A huge hit in the USA, the darkly comic Desperate Housewives made its UK debut on Channel 4 in 2005, but in this article journalist Barbara Ellen wonders how accurate is its portrayal of 21st-century suburban women and the pains and passions that underpin their lives?
Maybe in common with a lot of modern women, I simply don’t recognise ‘housewife’ as a term relating to myself. I recognise other labels, including good ones such as ‘mother’ and bad ones such as ‘lazy slob’, but if you’d called me a ‘housewife’ at any point in my adult life, I would have been gobsmacked, regardless of whether I had a ‘proper job’ or if I were looking after children or not. On the one hand, it seems to be an outdated, almost comical, Fifties relic; on the other, it has sinister connotations, bringing to mind Friedan’s best-known work, The Feminine Mystique, and her observations of women trapped in what amounted to unpaid domestic servitude, feeling completely alone with their ‘nameless, aching dissatisfaction’.
Then again, perhaps some of us couldn’t put any label, ‘housewife’ or otherwise, to the bungling chaos that passes for our domestic routine: the chasing of children without nappies in the morning; the mournful, almost Shakespearean, dragging of the vacuum cleaner around, as if waltzing with a dead body; the Frisbeeing of Marks & Spencer warm-ups into the trolley while cookery books rot unused at home; the pacifist approach to ironing (attack only when truly necessary); the tedium that is ‘changing the duvet cover’.
It’s not like I actually want things to be like this. I was almost tearfully impressed to stay at someone else’s home recently where the delicious meals just kept on arriving (him cooking; her helping), the house was permanently clean and welcoming, despite children and pets, and the duvet covers were not only cleaned but ironed. I didn’t think: ‘Oh God, how old-fashioned and stifling.’ Instead, I thought: ‘Could you please adopt me and look after me for the rest of my life?’
At the other extreme, a friend giggled as she told me that she was ‘probably not ashamed enough’ to discover almost an entire canteen of cutlery, and a plate with half a mouldy sandwich on, festering beneath one of her sofa cushions. I knew exactly what she meant. For some of us, it might be less the case that we reject the label ‘housewife’ and more that we can’t live up to it.
And, of course, these days the same could be true of men. Most of the male characters in Desperate Housewives feature as clueless and dismissive at best, selfish and neglectful at worst, which is a bit naughty and lopsided. Back in the real world, what’s the male story? With women achieving more money and power (despite last week’s Equal Opportunities Commission report which shows women are still under-represented in the top jobs), a bleak tableau emerges of them ending up sitting in wine bars with medallions around their necks telling sweet young things their partners simply ‘don’t understand’ them.
And with men taking more of a role in the domestic routine of the house, there’s an equally bleak image of them sitting in GPs’ offices being prescribed Valium to help them cope with the increasing avalanche of childcare and shopping, and the corresponding lack of nurture from their partners, all things they feel their fathers didn’t have to cope with. It’s all very complicated, but one thing’s for sure: with gender roles blurring more and more, we are all ‘desperate housewives’ now.