In 5 To Watch, five writers from The A.V. Club look at the latest streaming TV arrivals, each making the case for a favored episode. Alternately, they can offer up recommendations inspired by a theme. In this installment: Robyn Pennacchia shares her picks for the best verbal takedowns from Designing Women’s Julia Sugarbaker.
Designing Women, one of the seminal “four female friends” shows on television, finally made its streaming debut on Hulu at the end of last month. For the uninitiated, the series followed the lives of Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter), Suzanne Sugarbaker (Delta Burke), Mary Jo Shively (Annie Potts), Charlene Frazier (Jean Smart), and Anthony Bouvier (Mesach Taylor) as they ran an interior decorating firm in Atlanta and simultaneously took on nearly every major social issue of the day. The series, which ran from 1986 to 1993, was written by the great Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, whose entire career was derailed by former CBS president and serial sexual harasser Les Moonves, on account of his personal distaste for mouthy women. While everyone in the ensemble cast was fantastic—particularly veteran character actor Alice Ghostley—one of the things the show is best remembered for is the passionate feminist rants of one Ms. Julia Sugarbaker, a woman who did not know the meaning of the term esprit d’escalier.
While there are obvious differences between the feminism of 2019 and the feminism of a show that premiered in 1986, there is something to be said for an unapologetically feminist character with absolutely no qualms about taking a motherfucker down when necessary. And there is certainly something extremely cathartic about watching it happen. Curiously enough, Dixie Carter, the actress who played Julia Sugarbaker, was actually a Republican (though a supporter of LGBTQ+ rights), and reportedly had it written into her contract that for every speech she delivered that she disagreed with, she would get to sing in a later episode. But however Carter may have felt personally, she certainly brought it on screen, inspiring a generation of women in the process. So here are some of the best moments from Julia “The Best Of The Big Shouldered Broads” Sugarbaker.
These days most women wouldn’t think twice about telling a man to go away if he is making them uncomfortable. Whether it was feminism or simply that the “pick-up artists” of the aughts made it necessary to develop the skill (lest one end up trapped in a conversation with a man in a large velvet hat who thinks the way to a woman’s heart is through insulting her manicure) that did it, we can never be sure—but we are all the better for it. Even still, there is something enormously satisfying about the eloquence with which Julia Sugarbaker tells a would-be pick-up artist to get bent.
“There’s no need for introductions, Ray Don, we know who you are. You’re the guy who’s always wherever women gather or try to be alone. You want to eat with us when we’re dining in hotels. You want to know if the book we’re reading is any good, or if you can keep us company on the plane. I want to thank you, Ray Don, on behalf of all the women in the world for your unfailing attention and concern. But read my lips and remember, as hard as it is to believe, sometimes we like talking just to each other, and sometimes we like just being alone.”
This may be a handy monologue to memorize and keep in your pocket for future use.
In this infuriatingly prescient episode, Julia decides to get into politics and make a run against Wilson Brickett, Atlanta’s aggressively terrible and misogynistic commissioner, after she sees him on television talking about bringing prayer back to schools, getting rid of homeless shelters, and responding to a female employee’s accusation that he only hires attractive women with “She flatters herself.” While she attempts to keep her composure during a debate, Brickett takes things a little too far in terms of pushing for prayer in school:
“I’ve sat here today and I’ve listened to you pander to these people, but you don’t actually care about them, or you wouldn’t be sitting here reinforcing their ignorance and prejudices.”
“Did you hear that, callers?” Brickett responds. “She called you ignorant and prejudiced!” Julia then launches into an immensely cathartic and smart defense of not only the separation of church and state, but also the notion that only certain kinds of people get to be considered “real” Americans. “And just for your information, yes, I am a liberal. But I am also a Christian. And I get down on my knees and pray every day. On my own turf. On my own time. One of the things that I pray for, Mr. Brickett, is that people with power will get good sense, and people with good sense will get power, and that the rest of us will be blessed with the patience to survive the people like you in the meantime.” Alas, in an eerily familiar twist, Brickett wins “by a landslide.” If this episode has you wondering how Julia Sugarbaker would have handled a certain president… well, wonder no more.
As much as we’d all surely love to look back at a sitcom from 30 years ago and say, “Gee! It’s amazing how much has changed! It sure is great that we don’t have to deal with that anymore!” we’re not that far along yet. One of the areas in which we’ve made little progress over the years is the way in which women’s concerns about their health are still very often dismissed by doctors. This is a particularly serious issue for women of color and one of the main reasons why the maternal mortality rate for Black women is so high.
