Designing Women Teaches Us About Fandom
by Travis Hedge Coke
In the second half of the 1980s, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s Designing Women broke ground as the show that made every episode a very special episode, complete with big moment meaningful monologue. And, in the 1988-89 third season, they taught us just about all we need to know about fandom.
In Julia Drives Over the First Amendment (written by Pam Norris, directed by David Trainer) Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter), self-defining as “sanctimonious,” takes on both the First Amendment and public advertisement for pornography. You may agree with her position that erotic material is not “political speech,” and not what the founders of America had in mind for free speech (but, seeing as George Washington’s favorite book was pornographic and he promoted it across the young nation, well), but her method of protest – driving her car straight at an occupied newsstand, over and over again – is cartoonish even for a sitcom, and ultimately fails to accomplish much except putting her briefly in jail.
This is an issue that floats in fandom, all fandoms but especially the geek sort, at all times. And, while we have our Julias who would destroy property and probably threaten lives with a vehicle, there are also people, like Mary Jo Shively (Annie Potts) and Suzanne Sugarbaker (Delta Burke), who can talk the issue, from various sides, without relenting on their own personal positions. And, there is Charlene Frazier (Jean Smart, recently of HBO’s Watchmen tv series), who is not necessarily pro pornography, but is titillated and curious, and does seem to know where all the porno shops and theaters are and what their actual names are. Charlene, ironically, may be the most sexually innocent of all four women, but she’s also the one who likes that sex is sexy, that sex is juicy. And, she also points out, foot fetishists might not need to pay big bucks for a specialty magazine if there are free sample catalogues showcasing a bunch of feet.
In, E.P., Phone Home (Trainer; Bloodworth-Thomason), Charlene’s coworkers accompany her down to Graceland where she’s going to let her Elvis-fan flag fly. Charlene constantly bigs up musicians and artists when others are down on them, or just out of nowhere. She is not only a fan of what she is a fan of, she is a supporter of other people’s fandoms. She, like many of the other Elvis fans, cannot tell that a reporter is collecting their stories, not to honor them or represent them respectfully, but to make fun. It is down to Julia to help protect not only her coworker and friend, but strangers.
If you have been a fan of much anything and never dealt with press making fun or press manipulating the facts to play to another crowd, you must have an interesting time as a fan.
One of the strangers whom Julia protects is a truck driver, Vern (Newell Alexander) who is taking something to Graceland for his son who passed, the last of his family, and whose very personal and sincere mission would have been mocked, surely, by the press in the episode. And, by enough folks in our real world, too.
Fandom, often, is putting yourself at risk.
Sometimes, enthusiasm for what we want, as prospective audience, can get the better of our perspective, and we forget that we may not know a whole lot about genres, shows, performers we are not fans of. In Stand and Fight (Bloodworth-Thomason, Norris; Trainer), there is an extended discussion of horror films, with some tendencies, such as the stereotypical broken heel when a woman is fleeing, or she twists her ankle out of nowhere, addresses smartly and head on. A weapon pulled out of little ol’ weak woman’s hands by the big strong baddy. Letting us in on some inside baseball, the makers use the characters to address American television broadcast standards of the era, re the ease of showing the before and after of a woman being raped, or even with framing, a rape, but non-cable could not show a man being hit in the crotch. This actually shifted televising standards, permitting the increasingly beloved man-hit-by-object-g0-ow testicle love of comedy home video programs. America’s Funniest Home Videos debuts the very next season.
Where Stand and Fight falls down, is when the conversation moves deeper into horror, and characters complain women die too fast and too easily, declaring, “I want a movie where some woman stands up and beats the tar out of Frankenstein or Jason or Freddy Krueger.” Now, while many horror movies do not end with a final girl, enough do that there is that term, final girl, the teenaged girl or young woman who beats down the big evil. The first killer in Friday the 13th is decapitated by a teenage girl. The traditional stop the horror character in a Nightmare on Elm St movie is a woman or teenage girl. See, Halloween, et cetera.
This is qualified further with, “And, does it before her friends get killed,” which sounds real good until you wonder, what, then is scary in this scary movie if nobody is dead, except some nerd the main clique don’t like? That is scary, but another kind of scary.
What we see in Stand and Fight is that Mary Jo, a woman who, in season four will refer to a black coworker by a reference to the movie, Mandingo, does not enjoy horror movies. She has, likely, as is likely of her friends, not seen many, and not finished even more.
We all have our niches, and when we step out of them pontificating, sometimes we step right in the mess, sometimes we miss the doorway and hit the door frame head on. And, sometimes we tell people the jeans they’re wearing make them look like someone out of Mandingo and we should have shut up before we spoke.
Designing Women Teaches Us About Fandom
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