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Mankind and man are words that have been used to refer to the human race, which raises the question: are women inferior to men. Throughout history, women have been treated as second class citizens, but with the feminist movements, women are slowly reaching the same level as men. Women are beginning to leave behind their traditional role as the housewife in search for careers instead of raising a family. Even though women are fighting for their equality with men, gender stereotyping is prevalent among our society. Examples of gender stereotyping can be seen in the media, which is a great influence for a person of any age. Similarly, the TV show Desperate Housewives can give an inside look of how the struggle of identity is portrayed through the traditional roles that the characters of Bree Van De Kamp, Lynette Scavo, and Susan Mayer are played. To better understand how the media affects individuals, one can see examples of the hidden meanings or themes that are being portrayed in Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives is a form of media that concentrates on how women's traditional roles are being eradicated. In addition, the women in the show play characters such as "desperate, conniving, sly, and prone to cheating." In first world countries, the media has such a hold on gender stereotypes that it can actually create a type of experience that shapes people in a negative way and create a segregation between the roles of gender.
In today's world, anyone can get almost all of their information through the media, which contributes to one's opinions over his/her surroundings. In Susan Basow's Gender Stereotypes & Roles, Michael Morgan conducts a two year experiment on men and women to describe the relationship between TV viewing and gender stereotypes. The author states:
"The effect of TV is likely to be strongest among those who otherwise are least likely to hold traditional sex roles views. For males, high TV viewing did not predict sexism scores one year later, but for girls, amount of TV scores one year later. This finding suggests that for girls, greater sexism was a result of watching a great deal of TV." (163)
The modern woman and man these days are less likely to be exposed to traditional sex roles with all the progression towards achieving gender equality. It is no surprise that the males were not exposed to sexism because almost all of it is directed towards women. For example, most cleaning commercials show a woman cleaning the house while the man is supposed to be working. When these girls are viewing this kind of sexism, it can cause confusion on what role they are intended to play. Also, the media may even be using reverse psychology by empowering these girls to not become the woman in the commercial who's cleaning down counters. Basow points out that even in daytime shows about empowering women present exploitation on how oversensitive women can be:
"In daytime talk shows, sensationalism and exploitation account. As Rapping (1989) notes such shows as Oprah Winfrey's take some of the contributions of feminism- consciousness raising, personal sympathetic questioning- and use them to exploit the feelings of both the guests and studio audience." (159)
The Oprah Winfrey show raises many controversial topics like women's rights, but to get more ratings, any talk show would try to exaggerate the topic even more. Therefore, the show is no longer a talk show that is present on basic cable. From Morgan's test subject of the female who has little experience with traditional roles, she may perceive this daytime show in two different ways. On one hand, Morgan may think it is inspiring her to stand up for her rights when Oprah is getting her audience and guests to be more eager to go out into their communities and take action. On the other hand, she may recognize it as an exaggeration that these women are complaining and not taking an initiative to do something about their rights. It all depends on the female's background on how she makes judgments on whether the media is being sexist or not. With the female viewer's judgments about media in mind, Desperate Housewives offers a variety of controversial topics that women face in this world. An in depth analysis of a few characters offers more information about these topics that attract more viewers to this TV show.
In Desperate Housewives, Bree Van de Kamp plays the perfect housewife role, but the pressures of her lifestyle cause her to question her marriage satisfaction. The only thing that Van de Kamp truly cares about is her reputation, which weakens her relationships. Any female viewer can judge that Van de Kamp's character tries too hard to be the perfect wife. Some of these viewers may take her role seriously and not get married altogether because the purpose of a housewife may seem absurd if it is all about reputation. To understand the root cause of why Van de Kamp may act in this way is to observe how she is treated by her husband. Marita Mcabe tackles the idea of how much spousal appreciation affects marriage satisfaction:
In a study of newlyweds married for up to 6 months, they found that the best predictor of marital satisfaction was the accuracy of one's perceptions of the partner's qualities-that is, agreement with the partner's self-report of his or her attributes. Although the newlyweds generally held a positive global view of their partners, those couples with realistic evaluations of their partners' attributes were more likely to experience high levels of marital satisfaction (44).
