Marc Cherry at a GOP event in 2006.
Views are mine and obviously biased.
Let me preface this by coming out and say that I love Desperate Housewives, I really do. All right. For the handful of people who haven’t stopped reading yet, here goes: I’ve been watching the whole show for the umpteenth time at the very least, I’ve lost count (yup, my writing is slightly better than my math). Umpteenth time’s a charm as they say. Except that it’s also when it hit me: I’ve been watching a show that was mainly created as a vehicle for an extremely conservative platform. These reactionary views wouldn’t have felt out of place in pre-Civil Rights America as a matter of fact. A quick scan through Marc Cherry’s Wikipedia page seems to support that sudden nagging feeling. The show’s creator was apparently described as a “somewhat conservative, gay Republican” at some point and is a registered GOP member*, which explains many of the show’s themes and much of its ideology but also some of its contradictions. Desperate Housewives is a seasoned cook’s recipe seemingly made of light-hearted ingredients with the occasional dramatic pinch of salt that make for a heartwarming break at the end of a long day on the job for Average Joe and Ordinary Jane. But make no mistake, underneath that suburban veneer, the show’s underlying message is far from being as uplifting as Steve Jablonsky’s soundtrack.
Tom and Lynette Scavo’s daily lives and roles are probably the best example of the show’s core values. There couldn’t have been a more perfect example of the stereotypical Cold War nuclear family. Tom, husband, father and sole breadwinner. Lynette, wife, stay-at-home mom dealing with everything domestic. Even when Lynette goes back to work and Tom tries (and mostly fails, let’s be honest) to get to grips with their four kids’ antics (with a fifth one soon to be on the way), the show’s writers manage to insert meaningful reminders of the only acceptable state of affairs in their eyes. Their conversation about firing an employee at their new pizza venture immediately comes to mind.
Lynette : You pulling rank on me ?
Tom : Look, at home, you get to be in charge, and you decide how we discipline the boys, what car we buy, everything. […] Look, when I go home, basically, I check my balls at the door, and that’s fine. It works. But for this to work, when you walk through that door, you gotta check yours.
(Season 3, episode 14, “I Remember That”)
Way to condone gender-based traditional roles as they were constructed in what is commonly thought of as a bygone era, at least in the Western world. Needless to say that Bree Van de Kamp, pitch perfect housewife and kitchen fairy, Susan Mayer, klutz extraordinaire who wouldn’t be able to take care of herself if her life depended on it and shopaholic, materialistic, self-absorbed and mostly idle Gabrielle Solis don’t do the cause any favors either. Edie Brit might be the only major female character that could pass for a modern professional woman. If she wasn’t depicted as a heartless slut instead, that is. She must be another one of those damn Democrats.
Doug Savant (Tom Scavo) in 2009.
Felicity Huffman (Lynette Scavo) in 2010.
Among all these somewhat clichéd female characters, Bree clearly stands out. As a registered Republican, proud gun owner and NRA member, avid churchgoer, bigoted gay basher, typical suburban housewife and wealthy country club cardholder, Bree is a poster child for the conservative establishment. Most progressive viewers might dismiss her as comic relief or some sort of foil but she is meant as a major character and, unlike Edie, mostly supposed to be taken seriously. This suggests that Bree’s views, far from being discarded as ludicrous, are in fact to be taken at face value as the show’s main message for the audience to go home with. She is therefore potentially much more influential than one might have thought at first. The fact that she literally gets away with murder (among other things including driving under the influence, failure to report a crime – manslaughter in her son’s case, abandoning her son on the side of the road, you name it) further supports the theory according to which Cherry is clearly favoring her and the brand of conservatism she stands for. She even ends up getting elected as a local (conservative) representative down in Kentucky of all places not long after adding accessory to murder to her already long rap sheet and yet again making a total mockery of the American justice system in the process. Then again, in Bree’s America, where people sport t-shirts that proudly say « we don’t call 911 » within a Texas flag topped by a gun, the justice system isn’t really needed. The proverbial « good guy with a gun » is usually there to save the day according to the diehard urban myth. Float the idea that decreasing the number of guns in a given room might improve everyone’s chances of going home in one piece and Fairview’s favorite redhead will tell you that « when one of them is in [her] hands, then there’ll be enough guns » (season 7, episode 18, « Moments in the Woods »). I guess it’s settled then.
