Home TV ‘Desperate Housewives’ and Feminism: A Complicated Tale

‘Desperate Housewives’ and Feminism: A Complicated Tale

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Despite 2020 being undeniably the worst year in living memory, it did give us one, if incredibly minor, cause for celebration: Desperate Housewives, in its full camp, melodramatic, and ridiculous glory returned to our screens via Amazon Prime.

As a shy, sedentary, and telly-addicted teen, it is safe to say I was more familiar with the happenings on Wisteria Lane, the fictional street in which Desperate Housewives is set, than the goings-on in my own neighbourhood. Countless hours of my youth were spent following the trials and tribulations of Bree (Marcia Cross), Gaby (Eva Longoria), Lynette (Felicity Huffman), and Susan (Teri Hatcher), as well as the array of other colourful characters who call this suburban street home.

Beyond providing myself and 120 million other viewers worldwide with almost a decade’s worth of laughter and intrigue, Desperate Housewives has forever altered the trajectory of television since its inception. As well as being a founding father (or mother) of the “dramedy” genre, the show refused to abide by the “Madonna/whore” archetypes previously assumed for female characters. The world has instead been introduced to devoted mothers and wives who popped pills, had steamy affairs, and even covered up murders. Rather than generic “princesses” and “temptresses”, we saw female characters who are complex, subversive, and entertaining, just like the women we know in the real world.

Teri Hatcher, Eva Longoria, and Marcia Cross in a still from Desperate Housewives
Source: Google Images

The success of the show, which is still the longest-running hour-long television series featuring all-female leads, lead to an industry-wide revelation; women can not only do comedy as well as their male counterparts, but audiences actually can become invested in women-centric dramas. This allowed Desperate Housewives to pave the way for shows such as Weeds, Girls, Orange Is the New Black, Ugly Betty, Cougar Town, and Glee, amongst others. 

Yet, despite this positive impact on female representation, re-watching the series in 2021 made me realise how complicated the question of its ‘feminist legacy’ actually is.

Men and Marriage

Despite recognising the show’s depiction of more “real” women, it actually does not overtly recognise the multitude of ways there are to be a “woman”. 

Pretty much all of the women of the lane stand for conservative family values and show little tolerance for any differing perspectives. They consistently slut-shame the fun-loving Edie (Nicollette Sheridan) for her unashamed sex-positivity and her reluctance to settle down. Even Edie, however, isn’t allowed to bask long in this “alternative” lifestyle; the show writers ensure that she too ends up desperately seeking a husband, denying the possibility that, actually, marrying a man isn’t every woman’s sole desire.

Whilst this in itself is eye-roll-worthy, it becomes truly problematic when it comes to LGBT+ representation. The few storylines there are concerning gay women are so disappointing and low-key homophobic that they’re better off ignoring. In one particularly tone-deaf gay-bashing gag, Susan throws away her boots after being mistaken for being a lesbian, reinforcing the trope of female queerness as being unattractive and undesirable. The one lesbian storyline the show does have between Katherine (Dana Delany) and ex-stripper Robin (Julie Benz) is rushed, underdeveloped, and completely undermined when Katherine abruptly announces she isn’t “into women anymore” in the next series. This denies the authenticity of gay female relationships and feeds into the poisonous rhetoric of lesbian love being “just a phase”.

Katherine (Dana Delany), right, and Robin (Julie Benz), left
Source: Google Images

Motherhood and bodily autonomy

Beyond the refusal to believe women’s worlds don’t revolve around men, Desperate Housewives also does not entertain the idea that, actually, some women aren’t gaga over children; even characters such as the allegedly child-phobic Renee (Vanessa Williams) secretly want kids after all.

Concerningly, however, more than just actively omitting women who reject motherhood, the show chastises them. Despite the many pregnancies of the show, not one character seriously considers abortion.  Although Julie does consider giving her child up for adoption in series 8 ep13, she later changes her mind, arguing it is selfish to give up a child because it is “inconvenient”. The show’s refusal to explore other viewpoints almost transforms it into Republican party-esque propaganda in how it shames and stigmatises women for wanting control over their lives and bodies.

Body image and objectification 

It seems almost ironic, for a show praised for subverting gender expectations, that all its characters have bodies that fit well within the confines of conventional beauty; there is not a fat roll, stretch mark, or even a hint of cellulite on sight.

Even more worryingly, however, than the absence of any bodies above a UK size 8, is that the leading ladies’ worth is sometimes equated to their physical form. In one particularly terrible episode (s6 ep4), after we see Carlos using Lynette’s (Felicity Huffman) pregnancy-engorged breasts to seal business deals with major clients (don’t ask), Tom (Doug Savant) admits that he “compromised” by marrying Lynette due to her small cup size.  He launches into a supposedly ‘moving’ speech about how rubbish he is as a person and how the ONE THING that made him feel good enough for Lynette was her small breasts. Now, Lynette has her flaws; she is controlling, paranoid, manipulative, and obsessive. But to say that she didn’t deserve to be with someone “brilliant” or “high-striving” or even better looking solely because of her small bust seems messed up, to say the least.

Doug Savant as Tom and Felicity Huffman as Lynette in Desperate Housewives
Source: US Weekly

What about men?

Despite what some believe, feminist issues don’t solely concern women; patriarchal ideals and toxic masculinity harm men too.  In Desperate Housewives, men are rarely seen outside a sexual paradigm; the show constantly echoes the idea that men always want sex. This even extends to the street’s teenagers. Whilst this might seem anecdotally true for many, it arguably excuses predatory behaviour from female characters. We ignore the fact that Gaby, a woman in her thirties, has an affair with her 16-YEAR-OLD gardener, John (Jesse Metcalfe). Gabby feels no shame in her actions nor in the control she asserts over him. She couldn’t care any less about his age, at times making crass jokes about his high school basketball uniform. Such scenes make for uncomfortable viewing in 2021, as discussions about sexual assault and consent become more commonplace.

Do we need to bin the Wives?

Does this complicated and problematic legacy mean that we should cancel Desperate Housewives?

In short, no.

The show has enthralled and engaged millions around the world with its unbelievable storylines, thrilling plot twists, and impeccable comedic timing. It also challenged gender norms at the time, and lead to the creation of more interesting pathways for women in television. Despite falling short of our modern feminist standards, it is through the women of Wisteria Lane that more women’s stories have been able to be seen and shared in mainstream media.

It is our task now to move forward, to continue this legacy, and use our modern-day art to reveal the perspectives and chapters missing. 

Words by Emma Cary


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