In the previous episode, Charlene was told by her doctor that she had a lump in her breast, but that he knew, without performing a biopsy, that it was not cancerous and that she should “let him worry for her.” Although she wants to trust his judgment, Julia and Mary Jo convince her to get a second opinion and an actual biopsy, and—surprise—it’s cancer. In this episode, after finding out a friend of hers died from breast cancer, which this same doctor had told her to “wait and see” about, Julia marches right down to his office, tells him she plans to file charges against him with the state medical board and the American Medical Association, and tears him a new one:
“You’re a seemingly kind, benevolent authority figure who tells women to let you do their worrying for them. Well, there’s just one thing wrong with that—you don’t have to do the dying.”
Tragically, this is not a problem that can actually be solved by way of dramatic monologue.
As outdated and almost corny as it seems now for an adult sitcom to have a “very special episode” explaining that you can’t get AIDS from shaking hands, it is hard to overstate how very necessary that kind of thing was in 1987. This episode aired just a few months after the first time Ronald Reagan “seriously” addressed the AIDS epidemic after years of ignoring it, by calling it a problem that could be solved by people having morals; and when hemophiliac children who got the virus through blood transfusions were still fighting to be admitted to schools, having their homes shot at or burned down; and when AZT, the first HIV treatment, was approved. It was four years before Magic Johnson came forward and seven years before Rent. And it was a year after Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s mother died of AIDS, after having contracted the virus in a blood transfusion.
In this episode, Kendall Dobbs, a young interior designer played by Tony Goldwyn (yes, that would be Fitz from Scandal) asks the Designing Women to design his funeral, because he’s dying of AIDS. When a client and frenemy of Julia’s overhears a discussion about his plans and starts huffing about, announcing that “As far as I’m concerned, this disease has one thing going for it: It’s killing all the right people,” Julia responds:
“Imogene, get serious! Who do you think you’re talking to?! I’ve known you for 27 years, and all I can say is, if God was giving out sexually transmitted diseases to people as a punishment for sinning, then you would be at the free clinic all the time! And so would the rest of us!”
Was this response a little tepid compared to some of her other speeches? Yes, at least by today’s standards. But in 1987, many people were on Team Imogene. Later in the episode, while dealing with sex education in her daughter’s school, Mary Jo comes out with a little rant of her own at a PTA meeting—one that, unfortunately, still remains pretty relevant today.
“I think that it really shouldn’t matter what your personal views are about birth control, because, you see, we’re not—we’re not just talking about preventing births anymore, we’re talking about preventing deaths. Twenty-five thousand Americans have died, and we’re still debating. For me, this debate is over. More important than what any civic leader or PTA or board of education thinks about teenagers having sex or any immoral act that my daughter or your son might engage in, the bottom line is that I don’t think they should have to die for it.”
Anyone who has siblings knows the rule: “I can say whatever I want to them, but if someone else goes after my sister and/or brother... they must go down.” After surreptitiously listening to the current Miss Georgia World drag Suzanne, the former Miss Georgia World, for her old-timey big hair and baton twirling, Julia—who ardently loathes beauty pageants and routinely mocks her sister’s obsession with them—pops out from behind a vanity and takes her to Jesus.
“For example, you probably didn’t know that Suzanne was the only contestant in Georgia pageant history to sweep every category except congeniality! And that is not something the women in my family aspire to anyway. Or that when she walked down the runway in her swimsuit, five contestants quit on the spot. Or that when she emerged from the isolation booth to answer the question, ‘What would you do to prevent war?’ she spoke so eloquently of patriotism, battlefields, and diamond tiaras, grown men wept. And you probably didn’t know, Marjorie, that Suzanne was not just any Miss Georgia, she was the Miss Georgia. She didn’t twirl just a baton, that baton was on fire. And when she threw that baton into the air, it flew higher, further, faster than any baton has ever flown before, hitting a transformer and showering the darkened arena with sparks! And when it finally did come down, Marjorie, my sister caught that baton, and 12,000 people jumped to their feet for sixteen and one-half minutes of uninterrupted thunderous ovation, as flames illuminated her tear-stained face! And that, Marjorie—just so you will know and your children will someday know—is the night that the lights went out in Georgia!”
And that, friends, is why...