Desperate Housewives and Feminism

8 Feb

Is Desperate Housewives a feminist text?

Desperate Housewives is desperately confusing but desperately pleasurable. The contradictory values and ideals presented in the text emphasize the ambivalence and ambiguity contemporary women have surrounding the ideals of what a contemporary woman’s life is supposed to comprise. Desperate Housewives presents a post-feminist critique of both feminist and post-feminist values. The binary of appearance versus reality is a powerful post-feminist construction used by the series to criticise feminine oppression from several perspectives: the presentation of choices with societal expectations, patriarchy, and the false promises of feminism. This binary will be explored through a discussion of three prominent concepts in the first season, with a focus on the four main housewives. Firstly, the lack of post-feminist solutions offered for the housewives, secondly, the confusion of gender identity roles, and thirdly, the performance of reality as assumed by patriarchal society.

The pleasant exterior of Wisteria Lane serves to contradict and, therefore, emphasize the internal struggles of the four female lead characters, Susan Mayer, Lynette Scavo, Gabrielle Solis and Bree Van de Kamp. The show is a prime-time soap opera whose conventions allow it to explore contemporary political ideology.[1] It articulates a post-feminist sensibility characterized by an emphasis on the individual, neo-liberal feminine subjectivities and self-surveillance and monitoring, and choices of normative femininity and/or consumerism. The female characters function as representatives of the zeitgeist,[2] although there are still incidences where the fictional nature of some of the characters is reinforced.

Judith Lancioni argues the show critiques feminist practises from a post-feminist perspective.[3] The series confronts the oppression some women feel by the post-feminist ideals they are supposed to live up to. It deals with the realisation that not all women can have it all and do it all. The show is not only a representation of modern feminism but rather open to interpretation from certain groups which identify with the characters and life choices. Third-wave feminisms are broad with diverse and sometimes with conflicting values.[4] Desperate Housewives draws on the ambivalence and ambiguity viewers have surrounding the ideals of what a contemporary woman’s life is supposed to comprise. Carol Morgan argues the women of Wisteria Lane collectively serve as a metaphor for the gender role identity crisis of the modern day woman: ‘You cannot be a successful career woman and a stay-at-home mom at the same time. You must choose.’[5]  There exists confusion in the identity role of the modern woman. For all its idealised glossy appearances the series delves to deeper levels, not to confront, but to explore the repercussions of living a life of contradicting self identities. This is exemplified in the decision made to be a housewife resulting in dissatisfaction with the narrowed choices of that identity and its traditional constructs. Dave Hoskins argues that at no point in the show is a judgement being made about the choices these women have made,[6] rather it questions why society places such high expectations on the role of housewife; ‘…the entire point of the series is to maintain a breezy facade. However, even the apparently jokey title gives us a clue about the dichotomy that lurks beneath the surface. On the average TV show housewives aren’t allowed to be desperate…Their kids can be gay and their husbands can be serial killers, but the real taboo lies in presenting mothers’ desperation as normal.’[7] These women can choose to ‘opt-out’[8] of their career to become mothers and/or wives or vice versa, however, the framing of their changing identity as a satisfying ‘choice’ is where some of Desperate Housewives most pertinent post-feminist critique is represented.[9]Contemporary women who assume the identity of a housewife are portrayed in Desperate Housewives as experiencing a lack of post-feminist solutions to dissatisfaction with their role. By allowing viewers to experience these walking, talking contradictions in Susan, Lynette, Gabrielle and Bree it becomes clear the show is satirising the archetype of ‘desperate housewife.’ This show rarely offers feminist solutions which in a sense leaves the housewives more desperate than ever. The real challenge to patriarchal hierarchy comes from this lack of solutions. Female oppression is emphasized in the inability for the males in Desperate Housewives to transcend the homemaker and full time parent role; for example, Lynette’s husband, Parker Scavo’s, disregard for how difficult it is to be a full-time mother, “I don’t need a pamphlet; it’s not brain surgery, their just kids for god sake” 1(3). Satirising the archetype of stay-at-home mothers, through a female centric ‘gaze’, allows for the creation of popular media with a message.

