I do not consider myself a feminist. I nearly got kicked out of a graduate literature course for saying so. Nevertheless, I grew up singing lyrics from “Free to Be, You and Me” alongside a hippie-minded mother who attended women’s lib meetings one evening a week, leaving my father to master the art of cooking grilled cheese sandwiches for my two sisters and me. As the proud daughter of a liberated mother, at age nine, I wore my favorite t-shirt boasting “Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman” almost everyday for a year. Out of college, I worked as one of the youngest (female) press secretaries on Capitol Hill from 1994-1997 and I made it there on the basis of hard work and merit.
While I appreciate the “equality” that the women’s lib movement sought in its inception, I think radical feminism went too far and outlived its original intent. I’ve never identified with the more radical push to demonize men or convince people that equal means same. Still, I have to admit that for the first time in my post-feminist life, I’m thinking, “Bring back Gloria Steinem!”
In recent years, I have watched, with great interest, the rise in popularity of shows like “Sex in the City” and “Desperate Housewives.” While I am all for the full self-expression of women, intellectually, emotionally and sexually, I just can’t swallow (imagery intended) what seems to be at best, a superficial cartoon, and at worst, “Girls Gone Wild — the Older Years.”
It begs the question: Just where is the conversation around gender relations, and how do these shows reflect female power in America today? Has the push to recognize women as equal partners in marriage and the workplace been replaced or reinvented by a new and potent identity of sultry “siren-esque”? While an argument can be made that these shows can’t be taken that seriously — that they’re intended as adult entertainment, or an indulgence of housewife fantasies — their popularity makes it impossible to dismiss them as a commentary on female power and its accepted expression in our society.
While there has been, and probably always will be, a dichotomous tension between radical feminism and femininity, there’s definitely something more at work here. Maybe I don’t understand what women want in America today, but when it comes to what I believe is in the interest of female empowerment, the portrayal of women in “Sex and The City” and “Desperate Housewives” comes up a few hammers short of a female power-tool box. And I, for one, am not buying.
“Sex in the City” portrayed modern single 30-40 year old women exercising what was traditionally male behavior — indiscriminate one night stands, objectifying the opposite sex and commitment phobia. The episodic titles say it all: “Old Dogs, New Dicks”; “Politically Erect”; “Belles of the Balls”; “Just Say Yes” and “Great Sexpectations.”
Smash cut to this season’s newest rendition of “Sex in the City.” “Desperate Housewives” is the female version of “Men Behaving Badly.” The women of Wisteria Lane are quite simply caricatures; collagen-injected, catty, confused wives and mothers known for their promiscuity and unscrupulous, loveless antics who will stop short of nothing to spice up the ennui of their unhappy lives.
The hapless cast includes a mother who self-medicates with her children’s ADD pills and is seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown; a needy and loveless single mother who gets regularly parented by her teenage daughter; a dowdy and neglected OCD housewife who pours herself into sewing and boy scout activities to avoid the pain of her neglectful husband; the neighborhood tramp and serial divorcee; a trophy wife, married to a wealthy but disapproving husband, who “does” the lawn boy to spite him; and last but not least, the dead narrator who we are led to believe committed suicide.
Forget the economic marketplace — no beef here about a glass ceiling constructed by a nefarious boss-man, but rather a display of women trying to define themselves against the neglectful moronic men in their lives, set in what we are to believe is a typical suburban neighborhood. As Gabrielle says, “You’re a woman. Manipulate him. That’s what we do.” And, like it or not, that is what they do.
Rather than liberated modern-day heroines, or even real-life soccer moms struggling with everyday issues, “Desperate Housewives” divas are more akin to past temptresses of old, like Samson’s Delilah who used her sexuality as currency. These women are victims of their circumstances, who live at the effect of others, and whose only recourse seems to be one of sexual power.
What gives? “Are collagen and boy toys the new female power tools?” If we look at the progression of instilling a belief in the market value of women at home and in the workplace, these shows fail on all counts. From a conservative point of view, the Desperate Housewives, for the most part, dress and act like whores, attempting to tell the story of how promiscuity, lies and betrayal provide for a sort of post-feminist housewife liberation. From a traditional feminist point of view, none of the women are actualizing themselves in any respectful way, within or outside the home, reducing them to victims of their seriously emotionally-challenged, moronic and even criminal husbands and boyfriends.
This glamorization of vanity, promiscuity and plastic faces as the whole of female commodity reduces female market value and detracts from female respectability. Of course, this doesn’t even begin to address perhaps the more glaring and offensive commentary the show makes of men as insensitive and superficial buffoons. But that would be another article altogether: “Desperate Working Men?”
April Lassiter is a former congressional speech writer and press secretary and is currently a freelance writer and media consultant in Los Angeles, Calif.