One of my favorite books is one that I have never read. I picked up “Trying to Get to Heaven: Opinions of a Tennessee Talker” in a bargain book bin in college and have carried it with me from city, to city, ever since. I prize it.
Yet, as much as I wanted to read the autobiography of Dixie Carter, I was stopped at every turn by the unmistakable, melodramatic voice of Carter’s character Julia Sugarbaker in the seminal sitcom Designing Women. It was impossible to separate the two in my head and, as a result, each paragraph became a signature ‘Terminator Tirade’ in my mind. A simple sentence like “I was born in Tennessee” could only naturally be read as as “I.WAS.BORN, in Tenn-eh-see!” The drawn-out drawl of Julia Sugarbaker kept slowing the paragraphs to a stop. I finally had to collapse the cover and simply be content with owning a work of Dixie Carter, even if I could never read it.
Ask almost any Southern gay man to identify a classic gay icon of the 1980s, and they will almost routinely offer up Carter’s Julia Sugarbaker as an example. Debuting it’s pilot against the Super Bowl, Designing Women broke ground in 1986 as the first sitcom centering on creatively powerful, working women. During its tenure, the women of Atlanta’s Sugarbaker interior design firm tackled (at the time) taboo topics of AIDS, homosexuality, sex education, feminism and religious radicalism that was gripping the South in the 1980s.
Carter’s portrayal of the steel magnolia matriarch Julia Sugarbaker was in the shape of a classic gay icon – a seemingly delicate woman who possessed the power to dominate diversity in a world where she should be at a disadvantage. Its the reason why Southern drag queens routinely portray Sugarbaker, and why patrons of one of Atlanta’s largest gay bars can recite Sugarbaker’s “Terminator Tirades” by heart on cue.
Through her many performances – and especially as Julia Sugarbaker – Carter demonstrated what it felt like to be a gay man in the South: Set against, yet strong. Maligned, yet magnificently blessed. Different, and determined.
Note: Like with the passing of many gay icons, expect Washington’s gays (and especially its Southern breed) to turn out tonight for JRs Monday showtunes night for an impromptu toast to Dixie Carter and Julia Sugarbaker. Expect the clips of Designing Women to be running, and the gay men to be reciting her monologues by heart – especially her recitation of “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.”
The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia: “That wasn’t just any baton. That baton was on fire!”
Julia is Pissed: “I think that you and your baby should just get some black wigs on and get the hell out of town!”
Crazy People in the South: “I’m saying that this is the South, and we’re proud of our crazy people.”
Julia on the History of Men & Women: “I love men, and I love this one in particular, but you cannot ignore history.”
Julia on the Myth of the Old South: “This is not a whore house. This is my house…one thing we Southerners do not have to endure is ill mannered tourists with their Big Gulps, Slurpies, Misties and Frosties and their dirty feet overflowing rubber thongs and babies who sneeze Fudgecicle juice!”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLJwG5aLuSs
Julia as a Football Fan: “In the South, football is a religion!”
Julia is Sick of Jury Duty: “You need to mark your ballots, and if you don’t mark them right I’m going to rip that fire extinguisher off the wall and blow your overfed, under-read, simple minded butts out onto the Fairprice Motel parking lot!”
Drag Queens doing Julia Sugarbaker