How Designing Women Addressed AIDS 30 Years Ago

December 1 is World AIDS Day — a time to educate and raise awareness around HIV. Thirty years ago, when the day was established, humanity was facing a health crisis, and the leader of the free world was afraid to talk about it. So where could Americans turn for the frank truth about their very survival? Designing Women. 

Yes, the late-'80s sitcom Designing Women, one of the first scripted shows to address gay men, and condoms, and AIDS, all in one episode! Seven years into his term, President Reagan had only made one speech about the epidemic, which is why the job of educating the nation had to fall to Delta Burke and Janine from Ghostbusters. 

This 1987 episode of the show, titled "Killing All the Right People," does triple duty. It's educational, it is incredibly compassionate, and it gives Julia Sugarbaker an opportunity to really lay into some hypocrites.

The story of the episode is that 24-year-old Kendall has hired the ladies to design the decor for his upcoming funeral.

Kendall embodies multiple heartbreaking stories about AIDS — stories that thousands of real people were going through at the time. He's young. His family rejected him for being gay. He's seen people with no one to turn to. He's getting substandard care. And of course he gets the "very special episode" music. 

Also of note is just how much education the show packs into 22 minutes.

The delivery doesn't always come across as totally natural, but in the space between ads for Doublemint Gum, this show manages to provide more useful information about AIDS than the U.S. government had for the initial years of the epidemic. Plus some very solid mugging by Annie Potts.

Also, Julia Sugarbaker gets a chance to tear someone's head off when another client gets super duper evil about Kendall.

And of course, this chilling line, "This disease has one thing going for it. It's killing all the right people."

These statements would seem cartoonishly evil, except the killing line was an actual thing that was said, in real life, in front of writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, while she was in the hospital caring for her mother, who got HIV from a blood transfusion. So it must have been a bit cathartic for her to write this speech for Julia.

Chastened, the client vanishes in a beige cloud. Meanwhile, there's a separate story in which Mary Jo has to debate whether public schools should provide condoms. Because this is the '80s, her opponent is an evil uptight busybody with gigantic hair.

The busybody has a brilliant solution for preventing teen pregnancy: Simply tell the teenagers to stop having so much darn sex.

Because if anything can hold back the raging sexual hormones of a teenager, it's abstinence-only education from a stock prude character in search of a Rodney Dangerfield to disapprove of.

Fortunately Mary Jo is a realist, and also a bridge between the A plot and the B plot.

Still debating indeed! The Trump administration recently cut $200 million from safe sex education but dumped $10 million into abstinence programs that produce no-sex-before-marriage PSAs like this one featuring the unquenchably fecund Palin family. Bristol Palin was paid a quarter-million dollars to appear in that ad, and went on to have a second child out of wedlock a few years later.

And hey, remember how Mary Jo mentioned that 5,000 Americans have died? Guess where that number is now: 675,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And around the world: 35 million.

Thirty-five million people dead while we're still debating.

It's crazy that in 1987, Designing Women was one of the country's best sources of medical information about HIV and safe sex. But it's even more crazy that three decades later, in some places, that's still the case. The abstinence education fantasy just refuses to go away. What the villains of this episode were saying is that people who have sex need to be punished, and that sex should lead to consequences. 

And that's the same position as today's abstinence-only crowd. No contraception, no information, no harm reduction. If you have sex, you might die, and that's the way it should be. Because you'll have died of something that's killing "all the right people."

Head over to WorldAIDSDay.org for information about events happening near you, to educate yourself about HIV, and to join the red ribbon campaign. We've been fighting HIV ignorance and stigma for over 30 years — now let's end it.

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