The performance of the housewife draws attention to the role as being nothing more than a construct. Niall Richardson argues this is especially prevalent in the stylisation of Bree as camp. He argues that ‘far from being mere comic relief, Bree’s campness is a survivalist strategy in a post-feminist era.’[10] There is no alternative beyond performance.[11] This reinforces the lack of choices women face; they are forced to keep up appearances as  the wife, loving mother and homemaker figure and never falter from their belief in their decision.[12] Even if those appearances are kept in check to near perfection, as in Bree’s strict policing of her body and choices, it is not appreciated in the domestic sphere: Rex Van de Kamp in demanding Bree for a divorce states passionately  ‘I want a divorce. I just can’t live in this detergent commercial anymore. I’m sick of the bizarre way your hair doesn’t move’ 1(1). Richardson cites Betty Friedan to describe Bree as being stuck in a ‘“comfortable concentration camp.” He argues ‘Bree will be the ultimate Stepford Wife, thus showing…she is performing a socially constructed role within an oppressive culture.’[13] Bree’s immaculate appearance and composed performance creates a powerful contrast to her rarely shown true feelings of fragmentation at the dissolution of her marriage and her difficult relationships with her teenage children.

That Desperate Housewives is a feminist text is not irrefutable; however, interpreting the series as blatantly anti-feminist rejects the satirical nature of the series and the double- coding constructions of the characters. Luciano Di Gregorio argues “it [Desperate Housewives] ultimately does not fall within the category of television shows that are in some way subversive: the controversial events, storylines, actions and behaviours of the characters are in themselves often stereotypical in their attempt to tap into the archetypical desires of the television viewer….’[14] This interpretation suggests the text is nothing more than a guilty pleasure to be semi-attentive towards. However, Desperate Housewives was and remains a very popular show, where viewers watching the series perceive it as an event, ‘planned in advance, viewed attentively and even considered afterwards.’[15] The program does not exist in

a vacuum; it is viewed in homes, alone or with family and friends. David Self believes it is easy to underestimate the impact of drama, especially well made soap operas, whose ideas and images can ‘fester in the subconscious.’[16] A program like Desperate Housewives has anoverwhelming element of watching a guilty pleasure, which is what makes it so accessible to wider audiences and multiple readings. It is this approachable facade presented by Wisteria Lane which emphasizes the so-called ‘dirty laundry’ just under the glossy surface: the oppression of women by false post-feminist ideals. Justifying generalisations about the series as a whole embracing a particular understanding of feminism are routinely contradicted in the show and by theorists. However, a post-feminist reading of the text allows for the inclusion of both second-wave feminist and post-modernist feminisms. [17]It can be argued that the show offers refreshing representations but which often fall short of its ambition of liberating housewives from their desperation. Sayeau argues that instead issues are glossed over as nice ideas but unable to be practically applied. However, it is through the emphasis on the lack of post-feminist solutions presented to the housewives that feminist practises are critiqued. The housewives disillusionment with the societal ideals while they continue to conform to them emphasizes the ambiguity and ambivalence of the dilemmas faced by contemporary women without oversimplification of their struggles.[18] 

Desperate Housewives allows contradictory post-feminist discourses to coexist. In relation to the binary of appearance versus reality a discourse of freedom of choice, outwardly happy, sexually liberated, beautiful women contrasts with a real dissatisfaction with their lives living up to their expectations and the need to hide this discontent from the public sphere, while often allowing it to seethe away in the domestic sphere. The satirical nature of the show uses feminine stereotypes to highlight their ridiculous nature as well as the ambivalence and ambiguity contemporary women feel towards the contradictory ideals of post-feminisms.

References

Baxter, Judith (2008), ‘Constructions of Active Womanhood and New Femininities: From a         Feminist Linguistic Perspective, is Sex and the City a Modernist or Post-Modernist        TV Text?’, Women and Language, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 91-98.

Creeber, Glen (2004), Serial Television, London, British Film Institute.

Di Gregorio, Luciano (2005), ‘Disconcerting Truths: Uncovering the Values in Desperate Housewives’, Screen Education, Vol. 43, pp. 62-65.

Gill, Rosalind and Elena Herdieckerhoff (2006), ‘Rewriting the Romance: New Femininities        in Chick Lit?’, Feminist Media Studies, Vol. 6, No. 4, pp. 487-504.

Hoskin, Dave (2006), ‘Keeping Up Appearances: Desperate Housewives’, Metro Magazine,          Vol.  145, p. 160.

McCabe, Janet and Kim Akass (eds.) (2006), Reading Desperate Housewives: Beyond the             White Picket Fence, London and New York, I.B. Tauris.

Morgan, Carol (2007), ‘Gender Role identity Crisis on Wisteria Lane: Desperate Housewives       as a Metaphor for the Modern Day Women’, The Florida Communication Journal,     Vol. 34, pp. 112-118.

Richardson, Niall (2006), ‘The Politics of Camp Reconsidered By Desperate Housewives’,           Feminist Media Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 157-174.

Self, David (1984), Television Drama: An Introduction, Hong Kong, Macmillan.

