Sex, Love, Television – Part 1

by: Judith Halberstam / University of Southern California

Desperate Housewives

Desperate Housewives

This is Part 1 of a two-part column.

On Sunday evenings in George W. Bush's America, a place where more than half of the population does not believe in evolution, where many of those same people go to church regularly, where abortion may soon be outlawed, and where gay marriage is unthinkable, millions of god-fearing viewers pull up a chair on Sunday nights to tune into the latest episode of Desperate Housewives. What, we might ask, draws the average American viewer–someone likely to have a strong sense of the sanctity of marriage, an abiding belief in the importance of pre-marital abstinence and a rigid moral outlook–to a show about infidelity, teenage promiscuity, scandal, secrecy, murder and deceit? Indeed, as a new season is underway on Desperate Housewives and as the suburban ladies brace themselves for the new scandals that will rock their unusually violent and perverse suburban world, it is perhaps good to take a moment to ask: what is the appeal of this most American of soap operas both in the US and internationally? And why, would Laura Bush announce that she is not only a fan of the show but a desperate housewife herself!?

Following in the footsteps of other wildly popular primetime soaps like Melrose Place and Knots Landing, Dallas and Dynasty and building upon the more recent legacy of Sex in the City, Desperate Housewives offers viewers a combination of sex, family secrets, murder mystery and romance. Like Knots Landing, it builds its drama around a tight-knit community in a mythic suburban setting, and like Melrose Place and Dallas, the otherwise ordinary characters manage to embroil themselves in an unusually high number of extremely unlikely events ranging from murder to suicide to kidnappings, double-crossings, prostitution, money-laundering, conspiracies, intrigues and mad, passionate, illicit affairs. Like Sex in the City, Desperate Housewives offers viewers not one or two protagonists but four female leads and their male counterparts, and like Sex in the City, the show casts each of the women in some archetypal–the career woman, the vixen, the cynic, the romantic–role. The conceit of Sex in the City was that these women–smart, professional, urbane–did not need men in order to feel complete and instead chose to take their chances in the world of dating. This conceit wears thin quickly since the entire show is about the women's relationships with men and it becomes obvious by about Season Three that everyone of them will end up married and pregnant.

And when they do — they may turn into desperate housewives. Like the ladies looking for love and sex in the city, the women of Wisteria Lane are all smart, all self-motivated and all wise to the not-so-mysterious ways of men. Like the Sex in the City women, they also represent a range of rather predictable heterosexual femininities: the desperate housewives range from Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher), the creative type and single mom to Bree Van Der Kamp (Marcia Cross), the uptight, Republican stay at home mom, and on to Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman), the imperfect, often harried and always out of control mom, and finally, to Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria), the gorgeous trophy wife with no kids and no desire for kids. The cast is rounded out by Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), the original “perfect but desperate” housewife who kills herself in the show's opening minutes and Edie Britt (Nicolette Sheridan) the voluptuous and predatory real estate maven.

All the action happens on an almost claustrophobic studio set, and the four women, their variously messed up children and their long-suffering husbands, play dramatic set pieces about the exasperation of motherhood, the undependable nature of men, the neuroses of single women and the dangers of female promiscuity. Audiences, presumably, watch the show in part because the choreography of these crises is familiar to them: they recognize the thrust and parry of lovers' threats and promises, the give and take of husbands and wives balancing the quota of household labor, the daily drama of parents and children battling for domestic control. And if the more mundane aspects of life in the suburbs come tied to the high drama of unsolved mysteries, slowly simmering romances and perverse sexual practices, well perhaps this just satisfies a basic human urge to believe that underneath every serene and possibly dull surface lies a dark, disturbing and deeply intriguing well of secrets.

