ABC Studios, Walt Disney’s main television studio, struck a gold mine when they allowed Marc Cherry to realize his concept for a television show that features four married women living in suburbia. And after some debate on the show’s title (some ABC executives wanted to revert to less debatable names Wisteria Lane or The Secret Lives of Housewives), Desperate Housewives premiered on 03 October 2004 to an audience of 21. 3 million.
The show continues to hold an American viewership of almost the same number for four seasons now (with the number declining to a still strong 18 million), and also maintains a good hold of worldwide audience share at 115 to 119 million viewers (TVSA News Desk, 2007). Admitted fans of the ABC bet are popular female figures Oprah Winfrey and First Lady of the United States Laura Bush (Brioux, 2005; USA Today, 2005). More testament of the show’s ingenuity is the numerous awards it has bagged in the past three years: Emmys, Golden Globes, Screen Actor Guild Awards, and People’s Choice – all of these have been awarded to the show.
Desperate Housewives even bagged the 2006 TP de Oro for Best Foreign Series and the Golden Nymph at the 2007 Monte-Carlo TV Festival. (Internet Movie Database Inc. ) Yes, Desperate Housewives is undeniably a television program of immense popularity and brilliance. Every episode of this series gives us a glimpse into the lives of Bree, Edie, Gabrielle, Lynette, and Susan – housewives residing in Wisteria Lane of fictional American town Fairview.
Desperate Housewives, which was initially rejected by HBO, CBS, NBC, Fox, Showtime, and Lifetime and exported to numerous countries including UK, Australia, South Africa, Denmark, Ireland, and some parts of Asia (O’Hare, 2005; Pinto, 2005), has now become a household name. As such, it now merits some scrutiny. It is hard to pinpoint whether Desperate Housewives is a drama or a comedy show – it is at times full of the elements that typify a dramatic program: characters and settings are chillingly realistic and they interact with conflicts presented by their own personalities, others, or forces of nature.
But often, the show will also burst into comedic relief and send out laughter coupled with aspects that define a comedy (such as plots and characters that are deeply rooted in middle-class America and that have the ability to invoke viewers’ sympathy). Yet the comedy is not always upfront. Admittedly a dark comic, Desperate Housewives will sometimes present storylines that are chilling and full of suspense. Yet even with the lack of a particular genre, one thing is certain about the show: it is a show that aims to typify how American women (or even women in general) are nowadays.
Some argue that Desperate Housewives is, despite the attempt to glorify women with its inclusion of strong female characters, a masochist’s dream come true with its presentation of women as klutzy (Susan), materialistic (Gabrielle), sluttish (Edie), and submissive (Bree). Yet there are a lot of moments in the show that make me believe otherwise. Lynette, most especially, makes for a strong argument that Desperate Housewives really embody feminist ideals. Liesbet Van Zoonen (1995) writes that the third and most recent phase of “thinking about women” has focused on defining gender in general.
She further argues that media plays a big role in delineating men from women. Couple this with Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw’s Agenda-Setting Function theory, which outlines that media has the ability to dictate what we should think about (Griffin, 1997), then there is indeed an important cause for feminists to look into the message Desperate Housewives is sending about the image of women nowadays. In this time when media shapes the consumers’ personal identity and consciousness, it is of dire importance to investigate whether a show speaks the truth of our culture or whether it communicates messages that encourage good values (Real, 1989).
Even with the show’s focus on women, ABC’s high-rating primetime show is being labeled as a show that makes a mockery of the past years’ developments in feminist beliefs. Many feminists question whether Desperate Housewives is indeed a good representation of the modern women or if it is a step back from what women have been fighting for the past years – the taking down of sexist images of women in media, granting women the right to work, and providing more opportunities for women mobility in the professional world (Van Zoonen, 1995).
Knowles (2005) goes as much as to accuse the show of representing “a definite step backwards” from feminist credentials. Jennifer L. Pozner, an executive director of Women In Media & News, demonstrates how Desperate Housewives represents a rewind to old worldviews: she highlights how the show mostly banks on portraying “two-parent, middle-class families [that] 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” (Pozner and Siegel, 2005).
Even feminist giant Germaine Greer, famous for her book The Female Eunuch, says that the women of Wisteria Lane and feminism cannot go in the same sentence (Adamson, 2005). Let us look into these known feminists’ argument. Pozner may have a strong argument when she labeled the show as something that can be dated back into the nineteenth century ideal of true womanhood. An examination of the characters in Desperate Housewives – especially during the earlier season – reveals that none of the female main characters seem to have a job and their families are living comfortably with the income from their husbands.
In season one, even power-freak Lynette, whom we slowly know as a ‘dragon’ in the workplace, was a stay-at-home mother and her husband is the one working. Her friend Bree also often shows that she is happy relying on her doctor husband’s income. So does Gabrielle, who apparently gave up her modeling career to settle down. Susan is revealed to be a writer but moments where the audience sees her writing is very rare – making one question how she can keep the household and support her daughter.
The only female who is shown to have a job – Edie as a real estate broker – has been branded the ‘town slut’. It does ring of a rewind to the cult of true womanhood, where women who deviated from the ideal (which is that women are supposed to just stay-at-home) are “critically maligned and shunned” (Gale, 2003). Other scenes in Desperate Housewives also lead one to question its advocacy to feminism. Aside from being a devoted housewife, exhibiting unnatural love for house cleaning, Bree has shown an air of submissiveness.
