Bored Housewives: A Lifestyle Choice?

Airbus and Boeing may well be having that age-old phallocentric debate over whether it is best to be bigger or last longer (the two being mutually exclusive – we are only human after all), but I found myself somewhat bored in a pub in London discussing the three stages of postmodern man. Mr. Undeconstructed may well be the scourge of professional women in the work place, Mr. Deconstructed useless at keeping the passion burning in the bedroom, and Mr. Unreconstructed so full of his own irony that it is difficult to tell the difference between his slap and tickle attitude and Mr. Undeconstructed’s sexism, but I can’t help thinking that what feminists should be turning their attention to today is the surprising success of ABC’s Desperate Housewives. Or rather, the title of one of the most illegally downloaded television series in the UK.

The official website may want us to believe that “this new hour-long drama takes a darkly comedic look at suburbia, where the secret lives of housewives aren’t always what they seem”, but having watched the first seven hours of the show it seems to me that the American middle-class suburbanite housewife remains extremely domesticated. Of course, this in itself does seem to smack of a desperate secret.

In Britain, female sexuality is probably the most aggressively predatory that it has ever been, to the point that the females who ape this traditionally male attitude have been labelled “ladettes”. I remember a couple of summers ago being in Henry’s, a basement jazz club in the heart of Edinburgh, with my partner of nine years and some friends who had recently married. For all intents and purposes this was an adult version of a double-date (i.e., without the surrogate chaperone effect), and quite obviously so to all and sundry. Except for this one dancing frenzy of a lass who had decided, for some reason unbeknownst to all, that I should be paying her more attention. After an attempt at the orang-utan technique of attracting potential mates involving my face and her posterior, the young ‘lady’ in question shouted something at me that sounded like a cross between an invitation to dance and a death-threat. I refused with more grit and determination than you could shake a drumstick at, but to no avail. She grabbed my arm, digging her nails into my skin and drawing blood. The physical scar has now faded, but the emotional trauma still manifests itself in flashbacks and nightmares.

The two women that made up our foursome went on to spend the rest of the evening in hysterics discussing the notion that perhaps the tables are really starting to turn, as well as every so often reminding each other of my disarray in front of this now quite common spectacle. But let’s face it, it would be difficult to imagine Susan, Bree, Gabrielle, Lynette or Edie for that matter, being so uncompromising even before their fictional marriages and marriage-breakdowns.

So what relevance does a term like ‘housewife’ hold today? In a society where, no matter how freezing it is, girls go out in mini-skirts and skimpy tops, get drunk on pints of cheap lager, and hitch up their skirts to piss in the streets before passing out, it seems at the very least outmoded, and ultimately perhaps a status that deserves to be relegated to the dustbin of second citizenship. But then again, perhaps this model of a good night out — for both sexes — goes some way to explaining why Britain has such a high rate of teenage pregnancy. Housewifery then becomes an enforced condition, a state of disenfranchisement that many women find themselves resigned to, leaving us with a quasi-Stepford domesticity. And that’s if the father/husband is still around. Mind you, you don’t need to be a wife to be a housewife (as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, a housewife is ‘usually’ a married woman). In fact, let us be really radical here and suggest that the phrasing could be: you don’t need a husband to be a housewife.

However, with the same middle-class background as that shared by the inhabitants of Wisteria Lane, a girl finding herself pregnant after a night obliterated by a dehydrated brain would probably have the supportive family environment necessary for her to comfortably and (of course) quietly abort. This would allow the simulacrum of normality to continue, the event would find itself reduced to the triviality of the excesses of those ‘difficult’ teenage years, and her life would continue as it should i.em. with the right sort of career or simply the postponement of the status of housewife. Swap genders and you have Bree doing the same thing for her son after his hit and run episode. Ah well, boys and their toys.

In essence, though, and this is coming from my Western European take on things, no matter what misadventures befall upon our group of 40-something women, it seems that their primary aim is to maintain a certain conservative, dare I say ‘=neo-conservative, status quo. If we briefly come back to the OED definition of the housewife, we learn that she is “a woman who manages or directs the affairs of her household; a woman who manages her household with skill and thrift, a domestic economist.” I will spare you my embarrassing sense of punning and shan’t cringingly overindulge in the duplicitous nature of a word like ‘affair’ in the context of our fictional suburb. Instead, I will briefly draw your attention to the idea of ‘managing’ the affairs of the household and being a ‘domestic economist’.