Presumably 24 million viewers in the US, and millions of others elsewhere are not drawn to Desperate Housewives for its political messages, and yet, a wholly unexpected but extremely welcome aspect of Desperate Housewives has to do with the quite overt commitment it makes to some version of TV feminism. In Sex in The City, of course, Carrie and her urban friends also delivered smart speeches about female autonomy but the feminism of Desperate Housewives is a little different since it has to cover topics like housework, divisions of labor, custody battles and pre-nuptial agreements. The most feminist narrative line in Desperate Housewives probably involves Felicity Huffman's character Lynette, a reluctant stay at home mother who has given up a high powered corporate career to satisfy her husband's desire for a large family. The show's creator Marc Cherry claims that he based this character on his mother, who told him later in life how difficult it had been for her to raise three children. In the show, Lynette gets addicted to her children's attention-deficit-disorder medication, loses control of her kids and struggles to stay afloat. She, more than any other character, with the possible exception of Susan, the single mom, regularly accuses the men in her life of being sexist and she gives viewers regular doses of liberal feminist ideas about equality and sexual objectification. Of course, the show makes sure that these feminist outbursts are rendered as individual responses to domesticity rather than as part of any collective enterprise to transform heterosexual life!

Carrie

Carrie, Sex in the City

Furthermore, many of the feminist moments on the show are also saturated with moral outrage, reminding us that this is the version of feminism that finds fellowship with the Christian right rather than the version that advocates the complete dismantling of the nuclear family. And so, for example, one of the more feminist scenes in the first season involved the openly Republican, devoutly Christian Bree Van Der Kamp and it manages to link feminism to the denunciation of pornography. Bree follows her wayward son one night to a strip club and then berates him for objectifying women saying, “Andrew, I'm curious. When you fantasize about this woman, do you ever stop to think how she came to be on this runway? That's someone's little girl. And that someone probably had a lot of dreams for her. Dreams that did not include a thong…and a pole…”

The somewhat camp rendition of Bree's anti-porn speech reminds us that the show's feminism, like the feminism on Sex in the City, is far from the radical feminism of bra-burning, international sisterhood and it is both consistent with certain religious anti-porn positions and actually filtered through not a female consciousness but a gay male lens: the creator of Sex in the City, Darren Starr, and the creator of Desperate Housewives, Marc Cherry, are both openly gay men. And it is this gay male influence more than anything that must be credited for both the inclusion of a low-level but fairly hard hitting feminist discourse and the limiting of that feminist point of view by camp and ironic punch lines which take the edge off the seriousness of the critique. In other words, audiences don't mind a bit of feminism as long as it comes with a lot of irony, camp humor and no real commitment to female bonding. Camp feminism, in the end, advocates for freedom alright but, as we see in the show, it is the freedom to shop, the freedom to hire a maid, the freedom to sleep around that is paramount…here, freedom's just another word for one more pair of shoes…

Many critics of Desperate Housewives have blamed the show's licentiousness and unsavory nature upon the “gay agenda” of Marc Cherry, and this despite the fact that according to some reports, Cherry is a conservative Republican. In fact, Cherry's framing of many of the perverse themes of the shows within a rigidly moral framework may well be one reason for the show's popularity across the political spectrum. American audiences in particular seem comfortable with themes of sex and violence as long as they come packaged as a morality play within which bad people get punished and good people get rich. But most Republican and Christian critics of the show do not find common ground with gay male Hollywood types and so while they may secretly enjoy following the dramatic developments on Wisteria Lane, in public they will cast the show as part of some gay conspiracy to corrupt, seduce and convert its audiences. If only!! While we are still waiting for the fabulous popular TV show that is capable of converting mass audiences to radical politics and unconventional genders and sexualities (Desperate Queer Revolutionaries anyone?), we can still acknowledge that the right wing identification of gay male influence in Desperate Housewives may be accurate.

Susan and Edie

Susan and Edie, Desperate Housewives

Part 2 will appear in the next issue of Flow.

Image Credits:
1. Desperate Housewives
2. Carrie, Sex in the City
3. Susan and Edie, Desperate Housewives

Please feel free to comment.

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16 comments

  • Reception?

    To me, this article raises the larger question of how do we really get at why anyone watches anything? As scholars, we can make connections between texts, about the creators, and for audiences. But without large-scale systematic reception analysis, how do we ever really know? And, can most people (most audiences) really know or articulate why (and how) they watch television?

  • Appeal or Addiction?

