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I’ve always regarded Designing Women as the poor gay’s The Golden Girls. Once the latter proved that a sitcom starring exclusively women, and women of “a certain age,” could be a success on NBC, CBS more or less replicated the formula with Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s Designing Women, which premiered the following year, in 1986.
Sure, there were obvious differences: The women of the Sugarbaker Design firm don’t live together, they work together. They’re on the younger side rather than seniors. They’re in Atlanta and not Miami. And there’s a black guy. But the archetypes were there: the strong-willed, opinionated one (Dorothy/Julia); the sweet, ditzy one (Rose/Charlene); the sexy, shallow one (Blanche/Suzanne); the short, sassy one (Sophia/to a lesser extent Mary Jo and later Bernice).
By its fifth season, Designing Women was tied for 10th place in ratings with none other than The Golden Girls, besting it the next year—which would also be the last hurrah for Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia. Sugarbaker Design went on for one more season before being canceled in 1993, but like The Golden Girls, Designing Women survived and thrived in syndication. Just this week, all seven seasons of the show started streaming on Hulu, to the delight of homosexuals and classic television fans alike.
While I have a near encyclopedic knowledge of my Girls, I watched but wasn’t enamored with the Women. But I admired both shows for how progressive and queer-friendly they were, particularly as a young gay who practically lived in front of my TV. So in the spirit of healthy competition and the internet’s eternal equanimity, I got to thinking about which show was the faggiest.
Now, for the record, both shows are incredibly gay. Dorothy’s drop-waist blouse and slouchy boot threw the first brick at Stonewall. Julia Sugarbaker officiated the first same-sex wedding. But if we’re going to go there, let’s go there—it’s time for the lights to go out in Georgia and for Miami to be cuter than an intrauterine. Here, I’ve used three categories to judge the queerness of each show: how good the Very Special AIDS Episode was, how good the Lesbian Friend Episode was, and the shows’ overall queer representations. Let’s do this.
The Very Special AIDS Episode
The Golden Girls tackled the AIDS epidemic in its February 17, 1990 episode, “72 Hours,” in which Rose (Betty White) learns she’s been exposed to HIV through a blood transfusion. Rose then has to wait three days for her test results, subsequently losing her shit. At one point, Rose intimates that she doesn’t deserve this disease because she’s a “Goody Two-shoes” and that someone like Blanche (Rue McClanahan), who sleeps around, does. Blanche, who has a gay brother and has been tested in the past, isn’t having it and sets her straight:
At the end of those harrowing 72 hours, Rose discovers that she is in the clear, and we all learn a very important lesson about tolerance. Rose’s girls all gather around her in her time of need, reassuring her that despite the outcome they will stick by her. The stakes were relatively low, considering that a prime-time sitcom would never give a main character a deadly disease, but the point was that AIDS doesn’t just affect gay men or bad people, the two often being conflated.
Designing Women had its own episode devoted to the disease. I hadn’t seen “Killing All the Right People” in such a long time I forgot about it completely, though I’d always heard about it. In it, a pre-Scandal Tony Goldwyn plays Kendall Dobbs, a lovely young man dying of AIDS who enlists the help of Sugarbaker Design to plan his funeral. Literally five minutes in I was openly weeping.
This episode aired on October 5, 1987, and is remarkable not only for tackling the issue that early in the epidemic—then-President Ronald Reagan had waited to publicly address AIDS until April of that year—but for how each character deals with it. Given that they’re straight white women living in the South, everyone is pretty woke. No one needs to be informed about AIDS. Charlene (Jean Smart) and Suzanne (Delta Burke) know they can’t get it from holding Kendall’s hand. And Mary Jo (Annie Potts) ends up advocating for the distribution of condoms to teens in school, using Kendall as an example to explain how they’re important to not only “prevent births but to prevent deaths.”
