Life & Liberty: Southern Women
The new design
Call it the New South. Blame it on the Arab oil embargo that drove corporations into the Sun Belt in search of cheaper energy. Blame it on Jimmy Carter and a White House that served grits and peanuts. Go back further and blame it on desegregation and well-brought-up southern boys and girls who got to college and became hippies and signed petitions to ban Confederate flags at football games. Whatever we blame, though, it's safe to say that the South is not the place it once was—even on TV.
Southerners have long agreed on the "Andy Griffith Show," still a favorite in syndication, as the classic television portrait of their region. But now there's a new contender, "Designing Women" (8:30 P.M. EST, Monday, CBS). Each week creator and writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and the four actresses who play the leads—the fortunately named Dixie Carter and Delta Burke, Annie Potts, and Jean Smart—bring to life the four women who work at Sugarbaker & Associates, an interior design firm in Atlanta.
Virginia Woolf once said that "in or about December 1910" human nature changed. Maybe so, most places. But in the American South it took a little longer—about 50 years. The characters on "Designing Women" are proof that the South has finally, for better or worse, caught up with the world that Virginia Woolf observed.
Julia Sugarbaker (Carter) is a widow, the mother of a son in college, Reese Watson's lover (he is played by Hal Holbrook, Carter's real-life husband), and the boss of Sugarbaker's—if the company has one. Julia is the kind of woman who relishes the thought of breakfasting with the editor of a New York magazine that has poked fun at the South. In a dream sequence, FDR requests that she phone Adolph Hitler to put the fear of God in him. The call is broadcast over Armed Forces Radio to inspire our troops to make the last wholehearted effort that will defeat the forces of darkness forever. It works.
Julia's sister, Suzanne (Burke), is thrice divorced. She dates 80-year-old men whom she drops because they spend too much time in intensive care. Wealthy—her alimony checks require an accountant of their own—and beautiful, at first glance she seems hopelessly shallow. The former Miss Whatever-You-Can-Name, she has beauty titles as numerous as her suitors, or as Mary Jo says to a lounge lizard who has led Suzanne on, "more titles than you have teeth." For Suzanne the law of the pageant is, or should be, the law of the land. Together, she and Julia embody the myth of southern womanhood that reporters labeled "the steel magnolia" as they observed Rosalyn Carter up close and personal.
Mary Jo Shively (Potts), less mythic than the Sugarbakers, is the most "normal" of the four principals. If this were the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" (to which the program owes much of its inspiration), Mary Jo would be Mary Richards, while Julia would be Lou Grant, and Suzanne, Sue Anne Nivens. Like Mary Richards, Mary Jo has been rejected by a doctor whose career she has financed. Excellent at many things and self-confident in none, Mary Jo is the woman who always seeks to please others without bending her firmly held convictions too far.
Charlene Frazier (Smart) is the Rhoda Morgenstern of the group. Rhoda's Jewishness becomes Charlene's hillbilly heritage. She seems ethnic in a way that the others don't. She talks openly of her Baptist church. She has a framed photo of Elvis on her dresser. She reads the National Enquirer and believes most of what she reads; she doubts the story about a woman who gives birth to her own prom date only because the prom is held in winter. The office manager, she's taking real estate classes at night. The others have houses; she has a condo.
Like most good comedies, "Designing Women" relies on rich characterization to produce its humor. While earlier comedies leaned heavily on family situations to reveal characters, "Designing Women" follows the contemporary trend of making the workplace into a surrogate home and colleagues into family. There's always an element of contrivance about this, but the situations that grow out of daily life at Sugarbaker's usually work.
The other regular in the cast is the black delivery man, Anthony Bouvier (Meshach Taylor), an ex-con wrongly convicted. He and the designers call his jail time his "unfortunate incarceration." Just as the four women play against various stereotypes of the southern woman, Taylor plays off the image of the smooth-talking black man gone wrong that is a fixture of the contemporary mythology of the urban South.
When Anthony needs a "family" to impress the parents of a wealthy girlfriend, Julia, Suzanne, Mary Jo, and Charlene fill the need—despite Suzanne's observation that you just don't see four white women riding around with a black man unless they're in a Cadillac. When a thug comes to the office to beat him up, Charlene's clan of dozens has just arrived for a visit. Anthony claims them as his adoptive family and introduces every single one to the thug by name, despite having met them only minutes before. When Suzanne and Anthony bicker, snowbound in a crummy Tennessee motel room, it's not too hard to imagine them as an '80s version of Scarlett and Prissy.
For it is, of course, Scarlett O'Hara who looms behind every line of this show. Scarlett is the consummate designing woman, the original southern belle., the image that every viewer will consciously or subconsciously filter this program through. Suzanne, her most obvious descendent, has the most trouble treating Anthony with respect. She feels that poor people should move to better neighborhoods if they really want her help.
But both of them share with the other leads a sense of irony about themselves. They all manipulate their stereotypes enough to turn every encounter, each situation, into the stuff of humor. At the same time, the finely crafted scripts keep all five of them evolving away from stereotype and toward the richness of individuality. The show's recurring thematic statement is the necessity for change within individuals and within society. This theme distinguishes "Designing Women" from the long, rich tradition of southern literature that glorifies the past and portrays the transition into the modern world as at worst painful, at best lamentable.
Many of the show's jokes come out of what Julia calls Charlene's "unequaled ability to be fascinated by anything." Charlene is always telling a story or asking questions that lead to annoyingly minute observation of people and events. The others tease her, but they always listen and answer. The point is that one escapes the limitations of stereotype through knowledge and understanding, through the capacity for growth and change. Scarlett O'Hara is a smart woman, but she has only one design and spends her life trying to fit herself into that narrow space. These women are capable of continually redefining—redesigning—the space to fit them.
The war that holds sway over these people's imaginations is World War II, not the War Between the States. They were educated during the era when the civil rights movement forced all southerners to confront the stereotypes that had governed their lives for a century. And as Julia snidely informs the New York magazine editor, despite being born and educated in Atlanta—"the one that burned"—she and her peers can hold down jobs and find their way.
Part of that way involves preserving the best of the past and its traditions. Anthony's grandmother cooks a sweet potato pie that will "make you slap your mama," and Charlene prepares a real treat for their Christmas dinner: baked 'coon. When Mary Jo tries to distinguish southern style from what looks like the same Manhattan apartment featured under a different name in every single issue of Architectural Digest, she says that southern style is that "unerring attention to detail, quality, and warmth, surrounding yourself with things that have been here for a while." Southern homes, she concludes, never look as if they've been done by decorators.
That definition also serves to explain why "Designing Women" works: the writers and actors are able to maintain the illusion that we have magically been given access to the lives of real people who have just this sort of style themselves.
When Howard the Nerd comes to beg Mary Jo to accompany him to his high-school reunion so that he can prove once and for all that he isn't just a nerd, by the grace of these women's style and class, he gets four dates instead of one. All of them, Howard and his dates, learn an important lesson for southerners when they see the startled faces and the sudden envy of men who abused Howard throughout his youth. Southerners and nerds, they decide, can do just fine, even better, as long as "we know we're not what they think."
"Designing Women" is much more than most of us would think a sitcom could be. You won't find better writing or a better ensemble of actors on any half-hour of network television.
Grow up, Scarlett. Dewayne, Bubba, it's over. These are women living in tomorrow.
Jane B. Hill is an editor at Longstreet Press in Atlanta and the coeditor of Our Mutual Room: Modern Literary Portraits of the Opposite Sex (Peachtree Publishers).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: Southern Women".