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A few years back, Cosmopolitan ran an article titled “Meet the New Housewife Wanna-Bes,” in which young professional women described their desire to marry, quit their jobs and pursue “the new domestic dream.”
Erica, a 23-year-old investment banker, wanted nothing more than to “marry that cute associate two cubicles down and embark on a full-time stint as his housefrau.” This was back in the days of Sex and the City, when marriage was still a lovely fallback fantasy on television.
If only Erica had known.
Right now we’re inundated with dramas about the married woman, and “domestic dream” is hardly the vibe.
If yesterday’s hit show Sex and the City was about single women who seemed to want desperately to be married, ABC’s current Sunday-night smash Desperate Housewivesis about married women who would, by all appearances, be better off single.
Trapped behind the hedges of affluent suburban Wisteria Lane, the five female leads experience life and marriage through a haze of infidelity, loneliness, thwarted ambition, sexual dysfunction and drug addiction.
Gabrielle cheats on her husband with the teenage gardener. Bree terrorizes her family with her perfectionism. Susan sets slutty Edie’s house on fire in the course of their competition over a man, and Lynette, who opted out of her high-powered career but cannot seem to keep up the pace as a housewife, steals her children’s ADD pills.
The show is posthumously narrated by a sixth neighbor, Mary Alice, who shot herself in the pilot episode, leaving behind a secret buried beneath her swimming pool and a stubborn bloodstain on her nicely lacquered floors.
“I performed my chores. I completed my projects. I ran my errands,” Mary Alice says by way of explanation, in a voice-over that perfectly captures the show’s cheery, neo-Stepfordian fatalism. “In truth, I spent the day as I spent every other day, quietly polishing my life until it gleamed with perfection.”
The plotlines of Desperate Housewives unfold with such camp, glamour and gleeful bad taste (a nosy neighbor discovers Mary Alice’s body, then rushes home to peel her name off of a borrowed blender; let no one say there’s not a bright side to suicide!) that one might be inclined to dismiss the show’s portrait of domestic dystopia — if not for the fact that it is echoed by the current crop of “reality” TV shows that also explore the plight of the housewife.
Take ABC’s Wife Swapand FOX’s Trading Spouses, in which two wives from different backgrounds swap places and problems (the shows are so alike that ABC has sued FOX for copyright infringement). The camera follows each woman as she performs her counterpart’s routine, exposing the dirty laundry (literally) and zooming in on quirky behavior, small cruelties and moments of quiet despair.
Because the entertainment hinges on conflicts that emerge from pairing and swapping contradictory characters, both shows tend to reduce the women and their families to types, pitting slobs against control freaks, spendthrifts against killjoys, and hardworking Cinderellas against spoiled heiresses.
Although the “characters” follow carefully edited narrative arcs in which they supposedly come to better understand themselves and appreciate their spouses, both shows’ allure — like that of the sudsy Housewives — lies in showing us the hysteria behind the hedges. As on Desperate Housewives, the “new” wives take us inside private spaces, inevitably turning households upside down in revealing and sometimes dismaying ways.
In one episode of Wife Swap, Wife No. 2 forced her counterpart’s “house husband” to burn his would-be actor résumé and seek work as a janitor. In another episode, a stay-at-home wife who took the place of a spoiled heiress dismissed the household’s multiple nannies. Husband No. 1 inquired — seemingly in earnest — whether they would be taking the children with them.
Meanwhile, two new reality shows, ABC’s Supernannyand FOX’s Nanny 911, bring in British child-care “experts” to instruct the poor American housewife in parenting. Supernanny’s website sums up the zeitgeist: “Are your kids driving you nuts? Is your house a zoo?”
“These days, with the political emphasis on family values and the so-called opt-out revolution making headlines, there’s a ‘send women back to the home’ vibe,” says Deborah Siegel, director of special projects at The National Council for Research on Women, a coalition of women’s research and policy groups. “Only, as the TV shows seem to be telling us, once you open up the doors and take a closer look, life inside that house is not always so great.”
With such matrimonial exposés dominating the airwaves, only one mystery remains: Why would anyone want to buy into this mess in the first place? In fact, the one group that does want to buy in — gays and lesbians, whose right to marry was recently denied by voters in 11 states — spotlights a reason for our current fascination with marriage: The American family is changing, dramatically, right beneath our noses.
In recent decades, we’ve redefined family in enormous ways. The so-called traditional family — married heterosexual parents with children, which policy-makers have long held up as the ideal — is quickly becoming a relic of the past.
According to the most recent U.S. census, just over half of American households consist of married couples, and less than a fourth of American households are made up of nuclear families (down from 39 percent in 1990). More than half of American marriages will end in divorce (52 percent), the number of single mothers has shot up, and the number of children born out of wedlock has reached 33 percent — up from just 4 percent in 1950.
