In light of the news that Designing Women will be making a comeback sometime in the near future, I’ve been thinking about how wonderful Dixie Carter was as Julia Sugarbaker. Dixie’s portrayal of Julia, and specifically, her delivery of the many iconic Sugarbaker rants, elevated that show (with the help of several cans of Aqua Net and enough shoulder pads to outfit the NFL) from frothy sitcom mediocrity to a show that had heart, bite, and something to say. Anyone unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of a “Julia Sugarbaker Special” was usually left a quivering, sniveling mess with no recourse or rebuttal. Because Julia was always right. Always! Her energetic displays of righteous indignation were usually reserved for easy foils; bigots, misogynists, hypocrites, and snobs were all fair game. But sometimes, even her own family and friends caught them hands, metaphorically speaking (Julia would never stoop to physical violence, she might break a nail). Sure she was short-tempered, but her morals were unimpeachable.
Here are my two absolute favorite Julia Sugarbaker dressings down.
Julia wasn’t the only sitcom matron who knew how to efficiently gather a fool who needed a reminder in manners. I can think of several others who possessed the fire and verbal dexterity to read some poor sap for filth without breaking a sweat. Sadly, it’s a great sitcom tradition that seems to have gone the way of the dodo. This is an ode to some of the greats.
Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show is probably the only character who can rival Julia Sugarbaker in consistency, and in fire. Phylicia Rashad imbued Clair with class, compassion, and a complete inability to suffer fools. And her family loved, feared, and respected her for it. Just watch how the creepy old dude in this clip wisely gets out of the way as Geoffrey Owens’s Elvin Tibideaux gets it twisted.
Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown is another lippy woman who was adept at getting her point across. Of course, Murphy was a journalist and so had to maintain a certain distance. Here, Murphy bites her tongue during an interview with a bigot (underrated Anne Rice sequel, IMO), but can only take so much.
It’s good to know (ok, it’s terrible to know) that the writers of the upcoming reboot won’t have to do too much other than dust off a couple of old scripts to make the show relevant today.
Now, here’s Bea Arthur as Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls. Honestly, I was expecting to find more clips of Dorothy going off, but the more I watched, the more I remembered that it wasn’t really her style. Dorothy was a subtle killer: Death by a thousand cutting lines. But rest assured, she could put you in your place without missing a beat. And her spelling was impeccable.
Any fan of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air will remember that original recipe Aunt Viv, played by Janet Hubert, was not to be fucked with. Vivian Banks was once a hard-nosed, career woman with a sharp tongue and even sharper shoulder pads. Janet was unceremoniously replaced after three seasons with a kinder, softer, and much lighter skinned aunt Viv, but Janet will always be the one I enjoyed the most. Here she is at her fieriest, facing down some racist cops.
Sometimes you need to have been to more than your fair share of rodeos to deliver a proper kiss off, but Lisa Simpson, as voiced by Yeardley Smith, is in the strange position of being simultaneously 8 years old and 20 years old. What she lacks in physical maturity (not really sure how that works but I’m going with it), she makes up for in unchecked rage. And again, it’s maintaining the moral high ground that can turn a tantrum into a testimony.
I don’t know why this list is all women. Maybe it’s because when a man goes off on a tirade it’s unseemly, boorish, and common. These sitcom women of the ’80s and ’90s were deployed in such a way that their anger was to be applauded, not dismissed or written off as hormonal hysteria. Sure, we’ve come a long way, but I hope we also take some of what’s behind us moving forward.
And remember, folks, if you don’t have quite enough energy for an entire screed, there’s always the tried and true one-liner.
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