Prior to the 1960s women knew that their primary role was to stay at home, fulfilling all of the domestic duties of cleaning, cooking meals, and taking care of the children while their husbands went off to work in the professional world. But women soon began to seek equal opportunity to advance in multiple aspects of life so they could break free from feeling confined to the domestic sphere. As women gained more freedom and the ability to partake in such realms, they also began to feel an increasing amount of pressure to succeed in everything. Not only did women have to take care of the domestic responsibilities, but they also needed to further their education and find success in the workplace while also managing to maintain their femininity. Society’s expectations for women began to seem impossibly unrealistic, and the modern woman now has to deal with extremely high demands. The ABC series Desperate Housewives tells the story of four modern housewives who experience similar societal pressures. Lynette, a successful career woman, is forced to quit her job to take care of her uncontrollable kids at home. Gabby is a trophy wife to a successful businessman who can’t seem to find happiness despite her extravagant lifestyle. Bree, the Martha Stewart of the group, appears to be the perfect housewife until she cracks under the pressure and turns to alcohol as her coping method. And Susan, a divorced mother, does everything she can to provide for her children. Desperate Housewives demonstrates the postfeminine “unhappy” heroine who struggles to find satisfaction in the pressures of succeeding in multiple aspects of life as a result of the feminine movement.
Lynette Scavo is a frazzled mother of five who struggles to find balance between her work and personal life. Not only do her children cause her to have several mental breakdowns, but her husband acts as a sixth child with his constant midlife crises. On top of raising her children, her husband, work, and a diagnosis of cancer, Lynette also feels the need to take on volunteering roles for the PTA. What may be possibly Lynette’s most severe breakdown of the entire series occurs during the episode “Guilty” in the first season as Lynette begins to take her child’s ADD medication to keep up with the pressures of her life (“Guilty”, 2004). “In one of the most disturbing scenes from the series we see Lynette, one of the lead characters, hallucinating and unable to cope. She envisages herself screaming and breaking things and then reaching out for a gun” (Robinson 2011). Lynette’s actions just go to show the extreme measures women are willing to take in order to live up to the expectations placed on them because of the feminine movement.
Gabby, an ex-professional model who graced the covers of Vogue, finds herself unhappy with living in the suburbs and staying at home while her husband works all day. Although she has everything she ever wanted, she lacks complete satisfaction with her life. According to Busch, “the series depicts the lives of wealthy wives and professional divorcees as equally undesirable options for women today” (Busch 2009). The types of pressures Gabby experiences are much different from Lynette’s in that she believes she needs to be overly feminine to please the male gaze. She must always have her hair and makeup done and she spends most of her days shopping for the latest designer clothes and accessories. Busch also proposes that “Desperate Housewives suggests a greater complexity in the women’s search for fulfillment, as children, homes, and husbands alone are insufficient sources of happiness for women” (Busch 2009). When her husband fails to give her enough attention, she hopes to find other sources of happiness and attention from her affair with her gardener. But instead of finding happiness in the attainment of lavish objects and love from a man who spends time with her, Gabby is left feeling empty.
Bree Van de Kamp appears to be the perfect housewife. She has the picture-perfect family, hosts delightful dinner parties, and regularly delivers baskets of baked goods to neighbors as a friendly gesture. But behind her false façade is a woman who is crumbling into a deep state of unhappiness. In addition to her husband’s infidelity and death, her daughter’s teenage pregnancy and the discovery that her son is gay causes Bree immense pressure to live up to her perfectionist standards. In an attempt to appear as though everything is all right at home, she puts on a fake face and secretly turns to alcohol to cope. “Her well-manicured lawn and perfect baked goods cannot prevent her nervous breakdown or alcoholism from emergence with a vengeance” (Busch 2009). We see that the ever so perfect Bree Van de Kamp isn’t immune to the demands placed on the modern day woman.
And finally, Susan Mayer may arguably be the most insecure of the four housewives on the show. After the divorce from her unfaithful husband, she was left to raise her daughter on her own. With her dependence on men for happiness, which often leads to many heartbroken moments, her daughter Julie ends up doing most of the mothering and housewife duties herself. Susan is not the perfect housewife, and she knows this. But she still feels pressure to excel in the domestic and professional field for the sake of her family. When money is tight at home, she takes on whatever job that is available. Over the course of the entire series, some of her occupations include being a children’s book author and illustrator, an art teacher, a strip club owner, a landlady and a nanny. The lowest of the low for Susan may have been when she became a lingerie “model” for an Internet website. Again, this just demonstrates the actions women are willing to take to keep up with the demands in a postfeminine world.
Desperate Housewives illustrates the difficulty of finding happiness in the postfeminine world due to the pressures placed on women to excel in many areas of their life. As Busch states, “this new liberated woman finds herself stifled by the very feminism that enabled her entry into the public sphere” (Busch 2009). Rather than acknowledging feminism as a way in which they can progress, women accuse it for the rising demands to succeed in their careers, relationships, homes, etc. The lives of Lynette, Gabby, Bree and Susan attempt to get an important point across: “not only is feminism over. It also failed: look how unhappy the ‘liberated’ woman is” (Busch 2009).
Desperate Housewives “Guilty” (originally aired November 28, 2004)
Robinson, Penelope. "Mobilizing Postfeminism: Young Australian Women Discuss Sex And The City And Desperate Housewives." Continuum: Journal Of Media & Cultural Studies 25.1 (2011): 111-124. Film & Television Literature Index. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.
Busch, Elizabeth Kaufer. "Ally Mcbeal To Desperate Housewives: A Brief History Of The Postfeminist Heroine." Perspectives On Political Science 38.2 (2009): 87-98. Academic Search Elite. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.