Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Day The Lights Went Out In Georgia

I am aware that to most people, the idea of a sitcom character serving as a mentor and a beacon of hope is a pretty ridiculous thought.

But then came Julia Sugarbaker.

"Designing Women" aired from 1986 through 1993--in my life, that took me from elementary school through high school. (I graduated in 1996.) Who cares? Probably no one.

But as a gay adolescent, the sensibility of this show resonated with me: Delta Burke's Suzanne Sugarbaker was ridiculous and endearing, Jean Smart's Charlene was the South's answer to Rose Nylund from "Golden Girls," and Annie Pott's Mary Jo was...well, she was kinda boring, actually.

And then there was Julia. This is one of the most strongly written characters in the history of television, but regardless, most of the credit for Julia Sugarbaker should go to Dixie Carter. She regularly turned monologues that, if we saw them written on the page, would be ridiculously superficial, into pillars of strength in their own right. And despite her usually heroic rhetoric within the simple little show plots, Julia Sugarbaker was the one character who was so real that she transcended mere entertainment. My mother, for example, could not stand to watch her; she thought Julia Sugarbaker (and, therefore, Dixie Carter) was a holier-than-thou wealthy Southern heiress--and my mother and I used to argue regularly about Julia's relative good-vs-superficial nature. Those arguments at the time were a way in which I communicated to my mother--my closest ally in life--how important it was becoming to me to see people stand up for who they are, even when others simply cannot relate. And I always knew that my interest in "Designing Women," my love of Suzanne Sugarbaker's antics with her pet pig Noel, and my respect for the way Julia battled with Suzanne but also served as her guardian, spoke volumes to my family about my own developing nature as a gay man.

It may seem overblown, but it's true. And the show "Designing Women" would have been nothing without its anchor, Julia, in whose domain almost every episode took place. And who can imagine anyone but Dixie Carter in the role of Julia Sugarbaker?

Dixie Carter died yesterday. Take a look at some of her scenes and pay special attention to how important her performance of the funny, but straightforward, words was to the creation and development of Julia Sugarbaker. She added a huge helping of aggression and a healthy dash of comic insanity, and in the proecess made Julia a very real person.

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