A Belated Tribute to Meshach Taylor and His Groundbreaking Designing Women Character

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 9 2014 5:29 PM

A Belated Tribute to Meshach Taylor and His Groundbreaking Designing Women Character

Designing Women cast
Meshach Taylor's Designing Women character Anthony Bouvier broke new ground for television.

Image via CBS

This article originally appeared in Vulture.

Because he wore women’s clothes, because he did great impersonations, because he had a high, nervous laugh that made playing it cool all but impossible, and because he was a man who wasn’t fettered by any great concern over his masculinity, Anthony Bouvier, the role played by the late Meshach Taylor on Designing Women, was one of the great enduring pleasures of my childhood.

I grew up mostly in Atlanta, where the sitcom was set. My grandmother and her Buckhead friends were the kind of women who might have hired Sugarbaker’s, the design run by sisters Julia (Dixie Carter) and Suzanne (Delta Burke) Sugarbaker, along with Mary Jo Shively (Annie Potts) and Charlene Frazier Stillfield (Jean Smart). For me, seeing those Southern Living–inspired interiors represented one of the first times I recognized my world on TV. That part of my world, anyway. The elementary school I attended was almost equally black and white, and that wasn’t depicted on TV very often, either. Growing up gay with lots of black girls as friends, I didn’t see much that looked like my social life, the way race was real and unavoidable but not a wall between people. When I went to birthday parties on the weekend, I was sometimes the only white kid in the room, and that was totally okay, even if it did make me aware of being white and being different. Yes, there were interracial friendships on TV back then (Natalie and Tootie on The Facts of Life, for example), but there was always a sense of separation when such friendships crossed genders (e.g., Arnold and Willis Jackson and Kimberly Drummond on Diff’rent Strokes).

Advertisement

Meshach Taylor’s role on Designing Women offered something else, or did once the show warmed up to its own possibilities in season two. Created by longtime Bill Clinton supporters Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (this debuted when he was still governor of Arkansas), and running from 1986 to 1993, Designing Women was about four white women of differing ages and economic backgrounds who co-owned an interior-decorating business in Atlanta. The show was often topical and inflected with a specifically southern, droll take on the imperfect world around us. Story lines touched on HIV, spousal abuse, pornography, women in the church, and union labor, among other things. There were constant digs at Dan Quayle, and a whole episode was centered around Anita Hill. Audiences thrilled to Julia’s sparkling, self-righteous tirades, that Dixie Carter, a coloratura, delivered like musical solos. A high-minded liberal who spoke her mind on a variety of perceived injustices, Julia Sugarbaker was rarely engaged with questions about race. The show didn’t really want to go there. When the group wanted to acknowledge Anthony’s difference, they referenced his prison history. Rarely was he ever called black.

TV shows in their first year are often crude versions of what they will become, and Designing Women was no exception. When Anthony Bouvier first turned up half way through the season, he was affable but sidelined, a black ex-con whose colorful stories seemed to alienate his mostly proper work colleagues. When an irritating client turned up dead in his second episode, the Sugarbaker women assume that Anthony must be responsible and spend the rest of the episode—it’s Thanksgiving—squirming in their red-lacquered, Chippendale-style chairs. Then the police come and Julia points at Anthony, who says, coolly, “I don’t know why, but I’ve always hated waking up with white people pointing at me and a police officer standing beside them.” Later the women apologize and give him bags of leftovers for his dog and everything’s sort of okay, because Anthony isn’t the type to hold a grudge and because the women’s apologies seem sincere. Nothing like that ever happens on the show again.

In fact, Anthony’s prison record is increasingly seen as an aberration, and over time, Anthony starts to seem more and more like one of the gang. In a truly excellent episode from season two, the whole Sugarbaker firm heads to St. Louis for a conference. Julia, Mary Jo, and Charlene make the last flight out of Atlanta before a freak snowstorm makes air travel impossible, so Suzanne (Delta Burke) is forced to ride in the van with Anthony, who is bringing up the design firm’s displays. Suzanne, a gold-digger and former beauty queen, often acts as the group’s most conservative member. It’s she who worries what others might think, and she who insists that Anthony take care of her luggage. In the middle of the night, they’re forced off the road and take shelter in a hotel with only one available room. The proprietor doesn’t like the implications of an unmarried white woman and black man sharing a hotel room. Neither does Suzanne, so Anthony is sent out to sleep in the unheated van.

Instead of a blanket, he’s given a robe with marabou feathers, a silk scarf, and a pair of Suzanne’s pantyhose. It will not be the last time that Anthony will put on women’s clothing, nor is it the last time that cross-dressing will serve comedic purposes, obscure the threat of black male sexuality, and force a moment of intimacy. After temperatures drop and Anthony demands to be let in, it’s Anthony’s pink feathers that allow them to share a snack in bed, swap beauty tips, and convey their mutual admiration. They are closer, than they seem, or as Suzanne puts it, naïvely but sincerely, “Did you ever stop to think? If we’d been born in different times and places, you know, both of us white, that we might actually have been friends?” It would be hard to imagine a character today so sure of racial division, and yet so ready to admit affection. After Anthony protests about his being white, she says, “Oh, okay, we can both be black. Ooh, that way I can be the first black Miss America. Because Vanessa Williams doesn’t count.” Which is one way the show could offer sincerity without losing Suzanne’s greatest comedic asset, her beauty-pageant narcissism.

