Thank You for Being a Friend
How the Golden Girls’ Theme Song Became a Love Song for Chosen Family
Written by David Thomas Moran
WARNING: This is a review about relatively mainstream pop culture and music. Proceed at your own risk.
In addition to the laughs, ride-or-die friendship and drama The Golden Girls still serves in reruns and via streaming apps, there are two things I really love about this now classic sitcom - the pressing social issues the show candidly addressed with humor and compassion...and the music. The show’s theme song Thank You for Being a Friend has stood the test of time as an everlasting and epic love song to our chosen families.
Before I explain why this theme song in particular moves my soul, we should acknowledge that The Golden Girls was and continues to be an important cultural touchstone. The series received much love from critics and audiences alike during its seven-year run on NBC from 1985-1992.
The Golden Girls did not shy away from controversy. Its cast and premise alone caused a stir during the Reagan era. Starring four, single women over the age of fifty who lived together as roommates, the Girls were active on the Miami dating scene and very open about their sex lives. The show tackled issues controversial for its time, including condom use, homelessness, immigrant rights, sexism, teen pregnancy, homophobia, sexual harassment, racism, HIV/AIDS, and suicide. Ranked by TV Guide as one of the sixty best series of all time, all four of the show’s stars received an Emmy Award, one of only three sitcoms in Emmy history with this recognition.
But the show’s theme song - Thank You for Being a Friend - has achieved a legendary status of its own, particularly in queer spaces. Thanks to Lifetime, and now iTunes and Hulu, I’ve probably seen every episode of The Golden Girls at least four or five times. I’ve heard the show’s theme song who knows how many times more. It’s hard not to sing along when you hear Thank You for Being a Friend play in the bar or during drag bingo or when an episode sneaks up on your Hulu playlist.
The Golden Girls’ version of Thank You for Being a Friend is actually a re-recording of Andrew Gold’s 1978 hit, which he wrote and recorded for his third album, All This and Heaven Too. Gold’s version peaked at 25 on the billboard Hot 100 chart that year. I started watching the Girls as a seven year-old kiddo, when they were still on the air back in 1990. For some reason, I was convinced Rue McClanahan, the actor who played Blanche Deaveraux was the singer. Maybe it was how the song’s track overlaid with the opening credits scenes that featured her character Blanche. Or maybe her soulful twang reminded me of the actual performer’s voice - jingle singer Cynthia Fee.
I still get chills, even if I’m in another room, when I hear the instrumental score play right after the Thank for For Being a Friend track and opening credits. I can vividly picture a location shot of The Golden Girls’ house in my mind, created by Susan Harris in white text flashing on the screen. The slowing chimes of bells transporting us into the Girl’s living room or kitchen or lannai to hang out and catch up. All the sudden, I’m craving (vegan) chocolate cheesecake.
Hearing the theme song takes me back to so many moments in my life, some joyful and some not so much, where the Girls brought me comfort through their humor and compassion. I always felt loved by them when I tuned in.
Once a naive kiddo then a closeted, gay tween and now an out and proud 30-something, the Girls were there for me while I navigated my own personal journey of self-acceptance. I remember feeling validated by knowing that Dorothy’s best friend from college, Jean, was a lesbian, whom Dorothy and her mother Sophia welcomed into their home with unconditional love. That Jean fell in love with Rose, who though largely sheltered from openly queer people growing up on a dairy farm in the Midwest, was compassionate and open-minded enough to respectfully decline Jean’s affection and still want to be friends.
That Blanche had a gay brother, Clayton, who she struggled to accept but eventually came around when Clayton decided to marry the love of his life. That Dorothy, in latter seasons wore hearing aids just like me, something that meant a lot to a hard of hearing boy who started wearing hearing aids right out of pre-school. The theme song even lovingly addresses this struggle: “Have no fear even though it's hard to hear / I will stand here close and say / Thank you for being a friend.”
I still remember vividly the day Bea Arthur, who played Dorothy in the show, died back in 2009.
That night, I was at Savoy, one of the queer bars in Downtown Orlando, and the emcee paid tribute to Arthur’s passing by playing Thank You for Being a Friend over the loudspeakers. The whole bar sang along. Arthur was a feminist and queer icon. She was a champion for homeless LGBTQ+ youth when she was alive and bequeathed $300,000 in her will to the Ali Forney Center in New York City for the cause. Today, the Bea Arthur Residence is now a long term housing facility with eighteen beds for homeless LGBTQ+ youth. In case you didn’t know, statistically, LGBTQ+ youth make up no more than 10% of the youth population segment, yet total 40% of homeless youth. Homelessness is such a big issue because so many queer and trans youth run away from unsafe home environments or they are kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Singing along to Thank You for Being a Friend that night was a bittersweet way of saying goodbye to an incredible artist who was not only a Broadway and television legend, but also a dedicated advocate for LGBTQ+ equality. I definitely teared up. Losing Bea Arthur felt like I’d lost a member of the family - my chosen family.
