Sex, the Suburbs, and What Housewives Are Desperate For

Breaking every viewer record and emerging as the #1 primetime TV sensation, ABC’s Desperate Housewives has been called the Sex and the City of the suburbs. Writer Marc Cherry told The Age that “Desperate Housewives is a kind of skewed homage to suburban life,” and that he “found inspiration in everything from the later episodes of I Love Lucy (after they move to Connecticut) to the Oscar-winning American Beauty.” The show, which is set in the archetypal suburban neighborhood of Wisteria Lane, follows a familiar pattern (seen also in Pleasantville, The Truman Show, Stepford Wives): an outwardly idyllic paradise is unveiled to reveal the seedy, depraved colony of frustrated role-players swarming underneath.

With its soaring popularity Desperate Housewives reminds us that the corrupt-suburbia stereotype resonates with modern American viewers. Moreso, it seems, with the older generations than with the college-aged: ironically, the larger portion of viewers were found to reside in the suburbs of conservative, Bush-supporting “red states.” According to Frank Rich of The New York Times, “It is even a bigger hit in Oklahoma City than it is in Los Angeles, bigger in Kansas City than it is in New York.” While college girls still cling nostalgically to their full 6-season DVD sets of Sex and the City, married suburbanites hastily put their kids to bed on Sunday nights and flip to the show that unabashedly pokes fun at their lifestyles.

At the same time, conservative groups like the American Family Association rage against the sex-drenched drama and its debasement of holy matrimony. (The AFA even pressured several companies to withdraw their advertisements from the show in protest.) Yet their protestations seem like hollow gestures when the “family-values” advocates who form their support base cannot help but tune in to the show.

So what is really so wrong with “suburbia,” and why are the suburb-dwellers so engrossed by its sex-infused televised dissection?

Consider some of the frequent criticisms of suburbia. Many decry the “spoiled rich” who are allegedly corrupted by their gigantic saunas and lavish three-story mansions, who sink into depravity when their shallow materialism fails to provide fulfillment.

Of course wealth is not restricted to suburbia. Indeed, the city girls of Sex and the City lead indisputably luxurious lifestyles, accessorizing to their heart’s content, strutting around in their $450 Manolo Blahniks and retreating to the Hamptons whenever they want some quality girl time. Yet for some reason, they do not end up as cynical manipulators or corpses (as in the case of Desperate Housewives‘ narrator and symbolic centerpiece, Mary Alice, who kills herself in episode 1 amid her husband’s freshly laundered shirts).

Perhaps, as some feminists maintain, the problem is with the stifling marriage ethic itself. The new, liberated woman does not surrender her individuality to old-world sexist expectations, slaving away in the kitchen and chasing after the kids while the “man of the house” is busy bringing home the bacon.

But wait–what about Miranda and Charlotte, our beloved Sex and the City singles, who end up happily (but not submissively) domesticated? Indeed, Charlotte even quits her job as an art agent, choosing to place her husband and long-awaited child as her top priorities. Yet Charlotte, unlike the uptight and verging-on-breakdown Desperate Housewife Lynette, gains a serenity and genuine sense of purpose through her struggle to adopt a child and giving her beloved but uncouth husband Harry some lessons in proper hygiene.

No, it is neither riches nor men that makes a woman’s life in the suburbs such hell compared to our cheerful New York City girls. It is rather some deeper attitude toward their riches and their men that distinguishes the ladies on Wisteria Lane–and America’s attitude toward them–from the Sex and the City feisty foursome.

What kind of attitude, or general approach to life, is associated with the women of suburbia? Marc Cherry himself provides a hint in describing the show’s premise: “All these women have made some kind of choice in their lives and are in various stages of regretting it.” So what, if any, is the common approach that makes their various choices so uniformly dissatisfying?

Consider the advice of Gabrielle, the rich married slut who wraps her handsome husband around her dainty little ex-model’s finger while sleeping with the 17-year-old gardener: “You’re a woman. Manipulate him. It’s what we do.” Yes, Gabrielle is a very rich lady, with a beautiful house and a dazzling (though slightly skanky) wardrobe.

