Designing Women ran from 1986 to 1993 and women were at the forefront. Julia Sugarbaker, Suzanne Sugarbaker, Mary Jo Shively, and Charlene Frazier-Stillfield, played by Dixie Carter, Delta Burke, Annie Potts, and Jean Smart, respectively, worked at a designing firm that Julia owned. Their attire was impeccable and vibrant. The living room was a centerpiece of creativity and this show utilized and harnessed the power of its actresses through the power of conversation.
I always loved when Suzanne pronounced Julia like it was spelled Joolya. It was snarky and showed the bond between them with Suzanne being the younger sister. All of the characters had a unique presence, even as they were all Southern white women.
I am fascinated by this show going above the grain in this era. Divorce, racism, women’s right to choose, sexual preference, grief, marriage, home ownership, and physical abuse were just some of the storylines. Each was handled with a care that resonated with the audience. The show did not become an after-school special. Shows today act like they are revolutionary showcasing societal issues when a blueprint has already been put in place. The season 2 premiere exemplifies watching a woman run for office on values and passion. Today, that is being done at a glacial pace. The wherewithal to forecast what will be seen for generations to come takes skill.
Anthony Bouvier, played by Meshach Taylor, was a formerly incarcerated Black man. He would be the butt of a joke. He was in on the joke without looking like a clown. Anthony gained experiences to elevate his life. He was not a victim nor the teacher of Civil Rights. He became a lifeline when most Black men would have been an afterthought to these women.
Bernice Clifton, played by Alice Ghostley, was my favorite character. The audience roared with claps and cheers when Bernice entered. She was no-nonsense yet clueless. She was an outlier character the series needed.
Keeping a sitcom like Designing Women consistent can prove difficult. With main actors leaving, continuing the energy means building on the show’s strengths. Introducing new characters has to be instinctively done as it is in this sitcom.
Being ridiculous yet poignant is a line most work cannot draw on. To continue with the falsehood that women are not funny keeps you in the past. I encourage you to watch the pilot of Designing Women for its captivating measure of sisterhood, empowerment, and independence and great outfits.
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