Told  /  TV Review

Deconstructing HIV and AIDS on "Designing Women"

Shows from "Mr. Belvedere" to "Grace Under Fire" fought ignorance and prejudice with more care and passion than many who had been elected to public office

The power of Designing Women’s episode, in contrast, resided in its challenge of assumed connections between AIDS and gay men to emphasize how HIV spread from people’s actions and not their identities. “Killing All the Right People” aired October 5, 1987, on CBS as the fourth episode of Designing Women’s second season. The series followed four women who make up the interior design firm Sugarbaker & Associates in Atlanta, Georgia:

  • Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter), known for her liberal feminist views, founded the business, which runs out of her home.
  • Suzanne Sugarbaker (Delta Burke), a former beauty queen who tends to voice more traditional perspectives, is Julia’s younger sister and business partner.
  • Mary Jo Shively (Annie Potts), a sarcastic, divorced single mother of two, is their head designer.
  • Charlene Fraizer (Jean Smart) adeptly handles company accounts as the firm’s office manager but often appears offbeat or confused.

In the episode appear other recurring characters: Anthony Bouvier (Meshach Taylor), company delivery man, and Bernice Clifton (Alice Ghostly), eccentric family friend. The queer person with AIDS is Kendall (Tony Goldwyn), a twenty-four year old friend of the group who hires them to decorate a room at a funeral home for his funeral and those of other dying, gay men.

“Actually, nobody knows how it got started.”

Although Netzhammer and Shamp criticized the episode for maintaining a link between gay men and HIV, the episode works diligently to weaken that link and emphasize that one’s actions – not one’s identity – establishes risk. Halfway through the episode, Kendall shows up to check on the job’s progress, and Charlene takes his hand as she walks him across the room. He stops and says, “You just surprised me. In the hospital, some of the nurses refused to come into my room.”

The women express sympathy and challenge this blatant ignorance. Mary Jo declares, “It just stands to reason that if AIDS was airborne, then somebody would have gotten it that way by now.” Kendall asks how they got so smart, and Mary Jo answers, “We read.” Suzanne adds, “Oh, and I went to see Julia’s and my family doctor, and he told me that you can’t get AIDS from touching anybody. You can only get it from sex, blood products, and shared needles.”

Suzanne’s statement is a simplistic one. It lacks, for example, any details about the risks of some sexual acts over others. Still, this exchange provided a higher level of detail than viewers were likely going to receive anywhere else without actively seeking such information on their own.