But her wealth hinges on a lie–and she will resort to any manipulative scheme, just short of murder (but not by much), to hold on to those illusory riches. No wonder she complains to her high-school aged lover about feeling “trapped.” Her choices are to stay captive, bored and bound, in a loveless marriage, or leave her husband and be penniless (which, by Wisteria Lane standards, is unacceptable).

And it is not only for wealth that the women on Wisteria Lane are willing to entertain illusions. Bree, described as “Martha Stewart on steroids,” goes to desperate lengths to conceal from her suburban critics a failing marriage and a hateful relationship with her children. “Don’t confuse my anal retentiveness,” she tells her husband, “for actual affection.”

There is nothing “actual” about Bree’s relationship with her family: her husband has asked for a divorce, after being discovered with the neighborhood prostitute, but Bree insists on patching things up and acting normal because “what would the neighbors think?” Her friendships are defined, appropriately, by mutual deception: as she tells Gabrielle when the women find out each other’s shameful secrets, “great friends pretend nothing happened.”

Lynette, once a successful executive, has given up her career to play “model housewife”–and secretly resents it. Unlike the lying, cheating Gabrielle and the phoney Bree, Lynette lovingly devotes all her time to the care of her high-maintenance family.

Unlike Charlotte’s (eventual) discovery of blissful matrimony, contentment and joy somehow always seem to elude Lynette. In a typical episode, she fantasizes about her grouchy old neighbor, Mrs. McCluskey, dropping dead on the door stoop; when she “does the right thing” and rescues the old woman from death’s jaws, she does it out of grudging duty. “Half of life is obligation,” she explains to Mrs. McCluskey, agreeing to take her to the pharmacy when she admittedly has no desire to do so.

The people of Wisteria Lane live by service to others (like Lynette) or dependence on others (like Gabrielle); in either case, it is others’ aims and perceptions that run their lives. They live either for or through each other. And that means, in the end, that they (literally, in Mary Alice’s case) don’t live at all.

Contrast this with our sexy NYC ladies. To start, Carrie earns her wealth by excelling at work that she loves, creating a witty and insightful column that inspires millions of single New York women. Miranda is a successful lawyer who balances her responsibility as mother with her responsibilities as career woman; Samantha and Charlotte, too, earn their riches through creativity and persistence.

Of course, the girls highly value the men in their lives. But they never cede their judgment or their values to appease a boyfriend–at least not for long. Charlotte, the closest to a suburban-housewife-at-heart, gets a much-needed dose of reality after marrying the “ideal” cookie-cutter Protestant husband. Trey embodies Charlotte’s hand-me-down fairy tale of the perfect mate: he says everything that is expected of him, and gives the right gifts at the right time.

Yet, as Charlotte discovers, in his performance as husband and lover he is–on both counts–impotent. It is not until Charlotte chooses a man she genuinely loves (a highly non-cookie-cutter, eccentric, bald Jew!) that she discovers true “domestic bliss”–a marriage based on mutual affection and her own, chosen values.

Contrast this with poor Lynette, who lives out her days according to a unwanted and involuntary “obligation.” Wherever that obligation comes from, and whomever it’s intended to serve–her family, her suburban society, or her Christian ethic–one thing is clear: it does not come from her, nor does she derive much joy from its fulfillment.

Interestingly, like the proverbial “suburbs,” the city too takes on the character of an archetype. NYC is an anchor for the women’s personalities; it provides them with jobs they love, clubs and shows they can visit when lonely, taxis they can take if they don’t have a man to drive them. Carrie actually jokes that the city is her “boyfriend,” and her loyalty to it is unwavering. The city teaches the girls that they must reckon with the cold, hard facts of life: when Miranda finally marries Steve, she must part with her beloved Manhattan apartment and move to a house in Brooklyn to take her growing family’s needs into account. And when Carrie attempts to flee her city and her career to fulfill her boyfriend’s desires, she discovers (the hard way) that without New York and her column, she has nothing to live for. The man she loves and ultimately returns to is anchored to the city and to everything that is important in her life.

