What if Desperate Housewives was flashing forward not only in years, but also in its representation of race, class, gender, and sexuality? (A review)

I don’t know exactly why I continue to watch Desperate Housewives. Perhaps it is because there are so few shows to pick from that feature smart, funny, capable female leads. There are even fewer that champion female friendship over and above ‘romance’ narratives. Plus, DH has often mocked stereotypes rather than perpetuated them. It has dealt with key issues in an entertaining and often thought-provoking ways (i.e. working mothers, stay at home dads, teen sex, homosexuality, illness, ageism, interpersonal violence, workplace sexism). It has walked an interesting line somewhere between comedy, drama, mystery, and night-time soap. Yet, while it never was the most feminist of shows, if the first two shows if this season are any indication, it seems to also have lost most of its quirky humor and screwball drama style.

Regarding it’s less than f-cred worthy bits:  its way too damn white, wealthy, heterosexual, skinny, and able-bodied (but it’s hardly unique here as most shows are populated by characters of privilege). Too many of the story lines revolve a woman’s ‘need’ for a man. The ads focus almost entirely on the ‘hotness’ of the cast as does the show (well, at least for the women – anyone notice how shabby Tom looks most of the time? And how Carlos is the only one who appears to have aged in the 5 year flash-forward with his graying locks? Apparently looks only matter for those with B&V’s – boobs and vaginas).

And, there is the usual myopic view on both class and race. Everybody is wealthy on Wisteria Lane – kind of like Friends but with picket fences. And, when a black character FINALLY moved to the street, guess what? She’s was a crazy who locked up her crazy son. Other than that, to my recollection, there is no racial diversity represented on the show – except for the light-skinned Latina beauty, Gaby, and the likeable (also light skinned) criminal Carlos – you know, cuz Latino women are “hot tamales” and Latino men are all criminals, regardless of how much money they have.’

The representation of sexuality is a bit better – the show did include the long story arc of Andrew’s homosexuality and Bree’s rampant homophobia quite well. I do wish the two new male homosexuals on the block would get a few story lines of their own though rather than living on the lane as ‘the gay ones who have an annoying sculpture in their yard.’ No lesbians to speak of, yet… And, while the show indicates it is fine for women to be actively sexual and have various sexual desires, it does present Edie as an oversexed, man-stealer.

So, yes, it’s hardly a show to go shouting about from the feminist rooftops. Yet, if the season premiere was any indication, it has sunk lower than ever. I may just have to strike it off my let’s-turn-off-the- brain-for-an-hour list. Every single plotline of the premiere was broadly stereotypical in the most banal of ways. Here is a quick summation:

Gaby – She has two kids now and has gone all frumpy. Her two biggest worries are 1) the loss of her beauty and 2) her four year old daughter Juanita’s body. The focus on the ‘fat kid’ plotline was particularly heinous, perpetuating the idea that anyone not fitting stick thin standards eats way too damn much and loathes physical activity (Juanita eats “half a sheet cake” – candles and all!).

Lynette – Bad mom who worked too soon and too much when her kids were little now has two really bad teenagers. Tom is more aloof to reality than ever, worshipping his shiny red convertible while his kids run a gambling ring. This narrative is insulting to both sexes equally – it has both the ‘blame the mother’ and the ‘boys will be boys’ theme in spades.

Susan – She can’t get over Mike. Poor Susan, so so many man troubles. She is fornicating the man painting her house, but is too emotionally damaged to commit. As per usual, she has the fluffiest storyline to go along with the ‘pretty but scatterbrained and emotionally inept female’ theme.

Bree – After losing her true meaning in life, controlling her children (and grandchildren), Bree gives birth to a ‘new baby,’ a successful catering business. She controls her catering ‘partner’ Katherine, taking all the fame and glory for herself. This narrative presents the typical “cat fight” scenario where women are out to get, rather than to support, one another.

