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Sitcomfirmation: When Designing Women Took On Clarence Thomas In Prime Time

Back in late 1991, 'The Strange Case of Clarence and Anita' tackled the most infamous confirmation hearing in American history

Clarence Thomas is famous for his silence today, but the Supreme Court justice was better known for the boldness of his tongue when the first President Bush nominated him for the nation’s highest bench 25 years ago. “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” Thomas’s former employee Anita Hill recalled him asking in one of the many instances when he allegedly sexually harassed her. In fact, during his two years as her boss at the EEOC, Thomas wouldn’t shut up: about his porn predilections (rape, bestiality, a performer named Long Dong Silver) and his own (alleged) wrecker of a pecker.

The scandal that was Hill’s treatment by the Senate judiciary committee will be revisited in the HBO film Confirmation, starring Kerry Washington and premiering Saturday, April 16. Hill recently described Thomas’s confirmation hearing as “political reality TV” — a practice run for the two other sex-drenched media spectacles that would define the '90s: the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Naturally, the SCOTUS hearings reverberated through the rest of the television landscape, joked about on the usual suspects like SNL and the news-oriented Murphy Brown. Even the children’s program Dinosaurs featured an episode about workplace equality, with a character named Sexual Harris giving a female brontosaurus the wrong kind of attention for a job well done.

But the show that arguably engaged most fully with Thomas’s hearings at the time was Designing Women, about four Georgia dames at a boutique interior-decorating firm. During its original run from 1986 to 1993 (though many of us became acquainted with the show via syndication), Designing Women was a protest in sitcom form against the social conservatism of the Reagan and Bush I years, regularly showcasing eloquent rants by feminist business owner Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter). In November 1991, the show’s central quartet, along with wacky elder Bernice (Alice Ghostley) and forever-put-upon associate Anthony (Meshach Taylor), responded to Hill’s testimony of Thomas’s sexual misconduct by raucously debating what was printed on their opposing t-shirts: “HE DID IT” and “SHE LIED.”

Debuting three weeks after Thomas’s confirmation by the Senate, the episode was intended as “a valentine to all the women who felt Anita Hill was treated unfairly," according to series creator and episode writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. A time capsule of the debates of the day, “The Strange Case of Clarence and Anita” reveals Hill’s handling by the media and the politicians who questioned her veracity to be even worse than we remember it today. And despite the limitations of the show’s built-in feminism, the half-hour installment suggests how the current support for sexual-assault survivors finds its roots in the pro-Hill activism then.

Set on the day of Thomas’s confirmation, “Strange Case” is devised for maximum catharsis. Ditzy bumpkin Carlene (Jan Hooks) and bratty socialite Allison (Julia Duffy) raise objections to Hill, setting them up for Julia and Mary Jo (Annie Potts) to knock them down. (Hooks and Duffy had replaced original cast members Jean Smart and Delta Burke by then; the episode can be found on the Season 6 DVD.)

The half-hour is stuffed with applause lines, but what stands out a quarter of a century later is the shocking gullibility and superficiality of Hill’s opponents. Anthony points out that the American Bar Association deemed Thomas “barely qualified” to serve on the Supreme Court, but what’s on trial for the rest of the country isn’t just Hill’s character, but her physical appeal, i.e., whether she’s good-looking enough to merit sexual harassment. For Carlene, Hill’s accusations are rooted in unrequited infatuation: “Anita had a little crush on Clarence Thomas.” Bernice seems to agree: “He’s just as cute as he can be.” Allison grants that “Miss Hill is attractive,” adding, “The way some of these feminists look, they should be grateful for any kind of attention they get.”

These fictional women were hardly an anomaly: The show notes that the majority of American women believed Thomas, not Hill. When the law professor wasn’t accused of lying, she was gaslit. “Women who accuse men of these kinds of things are delusional,” says Mary Jo, sarcastically repeating a psychiatrist who spoke out against Hill.

Potts simply destroys as the once-shy Mary Jo is overtaken by scornful rage. The absurd conspiracy theory of Hill coordinating an attack with the ACLU and NOW against Thomas by making shit up is given the withering burst of logic it deserves: “Wouldn’t I have loved to be a fly on the wall for the conversation [when those groups pitched their plan to Anita Hill]? ‘Miss Hill, we know you’re a conservative law professor out here in a little town in Oklahoma, and the thing is, we’re trying to get rid of a Supreme Court nominee. And what we’d like you to do is, if you could just come into Washington — bring your mom and dad and just say a couple of things on the national TV, something just like, oh, well, if you could just give a little description of a little porno film called Long Dong Silver, and if you could graphically describe Thomas’s private parts, and cap it off with a little story about a pubic hair on a Coke can. And you do realize, the penalty for perjury is 20 years. Miss Hill, what do you say?'” Later, Potts gets the half-hour’s only really funny line — it’s more a nod-along-while-pumping-your-fists kind of episode — when she unleashes her feminist anger while dressed as Bette Davis’s deranged, flour-faced former child star in the camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? for a play.

Not all elements of “The Strange Case of Clarence and Anita” have aged as well. Carlene’s praise of Thomas, “I think that he is incredibly articulate,” is simply embarrassing. (Though the character is meant to be an agreeable dummy, the lack of a laugh track after this line suggests Bloodworth-Thomason meant this compliment sincerely.) And because the show centers on four white women, the perspectives of African-American women are never represented. The cast’s one black character, Anthony, is deployed to attack Thomas’s playing of the race card. (The Supreme Court nominee infamously called his confirmation hearing “a high-tech lynching of uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”) But it’s also important to contextualize Hill’s harassment against the historical backdrop of sexual violence against women of color and the silencing thereof in the black community. (Hill was accused by some of race betrayal for speaking out against Thomas, only the second African-American judge to be nominated for the Supreme Court.) There is no mention in the episode of then-Senator Joe Biden’s decision to ignore the other black women who would have corroborated Hill’s testimony about Thomas, nor of the swell of support for Hill from African-American women.

Julia and Mary Jo eventually find solace in dressing up as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, “two of the toughest-talking, big-shouldered broads ever to live in this country.” But Bloodworth-Thomason leaves her audience outraged by ending the episode with news footage from the hearings, with politicians doing the very thing they accused Hill of: lying through their teeth. “None of us wants to discourage women from coming forward with charges of sexual harassment,” says one, without a trace of self-awareness. “The testimony of Professor Hill in the morning was flat-out perjury,” says another to her face. Others accuse her of various pathologies. At Thomas’s swearing-in ceremony, President Bush inadvertently exposes the great injustice done to Hill by pronouncing, “America is the first nation in history founded on an idea: on the unshakable certainty that all men are created equal.” The final shot, of a fatigued Hill with her eyes closed, devastates.

But Hill’s legacy isn’t defeat or exhaustion — it's action. Her calm explanations in front of the Senate committee of what sexual harassment actually is — Designing Women also provides a couple more examples — galvanized real-life women to increase reports of sexual misconduct in their own workplaces nearly threefold within six years of her testimony. And Hill’s bravery — and questioning by a row of white men — inspired many more women to run for office in the following years.

And decades before #IBelieveWomen became a hashtag, it was the rallying cry for Hill’s supporters. Now, it’s a feminist tenet to trust that girls and women are telling the truth when they report sexual assault — and they overwhelmingly are. It’s been a long and grueling campaign to take women at their word. As a top-rated series with an influential afterlife, Designing Women contributed enormously to that fight by finally letting ladies have their say.