I started to put this under “Women in Comedy”, because originally it was going to be about how Delta Burke left Designing Women. But once I did some research, I realized it wasn’t really a portrayal issue – it was a behind-the-scenes issue, and there’s a lot more to this woman than TV.
Delta Burke starred in the popular series Designing Women for five seasons in the eighties. For those who don’t know, Designing Women followed the lives of four Southern women in Atlanta running an interior design firm. It touched on a lot of women’s issues, addressed a lot of stereotypes, and tried to be funny. I remember seeing it in re-runs when there was nothing else on – not quite my taste at the time, but it did have its moments.
Burke played a former beauty pageant queen who acted a lot like Scarlett O’Hara. She was self-absorbed, determined to do absolutely whatever she wanted, and very, very bossy – anyone who failed to stand up to her got turned into a personal servant in some fashion or another. I thought the show was sometimes painful, but she was hysterical. And beautiful. Definitely well on the plump side, but I’ve always thought she was gorgeous at any weight.
Then suddenly, despite being one of the two sisters upon which the show centered, she was fired after 5 seasons. From Radiance Magazine:
Burke’s departure from Designing Women was a particularly painful episode in her life. It was rumored that she was fired because of her weight gain. She maintains that she left due to abusive treatment by the show’s producers, Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth Thomason. “There were rumors that I did not show up for shows. That I threw fits. I didn’t do any of those things, but nobody wants to believe it, or they don’t really care because it doesn’t sell papers. I thought, I’ve always tried to be honest with everybody and I’ve always cooperated with the press, so why are they doing this? I thought, People are going to believe this! And so I turned to Mac one day and I said, ‘Honey, am I a bitch? I’m starting to believe it from the stuff I’m reading and I’m me!’ Then later, I got to the point where I could look at it with a sense of humor, and understand where it comes from: they hold you up because it sells papers.”
This may be more of an actors v. producers issue than a strictly women’s issue – in fact, similar things have happened to male actors (yes, Stargate fans, I’m lookin’ your way). And yet it always fascinated me because of Linda Bloodworth Thomason’s involvement. Thomason and her husband/co-producer are longtime friends of Bill and Hilary Clinton, going back way beyond his presidential election in 1992. She’s a self-proclaimed politically active feminist. What should we make of this comment*:
There are hundreds of women who are willing to take these parts — these parts that demean and degrade, and gratuitously exploit women and humiliate them. And they’re willing to take them, and they come out and say, “It’s a feminist choice — y’know being a feminist is about choice.” It’s not just about choice. It’s about responsible choice. This is not about feminism, this is not about women’s rights, it’s about human rights. It’s about every human being’s right not to be humiliated, exploited, gratuitously murdered, and demeaned before millions of people.
But it’s okay for someone to be demeaned behind the scenes in order to sell publicity? Particularly if she’s the most talented and beautiful cast member (and I don’t believe I was alone in that perspective)? Particularly someone who started working with you when she was 24 and has a history of depression and self-doubt?
To the credit of both women, Thomason later asked her to do another show, and the two repaired their relationship and worked together. More interestingly, Burke went on to design a label of plus-size clothing calle Delta Burke Design – actually, she doesn’t call it “plus-size”. She calls it “real-size clothes for real-size women.” Her message is all about thinking highly of yourself, no matter the message others are sending, and she definitely has the experience to know all about that.
*Editor’s note: this article originally contained a different quote from an article which has since been removed entirely from the internet. In the interest of having working links, I went looking for a replacement and found the above gem, which is a more emphatic take than the original quote.