The episode in which ‘Designing Women’ got it all wrong about race…

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Designing Women was very much a show about the “New South” – that sort of Clintonian version of the South which embraced women, gays, and ethnic minorities. The sitcom about four Southern Belles who run a design firm was the brainchild of Clinton speechwriter and close pal, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who used the show to push her feminist and liberal points of view, using the main character, Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter) as a mouthpiece.

But as with anything dealing with race that is written by a wealthy, middle-class white person, there are huge blind spots and problematic areas. Case in point, the episode “The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century,” which was a two-parter in the show’s fourth season. In the episode, Charlene (Jean Smart) goes into labor on New Year’s Eve. Her family of friends including Suzanne (Delta Burke), Mary Jo (Annie Potts), Anthony (Mesach Taylor), and Bernice (Alice Ghostly), along with Julia, all accompany Charlene to the hospital.

The episode – meant to be a heart-warming “very special episode” is Designing Women at its worst: mawkish, overly sentimental, and confusingly racist. I say “confusingly” because the writers go out of their way to ensure that viewers know that even though these ladies are Southern, they’re part of the New South, so there will be no Confederate flags waving.

But Bloodworth-Thomason can’t help put cock up an already bad episode with some really terrible racism. Two guest characters show up in this episode that I’ll write about: Vanessa (Olivia Brown), Anthony’s date, and the unfortunately-named Miss Minnie (Beah Richards), a patient in the hospital (Dolly Parton also strolls by – more on her in a bit).

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So the plot is pretty predictable – Charlene goes into labor (gratefully, we’re spared from the sitcommy bellowing that accompanies television labor) and everybody assembles in the hospital. Suzanne, cash-strapped, is hoping Charlene gives birth before midnight so that she can win a car in some contest. Anthony, meanwhile, brings his New Year’s date, Vanessa – a woman that can only be described as “exuberant.” Done up in a miniskirt, fuzzy purple sweater, and a crown of spiky blond hair, Vanessa is a sight – but not only is she physically eccentric, but she’s also loud and unable to keep still in the hospital. I know that Vanessa was meant to be a joke, but there are serious issues with the character – namely, that she’s oversexed, loud, ignorant, and inappropriate. She’s not a mean-spirited character (and she makes recurring appearances before disappearing), but the writing of the character is mean-spirited. When sarcastically complimenting Anthony for his choice of a date, Suzanne snidely remarks, “Hey Hey, Anthony, congratulations on your date. She’s very classy, very sort of Radcliffey.” This is said while Vanessa is wearing headphones and shouting James Brown’s “I Feel Good” in the hospital waiting room.

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In another scene, she’s seen on a pay phone ordering a burrito, beer, and condoms from a convenience store, hoping to have it delivered to the hospital. She also puts on an oxygen tank and roars, “I’m on oxygen!”

In a show that prides itself on being feminist, it’s troubling that black femininity is presented in such a clownish manner. When the show isn’t breaking its back patting itself on the back for depicting Anthony as an intelligent and upstanding kind of guy, it goes for cheap laughs or cheap sentiment: and that leads me to my second point: Miss Minnie.

DesigningWomen3While Charlene is huffing and puffing away, Julia wanders into the room of a dying patient who’s over 100 years old. Miss Minnie has been plomped into the already-creaky episode to inject some social consciousness. A daughter of a sharecropper who lived through the Depression, two world wars, Jim Crow, segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement, Miss Minnie’s on hand to be the wise old sage, to council the young white people. Beah Richards is a brilliant actress and does a whole lot with a whole lot of nothing. She’s reduced to poetic, wanna-be inspirational lines that sound like bargain bin Maya Angelou knock-offs. And in one particularly indulgent moment, as she’s dying, she manages to rally to recite, “We ain’t what we should be and we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God, we ain’t what we was!” (something a preacher once said that Martin Luther King, Jr. liked to quote). Cast as the magical negro, Miss Minnie cannot simply be a character, she has to represent black history – but in Bloodworth-Thomason’s hands, it becomes a very superficial, Cliff Note’s version.

