Not Desperately Seeking Susan: Why Desperate Housewives is a step backwards from Sex and the City
When Sex and the City came to an end after its sixth series in 2004, it was clear that TV companies, having realised that shows with female protagonists could be a commercial success, would be looking for the ‘next’ Sex and the City. One year later, Desperate Housewives dominates our screens as the obvious successor. It’s even more popular – having become the top-rated show in America – and is being well received in the UK too. Before the first series has finished showing (at the time of writing, the final episode has just aired in the UK), it’s become a phenomenon.
In the way that a mention of Sex and the City would once have been a way to make female shoppers pick up a newspaper or magazine, the same is now happening with Desperate Housewives. Heat magazine, always a useful barometer of these things, has been heavily featuring the Wives as the series moved towards its finale; a recent edition featured a Desperate Housewives ‘style guide’, where you can find out how to ‘dress just like your favourite housewife’. This was a standard approach previously used on Carrie Bradshaw and friends, and, similarly, the quizzes that abound on the internet to tell you whether you are a Carrie, Samantha, Miranda or Charlotte are now available to tell you whether you’re a Lynette, Bree, Susan or Gabrielle.
the show has become a phenomenon
Like its predecessor, Desperate Housewives has graduated from being just a television programme to being a lifestyle guide; a cultural icon that describes and, more worrying, prescribes how the contemporary woman lives. When you can buy T-shirts saying ‘I’m a Bree’, Susan, Lynette etc. to denote which character you identify with, you know something significant and potentially dangerous is happening.
Do I sound like I’m scaremongering? What harm could a TV show about bored women living in suburbia do? And didn’t people complain about Sex and the City when it first aired? Well, yes, they did. In comparison, Desperate Housewives has followed a surprisingly smooth path into the nation’s affections, and this is what worries me. The relative safety of Desperate Housewives seems to be due to a toning down of some of the progressive aspects of Sex and the City. While at times during Sex and the City’s run there were spirited debates over its feminist credentials, Desperate Housewives seems to me to represent a definite step backwards. The show seems to be in its early days as yet, but here are some of the things that have worried me about it so far.
Desperate Housewives seems to me to represent a definite step backwards
Firstly, as the title suggests, this is not a show about the problems of the working woman. Working within the home is a choice still made by many women, which entails hard work and deserves respect; anyone who can manage a day at home with children and housework has my admiration. However, the percentage of women doing this is surprisingly high in Wisteria Lane, producing an intense focus on the lives of women who stay at home and establishing this as the norm in the version of suburbia the programme depicts. This leaves little room for the woman holding down a job instead of – or as well as – caring for children to identify with.
Lynette has given up her high-powered advertising career to raise her children, though this is clearly a role that frustrates and distresses her a lot of the time; Bree appears to have devoted herself to polishing silverware and producing gourmet meals; Gabrielle is a trophy wife whose boredom pushes her into an affair with the gardener. And Susan? On the show’s official website, she is described as ‘klutzy single mom’. I spent some time being puzzled about exactly how Susan supports herself and her teenage daughter, since she appears to spend most of her time mooning around the house planning to ensnare Mike, the mysterious new neighbour. Perhaps Karl, her ex-husband, supports her so well financially that she can live in a luxurious house without having to work? If so, I’m sure all the single mothers I’ve ever met would like some tips on how she swung that one. However, one of my friends with a better eye for detail than me was finally able to solve the mystery: Susan is an illustrator of children’s books. Any children’s book illustrators out there should considering suing on the grounds that the character of Susan makes a mockery of you and your profession, since a) you never see her do any actual work, and b) she can barely walk across the street without falling over, and seems generally less competent than a fairly dim ten-year-old.
So, Desperate Housewives neatly avoids depicting the misery of ‘having it all’, the dilemma of juggling a job, family and partner that is so beloved of chicklit, in order to depict something even more miserable; not only can you not have it all, but you can’t even have some of it very easily. The kind of fulfilment and self-worth that the right job can bring should be the solution for these women, but it’s one the show seems reluctant to suggest. Edie, the one protagonist who has a job that she can on occasion be seen doing (she works as a realtor, which I believe is some kind of estate agent in UK terms), is a figure of consistent derision and ridicule from both the characters and the show (more of this later), in spite of being the only woman on Wisteria Lane who seems capable of earning her own living.
women in work simply look ridiculous, and would be better off at home
One of the plots from the first series involves Gabrielle having to seek paid work, since her husband Carlos has been arrested and they are running out of money. She is so ashamed of having to take on downmarket versions of her former job as a model – including promoting new cars and beds – that she hides from her neighbours when they enter the shopping mall she’s working in. The show demonstrates that, far from having pride in their ability to earn money and look after themselves, women in the world of work simply look ridiculous, and would be better off at home, nicely ushering the protagonists back to the domestic frustrations experienced by Bree and Lynette.
