What I learned from watching Designing Women

I am a child of the 70s and 80s, more specifically, a southern child of the 70s and 80s. I grew up in a farming community in eastern North Carolina where cotton and tobacco fields stretched far and wide. I knew the names of every single one of my neighbors and everyone went to church on Sunday. Our community was filled with hard working people who looked out for one another.

Most of us had lived in that community for generations and generations, children attending the same schools and churches as their parents, grandparents and great grandparents. If you opened a local phone book, there were pages and pages of the same surnames, Hardison, Manning, Roberson, Leggett and Griffin. I used to think that I had hundreds of cousins because so many of my classmates neighbors and teachers  shared my last name. I played with the other kids in my community endlessly, for hours. We built tree forts in the woods behind our homes and played in the water logged ditches in front of our houses when it rained in the summer. We would wave to the farmers as they drove their tractors and combines down the road in front of our house and told stories of being chased by a neighbor’s German Shepherd who ran loose, barking and growling at us kids when we got too close to his property.  To this day, I am still petrified of German Shepherds.  The majority of the boys played baseball in the spring and football in the fall. Many of the girls took ballet and dance lessons and cheered for the boy’s teams.  We all had the same eastern North Carolina accent, distinctive in it’s drawl and dialect. We dressed the same and ate the same delicious home cooking because our mamas shared recipes. All the women and girls had perms, many of which were done at home instead of a hair salon.  It was a wholesome place to grow up and I can honestly say has shaped me into who I am today.

Even though there was always someone to play with and some adventure to be had, I found myself daydreaming often. I was an introverted book worm who enjoyed reading, writing short stories and playing alone with my barbies in my room.  Both my brother and I were naturally curious about others, very creative and had huge imaginations.  We found outlets through the local community theater, music and like so many of us children from the 70s and 80s, the world of television sitcoms.

I have fond memories of plopping down in front of the TV at 8:00 pm, just in time to watch our favorite sitcoms.  Growing up in a conservative southern community, I did not have much exposure to other cultures and religions therefore the sitcoms of the 70s and 80s were a way for me to fuel my natural curiosity. Three’s Company was a riot. The concept of a man and two women living together in a platonic relationship was not something that was done in my community. I loved watching John Ritter’s physicality and I thought he was a comedic genius. I had a huge crush on Michael J Fox in Family Ties but, who didn’t? The hippie parents on that show were fascinating to me. Different Strokes introduced me to a type of family in which I had never interacted.  I would giggle at the antics of George in The Jefferson’s and wondered what it would be like to live in a high rise apartment in New York.  My brother and I would do impersonations of the actors from Perfect Strangers. We memorized the scenes between “Cousin Larry” and Balki Bartokomous, endlessly acted them out, laughing until we had tears in our eyes and our stomach muscles ached.  After watching the sitcoms, I would often retire to my room and write a short story based on one of the TV characters or daydream about what it would be like to live in their shoes for a day.

We lived in that same small farming community until 1986, when my dad got a new job in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was a rising freshman and Greg, a rising junior. We were scared out of our minds to move away from everything and everyone we had known but secretly, I was also really excited about the new opportunities because I knew there was more to this world and I wanted to experience all of it.

We were enrolled in Albemarle High School and those first few months were really tough for a shy 14 year old girl with a thick North Carolina accent and a bad perm. Charlottesville, although relatively small, is quite eclectic and liberal. The University of Virginia draws a lot of students and professionals from all over the country and different parts of the world, hence my high school was comprised of their offspring.  All of my classmates were so exotic to me. Their accents were different, their clothes were different, their religions were different and their cultures were different.  I met kids who were Jewish, Catholic and agnostic. I met kids who were “transplants” just like me. They too had moved from other parts of the country, and had their own accents, fashion trends and cultures and none of them sounded like me.

