Thursday, June 10, 2010

Designing Me

I had an epiphany last week. Still not sure if that’s the correct word to describe it. It was a feeling that only comes when you’ve lived a certain number of years, long enough to have the ability to see the girl you were 17 years ago; to understand her and know what made her the person she is today; to witness firsthand how what we’re exposed to in our formative years impacts our beliefs, worldviews, who we are in a not-so-perfect nutshell. Epiphanies are much cheaper than therapy; too bad you can’t schedule them like sessions.

For the longest time, I was super-excited to find that the seasons of Designing Women were being released on DVD. I can remember watching episode after episode of that show when I was a wee little thing attending elementary school at St. Catherine of Sienna. My viewing pleasure continued into junior high as I entered the public school system, and began to learn that kids aren’t so nice. At age 12, I guess I seemed pretty weird – enjoying movies made before 1960 and watching TV shows that centered around women in their 30s and 40s. My great-aunt would say I was “of a different era.” That sounded nice, but really didn’t solve my problem of being a weirdo to my fellow classmates.

So, the other day I treated myself and bought Season 2. I couldn’t wait to get home, fight with the NASA-sealed packaging, and re-live those episodes to which I can still recite some dialogue.

For those of you who missed out on watching Lifetime reruns in your youth, Designing Women ran from 1986-1993 and followed the comedic lives of four southern women working for Sugarbaker Interior Design. Julia Sugarbaker (that’s right, she owns her own damn business!) is a classy, strong, sophisticated, well-read, widowed woman of the “old south” – and a self-proclaimed “big-mouthed broad.” Her monologues are things of beauty that I really can’t describe with any justice. Just watch people try to cross her, or make an ignorant comment…they leave the scene with their tail between their legs.

Suzanne Sugarbaker, Julia’s sister, is her polar opposite. Former Miss Georgia World, her glass case of tiaras is enough to make Tiffany’s look like Claire’s. The only collection to rival her pageant crowns is her collection of ex-husbands. Very “Elizabeth Taylor.”  Suzanne is selfish, self-centered, and spends more time looking in the mirror than…anything, really. We’re never quite sure what she even does for Sugarbaker’s – she’s usually seen lounging on the sofa. Despite her fluffy lifestyle and vanity, Suzanne is depicted in such a way that makes her loveable. Her selfishness comes from her own ignorance, not from any malicious intent.  

Mary Jo Shively is a divorced mother of two, dealing with her surgeon ex-husband’s revolving door of girlfriends and spoiling their children with his M.D. income. She’s witty and sarcastic. Strong in her convictions, yet terrified of being in the spotlight. Her struggle with being assertive, yet feeling so vulnerable is all too real (and a welcomed character for those of us who can relate all too well).

Charlene Fraizer has a heart bigger than the state of Georgia. She’s originally from a dinky town in Missouri, which she continuously references in a multitude of irrelevant stories (think Rose Nylund and St. Olaf). She loves Elvis, her Baptist roots, daytime talk shows, psychics and the National Enquirer. She’s fun, bubbly, a little naïve, and her aimless rants can sometimes prove to be a bit annoying to her friends (I believe she was described in one episode as a “big ol’ donkey girl scout”).  

Considering other female foursome shows out there, Designing Women is nothing new. Very similar comparisons can be made to…oh, say, Sex and the City (as if this dead horse hasn’t been beaten enough). Now, I discovered SATC at a later age, and it too has affected my views on what it means to be an independent woman. But (sigh) I must say, after reliving my first female foursome love affair in just one season, I’m going to say DW does it just a little better.

The characters are all there: Julia=Miranda, Mary Jo=Carrie, Suzanne=Samantha, Charlene=Charlotte. Maybe not the same backstories, but their personalities and idiosyncrasies all match up. The differences that do it for me? As opposed to setting the series in glamified Manhattan (I still love you, NY), we’re set in Atlanta, which really doesn’t play as large a character as NYC. As opposed to the SATC cast professing their love for their borough, we find the DW ladies having to defend their south against the elitist north, who still believes all southerners are backward hicks named Bubba. We know our SATC characters have careers (sometimes we wonder, in that they seem to have endless time for long lunches, late night cocktail parties and carefree saunters down 8th Avenue). Many critics have pointed out the ludicrous nature of the fact that Carrie can afford an uptown Brownstone, Manolo Blahniks, daily cab fares, and New York-priced cosmopolitans on a columnist’s salary (you can be a salaried columnist??). What kind of rent-control did I miss out on?  