Bree and Lynette are chilling examples of how women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Bree’s criticism at the hands of her family has made me feel the kind of sympathy that, for me, Annette Bening’s character Carolyn Burnham evoked in American Beauty. Early in the series her husband Rex tells her that he’s ‘sick of her being perfect all the time’ and demands to know where the girl who used to drink milk from the carton has gone. Bree’s perfectionist housekeeping and elaborate meals are mocked by Rex and her children, who seem to have no inclination to take up the thankless task of looking after themselves.
While she is undeniably obsessive-compulsive about her perfect home, it nevertheless strikes me as unfair that she gets so little appreciation for looking after her family. Surely Bree is meant to be the kind of Stepford Wife figure men really want – but no, it seems that if that’s what’s provided, men start whinging about how they prefer a Bridget Jones-like undomesticated scatterbrain. Bree is understandably perturbed by this, and that’s precisely the effect Rex wants. His approach is one commonly seen in romantic comedy, which purports to be an expression of love for ‘the “real” you’ (whatever that might be) but which actually says that there is a ‘right’ kind of woman to be, and that ‘right kind is determined by the current preferences of your partner, who will exercise control over you by defining the role they want you to play. The darkest version of this, as seen with Bree and Rex, is one where the man will always prefer you to be some other way to the way you are now. I’d like to bet that if Bree had reverted to drinking milk from the carton, burning toast and, by inference, letting Rex look after himself, he would have eventually expressed dissatisfaction with that too – a version of this happens when Rex briefly moves out into a motel, but plot events after that prevent this from being followed through.
even the Stepford Wife figure gets no appreciation from her family
The sexual aspect of the Wives’ lives is another aspect of the show that takes a distinct step backwards from Sex and the City. Edie, the ‘manhunter’ on Wisteria Lane is a much less sympathetic version, though a very much tamer one, of Samantha Jones. As someone who pursues men openly (though there is little evidence to show that she is all that promiscuous), Edie is the subject of hostility from the other women, and clearly regarded as an intruder into their charmed circle. Not for Desperate Housewives the discussions had in Sex and the City about the advisability of anal sex (but like it or not, such things are among the dilemmas facing contemporary women).
<>One plotline involves Bree’s husband seeing a local resident, Maisy, who works from home as a prostitute without her husband’s knowledge. Prostitution is a part of the family home in order to support the fiction of the perfect marriage and family. I’d like to think this was making a telling point about the nature of patriarchy and the bondage that marriage and the role of ‘housewife’ have historically been and can still be, but the comedy focused on Maisy being taken away by the cops, by Bree struggling to get to grips with S&M (Rex’s preferred sexual mode, which he felt free to indulge only by engaging Maisy’s services, rather than with his wife), and the women feverishly gossiping about Maisy’s downfall afterwards. Maisy and Edie are present as women whose sexuality can be reduced to a comic strand of entertainment for their peers, a far cry from Carrie and friends’ discussions over brunch.
On that note, another thing that strikes me as odd about Desperate Housewives is the unconvincing nature of the ‘friendship’ between the protagonists. Their relationship is different from that of the Sex and the City women, since the premise is that they have got to know one another through living in the same street. Nevertheless, the show also implies that there is a sense of genuine support and camaraderie there which, in my view, is almost non-existent.
the women’s supposed friendship is unconvincing
In one episode where Bree looks after Lynette’s children, it’s made clear that this is a very unusual event, and in fact that none of them know much about the others’ children, which seems unlikely. When Gabrielle and Carlos’s money troubles prevent them from being able to repair their bathroom, Gabrielle repeatedly makes up excuses to use the bathrooms in the other women’s houses rather than tell them the truth, in the same way that she lies about having to get a job – again, hardly the way one behaves with genuine friends. And when Lynette has been pushed to the extremes of taking Ritalin to be able to cope with her badly-behaved sons, she is, eventually, comforted by Susan and Bree, who tell her that they too have had bad days as mothers. Lynette askes, not unreasonably, “Why didn’t you ever tell me? We should tell each other this stuff!” And so they should, if, indeed, they were friends on more than the most superficial terms.
The things that actually seems to unite the Wives is hostility to others – finding out who killed Mary-Alice, ganging up on Edie, and laughing at Maisy Gibbons’s misfortune. In contrast, Sex and the City showed its protagonists sometimes disagreeing (as they did over Carrie’s affair with Big after his marriage) but usually committed to supporting one another through difficult times. As a series, Desperate Housewives is much more comfortable with showing women in competition than it is with showing them as friends.
