Dixie Carter played many roles in her acting career, from doctors to lawyers to divas. But she is best known for playing Julia Sugarbaker on TV’s Designing Women from 1986 until 1993. And Julia Sugarbaker is best known for her impassioned speeches. Two years after Carter’s death, we look at the way she breathed life into television’s favorite – and most opinionated – interior designer.
The hotheaded founder of an interior design firm that operated out of her home, Julia Sugarbaker was known for her liberal views. At the core of those views was a strong commitment to feminism. Though there had been feminists on television prior to Designing Women, the show broke new ground by being blunt and matter-of-fact about a main character’s outspoken feminism.
Feminists had certainly appeared on TV before 1986, even as main characters in sitcoms. But That Girl’s feminism was quiet and soft-spoken; Maude’s was in-your-face and aimed to shock. TV’s previous feminists didn’t operate on the assumption that it was perfectly normal to found and run your own business – that women managing their own lives were par for the course. Julia Sugarbaker did.
Of course, her feminist views led to some of her famous rants, delivered with Dixie Carter’s signature panache:
But the “Sugarbaker Speech” wasn’t reserved exclusively for political topics. The designer’s passion sometimes turned toward defending her loved ones.
The sibling rivalry between Julia and her sister Suzanne, played by Delta Burke, often reached epic levels. Yet the two worked together, and in unguarded moments they displayed their love for each other. One of those moments is still remembered by fans today as one of Julia’s all-time greatest tirades:
Almost no liberal topic was off-limits for Julia Sugarbaker. Designing Women tackled homophobia, racism, AIDS, prejudice against the overweight, domestic abuse and more. Always there to argue for the liberal viewpoint was Julia, as in this classic speech on separation of church and state:
The great irony is that although we identify Dixie Carter with the staunchly left-wing politics of Julia Sugarbaker, Carter herself was in fact a Republican. She jokingly called herself “the only Republican in show business” (though in reality she was joined by Hollywood notables like Ronald Reagan, Bruce Willis, Heather Locklear and Arnold Schwarzenegger). Carter didn’t disagree with every position Julia held – the actress supported gay rights, just as her character did – but often, the role required her to speechify on something she personally didn’t believe.
Carter used these moments to her own advantage. Since childhood, she had loved to sing – she would listen to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio and vowed she’d one day be an opera star. It wasn’t the path she ended up taking, but she still had a strong soprano voice and enjoyed using it.
So she made a deal with Designing Women’s producers: every time the script called for her to rant on views that clashed with her own, she would get a chance to sing in a future episode. It’s not a trade that would work for every actress… but Dixie Carter pulled it off.
Written by Linnea Crowther. Originally published April 2011.