In her memorable last line, Carrie expresses a basic premise underlying the show: “The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself. And if you find someone to love the you you love, well, that’s just fabulous.” Even more basically, it is the relationship you have with the world around you–the values you have chosen by surveying and evaluating, by your own judgment, all the world has to offer–that makes life exciting and fulfilling. Our New York foursome seems to realize that at least on some level. The ladies of Wisteria Lane, however, are operating on an entirely different policy.

So why such divergent approaches among the two types of women–surely it’s not just a matter of geography?

Well, one clue to the answer may lie in the strikingly mixed and aggressive reaction to the show among conservatives. Ed Vitagliano of the American Family Association writes:

Desperate Housewives provides a glimpse into our nation’s prevailing view of good and evil. For example, goodness is defined in a scene where Paul, the surviving husband of Mary Alice… explains: ‘Before my wife shot herself, we lived a life that I was proud of. We loved each other, we had values, we went to church. We gave to charity. We were good people, Mr. Shaw.’…This is a moral worldview built on human effort, on man-made standards of right and wrong…Of course, the church is supposed to be about the business of preaching the Gospel, which casts to the earth all humanistic morality, and views good deeds as nothing more than putting a veneer of rouge and lipstick on a corpse. We are sinners in need of a Savior. Period. There are no ‘good people.'”

Mr. Vitagliano is strikingly honest in his description of the Christian view of human nature–so much so, that he unwittingly reveals a truth he would just as soon conceal: in fact, the women on Desperate Housewives, and perhaps also many of the show’s married suburb-dwelling conservative viewers, follow Vitagliano’s prescription to a tee.

Whether or not they are on active duty to Christ, they are driven, in one form or another, by some externally imposed “Gospel”: from Lynette’s begrudged duties of motherhood and Bree’s compulsive concern with keeping up appearances, to Gabrielle’s ongoing deception which fosters leech-like dependence on her husband.

All these women are sinners in need of a savior to tell them what to do; when the Gospel’s ideals of matrimony and motherhood fail to save them, they turn to neighbors and lovers for guidance. When even those prescriptions fail, the women give up all searching and–true to their “corpse”-like, purposeless selves–they kill themselves. Poor Mary Alice has discovered the futility of waiting for a “savior.” Most of her neighbors, including Bree, whose lip service to Christianity has estranged her from her homosexual son, are learning it too.

Why, then, does America associate the suburbs with dreary desperation, and the city with adventurous vitality? It’s not geography. Perhaps it’s because we do, in fact, go to the suburbs to get married, buy homes, and raise families. In most people’s minds, such decisions represent life-long commitments. And since the only kind of life-long commitment they think of is of the Lynette brand–stifling, boring, superimposed by a Christian-esque duty premise–it is no surprise that they think of commitment with a sense of desperation. Marriage is a “ball and chain.” A home is a tax liability. Children are “rugrats.” Dare we say, then, that the problem is not with the suburbs, but with a certain attitude toward life’s choices? Perhaps it is the self-driven, purposeful spirit of a Charlotte that’s missing on Wisteria Lane.

Perhaps it is a hopeful sign that college girls still turn to the independent, high-achieving (and unabashedly secular) women of Sex and the City and leave the corrupt Christianity-drained “suburbia” to the disgruntled housewives. Somewhere in the transition from youth to adulthood, the hand-me-down principles of the church or the college professorate take the place of independent judgment. If you want to retain that sense of luminous independence into adulthood, you must learn to live by the independent and principled use of your own mind. In downtown Manhattan or in the Kansas countryside, always remember: your life is yours to live.

Gena Gorlin is a freshman enrolled at Tufts University and the New England Conservatory.

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