At the time of their debuts, shows like “Will & Grace” and “The L Word” made television history for their portrayals of gay and lesbian characters. However, a less-heralded depiction of LGBTQ people on a similarly beloved series not only helped pave the way for those later shows, but depicted how a different demographic viewed the struggle for queer equality.
For the latest installment of his “Culture Cruise” video series, Seattle-based writer Matt Baume breaks down a 1990 episode of CBS’s “Designing Women” that marks “a halfway point between gay characters as crisis and gay characters as stars.”
The Season 4 episode, “Suzanne Goes Looking for a Friend,” saw Suzanne Sugarbaker (played by Delta Burke) reuniting with a pal from her beauty pageant days, Eugenia Weeks (Karen Kopins). Over the course of the episode, Suzanne discovers that Eugenia is a lesbian.
While TV depictions of gay and lesbian people are still most likely to be set in New York, San Francisco or other inclusive cities, Baume points out that the Atlanta-set “Designing Women” was unique in presenting a more Southern conservative outlook on the community.
As in earlier episodes of “The Golden Girls” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” this installment of “Designing Women” mines Eugenia’s not-so-secret sexuality ― which Suzanne initially doesn’t accept ― for comedy. However, Baume explains that this episode gives that trope a then-unique twist: The other characters tell Suzanne she’s being unreasonable for opting not to rekindle an old friendship because her pal identifies as gay, reflecting the shifting social outlook on the LGBTQ community at that time.
In this episode, the gay character is still a one-off guest, but she’s not treated as a problem. Instead, the straight person is treated as a problem for not wanting to accept her.
“This episode unpacks what happens when conservatives discover that they have gay friends,” Baume told HuffPost, “and shows them the choice conservatives must make between being a decent person to those friends, or retaining their culturally ingrained homophobia.”
While Eugenia’s character arc hits many familiar notes, Baume believes the episode helped set the stage for “Ellen,” which became the first primetime series to feature a queer protagonist after the character of Ellen Morgan (Ellen DeGeneres) came out as gay in 1996, and similarly progressive shows that followed.
“By the time it aired in 1990, shows were starting to move past the ‘gay character as crisis’ trope, in which a queer character would show up once, throw all the main straight characters into crisis, and then vanish forever,” Baume said. “In this episode, the gay character is still a one-off guest, but she’s not treated as a problem. Instead, the straight person is treated as a problem for not wanting to accept her.”
He continued: “That evolution in the way LGBTQ characters are depicted gets us much closer to the day when they can actually move out of the ‘guest star’ slot and become actual stars of the show.”
“Designing Women,” which ended its seven-season run in 1993, was a groundbreaking TV series for many other reasons, too ― notably in its portrayal of four Southern women who were, first and foremost, career-oriented.
The show’s creator, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, went on to write and direct the 2013 documentary “Bridegroom,” which followed LGBTQ rights advocate Shane Bitney Crone’s struggle for legal recognition after his longtime boyfriend, Tom Bridegroom, died in an accident.
And a new generation may soon be introduced to “Designing Women,” with Bloodworth-Thomason currently at work on a planned series reboot.