Marriage as the New Trend
Many critics have noted television’s zeitgeist-affirming shift from the urban singles of Sex and the City (all neatly coupled off by the show’s end) to Desperate Housewives’ suburban marrieds. Indeed, a closer look at contemporary television reveals that marriage and motherhood have never been so desirable. While 1950’s media normalized domestic life, husbands and children have become today’s must-have luxury item, both ubiquitous and somehow not easily attainable, especially for women. This tendency is not confined to the small screen: October’s Vogue features cover-girl Gwyneth Paltrow speaking out “On Marriage, Motherhood and Making a Comeback” with her career, naturally, coming in third place. Elsewhere the issue includes spreads on “Super Brides” and a fashion feature starring super-model, super-aristocrat and super-mother-of-four Stella Tennant on her Scottish estate. Tellingly, the magazine’s nostalgia column (on 1970’s working-girl fashions) is titled “The Feminine Mystique.”
Current television shows glorify marriage and motherhood in a variety of ways, presenting them as alternately hip, comforting, rare and hard-to-find, under attack, and even a little rebellious. New shows like CBS’s How I Met Your Mother present single life as from the perspective of a married man in 2035 talking about his youthful search for a wife. CBS’s crime procedural, Close To Home, focuses on a new mother/prosecutor who has to deal with her unsympathetic childless female boss. Even Lorelei from WB’s The Gilmore Girls finally wants to be married, but she’s the one who has to ask for it. And then there’s reality TV, from UPN’s Chaotic to Bravo’s Being Bobby Brown and MTV’s Newlyweds, perhaps the granddaddy of them all.
From My Fair Brady
VH1’s current Sunday night “celeb-reality” shows play with this constellation of desirable, difficult to attain, and dangerous marriage. My Fair Brady focuses on Adrianne Curry’s efforts to persuade her much older boyfriend, Christopher Knight (aka Peter Brady) to marry her. The winner of America’s Next Top Model, season one, Curry repeatedly asserts that she does not want a casual relationship, as she walks around naked, showers with her best (female) friend, and dresses up in S&M outfits, underscoring that her overt sexuality and dangerous edge are compatible with today’s racier marriage. The far more harrowing Breaking Bonaduce depicts fellow former child-star, The Partridge Family‘s Danny Bonaduce, and his wife Gretchen undergoing marriage counseling. Faced with the possibility of losing his wife, Bonaduce injects steroids, chugs alcohol, becomes violent and cuts his wrists. Both Bonaduce and Curry despairingly speak to the camera about their single-minded desire for stable, traditional marriage and parenthood, as they remind us of their histories with drugs, rebellion and self-destruction.
A suitably knowing, postmodern show, Desperate Housewives engages with these current trends and the representations of femininity and sexuality that preceded it. Most obviously, its casting makes it a quasi-update of the iconic 1990’s night-time soap, Melrose Place. Marcia Cross, a Melrose fan-favorite as psychotic, love-hungry Dr. Kimberly Shaw, (who has her own schizoid housewife alter-ego, Betsy) has become Housewives’ uber-married (then widowed), uptight and possibly similarly deranged Bree Van Der Kamp. Melrose‘s sole gay resident, the nice but sexless, Matt (Doug Savant) now plays nice but professionally impotent house-husband, Tom Scavo. If Kimberly and Matt were respectively Melrose‘s most excessive and marginalized singles, ironically they are now reincarnated as the characters most defined by marriage and least able to function without it.
In another echo of Melrose, Housewives’ Tom and wife Lynette are both advertising professionals. Her (currently) unnamed boss (Joely Fisher) has Amanda Woodward’s shrewishness without her intriguing private life. In the episode broadcast October 9, 2005, she refuses Lynette time off to attend her son’s first day of school, explaining that it would be unfair on childless colleagues who have to pick up the slack. She adds that she has not even had time to go to the hairdressers in months. Although this sacrifice of personal care might evoke sympathy in Melrose or Sex and the City, it here highlights her inhumanity and reiterates the cultural shift away from single life.
Still, as any viewer of Friends or Sex and the City can attest, television has generally cast its glamorous singles in narratives of romantic disappointment. While this focus on single life granted them the visibility that is so central and validating in an image-obsessed culture, their unhappiness humanized them and evoked identification. Desperate Housewives uses a similar strategy: it makes marriage and motherhood visible while its frustrations produce sympathy, identification and comedy. This humor, in turn, offsets any critique of marriage as an institution, transforming the show into a sympathetic, media-savvy, and hip play with married women’s experiences.
It is unsurprising that television — a domestic medium — would position marriage and motherhood as fashionable, glamorous and desirable. But in the post-network age of niche markets, this involves a more complex negotiation between many different forms of marriage: Vogue-style high-end glamour, MTV’s post-modern MTV playfulness, Desperate Housewives’ camp irony, and Breaking Bonaduce‘s very absence of distance have little in common. Their only constants are the desirability and potential scarcity of marriage, a development that is enough to drive characters both real (Bonaduce, Curry) and fictional (Bree Van Der Kamp) to the edge of insanity.
Please feel free to comment.