Edie – She has a crazy new husband. He is more important than she is judging by screen time. He also has her under his thumb, controlling his ‘trophy wife.’
The second show of the season was no better. Gaby proves her class snobbery hasn’t abated, lamenting that “we used to be the help, now we are the help.” She also whines to Carolos about his work as a masseuse and informs him he needs to make more money because she misses shopping. How original. Susan is placed in a triangle with Mike and Jackson (the new beau) and the men share intimate sexual details about her. Lovely. Mike, in a make-a-feminist-vomit moment, intimates Jackson is ‘pussy-whipped.’ Lynette has an Oedipus style online exchange with her son. Yes, really. And, while the show supposedly has jumped forward in time 5 years, Bree’s plotline jumps back into the previous century with Orson out of sorts because her new cookbook has her last name on the cover, not his. In order to pacify his need for her to be “Mrs. Hodge,” she calms him with the promise of a pot roast. In the closing scene of the episode, she comes home after midnight from work to find Orson sitting at the table waiting for his meal.  After being menacingly reminded by him “You promised,” she dutifully goes into the kitchen to cook said pot roast. The closing image is of her crying in frustration as she chops carrots. Nope, not kidding.

Yet, according to Entertainment Weekly’s 10/17/08 issue, “This season, the Housewives aren’t desperate: They’re avidly ambitious, like the series itself.” Yeah, if you define ambition (as the magazine does) as having your “face and derriere …remolded with some state-of-the-art doll plastic” (Edie), or doing some jealous “flame-haired fieriest jousting” (Bree), or becoming “more interestingly heartbroken” (Susan).

It would be nice if the 5 year time jump was accompanied by a flash forward to present day feminist sensibilities. Would it be too much to have smart, funny, capable female (and male) characters that didn’t rely on outmoded stereotypes and live in such tiny gendered boxes?

Unlike the male reviewer at EW, I am not finding the show or the series “avidly ambitious.” Yet, I may have to keep watching to see how low the show can sink. If it sinks any lower, it just may make Palin’s debating skills look impressive.

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Musings Renee’s Black Women Can Be Beautiful Too at Womanist Musings Professor what if’s What if Desperate Housewives was flashing forward not only in years, but also in its representation … at Professor, What […]

  2. Thank you for writing that. I made it halfway through episode three before I had to leave the room, the smell of misogyny was getting so thick. My housemate was a fan so I caught a couple more snippets — one where Susan’s son gets derided for letting Gaby’s daughter hit him (i.e. being a sissy) and, if I recall, there was quite a lot of nasty, sexual-tinged menace directed at the ‘weird old lady’ of the block (whose name I don’t remember) by Edie’s scary new husband. Very disturbing stuff. Awful

    • You are welcome!
      Yes, the “smell of misogyny” became downright overpowering! And I used to enjoy that show! If only a feminist version of DH existed — now that would be worth watching — but do you think they would have to change the title — or at least frame it around a different context — ie they are “desperate” because they live in such a damn sexist world?

  3. was searching for “what if” as I use that also. I love desperate housewives. white, yes. skinny, yes…but impossibly funny, real, and surreal..yes.
    FAT is the new ‘nigger’. Everyone one has a need to be a bigot. PC makes everything but fat-a-phobia a taboo. Oh Wait we get to hate Muslims now too, we’re so lucky. Among the best show, now cancelled was the sexist, sometimes bordering on pornographic Boston Legal. it was funny, quirky and covered all the important, real topics the press is cowering from. Like Industrialized prison, military complex….homosexuality, disabilities. In short the world is made up of variety. and it’s great to explore others views. granted now that you mention it, Desperate Housewives is inornately white.

  4. […] And – a show a title that would fit well between the pages of The Feminine Mystique – Desperate Housewives – has largely explored female identity as tied to what goes on in the home, between the sheets, and while chatting by the picket fences that populate Wisteria Lane, a block that, like Friedan’s book, is mired in white middle class heterosexual privilege. […]


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