What I’m attempting to illustrate is that DW’s women are operating in a more believeable reality. The only character living lavishly frivolous is Suzanne – for which she is the butt of many jokes and clearly depicted as not the norm. While all eight women’s struggles may be the same – raising children (or not), being successful in work, making friends, maneuvering the dating world, taking a stand, dealing with illness and sometimes loss – DW is just more relatable (this coming from a Yankee, herself – can you believe it?).  

I don’t think it’s the glitzy NYC lifestyle traded in for a low-key Atlanta (could almost be an Anytown, USA) that makes the total difference. But, as I revisited Season 2, I was astonished to see…well, me. At 10, 11, 12 years old, I was watching stories about a young gay man with AIDS and that no, it’s most certainly NOT a ridiculous punishment from god for what people might refer to as “immorality.” I watched Mary Jo nervously convince the PTA to approve condoms and sex-ed in her children’s school. I saw Charlene stand up to her minister when he voted against women being able to hold his position in the church. I watched Julia – with both barrels loaded – tell off racists, classists, and sexists with her sharp wit and sharper tongue.  

These are the stories I watched as a girl. These are the women I saw in my media. And seeing them reflected in the woman I am today – well, I couldn’t be more thankful for them.  

I leave you with some amazingly awesome quotes from my newly-purchased-and-already-exhausted Season 2:

Mary Jo:  “We’re not just preventing births anymore, we’re preventing deaths…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 – is the bottom line that I don’t think they should have to die for it.”

Bernice:  “Just remember, after Christ was crucified on the cross, and all his men had gone home, it was women who stayed until the bitter end. And it was women who first heralded the news of his resurrection. So just put that in your pulpit and smoke it.”

Julia:   “History has shown that in general, it has been the men who have done the raping and the robbing and the killing and the WAR-MONGERING for the last two-thousand years! It has been the men who have done the pillaging and the beheading and the subjugating of WHOLE RACES into slavery! It has been the men who have done the law-making and the money-making AND MOST OF the mischief-making – so, if the world isn’t quite what you had in mind, you have only yourselves to thank!”


Holly said...

Oh my goodness, I used to love Designing Women, too, I watched it a lot as a whipper-snapper, but I haven't seen it since then... your post makes me want to re-watch the show immediately! I love your comparison between SATC and DW... the fact that DW is more about real women and their real lives... remarkably so, given the climate in which it was produced (not so much an era in which you'd have thought a feminist show would have flourished...? And I'd forgotten it was quite that overtly feminist, the quotes you include are amazing!)

It just highlights the fact that positive media representations of women--as complex, interesting, intelligent, and yes, feminist people are so important--not just for us as adults, but for kids, too--young girls get enough crud thrown at them by the mainstream media, after all, they should get to have women like the Sugarbakers to look up to.

Also--"Epiphanies are much cheaper than therapy; too bad you can’t schedule them like sessions"? Best. Line. Ever.


That was excellent Lisa. You made me see "Designing Women" in a whole new light. Never really got into that show as much, but I have seen enough episodes to be familiar with the characters. Mary Jo (Annie Potts, I believe?) was my favorite. Maybe I should have paid more attention to it. I think I was too busy watching "Golden Girls", lol. I think I'll have a whole new appreciation for them now. And that speech by Julia, I remember that episode. That was a great moment. I do also remember though, at times I thought to myself, "She's a little too righteous for me." Not to play devil's advocate, which I know I sometimes have a tendency for doing that, but I'm going to give that show another shot. I think there was plenty of good stuff I missed out on.

Lisa said...

Thanks, ladies! Mary Jo was my fav too, Cindy :) She was the one I identified the most with (minus the divorce and children). I can see how Julia might come off as a bit much, but I just loved how she seems like this polished, never-phased being...yet she could rip you a new one!

Bernice, too - she always reminded me of my great-aunt (just a little more "off the beam" :)

I recommend you both check it out (again)!