What does a show about four, older white women have to say about race? Turns out, quite a lot.
In my casual viewing, I observed several episodes that explicitly dealt with traditionally marginalized racial and ethnic groups.
Since the show is set in Miami, Fl, a multiracial city, I would’ve been surprised if I didn’t.
Some scholars argue that the absence of certain racial and ethnic groups, given a show’s context, is in itself a form of othering (Lanham, 2002;Tyson, 2015). It can be observed through the use of stereotypes, marginalization, and framing an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ sense of identity.
Representations of non-white individuals and groups in the media are important topics for scholars to explore and I believed it fit well within the scope of my research. I recognize that depictions of race and ethnicity in the media play a significant role in our social understanding of cultural difference (Croteau and Hoynes 2014; Latham 2002; Macionis 2010; Tyson 2015).
However, I did not want to limit myself to representations of race but rather look beyond racial difference for my analysis of Otherness. I’ve found through personal experience and research that race, ethnicity, and culture tend to overlap or, as some sources suggested, envelope each other.
As with defining The ‘Sexual’ Other, I wanted to expand my definition. For the purposes of my analysis, I considered race and ethnicity an aspect of cultural identity. All of which informed my definition of The “Cultural” Other.
Key Concepts for The ' Cultural' Other
Modern social scientists recognize ideas of race, ethnicity, and culture as social constructs (Macionis 2010; Tyson 2015). And therefore they are only important because a dominant system says they are.
According to [Macionis (2010)](/ references-formal-definitions), race can be defined as “a socially constructed category of people who share biologically transmitted traits that members of a society consider important” (p. 356).
Race is typically used to identify people based on their physical appearance often their skin color but it can include hair color and texture, eye color, body shape, and facial features.
Ethnicity is “a shared cultural heritage” (Macionis, 2010, p.358), which allows “people to define themselves – or others- as members of an ethnic category” (Macionis, 2010, p. 358). While racial types are based on physical traits ethnicity is rooted in “common ancestry, language, or religion” (Macionis, 2010, p. 358).
Culture is comprised of people’s actions, thoughts, and material objects made, possessed, and circulated that inform a way of life (Macionis 2010). Macionis (2010) outlines two distinct types of culture, nonmaterial, “the ideas created by members of a society” (p. 59), and material “the physical things created by members of a society” (p. 59).
The components or elements of culture include symbols, values, norms, language, and beliefs. For the sake of clarity, I acknowledge that ideas about identity, such as race and ethnicity, are part of nonmaterial culture.
I noted the following in my formal sample.
- References to race, ethnicity, and/or culture
- Presence or absence of Non-White individuals or groups. Portrayal?
- Racial Tropes, Stereotypes, Bias (i.e ‘Latin Lover’, ‘Aggressive Black Male/Female’, ‘Racially Insensitive Elder’)
- Implicit Othering: i.e. accent portrayals, racialized humor
- Explicit Othering: i.e. Disparaging comments to or about a certain cultural group
At the Intersection of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture
In terms of the intersectionality of The ‘Cultural’ Other, we can learn a lot from Sophia. Because she often refers to her roots as a “poor girl from Sicily”, she was the best example of the immigrant experience I found during my analysis.
What I found interesting about Sophia was the way she framed her cultural identity. I noted that it functioned as a form of self-othering. But we’ll save that for future research.
Her sarcastic recollections of pre-American life reveal deep economic hardships. She often talks about her supposed ties to organized crime and customs (i.e. trading livestock for brides) that a modern audience would deem backwards.
But Sophia is no stranger to the racially insensitive remark.
In my opinion, one of the functions of a ‘pilot’ episode for a TV show is to set up the identities of its characters. It’s no different in The Golden Girls.
In the show’s pilot episode, The Engagement, Sophia shows up unannounced at the house after her retirement home burns down. It’s late, Dorothy asks how she got there and Sophia tells her she took a cab.
Here’s where things get ‘colorful’.
She asks Dorothy to pay her $67 cab fee. Dorothy is shocked and asks why it’s so much. Sophia replies, “The cab driver was Cuban, he said there was an additional tax for a bilingual driver.” After seeing to the cab, Dorothy comes back upset saying the driver said Sophia promised him a $67 tip.
Sophia retorts, “I said I was giving him a $6 to 7$ tip! Why don’t these people learn English if they’re gonna live here?! This is Miami! I’d have less trouble getting around Ecuador!”
This scene reveals how Sophia positions herself against other cultural groups.
Despite being an immigrant herself, she makes disparaging comments about non-Native English speakers. Her comment about Miami implies that no American city, no matter how culturally diverse, should accept anyone who can’t speak English.
An interesting thing to consider about a Sicilian woman from Brooklyn, NY.
On the Presence and Absence of Color
Chinese people invented pasta you know, we take credit but we just added oregano.” – Sophia, Sick and Tired: Part 2 ; Episode 2, Season 5
As I already mentioned, some scholars suggest that the absence of certain cultural groups speaks to a form of othering. Overall, there were few episodes in my formal sample that featured non-white characters.
With such a minimal amount of evidence to go on, I payed close attention to non-white characters when they were present in an episode.
In Sick and Tired: Part 2, Dorothy continues her search for a diagnosis to explain her extreme fatigue. She’s been to two specialists, who dismiss her condition as “old age” and possible “depression, she calls on her friend Harry, a pediatrician.
He refers her to a local virologist, Dr. Chang.
Dorothy and Sophia meet with Dr. Chang to go over a possible diagnosis. Sophia can hardly contain herself, saying “I’m crazy about Chinese people….” Dr. Chang reluctantly thanks her for the compliment.
Dorothy tries to settle her down but she continues, “Chinese people revere the elderly. In this country we throw away anything that’s old, but you people don’t that’s a beautiful thing. You also have the most gorgeous hair in the world…even when it’s humid!”
Dr. Chang gives Dorothy comfort when he says her symptoms fit Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a newly identified virus. She’s thrilled to finally get some answers about her health.
He expresses his opposition with her previous doctors’, both of whom are White, saying, “those colleagues of mine tend you blame the victim.”
This is an interesting example of how non-white characters are framed in the show. Dr. Chang occupies a position of power. He is educated, beyond that he is an expert in the medical community.
He is the only one able to ease Dorothy’s mind and ground his medical opinion based on the latest research available.
However, he speaks with an accent indicating English is his second language. And whenever Sophia addresses him she only refers to his cultural identity. Her comments may seem positive but in reality they function as a form of cultural othering.
There are several episodes throughout the series that directly touch on racial politics and cultural difference. My sample was randomly generated and before I began my formal analysis I crossed my fingers in the hopes a few would come my way.
Regardless of the final outcome, I noted multiple references to both white and non-white ethnic groups that played into negative stereotypes. I can conclusively say there is more to reveal on the show.
I would encourage anyone interested in media studies to take a closer look at representations of race as a topic of analysis.