I feel bad about hating “Desperate Housewives.” Not that ABC’s breakout hit exactly needs my approval. But creator/executive producer Marc Cherry is such an engaging guy, and the story of how he sold this show is such an underdog-beats-the-odds story — his agent, who’d just been arrested for embezzling money, had also flubbed sending out his script — that I’m happy for his success. I only wish I could enjoy the product.
Even before it premiered, “Desperate Housewives” was the most-buzzed-about new show of the season because of its unlikely genesis; in contrast to most TV projects these days, the Sunday night comedy/drama sprang not from the market-research-obsessed brains of a committee of network execs, but from its creator’s original and quirky vision. At the press conference, someone asked Cherry to describe the pitch meeting for his new show.
“I wrote this on spec at my home,” he said amiably, “so it was a very quiet pitch meeting. You know: Hey, we’re not working,” he added, miming the conversation he had with himself. “Maybe we should write an hour-long?”
“OK!” he added, recalling his own response.
“My bank account was looking a little slim,” he explained, describing his motivation.
Also, the title is brilliant, subtly evoking the world of cheesy retro porn even before that recent, infamous “Monday Night Football” promo (in which “Desperate” co-star Nicollette Sheridan seduces star receiver Terrell Owens) made the connection…well, not quite so subtle. No wonder this is the rare women’s show that’s managed to attract a sizeable non-gay male audience.
So I salute it for all of the above. But the problem for me is that “Desperate Housewives” continues a long and irritating feminist tradition of celebrating domestic female incompetence. Consider the four main characters (Sheridan, who plays a sex-crazed Realtor, is outside the core clique):
The lead is Teri Hatcher’s Susan, a single mom/recent divorcee so helpless around the house that in some 20 years of marriage she’s never managed to cook anything but inedible macaroni and cheese. She’s also a giant klutz, constantly falling down or accidentally setting the neighbor’s house on fire. How we’re supposed to see Susan: Spunky and adorable.
Susan’s polar opposite is Bree (Marcia Cross), a repressed, Martha Stewart clone who’s alienated her now-estranged husband and two demanding teenaged brats by constantly serving them delicious meals and maintaining an immaculate, picture-perfect house and garden. How we’re supposed to see Bree: Controlling and scary.
The sexiest character is Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), a rich businessman’s bored trophy wife having an affair with her teenaged gardener. Like Bree, Gabrielle is energetic and also quite enterprising — fully capable, when it looks like her husband might fire the gardener for slacking off, of rushing home from a party and secretly mowing the lawn while wearing an evening gown and high heels. How we’re supposed to see Gabrielle: Spoiled and naughty.
Then there’s pill-popping Lynette (Felicity Huffman), a career-woman-turned-stay-at-home mom of a baby and three horribly behaved small sons. Why Lynette can’t control her boys or hire at least a part-time babysitter is never explained; her sorry situation is presented as no more her fault than the weather. How we’re supposed to see Lynette: Harried and understandably frustrated.
Do you see the pattern here? The Housewives are divided into a yin and yang of alarming ability vs. endearing uselessness. The two characters we’re meant to identify with are fantastically incompetent victims of circumstance; the two take-charge types are presented as strange exotics. And just as most woman couldn’t maintain Bree’s perfectly flipped hairstyle or Gabrielle’s rock-hard abs, nor should they be expected (according to the tacit message of the show) to cook or operate lawnmowers or keep their homes clean.
I suspect that much of the current malaise depicted so stylishly in “Desperate Housewives” is caused by a loss of ordinary skills for which we can thank the feminist movement. Far too many women now are living with the results of the Sisterhood’s agenda that smart women don’t know how to cook, or sew, or clean, or even type. A corollary is that children are demonically willful creatures who can only be medicated, never disciplined, and giving up your career for them is a recipe for disaster.
So now we have an exhausted, complaining generation of women who find everything an immense effort because they never learned the basics of getting through the day. It’s ridiculous, for instance, that I — who almost failed Home Ec because I was terrified of the sewing machine bobbin — was the only mom in my daughter’s Girl Scout troop to sew on the patches. Everyone else either used a stapler or made the Girl Scout’s grandmother do it.
The new Everywoman, in the “Desperate Housewives” view of the world, is hopeless at home. She burns casseroles and lets her kids run wild. It’s a patronizing media message that American women have been hearing for some 30 years now, and I can’t see that it’s done them much good. Maybe if they learned a few simple old-fashioned skills, these housewives wouldn’t be quite so desperate.
Catherine Seipp is a writer, and she blogs at her website “Cathy’s World.”