It would seem that the world of the writers at ABC is one where the desperation of the housewife is not that she finds herself in a pre-Pankhurst situation, but that she is having trouble holding on to a set of Victorian ideals. Managing the household is a question of making sure that the husband is both breadwinner and an authoritative presence in the home, that the children stay close to the nest, and that she offer from time to time amusing insights into how the adult world functions. The notion of ‘domestic economist’ is not simply a financial one, but one that involves emotional economics. Astonishingly, housewifery as unpaid domestic labour may still be considered the norm, but the hearth is a market place of a different sort where the transactions aim to ensure that the family unit continues to function.

The problem here is twofold. Firstly, this type of economics, though widely talked about in academic circles, still remains largely unrecognised. In February 2004 a European Union press release discussed the fact that British employers still see pregnancy as a problem. The investigation into this kind of discrimination in the work place was part of a study entitled ‘Pregnant and Productive’. The irony is that the intention behind this title was not to promote the idea that pregnancy is a societal act of production and therefore may deserve to be recognised as a form of employment, but that a pregnant woman can be a good employee in the public sphere. Though this latter statement is undoubtedly true, the conclusion is that a pregnant woman not in employment is not productive.

Secondly, the idea that it is the housewife’s role to manage emotional economics should surely no longer be relevant. Is there anyone out there, under the age of retirement, who still believes this to be true? But it seems that on Wisteria Lane this is still the case. The husbands are all absent; either they have moved out, divorced, or are always at work. Undeconstructed man may then think that the women are perhaps guilty of mismanagement. The reality is that the women are expected to manage the affairs of the household single-handedly because they are not directly bringing in any income and, more importantly, these housewives expect themselves to be able to manage their households: ultimately a politically conservative philosophy.

Which makes it all the more bizarre to me that small but effective American media watchdogs, such as the American Decency Association or the Parents’ Television Council (PTC), actually view this programme as a moral threat. The founder of the PTC, L. Brent Bozell III even suggested that the show should be rechristened Cynical Suburban Sluts. I’m afraid the remarkably intelligent show of wit and verbal dexterity that must obviously infuse this parody of the original title is lost on me. Is he referring to this quote from the 18th-century newspaper British Apollo: “There is…but An Hour in one whole Day between A Housewife and a Slut”? And if so, does he really know what it means? Let us try and see what the representative of the third generation of the great Bozell’s is getting at. Are our heroines cynical? Well, they are meant to represent pre-menopausal women with a certain amount of life-experience behind them who have had a friend blow their brains out in the midst of apparent marital bliss. So, yep, I’d say they were cynical, just like pretty much all of us, really.

Are they suburban? If Sex and the City is to be a benchmark — four women, well-off, oh, and of course white — then Desperate Housewives is definitely ‘sub-urban’. The characters are in touch with their sexuality and sexual powers in a sub-savvy way when compared to Carrie and Samantha’s urban proficiency. The writers might want us to believe that Edie getting her shirt wet whilst washing her car is their contemporary take on a woman with her libidinal destiny firmly in her own hands, but even a mechanic would probably like to keep that kitsch fantasy firmly pinned to the wall for telling him what day of the month it is. Even Susan’s escapade as she finds herself locked out of her house naked because her ex-husband drove away with her bath towel caught in his car-door (you’d think that bastard had done it on purpose), was more sub-French farce than urban grit. And as the mysterious neighbour cum love interest, Mike, came across her trying to hide in the bushes, there was a giggle, hammed embarrassment, and the whole plot-line ended not with a Samanth-esque bang, but a whimper.

Which brings us on to sluts. Bozell III does quote Gabrielle’s, the former model, ongoing affair with her 17-year-old gardener as the show’s attempt to promote a sort of moralistically carefree Carpe Diem lifestyle. But it does take two to tango. In fact, when it comes to affairs, it often takes three. Gabrielle’s husband is portrayed as a macho throwback; the type of machismo cultivated by a domineering matriarch. Suspicious that his wife is having an affair he calls in his mother to investigate. She appears to have raised her son almost single-handedly, probably instilling in him, as mothers tend to do even if only passively, that no woman is ever going to be good enough for him; definitely not as good to him as his very own mother. Placed in this way at the centre of a mother-promoted patriarchal world, his marriage to an apparent trophy wife is already undermined, no matter how much money he throws at its foundations. Gabrielle isn’t really a slut, she is not a kitchen-maid (I hear you draw your breath in shock)! If you want to give a spin on her actions, then perhaps ‘hussy’ would be more appropriate. The word is a corrupt form of ‘housewife’, and, you could argue, so is Gabrielle. Except that she would never leave her husband.

