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Timi Ross Poeppelman

The TV show Desperate Housewives has become such a hot ticket item that

it appears that First Lady Laura Bush will make several cameo appearances in

the upcoming season. Given that the first lady is quite conservative politically

(or at least her husband is), this has caused a great many conservatives (read

religious right) to have a field day with the show—letting the show’s producers

know what is conservatively correct and incorrect about the show. So while

extramarital affairs, birth control, cleavage revelations and skin-tight clothing

are being discussed, I find it interesting that no one is attacking the idea that

the image of motherhood is being portrayed in a slightly new and perhaps

feminist way. Maybe they haven’t seen the subtle signs (maybe they don’t know

what feminist ideals are!)—but they’re there.

In 1953, New York Times’ radio and television columnist Jack Gould stated

that Lucy Ricardo (the character played by Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy) had

made motherhood appear as “one of the most natural and normal things in the

world.” Since then all forms of media (but especially televised media) have

portrayed motherhood as “natural and normal.” So “natural and normal” that for

women to be depicted as anything other than a mother (and what we’re really

talking about here is being depicted ONLY as a “stay-at-home-mom”) means

they will automatically be portrayed as unnatural and NOT normal. It’s an all or

nothing syndrome.

From Lucy Ricardo to June Cleaver to Mrs. Brady to Mrs. Cunningham, the

notion that motherhood was inevitable and ALWAYS something you did at home

was reinforced time and again with one-dimensional characters who happily

went along with society’s expectations that being a mom is what you “wanted

to do”. No question. And when you were a mom, you stayed at home. As the

number of women who entered the work force doubled in the 1980s even the

most popular shows on TV, The Simpsons and Married with Children, offered

only stay at home moms.

It wasn’t until Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen in the 1990s, that we

were confronted with a character who wanted to be a working mother, and

who didn’t need to be a working mom. To top things off, she was unmarried.

The fictitious Murphy Brown became the poster mom of what is wrong with

the US morally when then vice-president Dan Qualye accused Murphy Brown of

glorifying single motherhood and working moms.

But with Desperate Housewives, there appears to be a process I call “stripping

away” at motherhood. I think Desperate Housewives (in very small ways)

appears to be “stripping away” at the previous one-dimensional TV moms we

have been seeing for 50 years. Yes, Desperate Housewives is a soap opera of

sorts with cleavage, sexual tensions and multiple plot lines—but what it also

offers is a glimpse into the complex and difficult world of motherhood.

I think the character Lynette really demonstrates that the most in the first

season—although all of the characters have subtle feminist characteristics

or lines given to them. (My favorite is Gabrielle’s “We are not negotiating my

uterus”—but that subject we can leave for another column.)

Lynette is first introduced to the TV audience as a very successful corporate

player. Then she is getting an ultrasound of her first baby, and her husband

tells her that she should stay at home with the baby—he had read somewhere

that this is best. She now has 4 children under 6 years old—which includes a

set of twins—and has been a stay-at-home mom ever since. But not a happy

one. So we see her constantly struggling with her choice to stay at home,

constantly missing the work environment where she was so successful and

constantly evaluating her behavior as bad. She finds she is not naturally drawn

to motherhood and that it is not easy. It is these little glimpses of the fictional

Lynette’s struggles with motherhood that finally reflect what a lot of real moms

feel. Women who are also moms can see little truths in Lynette’s struggle to

accomplish motherhood and that’s something we haven’t seen too often in past

media representation of moms.

It really leaped out at me when Lynette said in one episode that she “couldn’t

do it.” When one of her friends suggested she get someone to help with the

kids, Lynette said she felt like a failure because “other moms don’t need help.”

Then her two friends proceeded to tell her that they needed help when their

kids were little and that they had found motherhood difficult too. Then Lynette

said, “We should talk about this more—this really helped.”

It is possible that Lynette’s character perhaps has begun to reframe what we as

society find to be “natural and normal” behavior.

The truth is motherhood is a difficult 24/7 job and even though Desperate

Housewives, and specifically the character of Lynette, offers only snippets of

the truth (I call them golden nuggets), the fact that these truths are even there

at all is a huge leap from previous moms depicted on TV and the movies.

My hunch is that Laura Bush has no idea what she was saying when she said

she was “a desperate housewife” in front of the White House Press Corps at a

dinner in May. But let’s hope the snippets of truth about motherhood continue

and multiply and that Laura Bush’s husband’s friends continue to ignore the fact

that each of the female characters in the show offers feminist ideas.

Timi Ross Poeppelman is an adjunct communication studies and journalism

professor at CSU Sacramento. She will be a regular columnist for

mamazine.com writing about the images of moms in the media.

column added on 2005-09-03 :: ::