FEATURES | spring 2005
Desperately Debating Housewives
Two of our favorite media mavens, Jennifer L. Pozner and Jessica Seigel, mind-wrestle
over the hottest new TV series, Desperate Housewives. Is it good feminist fun, or sexist backlash?
Let the emails begin …
Say it ain’t so! I hear you love Desperate Housewives, ABC’s hit series that cynically reinforces sexual, racial and class stereotypes. If that’s true, you’re in some questionable company.
On the episode of CNN’s Crossfire during which he mocked “grouchy feminists with mustaches,” Tucker Carlson praised Housewives as “good entertainment.” Washington Times columnist Suzanne Fields described it as “sophisticated, edgy television for the era of the values voters who kept George W. on Pennsylvania Avenue.”
It’s no wonder right-wing culture warriors such as Carlson and Fields love a show whose worldview harks back to a time when two-parent, middle-class families could comfortably thrive on single incomes, women’s identities were primarily determined by the men they married and the children they raised, and husbands were not expected to trouble themselves with such pesky matters as child care and housework.
Housewives’ Wisteria Lane is even set on the same Hollywood back lot where Leave It to Beaver was filmed.
Hyped as a cunning parody, Housewives is light on actual satire and heavy on the sorts of cultural clichés that play well at red state country clubs. Of the four main characters, three are white, all are wealthy and only one has a job — divorced mom Susan (Teri Hatcher), supposedly a children’s-book illustrator. The only nonwhite wife, Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), plays into every tired cliché about oversexed, “spicy” Latina gold diggers.
On Wisteria Lane, female friendships are shallow and only superficially supportive, and the rare woman who doesn’t conform to an ultrathin, waxed ideal of beauty gets strangled in her kitchen (literally, as happened to a plump, nosy neighbor).
Jessica, when you find yourself enjoying a show that the Chicago Tribune encouraged readers to watch by saying, “Women viewers may find it offensive to wives, mothers, suburbanites and feminists alike. Definitely stay tuned,” it may be time to reevaluate your analysis. Is there something I’m missing?
* * * *
Dear Desperately Hating,
Yup, you’re missing plenty, Jenn, like the delicious Sunday evenings I spend coffee-klatching with my best friend over this madcap send-up of the Leave It to Beaver American dream. This show doesn’t “hark back” to the past — it skewers the myth of motherhood and suburban bliss with Feminine Mystique-inspired irony so sly that conservatives are as divided as liberals over whether to love it or hate it.
Its stealth feminism has not been lost on the “values” crowd, including Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association (AFA), which predictably denounced the show as immoral. Not surprisingly, Wildmon’s group condemned its adulterous antics but not the murderous ones, singling out Gabrielle’s affair with a hunky teenaged gardener. Disgusting, isn’t it? Adult women finally get to ogle hottie jailbait without feeling like Mrs. Robinson — a visual droit du seigneur long enjoyed by men.
Yeah, adultery is bad. I’m against it. But girl talk? The AFA condemns that, too, as spokesman Randy Sharp told the Chicago Tribune: “Our objection to Desperate Housewives is that … discussion of intimate details between individuals is open for ‘girl talk,’ for lack of a better phrase.”
Real ladies, we know, shut up and suffer in silence. Girl talk, in fact — formalized as consciousness-raising groups — helped fuel the women’s movement. The personal was political, then and now. Desperate Housewives dramatizes the “Second Shift” realities of an America in which even full-time working women do most of the housework and only 5 percent of men take primary responsibility for child care. Girl talk is subversive, and it’s the emotional heart of Housewives, as our four heroines lean on each other to navigate troubled marriages, divorce, children and romance.
Male characters are peripheral on the show, which has resurrected the careers of three fine actresses over age 40 — a rarity on sweet-young-thing-obsessed prime-time television.
I think you confuse the starring quartet’s longtime, sometimes ambivalent friendships — as in real life — with their spicy conflicts with secondary characters such as the neighborhood biddy (true, the only fatty). Still, when men fight we call it politics; when women fight, it’s derided as backbiting or catfighting — words that denigrate females jockeying for position and power.
This show exposes a Diary of a Mad Housewife reality and the power of sisterhood. For example, when former corporate honcho Lynette’s (Felicity Huffman) four unruly children make her suicidal, she confesses to her buddies that motherhood is driving her crazy. “Why don’t they tell us this stuff?” she whines. “Why don’t we talk about this?”