I was thrust into a world of diversity and, at times, I found it overwhelming as my brain quickly processed the differences and scanned for the similarities among my peers. These kids were raised with different family values, their last names were hard to pronounce and spell and we were the only Hardisons in the phone book. Every year, when the new phone books were printed, I quickly scanned the pages for another entry that matched our surname and inevitably, never found what I was looking for.  Eventually, I learned to appreciate the fact that I was one of a kind in my new school. On a side note, I have married a man with a surname that is typically the ONLY one in the phone book….kind of funny how that worked out.

My school had so many different options for sports teams, many of which I had never been exposed to or even heard of. Field hockey, lacrosse and soccer were not sports that were traditionally played in the small community in which I was raised. I was intrigued that so many of the girls in my school participated in the sports teams rather than choosing to cheer or dance.  These girls were more sure of themselves, and many did not have perms, even though it was the 80s, go figure. They chose to wear their hair in it’s natural state….the horror! It would take another three years for me to totally give up on perms. I missed the kids I grew up with, I missed the woods behind my house and I longed for some familiarity among my peers. As I adjusted to my new school and community, I learned to cope in a number of ways, one of which was watching sitcoms. A month after our move to Charlottesville, I sat down to watch a new sitcom that was airing on CBS, Designing Women.

It was a new sitcom about four women in the south. I was smitten with the characters, Mary Jo’s sarcasm, Suzanne’s self-absorption, Charlene’s naivete and Julia’s sophistication. I loved everything about it, the accents, the perms, the food, the eccentrics and the familiarity of our shared southern heritage was comforting to me.  Even though Charlottesville is technically located in the south, it felt millions of miles away from eastern North Carolina.  I had found a television show that merged the love for my southern roots and introduced me to issues and topics that challenged me to see things from a different perspective. Over the next several years, I would watch the sitcom every week, soaking up the humor. I once wrote and submitted an assignment for a high school creative writing class based on the Designing Women sitcom.  It was hysterical and if I recall, my teacher gave me an A for the assignment.  The writing for the show was ahead of it’s time in terms of the topics addressed including AIDs, homosexuality, male chauvinism, negative southern stereotypes, politics, religion and mental illness to name a few. Mary Jo, Suzanne, Charlene and Julia took on each topic with courage, intelligence and wit. It was my first experience watching a cast of women challenge the negative stereotypes of the south while taking on politics and social injustice. Designing Women showed viewers that southern women can be brave, perceptive and funny.  Even though I loved all of the characters, Julia Sugarbaker was my favorite. She was sophisticated and sharp-tongued and I loved watching her unleash on a narrow minded racist or an unsuspecting misogynist.

Today, I was browsing through social media and saw a clip of Julia Sugarbaker. In the video clip, she was challenging a male political opponent who had made some assumptions about her liberal views. I watched the clip over and over again and showed it to my son, explaining the relevance it holds 30 years later. Even the name of the sitcom, Designing Women, implies so much more than four gorgeous women performing for a few laughs. The term designing means inventing, planning and creating. I started to see the parallels with has been happening in our country regarding politics, especially those specific to women including reproductive rights, equal pay and sexual misconduct. I grabbed my computer, which I had not turned on for two weeks because well, it’s Christmas break, and I started typing.  It’s been thirty years and we are still arguing about some of the same issues, drawing lines in the sand, making assumptions and stereotyping.

Today is the first day of a new year and I could not be more excited to put 2017 behind me. I hope and pray that our leaders, on both sides, will find the common ground and stop drawing lines in the sand, making assumptions and stereotyping. I hope they will begin designing, inventing, planning and creating options that will make everyone feel safe and keep us healthy. And with that, I wish everyone a Happy New Year and I leave you with this quote from the fabulous Julia Sugarbaker of Designing Women.

“One of the things I pray for is that people with power will get good sense and people with good sense will get power and that the rest of us will be blessed with the patience and the strength to survive people like you in the meantime.”

Here is a clip to the video I referenced, if you are so inclined.

I have had the most fun, browsing through old Designing Women clips and laughing until I cried.


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