    I think a lot of people, like myself, watch television to take a break from the real world. It is entertaining or new and exciting to watch people live lives very different from our own. No one in television shows can represent reality totally accurately and so we take pleasure imagining ourselves in the actors’ shoes. I don’t think it’s necessarily common for people to watch shows about people they can relate to 100% because that can get boring. People do like to watch characters that have something in common with themselves so its easier to imagine being in their role but people also enjoy watching opposite life styles to their own. I can see why a “George Bush’s America” would like a show like Desperate House Wives because it is a kind of show they can respond to and disagree with. Shows can definitely be entertaining whether we agree with them or disagree. It also seems that people can be extremely critical of shows that they consistently continue to watch; there is something addicting about them. Techniques like suspense allow the show to make you come back whether you think it’s a “good” show or not. For example the first time I watched the OC I hated it but then I kept getting drawn in and became hooked.

  • Entertainment and Feminism

    I think this show draws the average American viewer because it is so different from reality. It is a fantasy world that has all the components of good entertainment. It has as Halberstam points out “infidelity, teenage promescuity, scandal, secrecy, murder, and deceit.” These aspects are what make the show so addicting because you want to know what is going to happen next. Although the show does have underlying themes of feminism, it still shows them through these housewives. Why can’t a show demonstrate feminism through women who represent something outside the sphere of housewife or business woman desperate for love (Sex and the City)?

  • Appeal of Housewives

    I think that people are drawn to this show because of how ridiculous it is. I myself have never watched this show, but after hearing so many things about it, I am intrigued. And I think this is why people are drawn to it in the first place. People would rather watch a show that involves outrageous situations and random acts of violence than a show that’s about a couple of people living normal lives. Desperate Housewives is that outrageous and random show that people want to see; something that is far from the norm. We all know how unrealistic it is and I think that’s what the basis of it’s appeal is. People want to escape to a crazy world for a few hours a week. Much like the ridiculous situations on the show Nip/Tuck, you get addicted to how crazy each episode gets and cant wait to tune into it next week to see how much more crazy the situations they get themselves into our. I believe that the appeal of this show in the begininning is the intrigue that reviews have created, but then once you start watching, it becomes nearly impossible to not wonder what else is going to happen. People dont want to see normal life, they want the outrageous and that’s what they are getting with this show.

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  • The Line Between TV and Reality

    The dichotomy between what people say and what they do is clearly evident in the article titled, Sex, Love Television. Many Americans publicly, by words, actions and their ballot box rights, state that they are anti-abortion, gays, premarital sex and any diversity in our society, but spend their leisure time watching programs such as Desperate Housewives in which the above is standard fare served up for Monday morning “quarterbacking” at the water cooler.

    Within this article we see a divergence in ideologies. Does Laura Bush define by her set of experiences of what the “desperate” in Desperate Housewives means as opposed to the fantasy being played out on the television screen? The viewers of this program reflect a range of ‘dullness” in their own suburban housewives experiences. After all isn’t the first lady the ultimate housewife, her environment is just larger and more public that the soccer mom living in Santa Cruz county. In fact the argument could be made that the titillating details of murder and intrigue are played out in all women’s lives to a greater or lesser degree. Certainly with the Scooter Libby trial coming to conclusion we can see that Laura Bush does live in a world of double crossers, international intrigue and the manipulation of all components of her life. The neighborhood mom struggles with the suburban equivalent, who does she have to cater to with her femininity, who does she have to form alliances with and who must she shun in order to get her child into the best preschool, soccer team etc.

    Women on Wisteria Lane are pulling apart and teasing us with the dramatization of the urban myth that we are above the actions they take on screen, but are we? The article is interesting in that it ties into our class discussions about women dealing with hegemony on a regular basis, at home, at work and in dealing with their children. I agree that although the TV program represents stereotypical behaviors I would argue that we could all reflect on the neighborhood carpool and find similar actions right in our own backyard. My question is do the women on TV reflect our society or are women in suburbia being influenced by this media and meeting the challenge and acting like the TV characters.

    “American audiences in particular seem comfortable with themes of sex and violence as long as they come packaged as a morality play within which bad people get punished and good people get rich.” There is a degree to which people who watch these television programs desire to be entertained by a certain amount of sex and violence on TV. But when all is said and done, people wish to see these characters as ultimately having morals and a solid foundation and have a sense of what “really matters” in life. It is the myth that American’s are truly down to earth and moral human being at the end of the day.