Van de Kamp's actions and personality demand to be praised at all times. With her adaption of the routine of doing everything perfectly, her family came to be less appreciative, especially her husband. In a scene, Van de Kamp asks her husband what he thought of her food, and he replies that it was "okay". This leads Van de Kamp to throw a fit, saying how she spent many hours cooking this meal and his response was not good enough. Van de Kamp puts on the façade that everything is perfect in her family, but in reality the situation is the complete opposite. Her main problem is that she tries to fulfill her worth by striving to be the picture perfect housewife, which results in a strain on her marriage (Desperate Housewives: all eight seasons).
Van de Kamp's back story may lead the viewer to figure out how to achieve marriage satisfaction when she herself wants to gets married. Martia McCabe investigates different experiments that researchers have conducted over marriage satisfaction. McCabe uses Finkenauer and Hazam's research over surveying couples that have been married for forty two years, "Contextual measures of both disclosure and secrecy were strong predictors of marital satisfaction. The results demonstrated that participants who felt comfortable sharing their emotions and who talked about difficult issues with their partner were more satisfied with their relationship" (6). If couples in relationships are more opened to sharing their issues with one another, then there would be less dominant power of the woman over the man in the relationship or vice versa. However, women today are becoming more authoritative in their marriages because they want to be satisfied with their lives and not get married solely to serve their husband. Desperate Housewives plays around with this idea through Van de Kamp and gives the message that only attending to her husband's needs does not make a picture perfect marriage. Van de Kamp struggles with exposing her true self to her husband because she tries to conceal her imperfections, which end up being her downfall. Her character development is a lesson to young women who decide to choose the marriage route to be open to their husbands and not try to be the flawless traditional housewife. The creator of Desperate Housewives, Marc Cherry tries to portray the viewpoint of marriage in a negative way by having the wife hide her emotions from her husband. In a marriage, there would also be the question of who is the breadwinner of the family, the husband or the wife? In Desperate Housewives, Lynette Scavo's character is known as an independent woman who considers being the breadwinner.
Lynette Scavo used to be the bread winner of the family; the tables turned when she became a mother and had to quit her job to take care of her children. Throughout the show, Scavo struggles to be a mother and longs to go back into the work force. The spouse that brings in most of the family's income is referred to as the "breadwinner". In Scavo's case, her husband Tom Scavo is the breadwinner and that bothers her because her gender role has forced her to stay at home with the children. In Rebecca Meisenbach's article which discusses the idea behind being a breadwinner states, "This breadwinner ideal also has been tied intricately to issues of masculine identity, such that a husband's un- or under-employment threatens perceptions of his masculinity" (3). Scavo's husband's masculinity might go down because from the beginning, the man is expected to provide for his family. "Nock identified three primary social roles associated with masculinity that stem from the male as breadwinner model, such that husbands are: (a) fathers to their wives' children, (b) providers for their families, and (c) protectors of their wives and children" (3). Biologically, a woman is the one who bears children and the connection between a child and mother is much stronger than a fathers. In the 1950s, women were not allowed to work and own any property which automatically resulted in the man being the main provider for his family. With the man being the provider for his family, he also takes up the duty of protecting his family from any harm. These three factors that have been programmed into us from the beginning which makes it difficult for female breadwinners to prosper in the work force.
In season two of Desperate Housewives, the table turns when Scavo goes back to work, and Tom Scavo takes over her role. Being put into Scavo's shoes, Tom Scavo realizes that his wife does not just sit at home and gossip, but actually works hard to provide for their children's needs. He struggles with his masculinity when he sees that he is surrounded mostly by housewives while the men are out providing for their family. Lynette and Tom Scavo's characters reveal that when the roles are reversed, it is doable for both sides. The viewer may take Scavo's story with a positive or negative perspective. When Lynette was pregnant with her fourth child, she complains about being ".. forty, my husband is back in school, I'm the sole breadwinner, I don't know how I am going to do this whole baby thing again.." (Season 6, episode 2). Scavo may be seen as the pathetic housewife who just complains about her kids, whereas some housewives enjoy being at home and caring for her children. Or, it may be a message to a single, young female that if she wants to raise a family and be the breadwinner, it can be accomplished depending on if her husband is compliant.
