Betty White's Legacy Includes 'Golden Girls' Episode Addressing HIV

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday January 2, 2022

Betty White — the TV and film icon who died Jan. 31, just a couple weeks shy of her 100th birthday — earned her big gay following not just through her sheer talent and the beloved characters she played, including her "Golden Girls" character Rose Nylund, but through advocacy, including a groundbreaking episode of "The Golden Girls" that confronted the specter of AIDS head on, Pink News recalled.

"In 1990, in an episode titled '72 Hours,' the show became one of the first sitcoms to even mention the AIDS crisis," the site recounted, going on to detail that in the episode Rose is "told that during a procedure to have her gallbladder removed, she may have been exposed to HIV via a blood transfusion.

"She is tested for HIV, and must wait an agonizing 72 hours for the test results," the article continues.

At the time, fear and misinformation about HIV was widespread even among the medical profession, Pink News recalled, but even so the show took aim at one of the more grotesque and dangerous mischaracterizations of HIV/AIDS: That they "were 'gay diseases' that only affected queer men," the news site detailed.

The article cited the Jim Colussi book on the show, "Golden Girls Forever," in which White, calling the episode "daring," told the author, "Not only were people understandably afraid of AIDS, but a lot of people wouldn't even admit it existed."

The book also delved into the stories behind the episode, including how it was based on the actual experience of a show writers' mother, and how the storyline resonated with a closeted junior writer, as well as the show's editor, whose partner was dying of AIDS at the time. (Colucci wrote about this and provided an excerpt from the book in a 2017 article for Vulture.)

White reflected on how the writers' choice of having Rose face the possibility of having contracted HIV through a blood transfusion underscored the nature of the virus and drove home the point that anyone — not just sexual minorities — might be at risk.

"Blanche was such a busy lady," White said, referencing the show's most sexually active character, "but if it had been her story it would have taken on a whole other color. But with Rose being Miss Not-Always-With-It, it came as a real surprise."

The role was a case of art reflecting life, Pink News noted, recalling that White made no secret of her support for marriage equality well before it was the law of the land.

"I don't know how people can get so anti-something," she said in a 2010 interview, the site detailed.

"Mind your own business, take care of your affairs, and don't worry about other people so much," White added.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.