Sunday, April 11, 2010

On the Death of Dixie Carter, the Life of Julia Sugarbaker, and Feminist Role Models for Southern Women


I was going to post a perfume review tonight of Jo Malone Pomegranate Noir, but that's going to have to wait.

I just discovered that Dixie Carter died.

I think I am truly, deeply hurt by this.

You see, Dixie Carter, a real life woman of poise and grace and talent, is a woman I have always respected, talent-wise, though politically we never saw eye-to-eye. But if you want to trace back my feminist roots, if you want one solid, singular pop-culture icon to point to as one of the most influential figures in my young life, it would have to be Julia Sugarbaker of Designing Women.

Julia, whose verve and style were matched only by her fiery independence, oratory finesse, and incredible substance. Julia, who defended women, liberals, gays, and crazy people. Julia, who is possibly the best of all possible Southern icons, who makes me feel proud of the Southern left in me. I'm not sure I even would have thought of it unless prompted, but here's the honest truth: I didn't want to be a single woman I knew when I grew up. Not one of them was successful or independent or smart or out-spoken in the way I longed to be. But Julia Sugarbaker, that's a woman I could have written you a ten page "Who I Want to Be When I Grow Up" paper on in 5th grade. Business owner, single mother (after her husband died), social activist, feminist, charity and foundation board member, philanthropist, and dedicated friend -- my God, if I could be even a 10th of this woman, if I could be remembered half as brave or honest or truly fine as this woman, I could die happy.

As anyone who has ever looked at an electoral map will know, liberals are hard to find in the American South today. They have been hard to find basically my whole life. So as a young girl with a big brain and an even bigger mouth, it can be hard to look around and notice the incredible lack of feminist role models. The women I grew up with all seemed sad, frustrated, angry, and/or disappointed with their lot in life, like their expectations for themselves and who they could have been and what they could have accomplished in life fell far, far short of their dreams. Their lives were limited by, and revolved around, the men they were financially dependent on, and they seemed to accept this grim fate as the natural order of the world, one that could not be opposed, dissected, fought, or defeated. In the face of such a depressing norm, they seemed to simply embrace it, and lord help the woman who might be otherwise, for their jealousy might eat them up inside and spew out in the form of a kind of venom that would kill you with its backhanded kindness. (To be fair, this description really only fits my mother and some of the local teachers and other women figures in my world, and less the women of my paternal family, who just seem to accept it with a kind of glum resignation, or worse, a crazy-eyed embrace that drives them to radical right-wing insanity.)

But Designing Women, which started when I was eight and ran back-to-back with another amazing show centered on a strong female character, Murphy Brown, showed me an entirely different world. Four women, all working -- even if they were mothers -- who were professionally successfully, financially independent, and mostly happy, even though they were on their own for a variety of reasons. Suzanne and her rotating bevy of rich and (sometimes literally) short-lived romances/husbands. Mary Jo the divorcee and J.D., her steady but not life altering boyfriend/traveling sports writer. Charlene, the only one married in the entire series really, whose husband was mostly absentee due to his military service. And of course, Julia, who managed to be a devoted wife to her deceased husband and yet still demand the most interesting, charming, successful, and intelligent (sparing) partner is Reese (Dixie's IRL 3rd husband). These women had careers. These women had adventures. These women had lives of their own, and the men who came and went were just along for the ride. Designing Women was one of my first looks at a world people with, guided by, and focused on women, and NOT as they related to men.

While I enjoyed Annie Pott's sarcasm and Delta Burke's bluntness, it was Julia I truly worshiped. People in other parts of the country, in my experience, are too polite in general, and when they are honest, they tend to forget that other people take their verbal beatdowns a lot better if the proverbial switch is covered over in spun sugar. Julia embodied this to a tee. She was somehow both bossy and refined, classy and brash, hell-on-wheels and homemade cookies, all at the same time.

This was my real role model. This was a woman who was liberal and brave and righteous and God-loving and Southern, so Southern, and yet at the same time, sublime. And to this day, every time I start to get upset because people don't like me because I am ALWAYS the one UP ON MY SOAPBOX and I am ALWAYS the one getting 'RILED UP' and yelling, and I am always, always, always stepping on people's toes and getting in trouble for it and feeling like doors slam closed on me because of it, I remember Julia, and I try to tell myself -- even if she was only fictional -- if she could do it, then so can I. If she could be proud and hold her head up, then I can to, and to hell with anyone who doesn't like me for it.

I am who I am today, in part, thanks to Julia Sugarbaker, and I think we would all be better served to be a little more like her. It seems strange that the Designing Woman who shone the brightest has left us first, even before 'crazy' Aunt Bernice. Dixie Carter will always have my gratitude for giving life to a woman I could look up to and be proud of while still being myself. May she live on forever in our memory. God bless her and keep her in the hereafter. Amen.