Marcia Cross (Bree Van de Kamp) in 2014.
However, Bree doesn’t exactly have a monopoly on dodging the law. On Wisteria Lane, crimes have no lasting consequences as long as you’re rich, preferably white (with the notable exception of the Solis family as the token Latinos on the show), privileged and deemed respectable by the rest of the community (if you happen to be black on top of all this, you might also be able to keep the cops away but that might cost your son his life, Betty Applewhite learned that the hard way). Paul Young gets off scot-free after committing murder (even though he managed to get in trouble for a crime he didn’t commit later on), Andrew Van de Kamp avoids being charged with hit-and-run, Bree ducks criminal negligence in addition to her other above-mentioned felonies and Carlos Solis manages to settle with the State in order to dramatically reduce his sentence for embezzlement (not to mention the fact that he isn’t even a person of interest in Bree’s trial for a murder he committed in the grand finale of the show). As long as you can pay your way to freedom, negotiate a settlement with a friendly neighbor, threaten unfriendly ones or all of the above, you’re in the clear. Committing a crime – fraud through sham marriage – is actually easier than questioning the pre-Obamacare health system preventing Susan from affording surgery. Once again, this is well within the realm of present-day conservative doctrine although Marc Cherry couldn’t have known that the world would actually end up being ruled by an orange-skinned Law Evader in Chief at the time. How eerily prescient. In that regard, the series finale encapsulates every single previously mentioned occurrence as Karen McCluskey performs the mother of all evasions by getting Carlos and all the housewives off the hook as well as avoiding charges on the grounds that her advanced age and rapidly degrading health would probably cut it just fine. Fair enough. Truth be told, the only character who seems to be paying everyone’s dues to society, even when his innocence is self-evident, is the local plumber, Mike Delfino. Susan’s proverbial bad luck can’t carry the blame on its own. A lower social status and paygrade will do that to you.
Those are probably also what your kids are supposed to end up getting if their suburban parents don’t get them into an expensive private school, as far as possible from crowded state system classrooms. Hence Mike doubling his plumbing shifts and Susan pretty much snatching an assistant job out of the principal’s hands in order to be able to afford the exorbitant tuition. God forbid you end up being POOR. Marc Cherry has his own personal definition of poverty of course. If you can’t afford to live in a beautiful house with a gorgeous backyard and a white picket fence, you are to be deemed poor (or, as some better informed people like to put it, middle class…). This is final. When Susan realizes she will have to live in an apartment until she can get back on her feet, the shit hits the fan. Said apartment obviously looks utterly derelict, has rats and its dominant color is a depressing gray. Not to mention the fact that the only neighbors we get to meet have set up nothing short of a porn website. Fun times. It is therefore urgent for (literally) poor Susan to get back to the lane. In order to be able to do so, she has to track down a bunch of Mike’s customers who haven’t paid for his services yet. Mike let them off the hook because they were experiencing financial difficulties. Unsurprisingly, none of these debt-ridden individuals seem to give a flying fudge about Susan’s situation or improving their own for that matter. Once again, the twisted Republican version of the American Dream is delivered loud and clear. In short, the enemy ain’t poverty, it’s poor people who were too lazy to seize their star-spangled opportunities.
Mike and Susan know that full well since they would rather rent out their property on Wisteria Lane to their evil ex-neighbor Paul Young and live in a close to caricature demeaning dump in a sketchy neighborhood than accept loans from their friends. That would indeed be considered a handout or, in clearer terms, charity. As far as metaphors for conservative small government ideology go, I’ve seen more subtle. Big city spoiled diva Renee Perry and Australian-born Ben Faulkner (hello stereotypes along the lines of leaving for the outback and going on a little walkabout!) show the viewers that they did their homework before moving to the suburbs by immediately bonding over their common hatred of charity, which leads up to their dating and ultimately getting married. A true reactionary fairy tale.
And since it’s never too late for Marc Cherry to add a lesson to his ever developing Conservative 101 class, Mary Alice Young, our devoted narrator (I mean, she’s a woman, what else would she do between her chores anyway?), doesn’t fail to put the final nail in Progressive America’s coffin when Susan leaves her sick son with her ex-husband on her first day on the job:
It’s not hard to spot a mom who works outside her home. Just look for a woman who leaves her house every morning feeling incredibly guilty.