Zalewski, Marysia (2000), Feminism After Postmodernism: Theorising Through Practise, London and    New York, Routledge.

Bibliography

 

Bonner, Frances (2003), Ordinary Television: Analysing Popular TV, London, SAGE        Publications.

Brunsdon, Charlotte and Lynn Spigel (eds.) (2008), Feminist Television Criticism: A Reader,        2nd Ed., Berkshire, Open UP.

Lasswell, Mark and Rob Biederman (2005), ‘103 Critics Pick the Best Shows on TV’,                   Broadcasting and Cable, July 11, p. 14.

Lyon, David (1999), Postmodernity, 2nd Ed., Buckingham, Open UP.

McCabe, Janet and Kim Akass (eds.) (2007), Quality TV: Contemporary American Television       and Beyond , London and New York, I. B. Tauris.

Weedon, Chris (1999), Feminism, Theory and the Politics of Difference, Oxford, Blackwell           Publishers.


[1] Creeber, Glen (2004), Serial Television, London, British Film Institute, p. 13.

[2] Coward, Rosalind (2006), ‘Still Desperate: Popular Television and the Female Zeitgeist’, in Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (eds.), Reading Desperate Housewives: Beyond the White Picket Fence, London, I.B. Tauris, pp. 31-41.

Gill, Rosalind and Elena Herdieckerhoff (2006), ‘Rewriting the Romance: New Femininities in Chick Lit?’, Feminist Media Studies, Vol. 6, No. 4, p. 489.

[3] Lancioni, Judith (2006), ‘Murder and Mayhem on Wisteria Lane: A Study of Genre and Cultural Context in Desperate Housewives’, in Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (eds.), Reading Desperate Housewives: Beyond the White Picket Fence, London, I.B. Tauris, p. 140.

[4] Zalewski, Marysia (2000), Feminism After Postmodernism: Theorising Through Practise, London and New York, Routledge, pp. 1-5.

[5] Morgan, Carol (2007), ‘Gender Role identity Crisis on Wisteria Lane: Desperate Housewives as a Metaphor for the Modern Day Women’, The Florida Communication Journal, Vol. 34, p. 113.

[6] Hoskin, Dave (2006), ‘Keeping Up Appearances: Desperate Housewives’, Metro Magazine 145, p. 160.

[7] Ibid., p. 160.

[8] Richardson, Niall (2006), ‘As Kamp as Bree: Post-feminist Camp in Desperate Housewives’, in Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (eds.), Reading Desperate Housewives: Beyond the White Picket Fence, London, I.B. Tauris, p. 90.

[9] Ibid., p. 90.

[10] Ibid., p. 90.

[11] Richardson, Niall (2006), ‘As Kamp as Bree: Post-feminist Camp in Desperate Housewives’, in Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (eds.), Reading Desperate Housewives: Beyond the White Picket Fence, London, I.B. Tauris, p. 93.

[12] Akass, Kim (2006), ‘Still Desperate After All These Years: The Post-Feminist Mystique and Maternal Dilemmas’, in Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (eds.), Reading Desperate Housewives: Beyond the White Picket Fence, London, I.B. Tauris, pp. 52-53.

[13] Richardson, Niall (2006), ‘As Kamp as Bree: Post-feminist Camp in Desperate Housewives’, in Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (eds.), Reading Desperate Housewives: Beyond the White Picket Fence, London, I.B. Tauris, p. 92.

[14] Di Gregorio, Luciano (2005), ‘Disconcerting Truths: Uncovering the Values in Desperate Housewives’, Screen Education, Vol. 43, p. 64.

[15] Self, David (1984), Television Drama: An Introduction, Hong Kong, Macmillan, p. 146.

[16] Ibid., p. 147.

[17] Baxter, Judith (2008), ‘Constructions of Active Womanhood and New Femininities: From a Feminist Linguistic Perspective, is Sex and the City a Modernist or Post-Modernist TV Text?’, Women and Language, Vol. 32, No. 1, p. 96.

[18] Lancioni, Judith (2006), ‘Murder and Mayhem on Wisteria Lane: A Study of Genre and Cultural Context in Desperate Housewives’, in Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (eds.), Reading Desperate Housewives: Beyond the White Picket Fence, London, I.B. Tauris, p. 141.

Baxter, Judith (2008), ‘Constructions of Active Womanhood and New Femininities: From a Feminist Linguistic Perspective, is Sex and the City a Modernist or Post-Modernist TV Text?’, Women and Language, Vol. 32, No. 1, p. 96 .

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Desperate Housewives and Feminism”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: