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Welcome to Wisteria Lane: On America's Favorite Desperate Housewives

ISBN: 1932100792

Edited by Leah Wilson

Review by: Michelle Humphrey

01/01/07

The desperate housewife has been around since ancient Greek drama: there's Medea (killed her kids), Jocasta, (married her son), Helen of Troy (had affair, started war). We can follow the icon to fairy tales, Charlotte Perkins Gilman . . . Shakespeare (Lady Macbeth, for those who watch the show, could be an ancestor of Bree, obsessed as they both are with scrubbing out bloodstains). Given the dramatic appeal of the archetype, with her demi-diva rebellions and nervous breakdowns, it's no real surprise that Desperate Housewives has stirred up controversy, heroine worship, and another national TV addiction.

The essays in Welcome to Wisteria Lane, edited by Leah Wilson, are written by authors quick to assert that the show is not just a guilty pleasure. And, happily for us, these articles focus largely on Season One, which has already attained a certain cult status. Its secrets, cliffhangers, gags, and promises were so completely fulfilled; Seasons Two and Three feel extraneous, in case you haven't already heard . . . But that's another review. Whatever its shortcomings, Housewives repeatedly draws us in with characters who are more than traditional caricatures. We meet the materialist-yet-unsatisfied sexpot Gabrielle. The romantic-but-bumbling Susan. The overextended-yet-still-ambitious Lynette. And the prim, proper, and verbally toxic Bree.

While many of the articles feel like love letters to these characters, there's a grittier criticism lurking about: Julie Kenner's Sex and the Television Suburbs examines how motherhood and sexuality remain mutually exclusive in this latest incarnation of the TV Wife and Mother. Just as Elizabeth Montgomery in Bewitched could only get sexy while playing Serena (Samantha Stephens' wild and childless cousin), so it goes on Housewives, where the two women allowed to fully revel in their sexuality are the non-moms: Gabrielle and Edie. The show also reinforces the idea that female sensuality is something to be punished: However much Gabrielle cavorts with her teenaged gardener, she remains profoundly unhappy. Edie, who flaunts her body and embraces her sexuality, is shunned by the inner circle of the wives.

Speaking of Edie: Sharon Bowers' piece, I Bet You Used To Be A Cheerleader, takes a closer look at the misfit who lives down the lane. For Bowers, Edie represents truth in contrast to the lies of Susan Mayer (the lovesick lead). As the speaker of truth, Edie provides the droll commentary on the suicides, betrayals, murders, and affairs that happen behind closed doors. She serves as a disruption to the higher cultural status of the other housewives.

 Jill Winters' essay, The Lost Boys of Wisteria Lane, explores the shows inside joke these wives are not really desperate. In fact, they're more-than-functional and ready to take charge, especially when compared to the male characters. Men who were introduced to us as wealthy (Carlos and Rex), virile (Mike and John), husbandly (Tom) and villainous (Paul), are soon exposed as weak-willed and insecure. The wives may manipulate events that influence their husbands failures, but it is the husbands who ultimately orchestrate their own downfalls (like Carlos' transformation from corporate master of the universe to jailbird awaiting his embezzlement trial).

However provocative, these essays do not cover the ways that Housewives draws back from truly subverting network television. Gabrielle's auspicious miscarriage adds another storyline to the TV tradition of evading abortion scenarios. Its especially infuriating here since an abortion narrative would have made perfect sense (Gabrielle, in Season One, is not only vocal in her decision to remain childless, she's also forceful in undermining her husband).  Elsewhere, easy insults made by male characters stand unchallenged by the wives. (Tom, turned off by the baby vomit on Lynette as she attempts to seduce him, mentions how guys sometimes like it...when women, you know, put a little effort into things. Lynette's response? She cries the next morning.)

The Good of the Group by Evany Thomas (who also writes the snarky recaps of the show for Television Without Pity) points out a parallel between the wives and their TV predecessors. Drama has revolved around the loveable klutz since the days of Lucille Ball. On Sex in the City, the Lucy was Carrie Bradshaw. Here, she's Susan Mayer. It seems, in the mind of the network exec, strong female protagonists will only have mass appeal if they're taken down a notch with ego-shaking pratfalls and a search for meaning that rarely ventures beyond romance. For all the buzz on its groundbreaking nature, Housewives and the commentaries of Wilson's book show us that the more our stories contemporize, the more they stay the same.

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