    Is it a rebuke of lesbianism by suburbia or a reflecting of the majority of views? If the frequently cited statistic is that 10% of the population is homosexual then would there be a lesbian attraction with only 6 main characters. Is it rejecting lesbianism or a practical nod to the majority of suburbanites? The L Word series, as described in the article, is still pandering to male gaze by creating programming that has storylines that blatantly appeal to women-on-woman actions for men to watch. The program also reinforces stereotypical femininity episodes that cater to the male fantasy of sex with two women or watching two women have sexual relations. This further subjugates women and the value, fidelity and worth of real-life lesbian relationships. It takes aware the reality of mainstream lesbian life (just as does Desperate Housewives) by glamorizing the sexual side of woman and ignoring the broader meaning of their lives. All woman and true feminity is not defined just by their sexual nature.

  • Economic Sexual Tendencies

    I can fully agree with what Judith Halberstan refers to a very wealthy right wing america and their strange obsession with radical situations which are compltely essential to the right wing platform, since Reagan’s “Family Morals” stand. This begs for the question whether the hegemonic family morals the conservative right has taken under their wing (as they represent that face to the middle america) are just a mere facade. These are the wealthiest in America, the radical conservatives are people who oppose the heavy use of government. While it is true that the working class has been claimed by a right wing movement, it can also be argued that the poorest of this demograph are indeed left. It is revealed here that the radical “unmoral” values this show exudes is very attractive and even an unbridled interest arsis within the text. This radical interest that has captivated the right wing, not only makes some hyporctical conclusions, but proves that problems and problems in all socio-economic contexts. If the right-wing America desires nothing but conservative ideals all upon the land, then certainly their lives beg for that “spice” unconventional ideals provide. It could be this loose assumption, but we also must remind ourselves that openly “flashy” sexuality also is inherent in any socio-economic context, thus when we forget the show was written by openly gay males then we fall into the spell of such fantasy and portray it as a better alternative than a moral platform. In any case, this presentation of moral hypocracy within the right wing is something that could be delved into furthermore by adressing their economic habits contrasted with their social/morality stands.

  • I have only watched this show a few times randomly, and it is a show that grabs your attention. Since is it set up to be somewhat pleasant ville like but has secrets it is appealing. all families come off to seem perfect, but under the layers they are not. viewers like to watch things they can relate to and although the events that happen in this show are far fetched, people can still relate; in the way that not all families are picture perfect.

  • Mainstream Hypocrisy in Counter Hegemony…

    Judith Habersham, of the University of Southern California (USC), sums America up in her article Sex, Love, Television as a hypocritical Christian nation. Habersham voices this through analyzing the positive ratings from Christian people who are against the themes of, but still watch the show Desperate House Wives. She promotes the question of why Christian people would want to view such a television show that incorporates themes of “infidelity, teenage promiscuity, scandal, secrecy, murder and deceit”. She eventually comes to realize that there are strong themes of religion and Republicanism, but that even Bible thumping Christians some times just purely like to be entertained by their own internal fantasies. Interesting when you consider most Bible thumping values can be disregarded so easily for entertainment purposes. It deals with hegemonic values by providing an example of counter hegemony through a Republican Christian view.

  • Marcelino Guzman

    Desperate Housewives is the new Sex and the City, it has become a tradition to tune into the show every Sunday night. The drama that unfolds on the show keeps the audience on the edge of their seats because they do not know what is going to happen next.

    But what makes it so special?

    I think that what makes Desperate Housewives so appealing to the audience today is that what happens on the show doesn’t really happen in real life. Thus, people tune in because of the drama that unfolds on the show is more interesting because it isn’t happening in their neighborhood. The reality of it is that television is entertaining especially when what is occurring on a television isn’t happening to oneself.

  • Why do ‘moral’ people watch scandal?

    People are multidimensional, and a lot of ideologies ignore the complexity of human beings. God fearing viewers watch scandal because it reflects, accurately, the twisted nature of human behavior. Desperate Housewives takes scandalous behavior to demented extremes, and the extremes make it seem less believable. Immoral behavior is, by its nature, already so believable that the show needs to work to make the scandal seem ridiculous.

