Irony, as any form of comedy, is an art hard to master. It has been said that it’s much harder then drama which, though debatable, is in all likelihood accurate. In 2004, a gem of perfect crystal irony titled “Desperate Housewives” aired. The show centered on the lives of four women: the perfectionist Bree (Marcia Cross), the clumsy Susan (Teri Hatcher), the materialistic Gabriel (Eva Longoria) and the smart Lynnette (Felicity Huffman) and their series of purposefully melodramatic adventures. “Desperate Housewives” was an instant hit to no surprise. The writing was a sharp and loving parody of Soap operas and the show was just a pure joy to watch. However, the final season did tone down the ironic narrative as well as making some fairly problematic storylines. In this post I will lay-out three of the major problems which the show stumbled upon and will explain how exactly the regrettable elements played out in the narrative.
For those who haven’t seen the final season yet, it is important for you to note that this whole post will be loaded with spoilers.
1. Katherine’s insensitive comment about French culture -This would seem to be a fairly minor, and almost not worth mentioning, flaw which occurred (almost off hand) in the final season of the show. However it was a more than borderline prejudicial comment about a foreign country and planted itself squarely in the realm of the sexist. The scene occurred in the episode “Finishing the Hat”, where Katherine (Dana Delany) returns from her time spent in France to tell her old friends about her successful new job as well as offering one to Lynnette. While chit-chatting with her friends, Katherine states that in France none of the women shave and the men all use handbags, so it’s hard to tell who has is who in the sexual realm. The comment clearly expresses disgust with other cultures harmless norms as well as shames women and men for not following gender roles prescribed as normal (within the shows culture).
What prescription is ordinary for women and body hair? Various cultures have different ways of relating to Body hair and this should be respected. And claiming men using handbags caused gender confusion seems more than highly unlikely. I realize both of these statements were meant as a joke and they were. A really, really cheap and unfunny one.
2. The shows representation of Bree’s Promiscuity – Approximately midpoint in season eight, Bree returns to her alcoholism, a subject dealt with in previous seasons (in fairly sophisticated and tender ways, too). Bree also begins a tendency of picking up men from bars to have one-night stands. The show could have depicted Bree’s new habit as a side effect due to fear of closeness mixed in with her shame for her addiction. Unfortunately, instead promiscuity in itself was portrayed as an intuitively horrible act. As Brees friends bear witness to a large train of men leaving her house early in the morning, they automatically assume they should intercede to insure she is OK. The Problem is that this is not because they wonder if she has started drinking again, but because she seems to be having too many one night stands. The implication is that an adult woman can’t nor should be allowed make decisions about her sexuality by herself, nor have a sexual life which is to “full”.
Bree is the focus of lingering and disapproving gazes from the whole neighborhood, which is portrayed as reasonable instead of judgmental behavior. In the final episode, “Finishing the hat”, Bree states that she can’t believe her lawyer wants to marry her since she has been an alcoholic, involved in a crime, and been promiscuous. The man proposing to her answers her with a simple “I love you because your imperfect”- statement. All fine and good, except that the show, through the written dialogue, places a promiscuous phase into the same category as alcoholism and crime. Lovely. If the man proposing to Bree would have asked: “Well, you were safe and therefore didn’t catch an STD, weren’t you?” Brees protest would have made more sense. Instead, the fact that Bree as a woman had many sexual partners is seen as a major personality flaw. You would think that in this day and age, people would start to be more accepting of people’s different forms of expressing their sexuality, instead of reducing to outright slut-shaming.
3. Julie’s pregnancy – Susan’s daughter, Julie, arrives back home in this episode “Is this what you call love?” to tell her mother she’s pregnant. She also arrives to tell her mother she wants to give up the child for adoption which Susan does not take well. Despite Julie showing concern about not being ready for motherhood Susan argues constantly that Julie does not understand how difficult it will be for her to give up her child. Julie points out that the decision was hard for her to make and needs Susan’s support. Julie is asking for acceptance yet Susan, as confidant and mother, continually ignores this and purposefully sabotages Julie’s attempts at finding an adoption agency. Despite this atrocious immoral behavior, the viewer is expected to sympathize with Susan since she does it out of “love”. Additionally, Julie’s decision is, later on during the season, persistently shown as wrong. A major refrain for this “bad decision” of putting the child up for adoption is that she will, as all women according to the series, have “motherly feelings” for the baby and live a life regret in the “abandonment”. Needless to say that this implies that all women making this decision are in the wrong.
But here’s the thing: its Julie’s body and therefore her decision to make. And it comes down to whether or not you think women are capable of making decisions over their own bodies and their lives (as well as making possibly good decisions for the baby’s life). Later in the episode “With so little to be sure of” Julie states that she wanted to give the baby away “just because it was inconvenient” and decides to keep it. This is not only a cope-out and showed that the writers were being lazy, but also sends the unfortunate message that adoption is not really a good decision and a real mother keeps her child*.
As a cherry on top of this dreadful cake we get the implication that the father of Julie’s baby will get very little if any contact with the child, despite him making the decision to work intensely to support the child and expressing how he already loves the child. Susan makes the decision for the father, making it unintentionally a tragic tale of a young woman guilt-tripped into keeping her child and a young man straight out denied a possibility to raise his child despite hard sacrifice.
The flaws were nearly fatal in the final season of “Desperate Housewives”. However, even in this season, the characters kept their familiar quirkiness and hilarious oddball personas. The show held and elaborated characters that emerged as strong and determined and all of the major protagonists went through impressive developments and growth (with special mention to the characters of Gabriel and her Husband Carlos, played by Ricardo Antonio Chavira).
Not the best season by a long shot, but perhaps a sign that it ended right in time. Still, all and all, the series was wildly funny and we will certainly miss it.
* And here is where I wanted to send flowers the all the people involved with the film “Juno”, because despite my intense hatred of that movie due to the film’s nasty attitude towards abortion on so many levels, at least they showed that a young woman’s decision to give her baby up for adoption is not a selfish act as well as a decision to respect.