Designing Women 1, Bodyshaming 0
Friendly listeners, the tale I am about to tell is one that requires great discipline on my part to tell. It’s about an episode from Designing Women, a series I loved when it aired from 1986 to 1993 and still do when I have the chance to watch it. Sometimes a single episode of a series, particularly one as progressive and well-written as Designing Women, changes the American dialogue. You’re may be nodding in agreement that for THAT series, there were MANY segments that did just that. Hence, my discipline.
On December 11, 1989, - the fourth season of Designing Women aired the episode that finally spoke to actress Delta Burke’s increasing weight gain. It’s entitled They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They? and came about after months and months of tabloid fodder. Yes the tabloids covered Burke’s weight, her marriage to TV star Gerald McRaney, all of her quirks AND all sorts of rumors about Burke being difficult on the set. Again, discipline here.
We’re not going to rehash THAT multi-faceted story, we’re sticking to the importance of this one episode.
Delta Burke was cast as Suzanne Sugarbaker, a role most everyone agrees was written for her, following a similar role she’d done in a short-lived series with Dixie Carter called Filthy Rich. I am pretty sure I not only watched both episodes but penciled it in my little pocket Hallmark calendar weeks in advance of its airing.
Behind Burke's pageant queen profile is a trained actress. She’d studied acting in London and had appeared in guest roles on a host of series in the 70s and early 80s. In a sense, Suzanne Sugarbaker wasn’t THAT too far removed from Delta Burke. Maybe that singular fact made the weight gain all the harder to confront and put into its appropriate context. We are more than the bodies and faces we were born with.
If you’ve been wondering what all the other tabloid kerfuffle was about, I encourage you to read Delta Burke’s autobiography Delta Style, published in 1998. Do so knowing that the book was written about seven years after she left the show and attempted come-backs on TV in the series Delta and Women of the House. And do so knowing that in Googling her now, you’ll learn that she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and has achieved a healthy weight.
So from the book, we learn life on the pageant circuit wasn’t all bouquets and sashes. She struggled to manage her weight and curves. As she wrote in her book,
Even when I was a size 6, I’d hear complaints that my hips were too curvy or my legs too big. And I bought into the whole thing. I’d get up to 123 or 133 pounds and think, ‘I’m such a cow.’ And I look back now and say ‘My God, I was a beautiful, curvy woman and I was never even aware of it.'
In the first few seasons of Designing Women, her weight gain was gradual. It was also in those seasons that she met, fell in love with and married Gerald McRaney, an actor she had met when he did a guest role on an episode as one of Suzanne’s ex-husbands.
McRaney is a soft-spoken man who stood beside Delta through it all. In this Barbara Walters interview from 1990, he’s never wavers.
Delta Burke had dieted throughout her time on the show, particularly between seasons one and two. In her book, she lists some of those diets by name. She wrote that at the end of the first season, when she had heard rumors that network executives had given her an ultimatum to lose weight or lose the part, she went to great lengths to limit her food intake.
There’s no mention of nutritionists or trainers or outside help for her, if that’s what your wondering. Here’s how Burke described her self-consciousness on the set, from Day One.
The ‘weight problem’ was something I couldn’t ignore even if I wanted to. The issue was forced on me. When I was doing the Designing Women pilot, the image that sticks in my mind is me out there in the middle of the stage, with everybody looking at me, moving around me, and judging how I looked in outfits. ‘How,’ they asked, holding up their hands, ‘can we cover up those big old thighs?’ Talking about me like I was a piece of meat who couldn’t hear what they were saying.
Now that’s not to say that the series, which was a run-away hit, didn’t raise Delta’s awareness of how OTHERS were seeing her. She wrote,
At the same time, I remember going on a personal appearance tour and hearing some comments that struck me as odd. Large-size women were coming up to me and saying, ‘Your success means a lot to us’ and ‘we finally have someone we can relate to. ‘ That kind of threw me: I didn’t think of myself that way – at least, not yet.