    Moral ideologies reflect people’s desires not their actual nature. A lot of people desire to be ‘good’, but most people fall short of their own expectations because the expectations were never realistic in the first place. People want to watch a show that reflects their own reality, but they want the bad parts of their reality to seem less real.

  • Kailey Oppenheim

    Containment

    ABC’s Desperate Housewives is one of the most popular shows on prime time television. With a majority of female watchers, the show is created not only to entertain, but also portray subliminally how femininity is contained. Each of the four women on the show is trying to prove that they do not need men in their lives, yet they all end up in “relationships with men and it becomes obvious by about Season Three that everyone of them will end up married and pregnant.” It seems that the title “Desperate Housewives” should really be changed to “Domestic Housewives” because the women are all trying desperately to become feminists, but they are trapped in a feminine world. They continue to quit their dreams and jobs for their husbands and kids, flirt shamelessly with the neighbor, and/or demand to cook for a nice family dinner. The idea of a character being 100 percent truly feminist would scare away most of the show’s audience. The writer needs to cater to women of all different political backgrounds, and a feminist would be too progressive. Halberstam concludes that America is not ready to watch a feminist on television unless it includes “irony, camp humor, and no real commitment of female bonding.” The dominant ideology of the American female is reflected in someone who wears sexy clothes, make up, and a smiles exactly like the women on “Desperate Housewives.” Women will not progress to be independent from these ideologies by watching this program or ones like it.

  • Natasha Childress

    The article discusses women’s role in the television shows of Desperate Housewives and references to Sex and the City throughout its discussion of feminism and the role of the women on these shows. In John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, he states that “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (p.47). Berger describes this theory as a anti-feminist approach to appearances. Women may be supposedly pleasing themselves in these shows, but their ultimate goal is to make a point to the male audience and other male characters within the show. The women yearn to be watched while they put on their acts and, as Judith Halberstam states in the article, the freedom the women portray to the audience is a freedom that is caged within a feminine decorum and stereotype, “the freedom to shop…the freedom to sleep around.” Judith Halberstram also further explains her argument in this article in regards when she states that “audiences don’t mind a bit of feminism as long as it comes with a lot of irony.” In other words, the women are limited to mainstream stereotypes of women and can only portray a postfeminist view of themselves only in terms of what the public can handle, nothing too different or extreme; if the message is actually making a point other than the norm, then the show would not have high enough ratings. Overall, I think Hablerstram’s analysis is quite detailed and explicit as well as straight to the point. However, I would have liked to see her explanation on the role of openly gay men creating these shows and how it is through their “lens” that the show developed such an accepting audience more evolved; this analysis seems very controversial and important and her argument was not fully supported by this analysis. Her description overall explains the significance of the “contained” woman on television, in other words, that a female role must be limited to the accepting ideologies of society.

  • Natasha Childress

    *** Same comment with corrections made to Halberstam spelling

    The article discusses women’s role in the television shows of Desperate Housewives and references to Sex and the City throughout its discussion of feminism and the role of the women on these shows. In John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, he states that “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (p.47). Berger describes this theory as a anti-feminist approach to appearances. Women may be supposedly pleasing themselves in these shows, but their ultimate goal is to make a point to the male audience and other male characters within the show. The women yearn to be watched while they put on their acts and, as Judith Halberstam states in the article, the freedom the women portray to the audience is a freedom that is caged within a feminine decorum and stereotype, “the freedom to shop…the freedom to sleep around.” Judith Halberstam also further explains her argument in this article in regards when she states that “audiences don’t mind a bit of feminism as long as it comes with a lot of irony.” In other words, the women are limited to mainstream stereotypes of women and can only portray a postfeminist view of themselves only in terms of what the public can handle, nothing too different or extreme; if the message is actually making a point other than the norm, then the show would not have high enough ratings. Overall, I think Hablerstam’s analysis is quite detailed and explicit as well as straight to the point. However, I would have liked to see her explanation on the role of openly gay men creating these shows and how it is through their “lens” that the show developed such an accepting audience more evolved; this analysis seems very controversial and important and her argument was not fully supported by this analysis. Her description overall explains the significance of the “contained” woman on television, in other words, that a female role must be limited to the accepting ideologies of society.

    *** I corrected my spelling for Halberstram to Halberstam in the two times I made that mistake

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