I was feeling pretty desperate Sunday night because my new favorite TV show Desperate Housewives was preempted by the American Music Awards. (Boo!)
Housewives has already become part of my (and millions of other women’s) Sunday-night ritual. And don’t we all have end-of-the-weekend, start-of-the-work-week Sunday-night rituals?
After the dishes are done, the kids are in bed, and the house is quiet, I know that women all over the country collapse on the couch for a fix of gloriously entertaining chick-TV. And who cares if it’s shallow, retro, and anti-feminist? All the women on Desperate Housewives are, after all, “just housewives.” And that’s a major part of its charm.
Last week the show had 22.32 million viewers, its highest rating yet. I would guess roughly 21 million of those tuned in were female, and that the rest were guys whose favorite character is the hunky teenage gardener who is up to no good with Gabrielle, the sexiest (and best dressed) of the housewives, all of whom are neighbors on Wisteria Lane. A wisteria, by the way, is a pretty vine but a creeper that can take over and ultimately kill a garden. Get the symbolism…?
Gabrielle’s problem is her macho husband, who will buy her a $15,000 diamond necklace but doesn’t listen to her. Trust me, for years, one of the best cover lines on women’s magazines was: How to get him to listen. It hasn’t changed. To deal with this lack of “emotional intimacy,” as a women’s magazine would put it, she has turned to John, the 17-year-old gardener, for consolation. And, no, they don’t talk much either.
The other housewives are rigid Bree, a Super Housewife who still wears her hair in an early-1960s Smith College-girl flip; Susan, a hippie-ish Dumped Housewife, whose pre-adolescent daughter is a lot shrewder than she is; and Lynette, who, I’d wager is everyone’s favorite.
Lynette is a former corporate go-getter, who has a husband who travels non-stop and is now at home full-time with four kids, including The Twin Boys From Hell. Lynette was once a big-paycheck success; now she is a stay-at-home-mom, trying unsuccessfully to handle her monster kids. Yes, she really, really, really wants to be “just-a-mom” like million of other women do today, but it isn’t easy. Every stay-at-home mother watching knows that even though Lynette’s boys may be more rambunctious than most–oh, for example, one week the twins finger-painted the face of one of their classmates with what looked like oil paint–raising kids is demanding, constant work. And everybody’s kids can be monsters, at least some of the time. What feminists never appreciated is that staying home with them can be a lot tougher than even a big corporate career.
The show’s writer and producer, Marc Cherry, said his own mother–”a perfect wife and mother”–told him that she had “moments of desperation when [his] father was off getting a Master’s degree…and she was alone with three kids–5, 4, and 3–who were just bouncing off the walls.” His mother says about her son’s show: “It’s closer to reality than many reality shows.” And she may be right. Currently, frazzled Lynette is becoming addicted to the twins’ A.D.D. medicine.
But what is most winning about the show is the relationships the women have with one another. And that’s why you like the housewives, even straying Gabrielle and obsessive-compulsive Bree. In the soap operas of the ’80s women were rivals, circling each other and trying to outwit each other to gain the attention of the men who were in the starring roles. But in this show and in the chick-lit books that are now so popular, women care about each other. The men on Wisteria Lane most often tend to be irritating problems, not solutions.
In chick-lit books, which are very popular today, friends sustain each other before the wisecracking heroine, after a series of plot twists, finally finds and captures a rare good man. In hen-lit books, another popular current-fiction genre, which is about older women, friends sustain each other after the wisecracking heroine has been dumped by a man, helping her realize she is better off without him. I think Bree, the uptight housewife–whose husband has a problem she can’t guess but, I bet, most viewers can–may need such sustenance by the end of the season. Last week, Bree, always so genteel, finally snarled at her husband: “I wish you would get over your midlife crisis. Because, frankly, it is really beginning to tick me off!”
Are these desperate housewives a reflection of American women? Not really, of course, but they’re close enough so that viewers are entertained by them and not offended by their flaws. They are not like the heroines on the Lifetime channel’s soppy victim-of-the-day movies who are always being abused by bad husbands, bad boy friends, bad bosses, bad doctors, etc. In fact, they want to stay married–even when the guys are not the greatest. They love their kids desperately–even when the kids are behaving at their worst. They want to be good, caring friends. Basically they, like most American wives and mothers, have traditional lifestyles and try for the most part to maintain traditional values. And if a pollster had wandered by Wisteria Lane just few weeks ago, I bet three out of four of them would have said they were voting for George W. Bush.
–Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.