Designing Women Goes Looking for a Lesbian

Designing Women Goes Looking for a Lesbian

“Suzanne, I don’t know what you’ve heard,
but gay people are not out to convert the rest of the world. I’m just your friend. Do you understand what I’m saying?” “Yes, you don’t find me attractive!” When we think about gay characters on sitcoms,
we usually picture people in big Northern cities. But season four of Designing Women features
an unusual southern and conservative take on having queer friends. And it also set the stage for Ellen’s coming
out episode, just a few years later. “Oh Susanne, loosen up. It’s the ‘90s!” “Well, it’s not the gay ‘90s!” All aboard and welcome to Matt Baume’s culture
cruise, where we take a deep dive on LGBT themes on TV, in movies, in books, games,
and more. This time we’re looking at “Suzanne Goes
Looking for a Friend,” a 1990 episode of Designing Women that marks a halfway point
on TV between gay characters as crisis and gay characters as stars. Culture Cruise is made possible by the folks
who pledge a dollar or more a month on Patreon — folks like Michael Cole-Schwartz — thanks
Michael! There’s rewards for backers, head over to or click the link in the description to join the folks who make
Culture Cruise possible. The episode starts with a little foreshadowing
of the gender expectations to come: “You can’t fight chromosomes. Little boys like little boy things, little
girls like little girl things.” This is a pretty reductive way to think about
boys and girls, and Mesach Taylor espoused a very different attitude a few years earlier
in the movie Mannequin: “Two things I love to do is fight and kiss
boys! Come on! … This is what being a man is all about,
honey! Oh yeah!” Anyway, Susanne has a problem: she has an
extra ticket to the theater and needs to bring a friend, but since none of the main characters
are available, that leaves her with … nobody. “I don’t have any other girlfriends, you
three are it” Susanne, it seems, simply never learned how
to make friends. So she starts flipping through her address
book and lands on a name she hasn’t thought about since her pageant days. “Eugenia Weeks! I trusted her to spray my backside before
the swimsuit competition.” “You what?” “You know, sprayed my rear end with glue
so my suit wouldn’t ride up.” That’s very intimate. You’d think that after going through an
experience like that together, she’d feel quite close to Eugenia. But they haven’t spoken in years. And when she does invite Eugenia over to catch
up, Suzanne doesn’t seem to catch some very obvious signals. “My lover and I broke up a few weeks ago.” “Everybody else from the pageant circuit
won’t have anything to do with me since I came out.” “Seems like the only places I go anymore
are to work and of course my Sisters in Sappho meetings.” In case you hadn’t picked up on it, SHE
IS A LESBIAN. Seems like it would be pretty hard to miss
after all that, and yet we STILL get the familiar scene of a straight person in denial about
gay people. “You know, if all the women in the world
were like her I’d have no trouble finding girlfriends.” “Suzanne you do realize that Eugenia swings
the other way, don’t you?” “Yeah sure. What does that mean?” “He means Eugenia is a lesbian, Susanne.” “Oh well that’s ridiculous. Who ever heard of a lesbian debutante?” “What did you think she meant when she mentioned
Sappho?” “I didn’t know! I thought it was a detergent.” Sure, Suzanne. She goes out once a week to a sisters in detergent
meeting. As a viewer, you might have a little deja
vu here, like you’ve already seen a clueless straight person fail to recognize someone
obviously queer in their midst. That’s because you probably have seen that
scene. “A marriage? Oh it couldn’t be. You and cousin Liz was both g…” “I’m quite fond of you.” “I’m fond of you too.” “Listen carefully. John is a ho… mo…” “Right.” “Sexual.” So, we can add Designing Women to the collection
of shows where the existence of a gay person is the most shocking thing to have ever happened. Suzanne has a lot of, shall we say, old fashioned
opinions: “Suzanne, we can’t go around in blackface! That’s racist!” “Why? If Dustin Hoffman was going to play Martin
Luther King, you don’t think he’d wear black makeup?” “Suzanne, Dustin Hoffman would never play
Martin Luther King, that part would go to a black actor.” “Well I think that’s racist.” So, not exactly the most sensitive of the
Sugarbakers. And now that she accidentally made a lesbian
friend, her reaction is one of panic — especially since she and Eugenia are supposed to go to
a big banquet in a few days. “I trusted her to spray glue on my butt!” “What do you think she meant by the little
hug at the door?” “What’s everybody going to think if I
go to that dinner with her tomorrow night?” This is where the episode departs from very
special gay episodes of sitcoms past. All of the characters in this scene think
that Susanne is overreacting. That she’s being silly for rejecting a queer
friend. That’s quite a change from how televisions
shows used to depict gay characters. In the 70s and 80s, it was more common for
a queer character to throw everyone into crisis. There might be one person who was OK with
them, but in general, it was unusual for everyone to be accepting and open-minded. But in this episode, it’s Susanne who’s
unusual for rejecting her friend. She’s presented as the problem, rather than
Eugenia being a cause of trouble. That puts Designing Women at a unique midpoint
in the way queer characters are depicted on TV. When this episode aired, shows had moved past
gays as a crisis to show them being accepted. And that cleared the way for a gay character
to be more than a one-off guest, and in a few years, to be the star of the show. At any rate, Susanne was supposed to meet
Eugenia for drinks, and terrified of going to a lesbian bar, she drags the other ladies
along with her. I have to say, this establishing shot makes
it look like the world’s fanciest lesbian bar — look at those columns, is this place
actually ON the island of Lesbos? Everyone’s a little shocked by how nice
it is: “I sort of pictured this kind of dark little
cave tucked away under a staircase where you need a secret knock to get in, women in gangster
suits dancing the tango, pictures of tennis stars all over the walls.” That sounds AMAZING, someone please open that
lesbian bar so it can become my new favorite hangout. The longer the women stay, the more empathy
they start to feel: “I hope it’s not rude to be in a gay bar
and not be gay … I mean I’m starting to know how homosexuals must feel, not being
able to be open about who they are.” And while that new understanding is nice,
it’s not really extending to Suzanne. She still refuses to go to the dinner with
Eugenia, and she’s got a novel excuse: “Eugenia is in love with me. It’s as plain as a pig in a parlor, how
can you all not see it?” “Oh Suzanne, you’re imagining things.” “She calls me up on the phone. She laughs at my jokes. She invites me to go places.” “Oh no, that does sound suspicious.” What Suzanne is describing is more commonly
known as “friendship,” but for sitcom reasons she just never learned the simple
elements of being nice to another person. To her, there’s some secret lesbian seduction
going on. So Suzanne concocts a plan to hide from Eugenia,
and I have to say, it is probably the world’s worst plan even if Eugenia WAS trying to flirt
with her. Suzanne scurries away to hide in the steam
room of a local spa — a place where the whole point is to be virtually naked and therefore
affords no opportunities for disguising oneself, and where everyone is at their most physically
vulnerable. So, good thinking, Suzanne. Eugenia is able to track her down, which is
frankly a lot of work to go to for someone who’s been acting like an jerk. And there in the steam, Eugenia gives Suzanne
a little gay 101: “Suzanne, I don’t know what you’ve heard,
but gay people are not out to convert the rest of the world. I’m just your friend. And even though I’m free at the moment doesn’t
mean I’m desperate enough to go barking up the wrong tree. Do you understand what I’m saying?” “Yes. You don’t find me attractive.” That’s a solid joke. And it was a solid joke four years earlier
on The Golden Girls. “I don’t believe it. I do not believe it.” “I was pretty surprised myself.” “Well I’ll bet. To think Jean would prefer Rose over me? That’s ridiculous!” When Suzanne realizes that Eugenia doesn’t
exist solely to validate her pride, she’s a bit miffed. She’s still making this all about her and
it seems like she’s never going to come around and simply accept Eugenia as a friend. As we’ve seen, Suzanne just has no idea
what friendship is — her behaviour is ignorant and cruel and dismissive. But then she she sees someone else behaving
even worse. “There should be three saunas here. One for men, one for women, and one for people
like you. I am never coming back here again.” And Susanne suddenly realizes what she’s
been doing. “Guess you’ve got to put up with a lot
of stuff like that, huh.” “Not too much. It only really hurts when it comes from friends.” Good one. This is a moment that comes down to friendship
— and that’s something that’s universal whether the very special homosexual episode
is set in Los Angeles or Miami or Springfield. Susanne had been struggling with the realization
that she doesn’t have any friends, and now she sees her opportunity to finally change
that. To finally start being a decent person to
someone else. Friendship means standing by the people in
your life, and standing up for them. “I hope you don’t think I’m like that. Listen I can accept you for what you are. I just don’t want you to, you know, direct
it towards me.” Okay, that’s not a perfect response — does
Suzanne say that to every straight man she meets? — but it’s a start. Not just for Suzanne, but for the TV shows
that we watch in general. By 1990, this formula of the benevolent straight
person learning to accept queers was getting a little stale. TV shows had examined gay one-off guests from
just about every possible angle. So it was only a matter of time before they
tackled a new kind of story. Rather than focus on straight people learning
to deal with an occasional gay person, within a few years TV would be ready to try something
truly groundbreaking: turning the focus to gay people living their own lives. But for now, it’s enough that Suzanne has
accepted Eugenia, and is ready to move on to more advanced forms of friendship. “It just occurred to me, too — if we were
to go around together, say to that dinner tonight, well not only would we be the two
most beautiful women in Atlanta, but we wouldn’t be cutting into each other’s territory. You’d have yours, I’d have mine. That would be okay!” Congratulations to Suzanne for discovering
friendship, discovering empathy, and discovering wingmanning. Land ho! We’re pulling into port. Thanks for cruising along with us! And thanks to everyone who makes the Culture
Cruise possible with a pledge of a dollar or more a month on Patreon, folks like Michael
Cole-Schwartz. There’s some lovely rewards for folks who
pledge their support — head over to or click the link in the description to check
out the perks available to backers. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m late
for my gangster suit tango class. “Ole!”

100 thoughts on “Designing Women Goes Looking for a Lesbian

  1. Oh man, I remember seeing this as a kid and being as confused as Suzanne but also low key happy. Wasn’t allowed to be queer out loud at home. Still not.

  2. Umm… excuse me? Where is my local chapter of the Sisters in Sappho?? Thanks for another great culture cruise, Matt~ ^.^

  3. Your viewpoints here helped me look at this episode from a different perspective. I'd always felt this episode was a letdown when compared to how wonderfully Designing Women tackled the AIDS/Gay focused "Killing All The Right People" episode a few seasons prior. Suzanne's initial attitude to EUgenia didn't surprise me, but I cringe when Julia, Charlene, and Mary Jo keep throwing wide-eyed side looks at one another as Eugenia spoke to them. Just seemed like a disconnect from the accepting tone of "Killing…" And I LOVE Designing Women (first five seasons anyway) – huge fan.

  4. Please do an episode on Northern Exposure. I'm not sure how culturally important it was in anyway or where it hits on any timelines because I was 2 when it finished airing. But I watched it growing up and it felt good seeing a show my parents watched that the town was founded by a lesbian couple in the 1800's and they had a gay couple who lived in the town who were reoccurring characters who ended up getting married and had the whole town at their wedding.

  5. Honestly I'm just gonna start saying "I can accept you for what you are. I just don't want you to direct it towards me" to every straight men I meet.

  6. You cut out what Suzanne bellows down the hallway: "YOU GOT BIGGER PROBLEMS THAN LESBIANS IN YOUR SAUNA!" Quote that — in or out of context — hilarious! :-p

  7. Don't know if you do requests but there is a Murphy brown episode episode ''Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are'' in witch Miles thinks he might be gay when he dreams about frolicking with the new publicity guy.

  8. It's great to see how things have improved. Last night here in the UK I was watching a popular game show called 5 gold rings. The program has two teams of two contestants. On last night's show one team of two women were introduced as a married couple. Glad to say they won and when asked what they were going to do with the money they said the would be putting a deposit on a house because they want to start a family. I am proud to be in a country where gay marriage is an accepted part of everyday life.

  9. I sort of want to attend a "Sisters of Detergent meeting." You know that Arm & Hammer Detergent Pods have sort of revolutionized my life…

  10. Watched a bunch of your videos over the weekend and really enjoyed them. I really like that you cover older shows and then give context of what was going on at that time. Sometimes people look at these things but judge them by today's standards. Sure, if there's "problematic" stuff in there it should be acknowledged, however it doesn't change that these show helped pave the way for today's attitudes. Thanks!

  11. I always feel the biggest missed opportunity in 90's was friends that had so many moments when it could have been LGBT positive but instead they made it negative and the deal with Ross and his ex gay wife was just bad as she was painted almost like the villain as was her girlfriend sometimes.

  12. I was living in the south when this originally aired. "Whoever heard of a lesbian debutante" was quoted often among my gay women friends. We really enjoyed this episode at the time.

  13. I love this sieries thank you so much for showing lgbt representation on tv. I didn't even know half these shows. Thank you see you on Patreon 😀

  14. Hey, Matty,
    Would you consider returning occasionally to videos of roast sprouts and cauliflower from your kitchen?
    They are missed.
    Nice blue hanky, by the way.
    Which pocket you wearing it in, sugar?

  15. Great vlog. Ever see the very first episode of Bewitched? Although it's not about gays it is about accepting people (or witches) for who they are, just as they are. Even Endora has some great "accepting" lines.

  16. And it's back into the sailor suit!
    Also, is everyone overlooking the fact that Delta Burke is allegedly in a sauna or steam room, in FULL eye makeup, and it's not sliding down her face like Tammy Faye Bakker Messner having a meltdown? I mean, there's suspension of disbelief, and then there's this!

  17. I may be reading to much into to this but when you said how TV after this episode stopped showing gay people as one episode characters who straight characters struggled to accept and started showing gay people just living their lives are you hinting that you might cover in the next episode Carol and Susan from Friends?

  18. I seriously just watched this episode a few weeks ago and thought, "I would love to see a Matt Baume video about this episode." So thanks, buddy!

  19. Homosexuality is an ABOMINATION according to God AND the Bible….. good thing God doesn't exist and the Bible isn't true! I don't understand why society is still dragging behind but it's good to see that TV and movies are starting to break some boundaries and walls.

  20. There was an entire episode of DW satirizing Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination!

    Not so fun fact: CBS President Les Moonves destroyed Linda Bloodworth Thomason's career.

  21. I'm a bit confused… They tackle things with such grace and tact on "Killing all the right people" in season two, yet here we are in season four with an episode like this…

  22. There's a, like, 1982 episode of Gimme a Break where Carl, the police chief, goes on a stakeout with a guy who ends up being gay. Kind of a Very Special Episode feel, but it is from the early 80s.

  23. I've been waiting for a video about cartoons, specifically recent nickelodeon shows, but maybe not all grown men watch cartoons. I remember hearing something about shows like Gravity Falls putting little things into episodes to sneak past international sensors and show same sex partners on TV in places like Russia. I guess because they are so minute, it would be hard to make a youtube video about it. Other shows like the Legend of Korra, and Voltron Legendary Defender end up Dumbledoring characters (Ha, ha! Catch the hints? He way gay all along!)

  24. In the MASH gay ep, the "good guys" don't do gay panic, only the mean Frank and Margaret do. Frank more than Margaret. I think it's important to note that gay acceptance isn't a single progressive path through history. The 70s were more liberal than the 80s in a lot of ways.

  25. Always found it significant that Suzanne said she could accept her friend for “what she was”, rather than “who she was.”

  26. Great episode! Seeing how its on Hulu now and there are talks of a new season I`d love for you to tackle King of the Hill and its LGTB episode and how if indeed a new season does happen how Hill show runners will tackle this issue.

  27. I wonder if it’s occurred to anyone that the characters’ responses, questions, and revelations were all written deliberately to debunk myths about gay people to the audience.

  28. Okay, seriously, did you ever watch this show, or just cherry-pick episodes. The whole point of Suzanne is that she is as self-centered as a gyroscope. Are we supposed to believe that she just doesn't understand friendship? Yes! The show has spent four seasons establishing that Suzanne lives in a weird little world of her own where things like "female friends" and "people who are not attracted to her" are about as real as a unicorn. But it is that very characterization that allowed her character to have her redeeming moments too, when she comes out of her self-absorbed shell and does something unexpectedly compassionate (for some reason, I now have Terry Saunders singing "Something Wonderful" in my head).

  29. PS: the Golden Girls episode in this clip was in 1987, I think, not 1977 (it wasn't on then.) And I think this was the one with an admittedly funny, if clueless, line from Suzanne to Eugenia: "If we can put a man on the moon, we can put a man on YOU!"

  30. Suzanne is often the butt of the 'she doesn't get how the real world works', 'my god she's so backward it's ridiculous' jokes —- it's what she's there for. She's pretty constantly on the wrong side of history and that's sort of the point. She's there to stay the stupid, inappropriate, politically incorrect or insensitive thing so that the show or the characters in the show can correct her and teach the audience something.

  31. Thank you for your work, Matt! I do not want to start poking holes in your videos, but I think there's an error @3:30 in the airdate of that Golden Girls episode.

  32. Incorrect date on "Isn't it Romantic" Golden Girls. It was November 8, 1986, not October 9, 1977. One of the funniest scenes from an All In The Family episode ("The Election Story") is when Edith answers the door to greet a man and a woman distributing leaflets.
    Man at door: "How do you do?
    My name is George Robinson
    and I represent the gay liberation front."
    Edith: "How do you do?
    (then, turning to greet woman at door)
    This must be Mrs. Robinson.
    Woman at door: "No, I'm Cynthia Nash

    of the daughters of sappho."

  33. I am just discovering Matt on YouTube and LOVE it! I remember watching this episode when it first aired. One thing that I think we need to point out is that, Matt is looking at these issues from the perspective of a gay man who's out and comfortable. Back in the 90s, as he pointed out in the episode about Murphy Brown, being out wasn't easy. But, having grown up seeing characters like Uncle Arthur, episodes like those in Murphy Brown and Designing Women, were a start. AIDS, of course, was mentioned in Murphy Brown, but thank goddess the gay character didn't say he had it or didn't. When Ellen came out, I went to my local gay bar to be with my "people", it was such a big deal. Personally, I think Suzanne's reaction is in line with her character. The surprise and denial that Matt keeps mentioning was a real thing. I'm 55. At work now, I've had a macho, African American guy tell me that, "frankly, nobody cares or is put-off by your orientation because it's normal". NORMAL! Matt's not that young, but we have to look at this from the perspective of the 90s and not 2019.

  34. sooo is it commen in the us to wear bathrobes/ towels in the sauna itself… i mean… sitting on a towel sure…. but completely dressed in one….. here in the netherlands, everybody is naked

  35. Talking about the secret knock is interesting because here in Cork City Ireland there was a gay night club that ran at weekends up until about 2005 where you had to knock on the door, sign in a book and it was a dark place with a dancefloor and an upstairs bar and not much else. These days everything is out in the open. I really would have liked that lesbian wine bar where they go. That does look classy.

  36. Can you make a video about Chandler from Friends unusual relationship with his upbringing and internalized homophobia?

  37. “You’ve probably seen a straight person in denial scene before” yeah, it’s my life. Bisexuals don’t exist apparently lmao

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