As if Miss Minnie dying isn’t enough, we’re then treated to a treacly, discount version of “Somewhere Out There,” the cavity-inducing pop ballad from the animated film An American Tail. Instead of Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram, we get two no-names who sing over the Casio, before guest star Dolly Parton wakes up to warble a few of the lines, essentially stealing the show for a few seconds, before handing it back to the other two.

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Dolly Parton, by the way. This was late 80s, Hollywood Dolly at her full, Rhinestone glory, when music was merely one itty-bitty facet of an insanely lucrative career that included theme parks, books, movies, wigs, oh yeah, and sometimes she’d remember that she was an amazing singer. It’s telling that when she pops up as Charlene’s Clarence Odbody, she bills herself Charlene’s “Guardian Movie Star” not “Guardian Country Singer.” In a frothy, gauzy dream sequence a very pregnant Charlene is chatting with Parton about the circle of life – it’s all very cliche – but in case it’s too subtle, when poor Miss Minnie finally dies, she’s led by Parton down a white hallway and into a mystic elevator taking her to heaven. You see, Miss Minnie died on the same day that Charlene’s baby was born – don’t you get it? One life begins as one life ends. Is your mind blown?

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The naff Dolly Parton sequence would be forgivable had it not been for the truly offensive treatment of Beah Richards’ character before and after. Nothing is more reductive than having someone play an ideal. What’s nuts is that some twenty five years later and we still have these variations on TV and in film.

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And because Designing Women was preaching to a very select choir, this episode wasn’t the only offender when it came to racism. Whenever Julia had any kind of dealings with Anthony, there was an oppressive sense of condescension. Julia practically patted Anthony on the head whenever he mentioned some good deed or accomplishment. Many would point out that if anyone was offensive on the show, it was Suzanne with her explicit bigotry – but I would argue that Suzanne’s bigotry is the joke – we’re meant to laugh at Suzanne’s galling lapses in judgment; meanwhile,  Julia’s shown as the heroine of the bunch, and we’re meant to follow or identify with her.

The show never really got over its inability to address race – though, the topic made its way into the episodes quite often. When the women weren’t bleating friendly and polite bromides and platitudes, they would blindly rhapsodize about the South and the Civil War and indulge in some false nostalgia about the gentility of the South. These fantasies were grounded in the women’s fetishistic love for Gone with the Wind, particularly its lead character, Scarlett O’Hare – the admittedly brave heroine, who nonetheless, represents a part of American history that is shameful and very ugly. Whenever the writers had the good sense to have Anthony refute these moments of revisionist history, any one of the ladies would blithely say something along the lines of “I see your point, but…” before launching into some long-winded paean to the Antebellum Georgia.

Watching “The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century” sets my teeth on edge because there’s a smugness to the proceedings. It’s as if Bloodworth-Thomason and company are educating me on racism and trying to make me either feel guilty or worse, feel complacent and satisfied.

2 Comments

Filed under Comedy, commentary, DVD, Television, TV, Writing

2 responses to “The episode in which ‘Designing Women’ got it all wrong about race…

  1. I want to leave a comment, but I am not sure what to say. Reading this makes me even more nervous about writing for a minority than I already am. Will it be to obvious what my race is when the character walks on stage.

    • thecrowdedbookshelf

      Well, I think that folks can write characters of different races, genders, ethnicities, etc. – the issue comes down to just how good is the writer? Can she step outside of her own worldview and identity and successfully write in someone else’s voice? Because even though we say “race doesn’t matter” or “gender doesn’t matter” and “we’re all the same” the truth is race, gender, gender expression, class, etc all inform people and their characteristics – a lot of our personalities are influenced by our experiences. In the case of the episode I looked at, the writer – Bloodworth-Thomason couldn’t successfully step out of her upper middle class white privilege…It’s not an easy thing to do – I don’t think Kathryn Stockett did a good job of it in ‘The Help’ but the book sold a zillion copies, so others may disagree…Keep writing and experimenting – but the best advice I can think of is read works by authors that share the identities of those you’re looking at – do your research – and finally, be okay if what you write doesn’t please some people…

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