Something happened heading into the fourth season that finally gave Delta the strength and security to address the issue. In an interview found on YouTube – posted by an account called USA Heartbeat – creator-writer-producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason is pretty blunt in describing how the exposure and headlines over many months brought Delta Burke’s weight to the public eye.
In her book, Delta made it clear that she wanted the script of this break-through episode entitled They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They? to project a certain perspective. She wrote,
“I said, ‘Please let me have the jokes about the weight, rather than be the butt of the jokes. Give me the power.’ It was a way to take control of the issue, no more ‘let’s pretend it’s not there.’”
About the actual taping, Delta’s writing concurred with Bloodworth-Thomason’s interview. She wrote,
I hugged Linda and thanked her. I felt empowered. It felt as if my body was freed. Instead of trying to hide and cover up and move as little as possible, I got my physical comedy skills back. “ Burke added, “In turn, the character of Suzanne became empowered. It wasn’t other people making fun of Suzanne. Suzanne made the jokes.
Burke left Designing Women in 1991. Loyal fans will recognize the episode, They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They? as the turning point in how the character interacted with the other three women. Suzanne became even more opinionated.
If you listened to the Advanced TV Herstory installment on the Four Female Theory, you’ll appreciate the angle I’m about to take here. In that installment, Professor Wendy Burns-Ardolino shared portions of her book TV Female Foursomes and Their Fans. The professor had studied the characters and relationships and tropes and themes of seven sitcoms that all featured four women as lead characters.
In that installment, Burns-Ardolino explained that success is rooted in the writing and acting for the four characters. If they can be foils, they create the conflict and tension to be interesting. As foils with strengths that complement each other, they can come together as a team of equals. It’s all very fascinating.
Designing Women is one of the series the professor studied. So when we spoke recently, we talked a bit about the series and how the four characters meld together. For women coming of age in the late 80s and early 90s, this show was a window to what could be.
WBArdolino 4 chars
Now I’ve never met anyone who has ever wanted to be as high maintenance as Suzanne. Maybe those are women with whom it never occurred to me to bring up the series. The professor puts Suzanne’s weight into the context of the character’s evolution, as an individual and as one-quarter of the team.
This gives us something to think about, doesn’t it?
So back to this episode, which was one of the first in history that addressed the issue of weight in American culture, in our relationships and how heavy American women were treated as consumers. It’s a powerful reflective message coming from an actress and character who had risen to her stature and presence through her beauty.
As mentioned previously, the major plot of the episode is Suzanne’s 15th high school class reunion. The minor plot is that Anthony is raising money for famine relief by fasting for 48 hours. Julia and MaryJo join him.
Suzanne initiates the conversation as she enters the Sugarbaker Interior Design office living room.
Now remember when the professor explained the importance of foil? Annie Potts as MaryJo, in a single speech, can support Suzanne, bust her chops a little and make a grand statement about society in general. And really, aren’t we glad for that? Love Annie Potts.
The reunion is a two-day event, with Friday night being drinks and dancing. It’s at that gathering that Suzanne experiences body-shaming and slams from her classmates – men as well as women. It’s shallow and yet when you think of high school reunions, somewhat expected. A reunion by its nature spurs reflection and comparison, so Bloodworth-Thomason created a safe environment for Suzanne’s growth, which arises from this exchange with Julia.
That was a pretty powerful statement delivered by a woman who spent her years succeeding in the pageant circuit. I don’t know about you but the reference to Elizabeth Taylor sparks a virtual slide show of People Magazine and National Enquirer covers of celebrities who have put on weight.
We call it click-bait today, but back then – were we buying the magazines for the articles? Or was it just salacious schadenfreude, with a touch of “Ha! You’re just like the rest of us!”
Now you know this wouldn’t be a Designing Women episode if Julia didn’t rise to the occasion and deliver a healthy dose of reality and candor, thereby providing Suzanne with the confidence and security to tackle Saturday’s reunion banquet.