Women now marry on average five years later than they did in the mid-20th century (now it’s at age 25) and, in part because of delayed marriage, over a quarter of households now consist of singles living alone. Finally, between 1990 and 2000, the number of unmarried couples — straight and same-sex — living together out of wedlock rose by 72 percent.
Conservatives have framed these statistics as a crisis of moral values, with modern beliefs clashing against and threatening to destroy the traditional American family. In essence, this is what Desperate Housewives captures so well: The drama takes place not so much between the five women as between time periods and conflicting generational ideas of marriage.
The main characters are 21st-century women, with 21st-century wardrobes and attitudes, but they’re dropped into 1950s suburbia, or at least into the Hollywood sets of 1950s TV shows about suburbia (the dozen or so houses on Wisteria Lane are repurposed facades; Beaver Cleaver’s actual TV house now belongs to Mary Alice’s family).
Even as they languish in their retrograde cul-de-sac, the women of Wisteria Lane resonate with the history of the last 50 years — feminism, the sexual revolution, the struggle to balance family and career, even the impact of Martha Stewart.
Sly juxtapositions, along with the show’s many product placements, remind us of the telescoped time frame: Bree seduces her husband wearing nothing but a bra and panties under a fur coat, recalling Liz Taylor’s get-up in Butterfield 8, circa 1960, only now the underwear is La Perla. Even the show’s title, Desperate Housewives, recalls the subjects of Betty Friedan, while at the same time sounding a campy, erotic tone.
It’s as if we’re watching a hypothetical experiment: How would June and Ward and Ozzie and Harriet have fared under today’s terms of matrimony? Or, more generally (and conservatively) stated: Are modern values destroying the traditional American marriage?
It’s been reported, in tones of mystification, that Desperate Housewives is rated first and fourth, respectively, in red-state Bush bastions Atlanta and Salt Lake City, where “moral values” are supposedly of greater concern — but should this be surprising? Shouldn’t red-state viewers be all the more inclined to watch a show that dramatizes a conservative argument?
Of course, the drama playing out on our television screens, like the greater ongoing national debate on marriage, is more of a clash of mythologies than of historical truths. As Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (Basic Books, 1992), points out, the happy 1950s household represented by Ozzie and Harriet or the Cleavers — male breadwinner, stay-at-home mom — was neither traditional nor accurate. It was a relatively new domestic arrangement, and the Father Knows Best facade was just that: a cover-up for a quite different reality.
In fact, 50s families often had two standards of living — one for male household heads and another for wives and children. Wife-beating was tolerated by authorities and spousal rape was legal through the 1970s. Drug use was widespread, as was prostitution, and the virtuous chastity of the times is widely misunderstood: Terms like “going steady” and “petting” described not innocence but sexual exploration by teens.
Plenty of unmarried girls became pregnant, but they were sent away and came back “rehabilitated” virgins, or felt compelled to marry (the number of pregnant brides skyrocketed mid-20th century). Above all, marriage in this era was hardly ideal for women because they were economically and reproductively dependent upon men.
“It’s these women,” says Coontz, “who were the truly desperate housewives.”
If we’ve mythologized the past, we’re equally apt to misinterpret the present. Our high divorce rate, for example, may indicate that indeed marriage is failing more people. Or, as Nancy Cott, author of Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Harvard University Press, 2000), points out, it may simply reflect the fact that people live longer now than in previous centuries. A few hundred years ago, when people died (or were widowed) in their 40s, divorce was less of an issue. And those spouses who did part ways were less likely to bother with divorce.
If conservatives see American families as being in a state of crisis, it’s equally possible to see the changing marriage statistics as signs of opportunity — the result of economic and cultural shifts that have made marriage less mandatory, less desirable even.
Feminism, the sexual revolution and the Pill — along with new ideas about family in general — have given us additional ways to organize our lives and families. My grandmother, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa, often spoke of getting her “Mrs.” degree; today she might have chosen to go to graduate school as well. Gays and lesbians who might once have spent a lifetime in the closet now have the possibility — in Massachusetts , Vermont and Canada , at least — of official recognition, and the myriad rights and responsibilities that come with it.
“Marriage has changed more in the last 30 years than in the last 3,000,” says Coontz, whose forthcoming book explores the institution’s changes (Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage, Viking Adult, 2005).
The biggest change is that we now have much higher expectations. Only in the last century have we come to expect emotional and sexual fulfillment from marriage (love used to be viewed as a potential impediment), and only in the last 30 years have women enjoyed a degree of independence from their husbands.
“Marriage is harder today,” Coontz adds, “because it’s more optional. There are more choices. The very things that make it better also make it more difficult, and vice versa. It’s precisely because marriage can be more fulfilling today that it’s more of a struggle.”
So Housewife Wanna-Bes be warned: Wisteria Lane may be just the tip of the iceberg.