Everything I know about being a woman I learned from Julia Sugarbaker. Well, first my mother, but after her, Julia Sugarbaker, as embodied by Dixie Carter, was my most formative influence. In fact, as I look at pictures of Dixie I’m reminded of Mom. They both possessed blade sharp cheekbones, finely arched eyebrows, and a mischievous glint in their eyes that spelled trouble. They were both strong, opinionated southern women, and they are both, sadly, gone.
Dixie’s Julia was among the last of a vanishing breed of smart, articulate, and funny female TV characters. She got the joke, but kept her dignity. This was what I wanted to be when I grew up , a woman of style and substance who knew her way around a quip. The women I’ve aspired to emulate have never been the Marilynesque bombshells, but the funny smart ones who got things done.
This is what I’ve learned from watching Dixie Carter over the years:
- Smart is sexy: I remember sitting in a class at some point in my teenage years where important knowledge about dealing with boys was being imparted. To wit, boys don’t like girls who are “too smart”, beat them at games, or display an appetite. Therefore, I was supposed to be quiet, let them win, eat before a dinner date, and always descend the stairs at an angle so that my hips appeared smaller. Dixie said one of the things she was proudest of was being her high school’s valedictorian, and winning the math award. Thank you, Ms Carter, for never playing dumb!
You can wear lipstick and high heels and still be a feminist: Wanting to look good is not shallow, it’s just good manners.
Speaking of manners…having them and using them does not make you less powerful. I got to meet Dixie very briefly many years ago in Washington, DC. I had sent her a letter about her singing and she called and left a lovely message inviting me to come see a play that she was doing in town. She was as lovely, kind and polite in person as I had hoped she would be. We only talked for a few moments but I remember her graciousness to this day.
You can make your point without being ugly: Julia Sugarbaker was known for her rants when something offended her sense of justice. What I notice now more than ever before about those epic speeches was just how rarely she raised her voice. Sure she got passionate, but she never screamed. Instead she used razor sharp articulation to get her point across. Dixie brought her musician’s sense of timing to them using pace, and rhythm to turn what, in the hands of a lesser actress, could be strident tirades into brilliant comic soliloquies that had us all wishing we could be that eloquent when faced with idiocy in its many forms.
To sing is to live: She said that at age seven she knew her destiny was to sing at the Metropolitan opera, but due to a botched tonsillectomy that never happened. That didn’t mean she stopped singing though. Though she never sang at the Met she sang on stages, in nightclubs and on television for her entire life. She never stopped.
It’s never too late: From the age of twenty six to thirty five she dropped out of performing to raise her children. She didn’t move to LA until she was forty and her great success with Designing Women didn’t come until she was in her late forties.
So, thank you, Dixie, for being an inspiration. For the laughter and the music and for teaching me that smart, articulate women with good manners can go anywhere they want in this world if they work hard enough. Finally, for introducing me to the work of Michele Brourman, without her my life would be all the poorer, as I’m sure you well know. You are our guardian angel of good taste and sass.