On September 29 1986, “Designing Women” premiered on CBS. The Emmy Award-winning series centered around four savvy and sassy Southern women who ran the Atlanta interior decorating business, Sugarbakers. Viewers tuned in weekly to catch the character’s clever one-liners and engage with storylines imbued with a feminist sensibility that often addressed controversial topics.
In keeping with the 1980s trend of all-female leads, “Designing Women” featured the dynamic powerhouse original cast of Delta Burke, Dixie Carter, Jean Smart, and Annie Potts. The basic premise of the show was that classy and outspokenly liberal Julia Sugarbaker (Carter) was recently widowed, so she teamed up with her thrice-divorced, narcissistic and former Miss Georgia World sister, Suzanne (Burke) to start the design firm. Alongside the head designer and office manager, the “Designing Women” engaged in hilarious banter and physical comedy prevalent in most TV sitcoms. However, the show resonated with audiences beyond pure entertainment value.
The show’s creator, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, developed the show with the goal of activating social change through television. Although there were already shows centered around women like “The Golden Girls” and “The Facts of Life,” she wanted to create a program where the characters discussed women’s issues through different viewpoints. As a result, the characters dealt with all the hot button issues of the day, including AIDS, fat shaming, homophobia, and spousal abuse. The impassioned liberal monologues from Carter’s character became a popular part of the show. One of her most famous speeches occurred when she verbally dressed down a beauty queen who had made fun of her sister. The most evocative episode of the series, “Killing All the Right People,” dealt with prejudice against AIDS patients, shocked audiences and earned the show an Emmy nomination.
Although the series made headlines for the off-air tensions between the actresses, it had a successful seven-season run. “Designing Women” was a precursor to today’s programs that portray women of all ages and persuasions voicing their strong opinions.