Whereas in Sex and the City the men came across as hapless, tossed about in the sea of feminine whim, in Desperate Housewives the men are all portrayed as being a bit dodgy. There’s not much to choose between the mummy’s boy, the men who are hiding something, and the chap who is afraid of social castration by his formerly-more-professionally-successful-than-him wife. This is another problem for Bozell III, as for him the wives sit around “cracking wise at the awful husbands they married” (‘Boycotts and Catty Girls‘, Parents Television Council). He continues by saying that the show portrays men as thoughtless cads. Well, to be honest, in the reality of the show the men are pretty desperate. The problem for me is that the wives are doing their best to hang on to them. Bozell III believes that Desperate Housewives is purveying an image of love and marriage as “Potemkin villages people hide behind”, but he is fundamentally wrong. The housewives in question are, in fact, trying to hang on to Potemkin values promulgated by a non-operational patriarchal system.

Desperate, indeed. But if the word ‘housewife’ has a somewhat archaic ring to it, then ‘desperate’ carries a contemporary connotation. The creators of the programme would probably argue that the desperation here is the one of housewives undergoing mid-life crises as their domestic situation seems firmly stuck at the bottom of their suburban cul-de-sac. Yawn. I have argued that the real desperation is that it is precisely this suburban cul-de-sac that these housewives are trying to preserve. However, if I’m to be honest, the real reason why I sat down to watch the pilot episode is because I expected sexually desperate housewives to offer me no ends of titillation. A sort of watered-down polished version of readers’ wives soft porn. A visual Horlicks if you like, just before my bedtime.

Imagine my disappointment.

What the women represent instead are four manifestations of active sexual female heterosexual adulthood:

Susan Meyer (Teri Hatcher) is the girl desperate for companionship, to share her life with a soul mate who can fulfil her post-divorce life and entertain her between the sheets, too;
Bree Van De Kamp (Marcia Cross) is the woman who has given everything to her husband except for something impulsive and kinky;
Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria) is the woman whose husband can offer her everything and anything except for her youth which she tries to relive in the arms of her 17 year-old gardener;
Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman) represents the treacherous results of sex: uncontrollable children who will ruin your life.

Okay, so it’s not quite what I expected. All a bit trite really. And perhaps this is what critics really mean when they express their surprise at the success this show has had. After all, these are ordinary families living ordinary lives. In France, the plotlines wouldn’t even qualify as banal stories of jambes en l’air. The Parisian bourgeoisie probably wouldn’t be able to understand the lack of swinging going on in such a tight knit community. But perhaps Desperate Housewives is simply the AOR of television, offering mundane catharsis for the mundane lives that the middle-classes generally live. It’s not quite ‘dark’, it’s not quite ‘comedy’, and next week’s episode always promises to be more exciting.

I’ve just done an online test to see which desperate housewife I most resemble and it turns out I’m Gabrielle Solis! The site says: “You love to live in the lap of luxury and lust after a glamorous lifestyle. Your naturally flirtatious style means you are the life and soul of the party, but make sure you know where to draw the line . . . suggestive remarks are one thing, but taking the gardener to bed while your husband is out at work is quite another!” No wonder I have trouble with L. Brent Bozell III’s comments.

Perhaps the question I should have tried to answer was, Why should being a housewife be in anyway desperate? It could just be a lifestyle choice.

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Wednesday, 02 March 2005
The first question addressed to Tony Blair in today’s Prime Minister’s Question Time, concerned itself with equating the status of women when in the workplace and when pregnant. Blair proudly announced that under his government, paid maternity leave had doubled from £50 to £100. Sounds good? Next time one of your friends is in her final term of pregnancy tell her that she is on ‘leave’, tell her as she is trying to push a watermelon through a plughole (my partner’s metaphor) that she’s on an ‘activity holiday’, tell her after endless months of sleepless nights that that is what being on vacation is all about. And then add: “on top of everything else you’re getting a hundred quid a week.” Again, this is the vocabulary of the right (he deserves his nickname, Tory Blur), if you’re not going to work then you’re not productive. Paid leave and paid employment — surely we should be talking about paid private labour and paid public employment.