Why is it all the sudden cool to be married? Sex and the City was the show for single women. Friends told us that it was ok to be single. Will and Grace are forever single. But now it seems like everyone is marrying off. You can even see evidence of this in advertising. Look at all the cool stuff you can get. You get to shop at Pottery Barn Kids and can drive a hybrid car to soccer practice. We see more and more celebrities “focusing” on their family lives. Is this a good thing? Is it finally appropriate to emphasize family over work and school? Is the media finally realizing that family comes first? The role of women in the home has always been prevalent in television, but is it seen more as a choice these days, rather than an obligation? Is this an improvement or are we backtracking?
This piece does a great job of illustrating the terror of singlehood unifying a disparate set of television texts. While I would see this as a trend of longer duration in popular culture (thinking about films, advertising, etc.)there’s no doubt that a number of recent tv series are keying in to this theme.
At a time when only a quarter of American households fit the traditional mother/father/children model and recent census data show living alone is the most common household arrangement, the intensity with which family life is fantasized over (if not exactly idealized) is remarkable. Interestingly, conflict between mothers or aspirant mothers and “bad” female professionals gets a lot of play in the film and tv genres directed to female spectators. Although it is impossible to say for sure given the series’ arch tone, what was striking about Lynette’s clash with her boss on “Desperate Housewives” was the seeming approval bestowed on the ambivalent mother’s scheme to burn her boss with hot coffee in order to make a first day of school video conference with her son. “Family first” rhetoric often entails contempt, pity and even rage for the uncoupled/childless while leaving unexamined institutional/corporate/stresses on family life.
Lucy, Mary, Carrie, Bree and who else?
At the beginning there was Lucy: she played a funny clumsy 1950s wife in “I love Lucy”. In episode after episode she rebels against the confinements of domestic life for women, the dull routines of cooking and housework, the petty humiliation of a wife’s financial dependence, the straightjacket of demure femininity. Her acts of rebellion, such as taking a job, performing at the club, are meant to expose the absurd restrictions placed on women in a male dominated society. In the early 1970s there was Mary, a single woman in her thirties in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. She relocated to Minneapolis determined to make it on her own. The first working woman sitcom. Beginning as a determined but uncertain independent woman, Mary Richards came to represent what has since become a convention in this type of comedy. Unattached and not reliant upon a man, Mary never rejected men as romantic objects or denied her hopes to one day be married. But she did not define her life through her search for “Mr. Right.” Rather, she dated several men and even spent the night with a few of them, a revolution for those times.In the late 1990s television presented us the independent woman: the girls of “Sex and the city”. Single women with prestigious jobs, they could have fun without worrying about a family who’s waiting for them at home. Then today there is “Desperate Housewives”, a sort of return on the 1950s confining domesticity. It seems that today is not so glamour and fashionable to be single. What does it mean? I think that the society is looking for a middle course between the 1950s confining repressive domesticity and the 1970s almost complete freedom. But it is doing it without asking the women where they would like to go and what they would like to do. And television is trying to convince its female audience that nowadays a woman has the freedom to choose between being a single or a wife without provoking any complaints. But is it really like this?
Domestic vs. Single Life On TV
I may be one of the few people who hasn’t embraced Desperate Housewives into my TV weekly viewing schedule; nothing about it appeals to me. But in Luckett’s first paragraph, she mentions the shift in television from the “urban singles of ‘Sex and the City'” to the “suburban marrieds” of Desperate Housewives, claiming the transition marks a shift in how the representation of motherhood and marriage has never been shown before as so desirable. But, as Luckett suggests later, the campy and ironic humor of the show, and from the title in and of itself, so in fact the show would seem to be a focus on the dysfunction and desperation found in marriages, which doesn’t seem desirable at all. Furthermore, this “wave” of shows that make marriage and motherhood seem desirable may not be a new one, but has been an underlyingly consistent one since the coming of television and programs that show domestic life. Did programs like Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Murphy Brown spawn an era of urban single shows that has been as consistent or successful as domestic suburban shows? Or were they just particular shows that had their own individual impacts? Well it still might be too early to answer this question, but it’s something worth pondering.
In someways, “Desperate Housewives” can be seen as a step backwards in terms of feminist portrayals on television. The strong, single, independent women which emerged in the 60s and 70s and held sway into the late 90s now seem to be increasingly replaced by domestic wife/mother figures which more closely resemble the housewives of the 1950s.
While “post-feminist” shows like “Ally McBeal” and “Sex in the City” portrayed independent, single women who felt the pull of motherhood, marriage, and domesticity, now we have characters who unabashedly yearn for this domestic stability. The representation of such domesticity is increasingly positive and unambiguous, bringing the television audience back to the more hegemonic portrayals of the 1950s sitcoms and family programming.
Reality TV Tie In?
I may be pushing this connection a little, but perhaps the new prevalence of marriage in TV shows which are not reality shows (aka Desperate Housewives) nowadays is, at least in some aspects, due to the numerous reality TV shows which a few years back emerged and flourished. Many of these shows were marriage based, and made marriage seem a very positive goal in life, despite having other obvious lures such as money or attention. The reason for their success is debatable, however, many shows along these lines did succeed, and I think newer shows with marriage highlighted may be an attempt to continue this trend.
Feel free to debate and let me know what you all think.