(Season 5, episode 15, « In a World Where the Kings Are Employers »)
A woman holding a job that doesn’t start with « house » and doesn’t end with « wife » is obviously unheard of in Conservative Utopia. However, when her male counterpart can’t hold on to his breadwinning occupation, all hell breaks loose. As Orson Hodge has it, « when [he] lost [his dental] practice, [he] lost people’s respect » (season 5, episode 16, « Crime Doesn’t Pay »). Are you done cringing? Now listen. You could almost hear Betsy DeVos snigger in the background, a little too far from the teacher for her own good. Well, that’s if you’re white and rich enough to move in the same circles of course.
I’ve mentioned the terms « progressive », « conservative » and « reactionary ». The dictionary’s definition of the latter is « strongly opposed to any social or political change ». Change is something that Wisteria Lane’s residents clearly abhor. The whole neighborhood actively resists change, which is illustrated by a halfway house full of seemingly dangerous ex-cons on the (again, seemingly) peaceful lane. Bree tries to be polite about it by mentioning that she’s « all for charity » but she quickly adds that her « neighborhood can’t handle something like this » (season 7, episode 9, « Pleasant Little Kingdom »). In other words, not in my backyard. The technical term for this approach is « nimbyism » and it’s right up the libertarian wing of the Republican Party’s alley.
Having said that, Marc Cherry’s atypical background somehow forces him to walk the line between hardline right-wing tenets and his own situation as a gay Hollywood artist in a world dominated by liberals. Hence a plethora of contradictions on his show. Its endorsement of hookup culture, multiple marriages and divorces almost as a way of life (although abortion is usually completely ignored as a viable option even with regards to teen pregnancies), to name but a few, might represent some of the contradictory aspects that are sure to be involved in being a gay Republican. The fact that the only major gay character in the first three seasons, Andrew, is not exactly shown in the greatest light as well as Bob Hunter and Lee McDermott playing stereotypical second fiddle to him as of season four can be seen as a symbol of said contradictory aspects.
I’m told we’re getting into the episode’s forty-second minute and it’s time for the female narrator to wrap up and put the kids to sleep. Fine. I’ll refrain from talking about the way Cherry carefully creates a window of opportunity to discuss the GOP playbook-approved difference between « good immigrants » (Carlos and Gaby, gorgeous-looking, filthy rich, phenomenally successful second generation Mexicans turned into law-abiding American citizens with just the right touch of Hispanic culture left – hell, the only Spanish words Gaby understands are her daughters’ names Juanita and Celia for crying out loud) and bad ones (Carmen and Hector Sanchez, plain-looking, overweight, dirt poor illegal aliens who go so far as to call their daughter Grace in their attempt to further pervert the American Dream) then. I won’t mention the fact that eco-terrorism is the only way the show found to bring up the environment either. Or how trying to spare what’s left of the planet had to be somehow connected to committing a crime for that matter.
Like I said, I still enjoy watching reruns of Desperate Housewives like there’s no tomorrow all these years down the line and the story’s paradoxes might be part of the explanation. Blatantly ignoring Fairview’s conservative streak including cringeworthy gender roles, prehistoric values and inconsistent morals is definitely another one of those parts. This last one is getting increasingly hard to pull off though. All right, let’s face it, I do have to confess that the show’s finale still gets to me even though, once again, Marc Cherry manages to remind us that it’s all about Trump’s chosen few at the end of the day (I know, anachronistic reference, but still a fitting one): the show ends as Lynette enjoys her new hot shot New York City CEO position and her penthouse overlooking Central Park, Gaby has her own money-making fashion TV show and Bree gets elected as a GOP state senator in the Deep South. If those jobs were the norm, we’d be able to praise the show’s writers for their progressive gender role reversal. Let’s hope trickle-down economics will help Susan, Julie, MJ and the baby pay off Julie’s student debt and make a decent living. Just kidding.
Picture 1: By No machine-readable author provided. Flo~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Picture 2: By Kristin Dos Santos (Doug Savant) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Picture 3: By The Heart Truth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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