Historical essay
Deconstructing HIV and AIDS on <em>Designing Women</em>

Deconstructing HIV and AIDS on Designing Women

Nels Highberg

Before protease inhibitors radically improved the lives of many people living with HIV in the mid-1990s, numerous sitcoms from Mr. Belvedere in 1986 to Grace Under Fire in 1996 fought ignorance and prejudice with more care and passion than many who had been elected to public office. For example, in 2018 on Nursing Clio, Claire Sewell examined a 1990 episode of The Golden Girls where Rose (Betty White) fears she may have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion during gallbladder surgery. However, Designing Women is the only series to put queerness front and center in their 1987 episode, “Killing All the Right People.”

As a queer teenager in his senior year of high school who watched this episode as it aired, I lived in deep dread. Every media mention of HIV/AIDS served as a relentless reminder that AIDS was likely going to kill me just like it was killing so many men like me. Sitcoms could not eradicate my fear, but they could complicate it. This episode of Designing Women has stayed with me for over thirty-five years because it was the first place I saw a gay man with AIDS loved by those around him. It also supported the scientific facts I was beginning to understand: keeping semen outside the body would keep HIV out as well. Sitcoms are not the reason I am HIV-negative in 2022, but they were bright spots amidst the otherwise ruthless fear.

Cover of TV Guide Magazine featuring the four female stars of Designing Women
Delta Burke, Annie Potts, Dixie Carter, and Jean Smart of CBS’s “Designing Women,” July 2, 1988. (Jim Ellwanger/Flickr)

This episode was created to counteract the revolting realities people with AIDS experienced daily. Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the show’s co-creator with her husband, Henry Thomason, wrote this episode after her mother contracted HIV from contaminated blood products during surgery in March 1986 (the plot around which Golden Girls based its 1990 episode). While sitting in the hospital with her mother, Bloodworth-Thomason observed the extreme prejudice of medical staff who placed medicine in buckets and kicked them into patient rooms. Bloodworth-Thomason listened as a woman in the hallway said what would become the episode’s title: that AIDS was killing all the right people. She would receive an Emmy nomination for writing this episode.

“Kendall, what do you mean you’re dying? You’re just a kid.”

In 1994, media scholars Emile C. Netzhammer and Scott A. Shamp scrutinized a range of primetime programs with episodes centered around HIV/AIDS. For them, the explicit connections made between HIV and gay men delivered a disturbing message: gay men caused a global health crisis and were “ruining the lives of everyone else.”[1] In that historical moment, fighting mainstream society’s continued efforts to depict HIV as a disease of “those people” was necessary. Homophobia infused the entire sociopolitical context of AIDS, and it often intentionally fueled laughter in these sitcoms. For example, both Mr. Belvedere (1986) and The Hogan Family (1990) featured plotlines where friends of the show’s primary child or teen characters were the ones living with HIV, challenging the idea that only gay men get AIDS. Each episode, however, also highlighted a secondary plot revolving around other male characters taking a high school home economics course, resulting in banal jokes steeped in stereotypes of gender and sexuality.

a photograph of a white, two-story home in the United States
The image used to represent the home of Julia Sugarbaker in Atlanta, Georgia, is actually the Arkansas Governor’s mansion. (“designing women” by L. Allen Brewer | CC BY 2.0)

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.”

an older man in a tuxedo with an older woman in a gown at a party
Dixie Carter with husband Hal Holbrook in front of Annie Potts at the 1989 Emmy Awards. (“Hal Holbrook, Dixie Carter” by Alan Light | CC BY 2.0.

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.

“These people are getting what they deserve.”

Ignorance returns through a client sitting in the back during this scene. Imogene Salinger (Camilla Carr) examines wallpaper samples and overhears the exchange. She stands up and begins spouting clichés about how these “boys” brought it all on themselves because “you reap what you sow” and “this is God’s punishment for what they’ve done.” Suzanne asks, “Then how come lesbians get it less?” Imogene suddenly trades her confident declarations for apathetic denial to answer, “That is not for me to say.”

Before kicking Imogene out of her business and home, Julia provides one of her trademark speeches:

Imogene, get serious. Who do you think you’re talking to? I’ve known you for twenty-seven years, and all I can say is, if God was giving out sexually transmitted diseases to people as a punishment for sinning, then you would be at the free clinic all of the time. And so would the rest of us.

Relentlessly, this episode returns to the message that AIDS does not result from who you are but what you do.

Early in the episode, Imogene mentions that her son, Brian, is planning to take her out for her birthday when he and his “little friend” visit from Vanderbilt. We learn no details about this friend, such as their name or gender, which opens the door to the possibility that Imogene will need to engage with queerness, sin, and judgment in her own family soon.

“Now we know how to help prevent AIDS.”

While Kendall’s storyline focuses on his humanity, the episode’s secondary plot line overtly confronts “family values” politics – the conservative agenda valorized by President Ronald Reagan and his administration that strove to codify the traditions of heterosexual marriage and the nuclear family into law and public policy. The day Kendall hires the firm, Mary Jo attends a PTA meeting where condom distribution becomes the focus. One parent speaks against it, touting lines like, “abstinence is best” and “parents, not the government, know what’s best for their children.” For a second meeting to debate the issue, parents ask Mary Jo to speak in support of condom availability.

A man and woman in formal attire on a red carpet
Jean Smart with , who played Mary Jo’s boyfriend, J.D., on the show, at the 1989 Emmy Awards. (“Jean Smart” by Alan Light | CC BY 2.0.)

While planning her speech, she learns Kendall’s parents abandoned him after his AIDS diagnosis. Kendall says, “My parents are pretty upset.” In contrast, the episode began with Suzanne discussing a news story about President Reagan’s daughter, Maureen, who was nearing fifty and had moved into the White House to live with her parents. Bernice asks, “Why should the taxpayers have to pay room and board for a big, strapping girl like that?” Why, indeed?

In her speech, Mary Jo describes her “dear, sweet, funny friend” who contracted HIV “before he even knew what it was or how to prevent it.” Her argument culminates as she emphasizes, “We’re not talking about preventing births, but about preventing deaths.” If teenagers have sex, she argues, “they should not have to die for it.” These are the last words spoken in the episode.

When Kendall asks the women to decorate a room at the funeral home for him, he notes that others like him – meaning gay men who die of AIDS – will be able to use the room after him. As the credits roll, we see the women in that room surrounded by young, thin men who look like Kendall. As a portrait of a community abandoned because of AIDS, it is a limited view, but it is a clear depiction of the formation of an alternative family. Designing Women served as a platform for images of alternative families since its inception as it is built around one with Sugarbaker’s business. Though ostensibly a workplace comedy about an interior design firm, these women are a family who are there for each other’s births and deaths, boyfriends and husbands. Of course Kendall would fulfill his need for familial connection with them.

  1. Emile C. Netzhammer and Scott A. Shamp, “Guilt by Association: Homosexuality and AIDS on Primetime Television,” in Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality, ed. R. Jeffrey Ringer (New York University Press, 1994), 97.

Featured image caption: Mesha Irizarry, Shanti staff counselor, comforting AIDS patient Lee Bossell on Ward 5A, San Francisco General Hospital’s AIDS ward. Shanti Records (2006-2). (Courtesy of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Historical Society)

Nels Highberg (he/they) is an essayist, mixed media artist, and professor of English and modern languages at the University of Hartford. His work has appeared in Brevity, Catapult, Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, and Feminist Teacher, and he received an Artistic Excellence Award from the State of Connecticut in 2020.