I felt safer spending time with the Girls. They were different. Unapologetically different. They had relatively progressive opinions about current events and social issues. Yes, they were four white, middle class women with lots of privilege. Their views on race and transgender issues were often problematic. Blanche’s romanticizing of Southern gentility and the Lost Cause mythology often whitewashed the true horrors of white supremacist terrorism, economic exploitation and violence in the Southeast and across the US.
But in many ways, these four women were also aspiring social justice warriors. They chucked patriarchal expectations for women age fifty and up, a largely ignored demographic group, out the window living full, complicated and imperfectly perfect lives as sexual, intelligent, creative women in their prime. They hung out with people who were different from them. They spoke up and acted out against injustice. They made LOTS of mistakes but still kept an open mind and an open heart in the end, and sought to make amends when they could. And most importantly, they created a loving and nurturing home as chosen family.
This is where Thank You for Being a Friend really carries the legacy of The Golden Girls forward for me. It was never just a theme song. It’s so much more than that. It’s a love song to our chosen families, sometimes blood relatives, but often not. A love song for those special folks who we have chosen to share our lives with, to love unconditionally, to show up for and lean on, to hold space for during moments of grief and joy, to practice empathy and compassion with and also not be afraid to lovingly challenge and hold accountable when necessary: “Thank you for being a friend / Traveled down a road and back again / Your heart is true, you're a pal and a confidant.”
I think this especially resonates with people in the LGBTQ+ community who haven’t always felt accepted by their blood and/or legal kin. Apparently, The Golden Girls was all the rage Saturday nights in the late 80s and early 90s. Chosen family would watch Rose, Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia dish it out on the tube in the local gayborhood watering hole. This was during the ACT UP era of the AIDS epidemic, when the Reagan administration refused to acknowledge that scores of people, many LGBTQ+, were dying at the hands of this virus.
Rapid response was desperately needed; there was an urgency for funding, research, and accountability. The Golden Girls offered laughs and love during a time in the early years of the AIDS crisis when many chosen families were enduring unspeakable loss; seeking respite and resilience. The Girls also directly addressed the AIDS epidemic in an episode called “72 hours.” Rose was notified that a blood transfusion she received during a gallbladder operation a few years prior may have exposed her to the HIV virus. This episode aired at a time when TV shows and films were largely indifferent to the AIDS crisis that had already taken the lives of over 120,000 people in the United States alone. Though, I don’t think anything can top the Designing Women episode “Killing All the Right People” when Julia Sugarbaker tells off a homophobic client and the Sugarbaker firm decorates a funeral parlor for a good friend dying of AIDS-related complications, the Golden Girls were courageous in their efforts.
Today the AIDS epidemic continues, UNAIDS reports that 36.1 million people around the globe are now living with HIV/AIDS, over 13 million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS, and nearly 22 million people have died of AIDS-related causes since the epidemic was first documented in 1981.
True to the message of Thank You For Being a Friend, then and now many LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized folks still seek refuge in each other as chosen family when it feels like the rest of the world has turned their backs on them. Since The Golden Girls, pop culture has embraced the “chosen family” theme with countless examples; from Seinfeld to Sex and the City, to Will & Grace and of course Friends. The new F/X show Pose highlights chosen family powerfully, with a specific focus on queer spaces by examining the drag ball culture of New York in the late 1980s, during the peak of The Golden Girls’ popularity. Ball culture is a chosen family space, organized by different “houses,” a support network and haven that largely centered and empowered LGBTQ+ people of color. Pose holds space for an intersection of voices and lived experiences historically whitewashed and erased even within the LGBTQ+ community.
When I hear Thank You For Being a Friend, I’m not only taken back to the decades of comfort The Golden Girls have brought me; but also my own chosen family. Chosen family runs deeper than blood ties or legal documents. It’s the chosen fam that you know will always have your back during the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Who are there with you in the arena, fighting the good fight side-by-side in solidarity.
Thank You for Being a Friend is not simply a big ol’ thank you to friendship, but rather a love song to the beauty, power and resilience of our ride-or-die chosen fam.
“And if you threw a party Invited everyone you knew Well, you would see the biggest gift would be from me And the card attached would say: Thank you for being a friend.”
David Thomas Moran spends the majority of his free time lobbying for singer-songwriter, philanthropist and businesswoman Dolly Parton to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Other than that and navigating the trials and tribulations of being a Libra, David really doesn't care about music. Unless, of course, it's Dolly. Then yeah...he definitely cares. A lot. PS: He's still bitter about Dolly's 2006 Academy Awards loss for Best Original Song.