Dixie Carter as Julia consistently projected pure strength, alongside femininity. We remember the character for all of her high-horse rants, but regular viewers know too well that she used those big shoulder pads and that big hair to shield, comfort and support Suzanne, Mary Jo, Charlene and Anthony.
Remember, Dixie Carter uttered those words in 1989. Mark Zuckerberg was only five, so his family’s holiday photo wasn’t posted on Facebook that year. Or their ski trip. Or the cute photos of the family dog snuggled up near the family fireplace. For a long time, insecure people have mounted tremendous amounts of creativity to “put up appearances.” Julia just wasn’t having any of it then and her words ring true today. Rest your soul, Dixie Carter.
Back to the plot. Suzanne interacts with Anthony at the conclusion of the fast. Anthony introduces her to an Ethiopian boy who lost his family to famine and is now part of a global organization that raises money for famine relief. With humility, Suzanne notes the irony of a planet where so many can die of starvation, while others are unable to manage with too much to eat. It’s a little corny, but puts it all out there.
So, with her head held high, Suzanne attends the reunion banquet and as the program begins, we see MaryJo and Julia slip into the back of the room.
Ladies and gentleman, those were transformational minutes. Maybe this was like Nixon going to China. It was always said that only a Republican could normalize relations with China. Well maybe the first brush of the topic of weight, comedic and serious, needed to come from a prima donna like Suzanne.
Because we know this character has such a genuine heart, this speech, much like Julia’s, demonstrates just how important words can be. It’s incredibly well-written.
It won’t come as a surprise to you that Delta was nominated for an Emmy that season for Leading Actress in a Comedy Series. The competition was fierce, with Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown topping a field that included Blair Brown as Molly Dodd in The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Betty White as Rose Nylund in The Golden Girls, and Cheers’ Kirstie Alley, for her role as Rebecca Howe.
Designing Women is available on DVD and because someone took the time to also upload most episodes to YouTube, an episode and a pep talk from Julia is always just a few clicks away.
Like the many other tough topics it covered, Designing Women broke the silence on weight, professional and well-designed clothing for larger women and maturity or humility that comes with accepting people for who they are. Decades later, we know there’s still plenty of judgment and shame.
The weight loss industry, pardon the pun, is bigger than ever. Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig sign up a new celebrity each year to help us find the real us. And sadly, the eating disorder industry has to exist at all and is far more sophisticated than it was in 1989.
That’s another topic for another podcast. Today we focused on the talented writing and acting of Designing Women, that took a real-life drama that was unfolding in a most unseemly way and stare it down. Delta Burke dreamed big when she wrote this line that I’ll close this installment with.
"It seems to me that we in the entertainment business and society as a whole have a responsibility to show our daughters and sisters that a world of options is their for the picking."
I’d like to thank Wendy Burns-Ardolino for helping me find the right approach for this topic. Read more about Designing Women, Living Single and other shows featuring four strong women leads in her book TV Female Foursomes and their Fans. It’s available through McFarland Publishing, just go to www.mcfarlandbooks.com.
Barbara Walters interview with Delta Burke and Gerald McRaney is found on YouTube. Again, this is helpful if you’re trying to piece together the timeline of Delta Burke’s interesting career. Delta’s book, Delta Style, published in 1998 by St. Martin’s Press is really pretty interesting and includes fashion tips for women of all sizes. If I’m gonna take beauty advice from anyone, I want it to be from someone who’s worn a sash.
Find this script and those from past shows at my website – cynthiabemisabrams.com – where you’ll find photos of me more likely to be wearing shoulder pads than a tiara or sash. Follow the podcast on Twitter, our handle is at TV Herstory. Yes indeed we have a Facebook page too and we keep it real there too.
At the host site Libsyn or iTunes, please drop a comment or idea for a future installment. If you’ve never revealed that you’d rather be Suzanne than Julia, share it privately in an email to AdvancedTVHerstory at gmail.com. Just this once. Your secret’s safe with me.
Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams