When Designing Women Taught America About AIDS

When Designing Women Taught America About AIDS

Let’s say that humanity was facing its greatest
health crisis since the plague, and the leader of the free world was afraid to talk about
it. Where could Americans turn for the frank truth
about their very survival? Designing Women. “You can’t get AIDS from touching anybody.” Yes, the late-80s sitcom Designing Women,
one of the very first scripted shows to address AIDS, and condoms, and gay men, all in one
episode! Seven years into his term, President Reagan
had only made one speech about the epidemic, which is why the job of educating the nation
had to fall to Delta Burke and Janine from Ghostbusters. “Ghostbusters, whaddya want?” This 1987 episode of the show, entitled “Killing
all the Right People,” does triple duty. It’s educational, it is incredibly compassionate,
and it gives Julia Sugarbaker an opportunity to really lay into some hypocrites. “Get serious. Who do you think you’re talking to?” The story of the episode is that 24-year-old
Kendall has hired the ladies to design the decor for his upcoming funeral. Kendall embodies multiple heartbreaking stories
about AIDS — stories that real people were going through at the time. He’s young. “What do you mean you’re dying, you’re just
a kid.” His family rejected him for being gay. “Actually they’re more upset about the gay
part.” He’s seen people with no one to turn to. “There’s a lot of people out there now who
don’t have anybody.” He’s getting substandard care. “In the hospital even some of the nurses refuse
to come in my room.” And of course he gets the “very special episode”
music. Also of note is just how much education the
show packs into 22 minutes. “Gays aren’t the only ones getting it.” The delivery doesn’t always come across as
totally natural… “You can only get it from sex, blood products,
and shared needles.” …but in the space between ads for Doublemint
Gum, this show manages to provide more useful information about AIDS than the US government
did for the initial years of the epidemic. Plus some very solid mugging by Annie Potts. Also, Julia Sugarbaker gets a chance to tear
someone’s head off when another client gets super duper evil about Kendall. “I believe this is God’s punishment for what
they’ve done. These people are getting what they deserve!” And of course, this chilling line: “As far as I’m concerned, this disease has
one thing going for it. It’s killing all the right people!” These statements would seem cartoonishly evil,
except the killing line was an actual thing that was said, in real life, in front of screen
writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, while she was in the hospital caring for her mother
who got HIV from a blood transfusion. So it must have been a bit cathartic for her
to write this speech for Julia: “If God was giving out sexually transmitted
diseases to people as a punishment for sinning then you would be at the free clinic all the
time.” Meanwhile, there’s a separate story in which
Mary Jo has to debate whether public schools should provide condoms. Because this is the 1980s, her opponent is
an evil uptight busybody with gigantic hair. “So why bring that kind of garbage into the
school system?” Mrs. Busybody has a brilliant solution for
preventing teen pregnancy: simply tell the teenagers to stop having so much darn sex. “Abstinence.” Right, because if anything can hold back the
raging sexual hormones of a teenager, it’s abstinence-only education from a stock prude
character in search of a Rodney Dangerfield to disapprove of. “So what? So let’s dance!” Fortunately Mary Jo is a realist, and also
a bridge between the A plot and the B plot. “We’re not just talking about preventing births
anymore. We’re talking about preventing deaths. 5,000 americans have died and we’re still
debating.”” Still debating indeed! Even today you see asinine abstinence PSAs
like these: “You’re not going to hook up before you marry? For real.” “For real.” “For real for real?” “For real for real for real.” It’s crazy that in 1987, Designing Women was
one of the country’s best sources of information about HIV and safe sex. But it’s even more crazy that three decades
later, in some places, that’s still the case. The abstinence education fantasy just refuses
to go away. What the villains of this episode were saying
is that people who have sex need to be punished, and that sex should lead to consequences. And that’s the same position as today’s abstinence
only crowd. No contraception, no information, no harm
reduction. If you have sex, you might die, and that’s
the way it should be. Because you’ll have died of something that’s
killing all the right people. Thanks to everyone who suggested I take a
look at this episode in the YouTube comments and on Twitter. If there are other shows you’d like to see
me talk about, let me know. Leave a comment ot tweet at me, @mattbaume. Subscribe here for more videos, and tweet
at me @mattbaume. Click here for my video about how shows like
Mash, Soap, and Cheers handled queer characters. And check out my podcast, the Sewers of Paris,
that’s full of revealing stories about the entertainment that changed the lives of gay
men. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment
at the country club. “Hey everybody, we’re all going to get laid!”

100 thoughts on “When Designing Women Taught America About AIDS

  1. There was also an episode about HIV/AIDS in both Mr. Belvedere (Wesley's Friend, s2e16) and Grace Under Fire (Positively Hateful s3e160).

  2. Bristol Palin is a FUCKING monster! She knows better! Instead of advocating for girls like herself she's shaming them!

  3. Golden Girls also tackled the AIDS issues, if I recall correctly. I watched it when I was a teenager, and it stuck with me. It had a little bit of a cop-out ending, but still had some good conversations about the epidemic.

  4. I didn't know that Designing Women was a sitcom, much less a sitcom that was brave enough to tackle the topic of AIDS. Good for them for being forthright and unafraid to stand up what was right. I don't think I've seen more than one show address the AIDS crisis; the only one that comes to mind is The Golden Girls, when Rose is afraid she contracted it after finding out a blood transfusion she once had was potentially infected. Definitely going to give this episode a viewing some time this weekend. It's utterly shocking how relevant it still is…

  5. Great video Matt , I was a teen when this was on. I loved Designing Women , and remember watching this episode. I remember how I learned more from this show about HIV than what was taught in school, I was just starting to understand that I might be gay and there was very little (to none) information about this subject as well as any gay characters on TV. Nothing like in later years, and this story line was a major moment for me as a young teen.

  6. I get that this is three years late, but Julia reminds me so much of my mother especially with how she reacts to people like the "all the right people" lady

  7. TV shows teach a great deal about medical things like this. The Young and The Restless had that long storyline about breast cancer in 1975, and in 1979, they taught us how to perform a tracheaotomy on a choking vitcitm!

  8. If you haven't seen the lesbian gangster suit tango, then get The First Nudie Musical! You'll love it! I have the 33rd anniversary edition. And by the way, thanks for your great v blog.

  9. There's an episode of Mr Belvedere where a kid in Wesley's class has AIDS and is shunned by everyone yet Wesley sticks up for him. That might be a good one to spotlight.

  10. I remember watching this episode and crying at the end of it, because a very dear friend of mine had contracted AIDS, and he died about 10 years later. I still miss him.

  11. I remember these shows as horribly forced, schmaltzy affairs. Utterly unwatchable now. But I’m learning heaps about the between the lines historical effects they had on society. Thanks for doing this solid historical work for us all!

  12. Your last line distilling abstinence education to its desire to β€œkill the right people” is the best takedown of that scandalous movement I’ve ever heard.

  13. Reagan never did anything about AIDS until it affected someone he knew. The death of Rock Hudson changed everything. Hudson was a casual friend or Ronald Reagan, and a very close friend of Nancy. After Hudson's death, the Reagan administration finally got into gear.

    And who did they put in charge? The highly distrusted Dr Koop. But Koop rose to the occasion and tackled AIDS like a dispassionate epidemiologist. No one would ever have expected this because in the seventies he had appeared in so many crackpot documentaries.

  14. Great episode. On teensy weency critical though. That skin coloured shirt was distracting since I kept forgetting you were wearing it, and was half-way sure you have a kitten tattooed across your chest. Bold statement there cat lover!

  15. Why the gays love designing women. I remember ,as a child of the 80s, posters in elementary school with how you can't contract AIDS/HIV from water fountains, bathrooms etc.

  16. Excellent. But I wish you had told us which season and which episode so we could easily find it, if possible.

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  19. it bothers me that thee debate is between condoms and abstananace and it isn't about consent. consent is only begining to really be talked about. like all those drunk hook ups were you were too wasted to remember who you were with or what happened. there is a country song take a drunk girl home. as in instead of taking her back to your place you literally drive her home tuck her into bed leave your phone number lock the door behind you and the line in the song says that is the difference between a boy and a man. not saying it is not improvement. but it is what seprates a rapest from someone who wanted to be a rapest but choose not too and wants a chrophy for it. I don't think we should neglect condoms but someone needs to stop telling girls if your boyfriend is trying to get you to sleep with him and you don't want to and he is pressuring you saying he loves you and if you loved him you would instead of telling the girls tell him if he loves you he will wait. No! coerrisive sex is rape. if you are under 18 or 17 in some states you are not considered old enough to even make the decision of weather or not you are ready your just not. teens have sex but especially a teen really standing up and firmly knowing that they don't want to start having sex until they are 18. they need to say knock that sh&^ of and don't tolerate it from anyone. I put this in context of herdrosexuallity because of the exstreme gender bias in what is thought in american churchs and conservative purity movement abstance only groups

  20. When saint reagan died they seemed to gloss over this aspect of his being president. Oh well let's not bring the truth to people, we don't want to get angry all those "good christian evangelicals"who supported him

  21. I live in the cracker state called Michigan and it is still stupid and backward. I was very young and all my moms "artist" friends were dying. My one buddy his mom was "fostering" ten guys at her house who could find no care. This was early on. I remember the first guy I saw that was dying from AIDS. He had just come back from NYC, mystery illness. Lots of young people in the obituaries. My Grandma and Mom noticed it in the newspaper one Sunday. Grandma said it was worse than during the war, all the obituaries. What friends that did not die from AIDS, died from the drug war. I remember we could not find doctors to treat people locally. There was a doctor in Gary, IN that we would drive people to. In Chicago or Detroit. No help on the local level. The best of three generations died. These were the men and women who would have made this world a paradise in their time. Now, look around you. .Everything s still a mess.

  22. The earliest thing I saw about HIV in school was the poster with a bunch of people finding out they're either HIV positive, knowing someone who is, and/or getting AIDS. And it all leads to a guy named Gary, who is the last to find out that he's HIV positive.

  23. Its Ronald Reagan's fault why so many people died he as a president and i use that term lightly turn a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic. He was a racist worthless PRESIDENT like the one we have in the WHITE HOUSE now

  24. I remember when the β€œGod’s punishment” argument used to be mainstream. ☹️ It’s nice that our society has evolved enough for that view to now be seen as cartoonishly evil.

    My dad first explained what gay meant to me when he was watching the news and there was a story about a mysterious β€œgay cancer”. Now YouTube recommended this video to me because I recently searched for that news clip. I think my parents watched Designing Women but I didn’t remember that episode. So thanks for mentioning it.

  25. What do you think about the "Isaac and Ishmael" episode of the West Wing? It wasn't about gay rights, although they tackle DADT pretty swift and fiercely.
    In that episode, The CJC was a black man who said that the military felt the same way about black people in the military, but the military do what it do in most cases – it evolved.

  26. As a young bi guy, this is information I never knew much about. I knew that Regan and Bush (Senior) didn't address the issue of the AIDS crisis to the level that was needed, but I never knew about how Designer Women gave such a voice to the story. The most I knew was about the episode of 'The Golden Girls' that talked about it. Thank you for helping me learn more about this part of the history of the Queer Community!

  27. I remember watching this show all the time as a kid. And I definitely remember this episode – it was great!

  28. As a 51 year old living with undetectable HIV, since 1996, who has lost many friends, your words about judgmentalists hurt, because they are true. Thank you for just being blunt about the reality of hateful people. We need people like you to keep our memories alive, as we start to fade from almost regular old age.

  29. Mass shootings, student depts, luck of free education, and bankruptcy because of the health bills, lack of paid sick leave, paid vacations, maternity, and paternity leave and you really call yourself leaders of the free world,? Man, nobody calls you like that because you are not free, you are as corrupted as North Korea, thinking that you are the best, not knowing that other people live in much higher standard without a fear for theirs tomorrow.
    I have a higher education with no debt, I am from the country that never had a single mass shooting, this a free world my dear.

  30. Sadly people still don't know half this information. I still have arguments with people about kissing, old dried up blood etc. People just don't know.

  31. When I've explained AIDS in the 1980's, my 18 year old daughter ihas been flabbergasted. She has a hard time understanding the political and social climate. She has to see this!

  32. My spouse and I lost most of our peers in the 80s. It was horrible going to one or two funerals a week for men in their prime years of teens, 20s, 30, 40s, 50s, and every age. I sat with dying patients countless hours as a volunteer. I walked dogs, cooked meals and sometimes just sat holding someone's hand and just being there with them saying nothing. That is why this President is so dangerous. He doesn't hide his prejudices and he is encouraging the "they deserve it" crowds for every group of people he hates. He is dangerous and so are those that put him in office, both here and his backers abroad.

  33. The fact that β€œit’s killing all the right people” was said to Linda just makes me seeeethe, you’re the one who doesn’t deserve life if that’s how you spend it you absolute waste

  34. This show is a favorite! There are no words to express how important and impactful that episode was. These ladies were just as down-to-business on tough, sensitive issues as The Golden Girls but always seemed to do it with more fervor and insistence.

  35. I agree with all you said , except the abstinence part, that’s a person decision and should be respected.

  36. The secular culture is able to progress and make positive change, but religious conservatism can only continue to block our progress. Sad 🀬

  37. I wish he would have left the part in when Julia says « Imogene I’m terribly sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to move your carΒ Β»

  38. I come from a very old Puritan family, mayflower old, and When I was younger I had a cousin who was gay named Richard. He came out to his family when I was about 6/7 and there response? Send him to a conversion camp! He ended up killing himself that night, and I remember at the funeral, no one crying or showing remorse of any kind. I mean he’s dead in his early 20’s and not one person cried because β€œhe did what he had to, so he could be back in gods grace.” At one point I got up to my cousin William, and started hitting his leg β€œ6/7 years old” and trying to make him cry, to feel something for Richards death! But nothing, so I cried for him instead, and I still mourn him

  39. I remember this episode when it first aired — it was 1987. I was 12 years old and seriously remember the scare tactics we were being educated with regarding anything to do with AIDS. Honestly, this episode was a true education that we needed about AIDS — not the scare tactics but the truth. I remember being taught either abstinence or death with regards to sex. But because my mom was (still is) a Jehovah's Witness, I was also taught that AIDS was just another show of why God was against blood transfusions. TV saved me from a lot of brain washing. It's odd that shows based in fiction taught so much truth. And it's weird to say that TV educated me instead of brainwashed me. Shrugs Murphy Brown was another show that I also learned a lot from, regarding current affairs of the time.

  40. Kids SHOULD be educated about abstinence, but they should not get abstinence ONLY education. Because even if everyone stayed a virgin until marriage, they would still need to know about basic human sexuality and how it works for after they get married and have sex. Most married people in the U.S. use some kind of birth control or another, so it's still important to teach them these things either way. There is no world where abstinence ONLY makes sense.

  41. How on Earth did Ronald Reagan enjoy such a good reputation as a communicator? He was a criminal, lying sack of crap.

  42. Since people are also referring to Golden Girls "72 Hours" episode:
    You're welcome. πŸ™‚

  43. I grew up staying in the hospital a lot and when I was 15 a kid who was 18 died from aids. He got it from a blood transfusion he had when he was born. My mother and I cried so much I never knew his name. I'm 43 and I think of him often. One night they got him up to walk so I got on the floor to look under the curtain and saw his feet moving and I started praising God. I was so mad at Adults being so reckless and having hiv in their blood which was supposed to help him.

  44. Matt, thanks for presenting these ladies whom I hadn't the slightest clue about. In Mexico we never had the show on and we only had the comfort to watch Star Trek which tangentially included some gay moments. These designing ladies are true heroes.

  45. Maybe it's just me, but isn't "the big-haired lady" at the school Amanda Beardsley? Also, I remember those years all too well. Freaking scary times. I use to tell my prospective bed partners, "no glove – no love. You see what's going on out there? How am I supposed to trust you telling me that you're okay??" I was never surprised at the ones who wouldn't wear a condom, all I could do was hope they went home and thought about it (tho I doubt they did).

  46. THANK YOU SO FUCING MUCH!!!! I just love Delta Burke and how savage she can get. Plus i am still amazed on how this one show that had a 22 min. time span had more impact in education of aids than the government had in that time period. And now i am sad to say, ignorant history is repeating itself. And this is coming from a 40 year old.

  47. I love me some Designing women, it was a great social issue comedy that tackled topics while having comedic moments that still make you laugh out loud.

  48. Degrassi High also did a two part episode in which one straight character was infected with HIV/AIDs in which most of the characters thought it only affected homosexuals. The episode also talked about condoms in schools and how you can’t get infected through physical contact.

  49. The first person I saw on tv that had aids was a cute, young, dark skinned guy on the Real World.
    He passed away and it was traumatizing.

  50. And the good thing is they got Tony Goldwyn to play the dying guy. He's always able to engender sympathy and warmth. In 1987. Hey, how bout that Ghost movie in a couple of years.

  51. My mother sat me and my sisters down and talked to us about Grids. It was called this before HIV and AIDS. She told us that there is no disease that only Gay people get. Anyone can get HIV and AIDS. Many gay people have to hide that they are gay because of the hatred that they receive. She told us that Ronald Reagon was wrong to let people die and to not help them find a cure. It does not matter how you get HIV and AIDS. No one deserves to suffer and die like that. Her best friend was a gay man. He contacted AIDS. He was a good man. Too many people died because of other peoples hatred and judgements.

  52. I came out in the early 80's. I'll never forget that call Tim I just found out I'm HIV positive you need to get tested took 2 weeks to get my results, I was negative went back 6 months later and was still negative. I was lucky lost some great friends to it! My best friend BJ was diagnosed with aids in 1986 he's still with us Thank GOD!

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