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Suburban Apocalypse

Back in college, I took a course called “Comedy from Aristophanes to Woody Allen”. It was a great class—it’s the reason I know that “The Honeymooners” was Bertolt Brecht’s favorite piece of American theater.

Donna StoneAnyway, I had to write a paper for this class, and I distinctly remember trying to sell my professor on the idea of me writing a script for an episode of “The Donna Reed Show”. I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember the show ending with Donna turning to the camera and saying, “You know this isn’t real, don’t you?”

Professor Levitan was a man of refined sensibilities, so he understood instantly just how creepy this would be: It wouldn’t just deliver the vertiginous feeling one gets when a character unexpectedly breaks the fourth wall, but it would collapse the whole domestic/suburban fantasy world in which 50s sitcoms take place, a fantasy world that purports to be the real world. It would be apocalyptic.

Mary Alice YoungI mention this because my reaction to last night’s episode of “Desperate Housewives” was quite similar to my reaction to that imaginary “Donna Reed”. When the beatific Mary Alice reaches out of her corona of white light to hand Lynette a gun, and Lynette puts the gun to her head, I got chills. There aren’t many shows where one can believe—for even a moment—that a central character might actually die, but “Desperate Housewives” has become one of them.

Last night was also the first time I really felt moved by the show—when Bree and Susan tell Lynette about their own motherhood traumas—which I guess is good for the show, artistically speaking, but I am ambivalent for myself, as one of the things I appreciate most about “Desperate Housewives” is that it is purely entertaining, or, as Virginia Heffernan put it in her very nice New York Times review yesterday, “The show has boldly flung off prime time’s imperative to topicality, and embraced an overtly literary mode.”

I wrote my own review of the show for Bitch, but it got cut due to space limitations. This is kind of a bummer, of course, but these things happen, and it means that instead of publishing it in a magazine, I can offer it here, to you, my loyal and beloved readers.

Consider the word “housewife”. It describes an individual—a woman—defined by her relationship to a man and by her place in the domestic sphere. For feminists of Betty Friedan’s generation, the universe implied by this term was grotesquely circumscribed. Housewives were confined to “comfortable concentration camps”, imprisoned by suburban family life and prevented from achieving their intellectual and professional potential.

Now, consider “Desperate Housewives”, the most talked-about television debut of the fall season. With its hyperbolic name, its ironically retro title graphics, and its fiendishly cheerful opening theme, the show begins by suggesting that the housewife has become a figure of fun, a phenomenon so decidedly passé that she has ceased to be a symbol of oppression and become a delicious camp artifact. The world of Desperate Housewives is informed by the experience of Friedan and her sisters, but it doesn’t take Second Wave philosophizing straight. Instead, it plays with mid-20th-century ideas of the housewife to create something new and rather compelling.

The unexplored suburban territory mapped by this dramedy is best delineated by two of its central characters, the two who seem—superficially, at least—to conform most closely to the housewifely ideal: they both have husbands and children, and neither works outside the home.

Lynette (Felicity Huffman) has three small boys and a baby girl. She has the frantic, untidy aura we’ve learned to recognize as that of the contemporary mom. She is living the infantilizing life of isolation and drudgery described by American feminists in the 50s and 60s, but with this vital difference: she had a career—a successful and satisfying one—that she gave up when her first child was born. And Lynette differs from contemporary depictions of women like herself in that she bitterly regrets her choice. She loves her children, but she’d rather be at the office.

There’s been much fuss in the media lately about career women missing out on their chance to be mothers, and women leaving the business world to discover that raising children is the most rewarding work there is. We seem to have forgotten the possibility that some women might actually be happier in the professional world than they are at home. Lynette reminds us of this reality, and it will be interesting to see how she and her family resolve her dilemma.

While Bree (Marcia Cross) inhabits the same type of domestic scene as her neighbor Lynette, she seems utterly fulfilled by the stay-at-home life. At first glance, Bree is a throwback. She is a woman who truly enjoys making a three-course meal for a weeknight supper, and every hair in her brilliant red flip moves in perfect accord with every other. She isn’t just a housewife: she is June Cleaver, Donna Stone, Samantha Stevens with a hot-glue gun instead of the witchcraft.

More than any other character on this show, Bree is problematic. Is she a woman who has considered the myriad options available to her and decided that the role of wife and mother suits her best, or is she a traitor to her sex? Is she truly happy, or is she horrifically deluded? Is she good or is she evil? If we, the viewers, are unable to answer these questions, it may be because the show isn’t sure about her, either. Bree is certainly the most ambiguous character on “Desperate Housewives”. Sometimes, she is portrayed in a sympathetic light. Sometimes, she seems to be clearly—if understandably—monstrous. Perhaps the show’s writers haven’t figured out what to do with a woman like Bree because, as a society, we haven’t figured it out, either.

November 29, 2004 | Permalink

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