With the divorce rates going up in this country, single parenting is beginning to become a norm in this society. Susan Mayer from Desperate Housewives plays a single mother who tries to balance work, parenting and her love life all at the same time. She strives to become a good role model for her daughter but struggles just like any other single parent out there. Most families today need to live on two incomes; single parents do not have the support which leads them to be more concerned about how to put food on the table, rather than worry about what society thinks. Single mother and writer Ahmad Fawzia addresses what a single parent is more concerned about:
"I think I was simply too busy providing, nurturing, disciplining, and taking
care of my children to distinguish between "female" characteristics (nurturing,
gentleness, femininity) and "male" characteristics (aggression, linearity, logic)
in mothering my son and my daughter" (142).
From the outside, others would be concerned about whether the single mother is finding the right balance between masculinity and femininity in their parenting style. Traditionally, males are seen as being the more authoritative in the family, while the female is more of the nurturing type. However, mothers and fathers divide certain tasks in raising their children. A father's relationship to his child is described as a paternal bond, the relationship between a father and his child, whereas a mother's is a maternal bond, the relationship between a mother and her child. These two terms have been used from the beginning of time and the lack of one type of bond can mentally affect the child (Miller 63). Single parents have to adapt both the paternal and maternal role while having a good balance of masculine and feminine traits in order to make sure their children are provided with everything. From Desperate Housewives, Susan Mayer is far from being the perfect mother and she learns from her daughter Julie on how to improve her parenting. Sometimes, it seems as if Julie is her mother and she needs to be put in place. Single young females can make many assumptions about single parenting through Mayer's characteristics. The idea of single parenting may seem appealing to them when they see how Mayer is able to find a balance between all of her roles. Or they may see the negative effects of how Mayer goes through many hardships as a single mother. Desperate Housewives tackles single parenting by developing a character that is not concerned about what society thinks and focuses more on the relationship between mother and child. The maker of Desperate Housewives gives some insights on why he created the characters in a ways that makes them desperate, manipulative and a career woman vs. stay at home mother, raising children.
The TV show also portrays the women as desperate, conniving, sly, and prone to cheating in order to create entertainment to the audience and display some real-life situations. Marc Cherry, the creator of Desperate Housewives said he got most of his ideas from his mother.
"One day while Cherry and his mother were watching a news program about Andrea Yates, the woman who drowned her children in a bathtub, Cherry said, "Gosh. Can you imagine a woman being so desperate that she would hurt her own children?" His mom answered him with "I've been there." Cherry said later, "I always thought of my mom as the perfect wife and mother, a woman who I felt had aspired to nothing more than to be a wife and mother." (Ferguson 1)
After the conversation Cherry had with his mother, he learned his mother can have a desperate and dark side to her. He believed if his mother has moments where she can lose her sanity, then other women must feel the same, which is how the characters in the show are created. Cherry wanted to point out to viewers of the show that no matter how perfect a woman would seem towards others, even neighbors, she is capable of dark secrets (Ferguson 2). Desperate Housewives is about the characters that have to make difficult choices in their lives and face the outcomes of it. Simply, the choices the characters in the show makes do not guarantee his/her happiness.
With only as simple an act as turning the TV on, the media automatically draws in the viewers with all sorts of information that can either educate them in a negative or positive way. A negative attribute that the media portrays is gender stereotyping in which is being seen throughout commercials and TV shows. For example, it is rare to see a man being the one who's in the cleaning commercial or a TV show solely about a man being a housewife. Bree Van de Kamp attempts to be the perfect housewife and comes to a realization that she can only be complete through marriage satisfaction. Lynette Scavo changes positions with her husband and becomes the breadwinner which raises conflicts. Single mother Susan Mayer struggles to balance her paternal and maternal role as she parents her child. The show confronts all the norms that used to be taboo in our society which shows a progression towards women being seen equally as men. Marc Cherry creates the show based from his mother's struggles that she went through as a mother and wife. The show focuses on the choices the housewives goes through in the state of being desperate, conniving, and sly. As exaggerated the show may be, female viewers can get an inside look at the development of different type of housewives that are socially acceptable. The concept of the women being barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen is beginning to slowly fade away as women are taking a stance against gender stereotyping.