So they talk. When we finally get a prime-time hit about women’s domestic struggles — previously relegated to sappy daytime soaps — why is it a lightning rod for everything wrong with TV and America, including racism, classism and lookism?
Jenn, come on, join our coffee klatch — but no talking except during commercials. Can’t you see the winking subversion beneath the impossibly thin, nouveau-riche facade? Or are you lining up with family-values conservatives on this one, like some feminists did in the 1980s antipornography movement?
* * * *
If you want “family-values conservatives,” don’t look to me — look to Desperate Housewives’ creator Marc Cherry, a gay Republican who believes the real problem facing today’s postfeminist women is too much freedom.
As he told the Contra Costa Times, “We’ve reached the point where we realize that no, you really can’t have it all … Long ago, it used to be easier: Society laid down the rules for you. Now, there are a lot of choices, but sometimes choices can lead to chaos.”
Where, exactly, does the “skewering” come in? Certainly not from the show’s majority-male writers, or from its creator, who says Housewives is darkly comic but not satirical.
“Satire sounds like you’re making fun of something. And the truth is, I’m not making fun of the suburbs,” Cherry told The Associated Press, adding to Entertainment Weekly, “I love the values the suburbs represent. Family, community, God.”
But since “stuff happens,” the “fun” comes from watching women “making bad choices” and suffering the repercussions. That’s not “stealth feminism,” it’s just vindictive. Nor is it new — the Right loves punishing female sinners. Sadly, you’re buying into regressive stereotyping gussied up as female empowerment.
It’s fabulous that it illuminates the frustrations accompanying stay-at-home motherhood. But while writer Ellen Goodman points to Lynette as a “signpost of a slowly changing society” and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette branded her a “Generation’s Truthsayer,” they (and you) are ignoring the show’s fundamental premise that child care is solely women’s responsibility. Doesn’t it bother you that Lynette is the very model of silent suffering?
In a key flashback, she nods in queasy acquiescence when her husband tells her to quit her career to stay home with her babies. And no matter how low she sinks under the pressure of raising four kids — popping their ADD pills, self-medicating with red wine — she never asks her husband to share the burden.
As the former hostess of weekly Xena, Warrior Princess and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer parties, I’d happily join a coffee klatch centered around subversive, kitschy girl power. Friendships between intelligent, fleshed-out female characters were powerful enough to save the world on those shows; in contrast, the Housewives keep secrets from — rather than lean on — each other.
Look, I appreciate a good comedy as much as the next gal, but this show is more dangerous than a simple guilty pleasure — it’s backlash humor hawking conservative ideology. For example, biological determinism explains a PTA mom’s backstabbing behavior:
“It hasn’t really changed since Girl Scouts. Girls smile at you to your face, but then behind your back they make fun of you,” Susan complains.
“That never would have happened in Boy Scouts,” answers Lynette. “A guy takes his opponent on face-to-face, and once he’s won, he’s top dog. It’s primitive but fair.”
“Isn’t it sexist of us to generalize like this?” Gabrielle asks.
“It’s science, Gabrielle,” says Lynette. “Sociologists have documented this stuff.”
“Well, who am I to argue with sociologists,” Gabrielle shrugs.
This is what passes for “girl talk” on Wisteria Lane — too bad it sounds so much like the Best of Dr. Laura.
Desperately Missing Roseanne,
* * * *
At least we agree that Desperate Housewives is “darkly comic.” Webster’s says comedy is “the representation of human error and weakness as provocative of amusement.” That means screwups and bad choices — which you seem to see as “vindictive” to women. Does that mean Jerry Lewis, the Marx Brothers and Three Stooges are “vindictive” to men?
But I won’t suggest you “lighten up,” because “Can’t you take a joke?” is often used to undermine legitimate social critique.
Instead, I will deconstruct the joke. On Desperate, we’re in the land of camp, that often gay, exaggerated aesthetic the late Susan Sontag so brilliantly pegged in “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964). Housewives is a textbook case, beginning with the “double sense in which some things can be taken” — a “private zany experience” for insiders.
Sontag’s characteristics of camp also include exaggerated sex roles, shallow characters, overweening passion, heightened glamour, even pleasure in the “psychopathology of affluence.” That’s exactly life on Wisteria Lane: murder, suicide, pedophilia, adultery, prostitution and drug abuse, all on one fabulously landscaped suburban street.
Desperate creator Marc Cherry — who began his career writing for another woman-centered camp classic, The Golden Girls — claims to be a gay Republican (what could be campier?) while creating a show that’s cul-de-sac Sodom.
