“Shady Pines, Ma”: Mother-daughter role reversal in the Golden Girls

Curator's Note

“Shady Pines, Ma.” Dorothy is apt to repeat this veiled threat to send Sophia to a nursing home when she is about to do something rebellious or if she says something out of line. Sophia is the matriarch of the group, yet she is often patronized by her daughter, Blanche and Rose, and some of the guest characters. Sometimes, she is viewed by them as weak and mentally feeble as a result of a stroke that she experienced prior to the opening of the show. In “Older and Wiser,” Sophia is recovering from the flu. Dorothy, concerned for her mother’s health, develops a plot to get her to go to a senior daycare. Dorothy lies to Sophia, saying she has been given the job of “Activities Director.” Dorothy and the center director anticipate that Sophia will only be responsible for showing residents a daily movie in her new “job.” However, Sophia--being the spry and active person she is--organizes a field trip for the residents without consulting the director. The clip shows Sophia’s reaction to learning about Dorothy’s deception. Dorothy, in the episode, is making decisions for Sophia, without her consent, as a mother would with her young child. In another scene, Blanche, Dorothy, and Rose talk about the need to become a caregiver toward elderly parents. At the climax of the episode, though, the role of caregiver is challenged when Sophia observes: “No one bothered to consult me what was for my own good.” This episode, then, reframes what it means to be a caregiver for an elderly parent, in contrast to taking care of a child. Taking care of the elderly requires an appreciation for the ways in which they understand themselves and their situation. In fact, in the ending of the episode, Dorothy and Sophia come to a moment of reconciliation and agree to consult each other about decisions that are made in the future. In what ways does Sophia and Dorothy’s dynamic redefine what it means to be a caregiver for the elderly? Was Dorothy right in wanting to seek extra care for Sophia? In other words, did Dorothy’s end goal (extra care for Sophia) justify the means (her deception)? In what ways do Dorothy’s actions show a desire to preserve a loved one? Do Dorothy’s restrictions on her mother suppress Sophia’s vitality and spunk?


I love this episode! I think it has particular resonance today, as America's population is aging en masse, and more adult children are faced with making decisions about how to care for their parents. Given the typical sense of independence embodied by today's Baby Boomers, Sophia's point that she should have been consulted is especially poignant. I can imagine a larger project on Dorothy and Sophia's relationship that examines this mother-daughter role reversal. It's intriguing how Dorothy holds the purse strings and, in the case of your clip, makes certain executive decisions, while Sophia continues to serve as the voice of wisdom that comes with age and is the one the other three turn to for advice and nurturing. Yet, as your title suggests, Sophia is often threatened and infantilized by Dorothy as well. Dorothy and Sophia really seem to take turns fulfilling the role of the parent.

Your response brings up an important point that the mother-daughter dynamic between Dorothy and Sophia is not always reversed. The characters in The Golden Girls are complex, just in real life, and thus take on several roles given the situations they are in. For example, in the seventh episode of Season Seven, “Zborn Again,” Sophia takes on the role of mother when she is dissuading Dorothy from seeing Stan again.

Great post! Like Bridget, I find this to be a tremendously moving episode. It also exemplifies the series' engagement with what I would call "the politics of aging." In addition to drawing out some of the issues and challenges that older people have to deal with, "The Golden Girls" often offers a particularly feminist slant to these issues, pointing out how older women in particular have to contend with problems not faced in the same way by their male counterparts. Rose's employment, in particular, is an ongoing storyline that highlights the challenges that older women face in the workplace. Throughout the series she is told that she is too old to occupy different positions (this occurs in both the first season and, subsequently, when she seeks employment with consumer reporter Enrique Mas) and, in an emotionally wrenching episode, she finds out that her dead husband's pension fund has gone bankrupt. She then realizes that the homeless woman whom she had earlier thought was stupid for allowing herself to become so is, in fact, her future without a stable income. Such incidents, and the clip that Jessica and Roseanne have so sharply explicated, highlight the vexed and contradictory status that older people (especially women) occupy in our society and culture, at once respected in discourse yet also marginalized by economic and caretaking practices.

Great, observation Thomas. We’ve also talked about Rose’s employment as an issue related to aging in the show. We recently watched “Job Hunting” from the first season of the series, when the grief center Rose is employed at closes. This episode presents a bit of an inconsistency in the series, as the episode ends with Rose gaining employment as a waitress, but in future episodes the center is open again and Rose works with them. In some ways, the series shied away from talking about the elderly in blue collar jobs that require manual labor, like kitchen service.

These are great questions. I agree with Bridget that a larger project on Dorothy and Sophia's relationship would be interesting, especially given current population demographics. While there are many moments where you see Dorothy acting as the mother toward Sophia, there are many cases where Dorothy (and Rose and Blanche) still need their mother, Sophia. So much of Sophia's role is about making fun of herself or being made fun of for her age, but there are also many moments where Sophia forces the others to acknowledge her agency. Don't let her fool you, Sophia also uses the refrain, "What! I'm old." to get away with things!

Thanks for bringing this up. Sophia’s agency is something we also wanted to address in our clip, but ultimately didn’t have space enough to do so. In our clip’s episode, Sophia defies Dorothy by leaving the house and going back to the daycare center to be with the residents even after she was “fired.” Sophia puts together a dance party for them, and in general has fun. Our post doesn’t fully account for Sophia’s quick-wittedness and ability, in some ways, to outsmart Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche, and that is something we did wish to address more.

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