More favorite Julia clips below

Defending her sister, and pageant women everywhere...

On How Southern People Feel About Their Relatives...

On Football in the South...

On HIV/AIDS and Respect -- Amazing in general, but especially for 1987. The video quality is crap, but the content is definitely WORTH HEARING.

No clip of this one, so here's the transcripts.

MAN: Allow me to introduce myself — Ray Don Simpson.
JULIA: There’s no need for introductions, Ray Don, we know who you are.
RAY DON: (smiling) You do?
JULIA: Of course. You’re the guy who is always wherever women gather or try to be alone. You want to eat with us when we’re dining in hotels, you want to know if the book we’re reading is any good, or if you can keep up company on the plane. And I want to thank you, Ray Don, on behalf of all the women in the world, for your unfailing attention and concern. But read my lips and remember, as hard as it is to believe, sometimes we like talking just to each other, and sometimes we like just being alone.


cKate said...

This post is such an amazing tribute. I think I was placed at the wrong age & region to ever really watch or appreciate the show, but you make me wish I had seen it growing up.

ScentScelf said...

Aw, D. Those Sugarbakers were making a go of it when I was heading out into the world, so I unfortunately didn't spend a lot of attention on them.

But I do remember how Julia could cut to the quick, as in the dialogue you quote at the end. I also remember being intrigued by the Dixie Carter/Hal Holbrook always seemed to be an interesting blend of both traditional gender roles and a strong twist. Carter, after all, was an established talent when she hooked up with Holbrook, and continued her various stage, cabaret, and filmed work. Sometimes more prominently than Hal.

You've presented a clear and wonderful testimonial. Thanks for reminding me.

The Left Coast Nose said...

I'm with cKate-- I never watched DW much, if ever, and I'm a bona fide West Coaster. (We're proud of our crazies here too...)

However, in reading your post, I am reminded of *my* true Southern female icon, and that is the Great Dolly Parton. She is heaven and earth for me-- I actually do believe she is a saint.

So smart, so self-deprecating, and somehow always able to put a sweet spin on even the greatest of life's unpleasantnesses.

You won't remember this, but she had a short-lived variety show in the early 80's-- it ran maybe all of 10 weeks. I will never forget-- this is just when AIDS was starting to hit the national consciousness, but still not yet something that straights would think much affected them.

She stood on stage and sang her song, and then she started to have a little chat with the audience, answering a few called out questions. Then, out of the blue, just before going in to her next number, she said, "And all you boys and girls out there remember, make each day like it's raining outside and wear your rubbers!" I. Nearly. Died. And I will love her forever.

So glad you found the strong female role models you needed growing up, D.

Mals86 said...

"Hell on wheels and homemade cookies." Amazing, perfect phrase.

ChickenFreak said...

I loved this show, too, and I _loved_ Julia's... rants? Speeches? Reading that transcript, I can hear her voice saying "Ray Don" so, so clearly.

I grew up with a Southern raised mother who thought that any woman who showed a scrap of intelligence or confidence or an opinion beyond, "I think being nice to people is _nice_" was "kind of horsey". She carefully refrained from demonstrating those things herself, and still does. She communicates almost entirely with passive aggression.

But for some reason that I don't understand but am thoroughly grateful for, she apparently chose to classify me as not-a-girl when I was growing up. Not a boy, either, but not a girl. So while large parts of Mom's personality are buried beyond recovering, she didn't even try to bury mine. She also never taught me to wear lipstick or how to dress or any of the other girly stuff, but I'll take that trade

OK, I'm not sure how this is relevant. :) I guess it's just that Southern women remind me of my mother, and it was wonderful to hear Julia's accent paired with her absolute confidence and dangerous intelligence. And it's too bad that Mom didn't have that role model, back when she was being buried.

Diana said...

Thank you, all, for your kind words. Whether this is before or after your time, it was a great show still worth watching. And Chickenfreak, I think growing up with a southern woman as a role model makes your comments and reflections entirely pointful (pointy? pointed? you get me).

Kathy said...

I loved Designing Women - and still do. I can still remember how refreshing and exciting it was to have a show that depicted Southerners as intelligent and well-spoken. The fact that the show was about intelligent, well-spoken Southern WOMEN was over the top! I think that things have changed here a good deal, and it's not all for the better, but I guess that's the nature of change. I enjoyed your tribute to Dixie Carter.

tina said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I loved Designing Women but I hate Dixie Carter because she hated me. She hated me without ever having met me face to face. She was a bigot, and hated me sight unseen. Yes, I'm an atheist. Dixie hated me without even meeting me or reading about me or tripping over me in a dark hallway. I can't stand people like that.