Instead, Julia’s (Dixie Carter) rival, a one-off character named Imogene (Camilla Carr), is the one in need of schooling. Imogene cruelly criticizes Kendall and the gays, giving the title its episode when she spits out, “This disease has one thing going for it: It’s killing all the right people.” That’s when Julia gives Imogene one of her patented dressings-down.
The episode ends with Kendall’s funeral, the ladies singing along with his friends to the old Dixieland spiritual “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” It’s frankly one of the best and most affecting episodes of television I’ve ever seen.
Winner: Designing Women
The Lesbian Friend Episode
Former beauty queen Suzanne is short on pals when she calls up an old pageant buddy in the April 9, 1990 episode of Designing Women, “Suzanne Goes Looking for a Friend.” The friend in question is local weather girl Eugenia Weeks (Karen Kopins), and, boy, is there a cold front coming in: She’s a lesbian. When Suzanne gets a hint of that chill, she almost immediately falls into a gay panic, thinking Eugenia has a crush on her. Then, when Eugenia says that is the farthest thing from her mind, she is offended that Eugenia doesn’t find her attractive.
Though Suzanne winds up learning a lesson about homophobia, the show once again uses a lesser character to emphasize its point. When Eugenia confronts Suzanne in the steam room (no less), a third woman makes some disgusting comments about gay people and Suzanne yells at her, having gotten a taste of what Eugenia goes through.
The other women think themselves more sophisticated about such matters than Suzanne, but when they mistakenly think Eugenia has invited them to a lesbian bar—in all fairness, it’s called Uncle Gertrude’s—they reveal their own naivete and prejudices. The more you know.
In the November 8, 1986 episode of The Golden Girls, “Isn’t It Romantic?,” Dorothy’s friend Jean (Lois Nettleton) comes to visit and develops a crush on Rose. Actual sophisticate Dorothy (Bea Fucking Arthur) has known Jean was gay for years, as has Sophia (Estelle Getty), who knew even before Jean knew. As Sophia sagely puts it, Jean happens to like girls instead of boys and some people like cats instead of dogs. “Frankly, I’d rather live with a lesbian than a cat,” she says. “Unless a lesbian sheds.”
Blanche, however, seems unsure of what a lesbian actually is:
Like fellow Southern belle Suzanne, she is offended that Jean doesn’t find her attractive. But luckily, this story isn’t about Blanche. The show goes so far as to have Rose and Jean share a bed, albeit platonically. Jean confesses her feelings to Rose, who pretends not to hear it, and Jean moves from their shared bed to the chaise. Because there’s always a chaise.
After Rose has some time to mull it all over—she is, after all, a small-town gal from St. Olaf—she kindly lets Jean know that she doesn’t feel that way about her but she hopes they can still be friends. Rose and Jean develop a real friendship based on their shared history and interests, and Jean falling in love with her doesn’t spell the end of their connection. “If I were, you know, like you,” Rose stumbles to say, “I think I’d be very flattered and proud that you thought of me that way.”
It’s really simple, and humanizes Jean in a way that feels revolutionary because it is so simple.
Winner: The Golden Girls
Well, here we are at a tie. The Golden Girls has a plethora of queer, mostly one-off characters, such as Blanche’s brother Clay (Monte Markham), who comes out in the Season 4 episode “Scared Straight” and returns two seasons later to get married to a hot mustachioed cop.
There is also the sculptor Laszlo (Tony Jay), whom the women pose for and shamelessly chase after only to learn that he is a homo. And there’s Dorothy’s oft-mentioned but never-seen gender-variant brother, Phil. Then, of course, there’s the gay cook Coco (Charles Levin), seen only once in the pilot.
I hunted for other queer instances on Designing Women. There’s an episode featuring a fauxmosexual, a man the women think is gay but isn’t. Then there’s the late, great Meshach Taylor, whose character Anthony Bouvier was so obviously gay (come through, Hollywood) but was otherwise sexually neutered.
But other than that, the Women don’t even come close to the Girls and their queerness, which seemed almost baked in from the jump.
Winner: The Golden Girls.
Ultimate Winner: The Golden Girls. But really, all of us.