Rose is seen sorting items into some recycling baskets in the set’s iconic kitchen.

Younger fans are often excited to learn that The Golden Girls were activists in real life, too. Betty White was a well-known advocate for animal welfare causes, as were Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan; and along with Estelle Getty, they were all supporters of LGBTQ+ rights. These days, it can be pretty hard to find anything to celebrate about Earth Day, but I hope that even if each of us is, as Blanche laments, “just one person,” that we can combine our powers to answer’s call for a 60% global reduction in plastic production by 2040.

After all, saving our planet is the thing to do!