Rose's St. Olaf: The Midwest Exotic

Curator's Note

Aside from Dorothy, Sophia, Blanche, and Rose, there was one character whose name was mentioned in almost every episode of the Golden Girls' seven-year run. This character was not a person; it was Rose Nylund’s hometown of St. Olaf – most often introduced into conversations with the phrase “Back in St. Olaf…” The small, Norwegian, farm town in Northwest Minnesota was known for its strange inhabitants, its absurd customs, and its unique sayings. Yet, over the course of the Golden Girls' run, it is revealed to also have shaped Rose in some profound ways. It made her a bit goofy, but it also fed her tenacity and nurtured her deep empathy for others.

The town typically was the target or source of jokes, but every so often, the St. Olaf commentary would reveal some deeper truth about Rose. Take Rose’s origin story itself, revealed in the Season 6 episode "Once, in St. Olaf." Although it had been noted previously that Rose had been adopted by the Lindstrom family, this episode brought Rose together with her biological father, a monk named Brother Martin. Rose struggled to decide whether she could forgive her biological father for not raising her after her mother’s death. Of course she did ultimately decide to forgive him, because the bonds of St. Olaf are strong - perhaps even stronger than the parent-child bond for Rose. This episode was not all gloom and drama, of course. Sophia got stuck in an elevator, and we learned more about Rose’s adoption. (She was left on the orphanage doorstep gift-basket style with some "hickory smoked cheese and spicy beef sticks.")

It would be easy for residents of the upper Midwestern United States to roll their eyes at the way “Back in St. Olaf” jokes make flat, northern farm towns seem ignorant, naïve, or downright stupid.  But as often as St. Olaf is the target of jokes, it also continues to surprise Rose’s roommates. St. Olaf remains somewhat of an enigma as it is only seen in two episodes. It becomes a sort of quotidian exotic. A place filled with blue-collar, Scandinavian immigrants that was in many ways the complete opposite of the Golden Girls' Miami home. Yet, however different it might seem, St. Olaf is a place where people are happy to thank you for being a friend.


First I want to say thank you to Emily for sponsoring this week and bringing all of the contributors together. I really appreciated all of the responses and enjoyed the Golden Girl discussion this week. One of the most interesting things I found in my research comparing archetypes across series was that in Living Single the child archetype, Synclaire, was also from Minnesota. It is interesting how these series marked these places in very particular ways. Maybe there is something unique and exotic in simplistic and naive ordinariness of the people and the town. As a Midwesterner I am not sure how to make sense of the stupidity except to laugh. If only life were that simple! Thanks again.

Emily, Nice post, sorry I'm late to the convo--I got distracted by summer school. I've actually never watched the show, but as a Minnesotan I am now interested. I acknowledge the Scandinavian influence on her accent, but how about the German influence in both MN and on this specific board game titled "Guggenspitzer." We shan't erase the Germanic influence and all their delicious cuisine. Also, I'm curious if a writer or producer on the show grew up in MN or went to St. Olaf College (which, maybe it should be said, is the name of a college in the real-life town of St. Cloud, whereas in the show it is the town's name. Minor stuff of minor interest. Oh, well.) Another show of that era, "Coach," was set in MN and possibly the most famous set in MN was "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Recently, Jason Segel's character on "How I met your mother" is from MN. I wonder if MN is portrayed as an exotic local in any of those shows? Also, dare I say that only another true northerner would write about the magic of a "gift-basket . . . with some hickory smoked cheese and spicy beef sticks." Perfect.

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