You “got” the tongue-in-cheek aesthetic of Xena and Buffy because you liked the subject of superheroes fighting evil. I loved them too. But you’re so offended by stay-at-home moms that Housewives’ camp style doesn’t register. Yet it’s crucial. The show is not making policy recommendations about child care any more than it is recommending fornication and a multitude of sins yet to come (stay tuned!).
But enough critical theory — let’s get to the burrito sex scene, my favorite. To win back her husband, domestic diva Bree (Marcia Cross) arrives at his hotel room wearing only red lingerie under an overcoat. At that very moment, however, he is chowing down on a giant burrito. The husband takes the bait, but, no surprise, the burrito topples from the table and distracts her. His wife’s concern with a teetering bean wrap symbolizes how she makes him feel stifled.
The camera steps in as feminist, zooming in on the cheesy mess about to hit the floor. Who could think of sex at a time like that? Not us. As Infuriated Husband escorts her out, Bree quips: “Obviously you’ve never had to clean a cheese stain off a carpet.”
“You bet, honey,” I tell the TV. I’ve also urged Lynette to go back to work part-time, even while I identify with her pleasure in feminine arts I love, like sewing. These are women’s concerns in a fortysomething woman’s world, so rarely seen on prime-time television. That’s my “zany private” experience as a feminist who believes women are good enough to be bad.
Still Loving Housewives,
* * * *
What’s with your accusation that I’m “offended by stay-at-home moms,” rather than by a show which treats them so shabbily? I’m surprised you’d dust off the tired, misguided media chestnut painting feminists as anti-mother. I never implied that mothers shouldn’t stay home if they want to (and if they can — that choice is a luxury in today’s economy).
Jess, I don’t need you to deconstruct the joke for me — I just don’t buy it. When Roseanne Barr wrestled Meryl Streep in the film She Devil, that was camp. But when a bunch of conservative guys create a show in which every female character is portrayed as self-indulgent and incompetent, that’s just good old-fashioned Hollywood crap.
Can you really be so elitist as to think that burrito stains and arts and crafts are the “woman’s world” concerns that most deserve celluloid attention? As for Lynette’s “pleasure” in sewing school-play costumes, please — that “feminine art” drove her to drugs!
The Golden Girls played by their own rules, letting no societal code (and no man) dictate their behavior. Twenty years later, Lynette lives her husband’s choices, Gabrielle trades sex for jewelry, “good girl” Susan is pitted against the “town slut,” and Bree would rather keep a cheap motel’s carpet clean than have an orgasm.
Yet that’s why corporate media finds Wisteria’s women so appealing. Remember when Time cited neurotic, micro-miniskirted Ally McBeal as the poster girl for the supposed death of feminism in 1998? Seven years later, it’s the same old story: Reviewers from The Washington Post to The Jerusalem Post insist Housewives represents “reality” in a “typical” American neighborhood, and proves feminism has “failed” or been “killed.”
By the time Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil paraded around “Real-Life Desperate Housewives,” I was ready to throw up. This show and its ’50s politics are being used against us; don’t confuse that with feminism.
At least Buffy’s on DVD,
* * * *
Dear Jenn —
You have tried to indict Desperate Housewives and its fans with charges of male oppression and elitism. I beg to differ.
Hardly a male cabal, the Desperate writing staff is one-third female — slightly exceeding the percentage of women in the Writer’s Guild of America, and much higher than that of, say, the popular sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond (only one of 10 writers is a woman this season).
As to elitism, in today’s economy, stay-at-home parenting is no “luxury,” as you claim, but a savings for many families, considering child-care costs, income taxes and commuting expenses. So much for Housewives = haute bourgeoisie.
You also imply that sewing is elitist. Careerism and girl-power fantasy blind you to women’s real experience and history. I learned sewing from my grandmother, who learned from her mother, a seamstress. Making my own clothes is a proud working-class legacy.
Yes, the backlash scolds women. But so do you. You cherry-pick grievances, first faulting a character’s “silent suffering,” then branding the Housewives as “self-indulgent.” Which is it? Neither. They’re cartoon characters. This is high camp, which Sontag calls a multilayered “mode of enjoyment, of appreciation — not judgment.”
You’re still welcome to come over for Desperate night — I’ll teach you to sew (during commercials). We’ll start simple: maybe an apron.
Yours in stitches —
Join the debate!
Jennifer L. Pozner is executive director of Women In Media & News and conducts presentations on television and gender. Formerly, she directed the Women’s Desk for FAIR.
Copyright © Ms. Magazine 2009