In one episode, it is revealed her husband Rex is very much into S&M (sadism and masochism) sex. Initially repulsed by the idea of being bound and tied while lovemaking, Bree finally gives in to what her husband fancies in order to save her marriage. The same submissiveness is seen in Gabrielle who, even as she defies stereotypes of women being meek and all chaste by taking on a lover, keeps mum even as her husband Carlos turns her into a punching bag.
Even with these contentions though, one is wont to ask whether Desperate Housewives is really not a real representation of today’s women – after all, aside from dominantly about being women, the ABC show also has some reputable defenders such as First Lady Laura Bush and Oprah Winfrey plus NYU journalism teacher and National Public Radio’s Countess of Culture Jessica Siegel. Even I have seen Desperate Housewives moments that make me believe that the show is a real depiction of what the modern woman really is.
Just look at Lynette: she is the penultimate representation of what women are supposed to be, according to feminists. Lynette is largely seen as that one housewife that truly represents a “real” housewife. Pozner may call her as the “very model of silent suffering” (Pozner and Siegel, 2005), pinpointing that episode where the show flashbacks to the time when Lynette “nods in queasy acquiescence” to her husband’s request for her to stay at home with the kids. But many writers, including Jessica Siegel, beg to differ. One particular Washington Post writer, Ellen Goodman (2004), confesses to being a big Lynette fan.
Siegel and Goodman agree on Lynette’s charms: her ability to show that despite her choice to remain as a full-time mom, she is human enough to admit that this “job” drives her crazy most of the times. She shouts to every stay-at-home mom the very truth that it is not bad to admit that looking after the kids can sometimes be tiring. And Lynette is also the very housewife who chose to slap her husband and remind him that since she can command a bigger salary, it’s best for her to “wear the pants” in the family. She exemplifies the very definition of feminism: granting women a choice. Lynette chose to be a housewife.
Lynette chose to go back to work. Lynette, all throughout the show, chooses the path with which she lives her life. Feminist movements may have differed in their rallying points the past years. At first, feminists have just wanted the right to vote. Then they asked for permission to work. Later on, they clamored for stereotypes about women to be abolished. Nowadays, there are many other feminists concerns being lobbied. Yet even with differing concerns, there is always one thing in common with what feminists are asking for: the freedom to be who they are, separate from the dictates of a usually male-dominated society.
Today, most especially, it is important for women to be able to shy away from what society has outlined for them. With the changing times, it is no longer important whether one is a stay-at-home mom or a working girl or whether she submits herself willingly to the bounds of marriage or if she opts to sleep with a man (or even different men) outside the comforts of marriage. Today, what is important is that women are given a choice and that they wholeheartedly accept this choice.
Greer (1971) said it best when she wrote, “women must learn how to question the most basic assumptions about feminine normality in order to reopen the possibilities for development which have been successively locked off by conditioning”. True enough, if women become strong enough to question what is normally delegated as “feminine” and rejecting it when the concept does not suit them, it will be a big step towards women successfully defining who they are. Desperate Housewives is the perfect picture of women being offered that choice to accept and reject the societal stereotype.
Attacks on the portrayal of an all stay-at-home ensemble are countered by assertions that Desperate Housewives does not aim to point out that being a full-time mother is the best choice but that it is a choice offered to all women, a choice that they can either take or ignore. Orenstein (2005) contests that instead of going back to old views that women should stay at home instead of helping with expenses, Desperate Housewives demonstrate the “economic and cultural shifts” that posed marriage as something that’s not mandatory or, in the case of the show, that is best achieved at a latter life.
We are all living at a time when a household cannot survive with income from just a single parent but children still need the constant guidance of at least one parent. The past years have seen lobbyists asking television executives to lower down the number of TV violence as it sometimes directly correlates to youth violence. Yet many, including David Sweet and Ram Singh (1994) of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, have discovered that the blame cannot entirely be pinpointed to those who create the media but is in fact shared by parental guidance – or the loss of it (Greenfield, 1996).
This is the reason why women have to revert back to staying at home and looking after the kids. This does not mean though that they can no longer engage in careers. They still can, they just opt to do so early on in their lives, making them comfortably able to have a stash of emergency cash when they do decide to get married at a later time of their lives. This may be best exemplified by Lynette but Gabrielle and Susan also proved that women do choose to engage in careers before eventually deciding to settle down.
Lynette furthers this point by showing that, when need be, women can also opt to decide to go back to work after marriage and demand that their husbands be the one to take care of the kids. Yes, Desperate Housewives has its own misgivings. Reading through arguments of a number of reputable writers can convince one that the show is at times a mockery of what feminists have been fighting for in the past few decades. Yet what these critics fail to see is that beyond the show’s imperfections lies the very essence of what feminism is: choice.
By painting the lives of women in Wisteria Lane, the producers of Desperate Housewives stress that while women now have the option to become career people, some still find the lure of domesticity as inviting. Now though, if they do choose to submit themselves to married life, it’s something that they willingly chose and not something to which they were unwittingly thrown into. As Ali P. Crown (1996) of Feminism and Women’s Studies wrote, “Choice is the Power of Feminism”. And Desperate Housewives effectively demonstrates this adage through Bree, Edie, Gabrielle, Lynette, and Susan.