Suzanne and Anthony’s night in the hotel is definitely a hinge moment on the show. Though Suzanne will still wonder aloud what people will think of their friendship, and though she will protest mightily when the firm offers Anthony a partnership, she and Anthony develop a bizarre but close intimacy. Anthony spends the night when she’s scared the neighbors might shoot her pet pig (don’t ask). Then she nurses him and covers his medical expenses after his insurance lapses. Later, imagining he’s an intruder, she shoots him in the leg. That's one thing the show gets right: Being black in the dark is dangerous.

Nonetheless, when Suzanne’s much-maligned (and maybe psychotic?) maid Consuela is threatened with deportation, Suzanne, worried that Consuela’s minimal English will doom her chances, pays Anthony to dress up in women’s clothes again so that he can ace the interview for Consuela’s green card. Anthony may not see dressing up as a woman as much of a risk, but he needs his white co-workers to help him when his murderous former cellmate, T. Tommy Reed, tries to strong-arm Anthony into managing his sketchy-sounding gift shop. Further, it’s the Sugarbaker’s women who must intervene when a group of leather-jacket-wearing thugs takes over the laundry room at Anthony’s apartment complex.

Simplicity was one of the show’s great bugaboos. The New South, the show kept telling us, was a complicated intersection of Gone With the Wind wistfulness, new money, good ol’ boy networks, Christian beliefs, and lovable eccentrics. If there was a prevailing morality of the show, it was that kindness begets kindness, and that interaction, not agitation, will be a force for change. For all its talk of politics, for all of Julia’s eminently virtuosic rants, the show still preferred a softer tack. The way to change, the show seemed to suggest, was through slow and steady work. Anthony’s education was a big part of this, as was his community service. In season three, he mentors a troubled preteen and is (fittingly) nominated homecoming queen at his junior college, in honor of his dedicated service to student life there. In season four, his community-service projects spill over into Sugarbaker’s itself, as Anthony enlists the other women in a two-day fast to raise awareness about starvation in Ethiopia.

Anthony is one of the women, and yet he’s not. He works to achieve equal footing with them, and by season three, Meshach Taylor is a full cast member, and yet there are only a few glimmers of race consciousness on the show. In one of many episodes where the women talked about World War II, Anthony had to step in and remind them that it wasn’t so romantic for everybody. Truman didn’t integrate the Armed Forces until 1948. In season two, Suzanne wants desperately to join “The Incredibly Elite Bona Fide Blue-Blood Beaumont Driving Club,” and doesn’t flinch when she learns that the club doesn’t allow black or Jewish members. Blacks don’t play golf, she acknowledges (this was obviously before Tiger Woods). Three seasons later, she still wants to join and is annoyed when Anthony is offered membership. It turns out, of course, that the club wants to be on the PGA tour, but won’t be considered if they remain a whites-only club. Julia goes into the storeroom to break the news to Anthony, and is surprised to find out that Anthony already understands the club’s motivation.  

Julia: You knew?
Anthony: I know these people just want me because of my ancestry. So what? How you think those other people got in there? Good looks? I don’t think so.
Julia: Doesn’t it bother you?
Anthony: Oh, no, Julia. I know the score. In face I am miles ahead of these people. See, they figure they’ll give me an honorary membership and get me on their rolls and they they’ll just conveniently forget to invite me to any and all club functions until I just fade away. Is that what you were going to tell me?
Julia: Approximately.
Anthony: Yeah, that may be what they’re planning, but it’s not what I’m planning. You wanna hear my plan? I’m going to every party. I’m going to every dance, every barbecue, and every time a group picture is taken I’m going to be sitting on the front row going, “Cheee-eeese!”
Julia: I think you’re too good for them.
Anthony: Oh, Julia the first integrationists got death threats. They were spit on. You think I can’t take a cold shoulder at a country club? I don’t mind. It’s a small price to pay, and besides, I get a little black history for myself. So what do you think now?
Julia: Now I know you’re too good for them.

I’m trying to think of a show where a black man is allowed to imagine the subversion of an established, white social order, however racist. I’m trying to think of another moment—on a network sitcom—where someone could talk about civil rights in such a dignified and personal way. Designing Women was hardly a groundbreaking sitcom, and yet Meshach Taylor as Anthony Bouvier did much to show a still-desegregating South, how friendships were already traveling across race and gender divides. For those of us who were kids then, the show offered a kind of permission, to cross-dress, maybe; to see friendship where our parents could not, certainly. Like Anthony, we are all searching for the community that feels like home.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.