Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 7, 2005

Desperate Housewives

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on December 7, 2005

Now nearing the end of its second season, ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” has achieved the sort of critical acclaim that HBO fare such as “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” have tended to monopolize in the past. Indeed, the show incorporates elements from both HBO hits. You get Soprano family type dysfunction of the sort described by Tolstoy in the epigraph to “Anna Karenina”: “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Also, the four female lead characters in “Desperate Housewives” spend a good portion of each show sitting around and discussing their sexual frustrations over coffee or wine, just as they did in “Sex and the City”. Of course, these elements in and of themselves are not sufficient to make for a hit show and critical acclaim. For that you need good writing and performances, something that “Desperate Housewives” has in spades.

“Desperate Housewives” is the brainchild of Marc Cherry, a self-described gay Republican. Last April Laura Bush nodded her approval of his show during a White House Correspondents’ dinner:

“I am married to the president of the United States, and here’s our typical evening: Nine o’clock, Mr. Excitement here is sound asleep, and I’m watching Desperate Housewives­ with Lynne Cheney. Ladies and gentlemen, I am a desperate housewife. I mean, if those women on that show think they’re desperate, they oughta be with George.”

This endorsement (and from other rightwingers like Tucker Carlson who praised it as “good entertainment” and Washington Times columnist Suzanne Fields who described it as “sophisticated, edgy television for the era of the values voters who kept George W. on Pennsylvania Avenue”) has not prevented it from being the target of Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association. Although some advertisers dropped the show because of the AFA campaign against the show’s alleged indecency, others have taken their place.

Ultimately, trying to locate the show on a political spectrum might be an exercise in futility. If it is simply accepted as popular culture operating at a very high level, then nothing else should really matter.

“Desperate Housewives” operates in a pre-feminist world even though it is taking place in contemporary times. The four lead female characters seem plucked from the pages of Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique.” Lynette (Felicity Huffman) has four young sons who are driving her nuts. She would much rather be back working in advertising, but feels that would make her a failure as a wife and mom. Gabriela (Eva Longoria) is an ex-model whose husband treats her like an expensive doll. Out of boredom, she starts an affair with a gardener who is still in high-school. Bree (Marcia Cross) is an anal retentive Republican and churchgoer who goes to pieces after her husband decides to divorce her. He is tired of being married to a compulsive housekeeper. When the two go to a marriage counselor, she can’t get her eyes off a seam on the therapist’s jacket that needs mending. Susan (Terri Hatcher) is a single mom whose husband left her for a younger woman. She is essentially playing the scatterbrained ingénue role that Doris Day made famous in 1950s movies co-starring the closeted Rock Hudson. Mike Delfino, her Rock Hudson, is a hunk and former drug-dealer who served time for killing a cop. He and the other men on the show are usually one step ahead of the law. When not dealing with the women’s love-lives, the episodes are tracking subplots involving murder and blackmail.

Cherry’s ability to seamlessly incorporate references to both popular and high culture is phenomenal. In one episode from the first season, there is a pointed reference to the women organizing a reading group around “Madame Bovary,” the quintessential tale of middle-class housewife frustration. “Desperate Housewives” also contains many echoes of Douglas Sirk films. In film after film, Sirk depicted unhappy housewives trapped in suburbia. In his “All That Heaven Allows,” a New England widow (Jane Wyman) falls in love with her gardener (Rock Hudson), much to the disapproval of the local community and her grown-up children just as Gabriela defied convention by taking up with the young gardener.

Since “Desperate Housewives” is set in contemporary America rather than the 1950s, there is always the nagging feeling that the show does not reflect the sort of revolution in family life that took place in the 1960s. The only character who seems aware of these changes is Bree’s teen-aged son Andrew, who describes his bisexuality to his uptight mom in terms of enjoying both chocolate and vanilla ice cream.

One also imagines that Marc Cherry might have “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” in the back of his mind when he began work on “Desperate Housewives.” This 1970s satire on soap operas was set in Fernwood, a white bread sort of town that was as all-American as Wisteria Lane, the setting for “Desperate Housewives.” In “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” the lead character is a pigtailed, gingham-frocked Ohio housewife who tried to remain calm while her daughter was held hostage by a mass murderer, endured her husband’s impotence (he never progressed emotionally past high school, where he enjoyed glory as a quarterback,) the disappearance of her father and the paralysis of her best friend. In the same way that “Desperate Housewives” takes family dysfunction as its theme, so did “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” In an epoch of declining material and spiritual expectations in American society, such themes are guaranteed to be marketable for television and the movies

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