Finally, a particularly disturbing development is the way that Desperate Housewives has quickly become lad-mag fodder. Eva Longoria, who plays Gabrielle Solis, is a prime target for these features, but recently Teri Hatcher got in on the act, being featured in FHM. FHM’s description of the show and reasons for watching it are quite different to those articulated in women’s magazines: they introduce Hatcher’s character as ‘man-hungry divorcee’ Susan (this implies a sense of purpose and organisation Susan just doesn’t have) and continue as follows:
The show [“] has proved to be Channel Four’s highest-rated debut programme of all time. It’s not hard to see why. If you’ve been foolhardy enough to dismiss the series as lady-fodder, let FHM enlighten you. The show follows five of the hottest examples of MILF-dom* ever imagined, as they come to terms with the suicide of one of their neighbours. That might sound poor, admittedly, but rest assured any contrivances of plot are thankfully padded out with a constant barrage of the fab fivesome shagging like rabbits. And none more so than the lady you see before you – indeed in one recent episode Teri spent almost all her screen time totally starkers – an essential plot development we’re sure you’ll agree. (p.115 and p.117) [* MILF = “Mom I’d Like to Fuck”]
I don’t remember this happening with the actors from Sex and the City. Sarah Jessica Parker may be responsible for boosting Manolo Blahnik’s profits and the revenues of credit card companies (and let’s not even mention those GAP adverts) but, to her credit, she never appeared in FHM. The Sex and the City protagonists were attractive but not the targets of men’s magazines, whereas it’s clear from the Hatcher interview that Desperate Housewives, in contrast, is a supposedly female-orientated show that lends itself all too readily to a male perspective.
Even though I’m amused by their exaggeration here (any FHM readers actually tuning in will be sadly disappointed in the levels of sexual activity), I’m disturbed at what seems to be happening; that a formula previously intended to be focused on women and aimed at a female audience is now being reconstructed as an object of the male gaze. Hatcher has won a Golden Globe this year for her Desperate Housewives role, yet she is quoted in the interview as being only too happy to play to the fantasies of the FHM audience:
Boys. Keep watching the show and I’ll take my clothes off in as many episodes as you’d like. (p.120)
To provide some context, Hatcher has just given an interview to the July issue of Glamour, where she comes across as a more rounded person, dealing with some of the issues seized on by the media such as the alleged fighting between the Desperate Housewives actors (another speculation first aimed at Sex and the City; after all, everyone knows women working together get on well all the time, and not to do so would be unusual enough to spark comment) of which she says, astutely, that she imagines that Anthony Eden and George Clooney must at times have disputed who would get which lines in ER, but that that has never been reported.
Hatcher shouldn’t shoulder all the responsibility here for the unappetising way her character and indeed her off-screen persona are being portrayed; also involved are not only four other actors and a production team, but a whole industry that is, increasingly, working to establish the series as a product for consumption by women that also appeases men, who might otherwise be a hostile audience. The crux of the show is in making it appeal to as many groups as possible by channelling its appeal to women through depictions of its style – so that viewers are identifying with Bree’s natty twinsets and pearls, or her lovely home, rather than the deep unhappiness she feels – and successfully labelling itself as man-friendly for all those boyfriends and husbands who groaned when their partners switched over to Sex and the City and demanded to watch Sky Sports One instead.
I don’t want to portray Sex and the City as an ideal feminist programme. For one thing, I was immensely disappointed at the show’s final decision to bring Carrie and Big back together, when the last season had shown her learning and making mature decisions about his limitations; this reduced it from a sometimes great show to one that couldn’t, ultimately, get away from its rom-com strictures. I still haven’t been able to watch the final episode again after its first airing. But having got over that last-gasp disappointment, I’m now strongly reminded of how good it could be; we can only realise what we had now that an inferior version’s in its place.
I’m sure that some people are ready to argue that all these portrayals of miserable women being punished and not really getting on with one another is actually demonstrating the real problems women face. Indeed, Desperate Housewives does show the misery of having a bunch of horrible children to deal with instead of the high-powered job you used to love (thanks for that warning, Lynette). But the lack of any sympathy between the protagonists, and from their creators, convinces me that this is a convenient excuse for making comedy out of misery; for inviting us to feel superior to these women, rather than feeling with them and hoping that they fight their way out of the mire.
I can just imagine the kind of conversation that must have taken place at the American TV network behind the show, ABC:
Exec 1: Wow, Sex and the City’s been such a big hit! Shows about a bunch of women can be popular after all!
Exec 2: Yeah, we need to get something like that together. Something that gets the magazine market going. But, you know, it means losing all the husbands to the football round-up. And I’ll have to hire an extra secretary to deal with all the letters from the anti-porn brigade who’ll be writing in the minute anyone says ‘clitoris’.
Exec 1: Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we set it somewhere less glamorous so we don’t get the guys complaining that their women are buying too many shoes again?
Exec 2: Even better. Why don’t we take out all those threatening bits – you know, the women having jobs, having lots of sex with different partners, and sticking together instead of squabbling over guys like they’re supposed to?
Exec 1: [Drooling] And we’ll pitch it that the actresses are so hot, they could do a group shoot in Playboy! But we’ll keep them in twinsets for the actual episodes, so the women’s magazines can keep selling that crap about how the ladylike look is in again. They like that.
Exec 2: But remember, most of all, don’t put in any plot ideas where they have any fun without guys around. That only leads to trouble.
Exec 1: Gotcha. [Picking up phone] I’ll get on to the production team now…
Mission accomplished. Tune in next year to see what Susan does next.
FHM, April 2005.
Glamour, July 2005.
Heat, 4-10 June 2005.
Jo Knowles is thinking twice about moving to suburbia.