Pop Culture

Where Have All The Cowboys Gone? Searching For Julia Sugarbaker

When I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I was a stereotypical latchkey kid. My folks were never home and after school I would, after my homework was done (and sometimes before), spend my afternoons in front of the TV. It is, of course, a truth universally acknowledged that this is a bad way to rear a child. But the two things I will say in defense of my questionable upbringing are that: a) I can whup your ass at trivia any day of the week and b) I had some damn fine role models to watch.  The late ’80s and ’90s were an era of the pop culture feminist . . . this is when feminism infiltrated (those sneaky women folk!) the mainstream.  Strong female characters who stood up for women’s rights stopped being caricatures and comic relief and started being real, lovable, breathing, complex women who, in some glorious cases, headlined the show.

One of the most incendiary series of the time was Murphy Brown, which ran from 1988-1998 and made an impression not only on my little, squishy child-psyche, but also on the culture in general.  The character’s choice to raise her baby without a father prompted then-Vice President Dan Quayle to say, “It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown – a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman – mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”  Not one to roll over at this patently absurd attack, Murphy Brown producer Diane English incorporated Quayle’s comments into the show, both lampooning and eviscerating him.  Recently, English said (probably in jest but oh how I would love it), “If Sarah Palin runs for president, I’m going to ask CBS to bring us back.”  In the end, the character of Murphy Brown, as portrayed so beautifully by Candace Bergen, wasn’t merely sharp and acerbic and strong, she was also funny.  Little me loved her because she was funny.

My affection for Murphy was far outstripped, however, by my crushing adoration for Miss Julia Sugarbaker. She is, in my extremely biased and warped opinion, the best that ever was and ever will be. I have a somewhat dry and sarcastic way about me, so when people ask me what my favorite sitcom is (which they do, oddly, and often), I think  they expect something a bit more cutting and subversive than Designing Women.  But man alive, I love that show.  It still makes me laugh out loud.  And nobody, but nobody, skewers like Julia Sugarbaker.

This prompts me to wonder who the little protofeminist latchkey kids (a narrow demographic, to be sure) have to look up to. Listen, I’m a strong advocate for actual parenting or, barring that, some good old fashioned book readin’.  But say a child were to look for a strong female role model on television right now.  Who would he or she find?  The three women I could think of off the top of my head (er, I mean after hours of arduous pondering) were Diane Lockhart from The Good Wife, Dr. Miranda Bailey from Grey’s Anatomy (dubious), and that glorious paragon of everything Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights.  None of these shows, however, could captivate a child.  Where are the sitcom feminists?  Why are the shrews, saps, and skanks of Two and A Half Men and Everybody Loves Raymond and The Big Bang Theory the only thing in the offing?  Whither thou, Julia?  Let’s take a minute and soak up some more of her Sugarbakeryness.  It’s addictive, ain’t it?  Don’t worry, it’s good for you.

(I had to put in this one.  ~ed)

6 replies on “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone? Searching For Julia Sugarbaker”

I remember growing up with Designing Women and Golden Girls more than Murphy Brown, but I’ve found myself pondering a similar question lately. I feel more and more lucky that I grew up in the 90’s, when feminism and strong women seemed to be every where. I wonder if anything will be available to the daughters I hope to have one day, or if I should start stocking up on dvds now.

My responses are:

1) Yes yes yes!

2) I grew up watching TV at the same time as you, and I also idolized these women. But my #1 show was The Golden Girls. I got to grow up watching 4 women living happy, fulfilling lives independently of mena nd marriage. They fought and weren’t perfect, but they were hilarious, and they were unapologetic about their choices in life. And, you know, hilarious.

3) THIS is the BEST Julia Sugarbaker moment!

4) One of my favorite all-time political quotes happened as a result of Murphy Brown:
“My father, a teacher, died when I was two weeks old, leaving a young widow with two small children. But with my mother’s faith in God- and Mr. Roosevelt’s voice on the radio- we kept going. After my father’s death, my mother with her own hands cleared a small piece of rugged land. Every day, she waded into a neighbor’s cold mountain creek, carrying out thousands of smooth stones to build a house. I grew up watching my mother complete that house from the rocks she’d lifted from the creek and cement she’d mixed in a wheelbarrow- cement that today still bears her hand prints. Her son bears her hand prints too. She PRESSED HER PRIDE, AND HER HOPES, AND HER DREAMS DEEP INTO MY SOUL.
So you see, I know what Dan Quayle means when he says it’s best for children to have two parents. You bet it is. And it would be nice for them to have trust funds too.
– Governor Zell Miller

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