Desperate Housewives (2004), a recent television comedy drama series received 4.86 million viewers (week ending 13th February 2005) and became the biggest US hit in the UK since the launch of US import ER back in 1994. It is about the secret lives of five women who live in the suburbs of America on Wisteria Lane. Although Desperate Housewives is made in the 21st Century the audience would expect 21st century representations of women, for example, successful and career driven individuals who are independent of men. However, it can be argued that Desperate Housewives portrays stereotypical roles of women who range from the perfect mother to the trophy wife. Therefore it is another example of misrepresented women and even though it is produced in the 21st Century, tired old stereotypes are still used.
Firstly, the title Desperate Housewives itself is loaded with negative connotations. This has caused controversy in the USA as President of the PTC (Parents Television Council), Brent Bozell, criticises the series’ likely effect on American morality: "Desperate Housewives really should have an even more obvious title, like Cynical Suburban Sluts.”(2004) Eventually, PTC got their supporters to send letters and emails to the show’s sponsors requesting they withdraw their advertising from the show, companies including Kellogg’s, Pizza Hut and KFC. Tyson Foods issued a statement that the show was “not consistent with our core values”. However, the show was such a hit that ABC had little difficulty replacing lost advertisers, prices leapt from $160,00 to $300,00 for 30 seconds (Guthrie 2004). This was obviously because advertisers know the successful series receive high audience ratings. However, this was not the only controversy caused by the series in America. The main theme of ‘sex’ enraged family values campaigners. Jessica Anderson of Concerned Women for America describes the show as “treating infidelity as comedy and sex as gratuitous” (2005) she continues that women “are allowing themselves to be ‘attacked’ by the toxic immorality Desperate Housewives glorifies.”
Edie represents women as passive because she succeeds by using her body. Edie’s character continues to cause controversy with the now infamous opening of ABC’s Monday Night Football. The scripted introduction was of Edie wearing just a towel flirting with Terrell Owens (Philadelphia Eagles) in an empty locker room. Edie asks Owens to forgo the game and Owen does not respond until she drops her towel and Owen replies with a big smile on his face: “Ah hell, the team’s going to have to win this one without me.” Edie then jumps into his arms showing that women are used as sex objects because here, Edie is in Owens arms naked suggesting he is now in possession and control of her whilst she is naked, here the female is portrayed as inferior to the male. This angered 112 viewers out of an audience of 10 million (Kitman 2004) saying it was an exaggeration. However, the damage was done and The National Football League (NFL) instantly made a statement distancing them from what had happened. The Philadelphia Eagles also released a statement saying they regret airing it; ABC also apologised to its viewers saying its promotion was "inappropriate and unsuitable for our Monday Night Football audience" (Flint 2004). Similarly, Edie is also portrayed as passive in Desperate Housewives, for example, in her attempt to seduce Carlos, she very slowly takes her clothes off and is left standing in her underwear, he then takes her into his arms, suggesting that she is vulnerable without clothes on. Whilst she is undressing herself, the camera moves slowly down her whole body, using a medium shot, in order to reveal all of her body on screen. Also, the fact that she is in just her underwear shows that women are sexually objectified in Desperate Housewives, as this is not the first time one of the women are shown in their underwear,
Feminist Germaine Greer writes: "every woman knows that regardless of her other achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful." . Desperate Housewives suggests that not much has changed since Mulvey’s seminal article about the 'male gaze' where men do the looking and women are to be looked at. The 'male gaze' usually focuses on Gabrielle as she is seen as the sexiest character. Gabrielle can be linked to Octopussy from the film Octopussy (1983) because both characters are glamorous, seductive, mysterious, live a life of luxury and manipulative (Gabrielle: “You’re a woman. Manipulate him. That’s what we do.”)
Gabrielle is almost always dressed in tight fitting clothes and high heels. Her make up consists of heavy eye make up and dark red lipstick to show that the make-up is used to simulate sexual arousal. She also dresses to fulfil the male fantasy as she once dressed up in a kinky nurses outfit that consisted of a nurses hat, white bra and skirt and red suspenders. Clearly, the purpose here is to attract the opposite sex which she does successfully. Gabrielle takes advantage of her good looks and her irresistible model figure when John tries to get out of the situation of having sex with her but cannot seem to resist when she undoes her blouse. Again, she uses her looks in order to succeed, as does Carlos for business purposes: "If he wants to grab your arse, you let him." Carlos says this with a snigger after Gabrielle complains to him that a businessman whom he makes a lot of money from is constantly trying to "grab her arse". Again, this supports Laura Mulvey's theory that women are represented as 'objects' and passive because Gabrielle’s “arse” is used to succeed as opposed to her brain. During Season one of Desperate Housewives Gabrielle seems uninterested in her husband and finds satisfaction with her seventeen-year-old gardener. This supports the 'male gaze' because teenagers might watch this programme and envy John because they would want to be in his position, as she did once tell him that all her teenage fantasies had come true. Gabrielle is represented as extremely hopeless because she is having sex with someone who is not even legal. Overall, this represents women as sexually frustrated and in need of constant attention. In one clip she tries to act maternal when John hurts his finger and she slowly and seductively kisses it better, the finger can be seen as a phallic symbol representing the lack of sexual action/attention Gabrielle is receiving from her husband, Carlos. Furthermore, Gabrielle can also be linked to the femme fatale (French for “fatal/deadly woman”) who tries to achieve her hidden purpose by using feminine qualities such as beauty, charm, and sexual allure. She may also be (or imply to be) a victim, caught in a situation from which she cannot escape, for example in The Lady from Shanghai (a 1948 film noir). In this film the protagonist is similar to Gabrielle who also sees herself as a victim when her attempts to belittle Carlos fail.
In the 1970s “women were more frequently shown as weak, ineffectual, victimised… women's interactions were very often concerned with romance” (Gunter, 1995). Susan represents an overused and more vulnerable characterisation of women. Susan, one of the leading characters of the show, is predominantly presented as a mother. Her main attempt is to seduce one of her neighbours, Mike. However, in her quest to do this she is constantly in battle with Edie who is always in her way and making petty remarks to humiliate her. Their relationship could be compared to that of Krystle and Alexis from Dynasty (1981-1989). These are Blake Carrington’s current and former wives. Like Edie, Alexis tries to undermine Krystle at every opportunity. Also, like Edie and Susan they have had many verbal confrontations and they got so bad that they were one of the first to use the word ‘bitch’ on television. Similarly, Edie verbally confronts Susan when she finds out Susan has been using Edie’s fiancé (also Susan’s ex husband) to pretend they are married in order to allow Susan to get married. This represents women as hypocritical because Edie is dating Susan’s ex husband then Susan goes behind Edie’s back to pretend she is married to her ex husband and realises there is still something between them and they start having sex behind Edie’s back, again, women are seen fighting over male attention. Susan is also portrayed as having relationship disasters and this is almost always her main storyline which reinforces the stereotype of how women were perceived in the 1970s. Susan is a perfect example to support this quote and shows that Desperate Housewives reinforces this stereotype. Susan is shown as weak because the majority of the time she ends up in tears after a relationship crisis, this is a typical representation of women to be tearful and victimised: "men exhibited less emotional distress than women and traditionally solved their own problems, while women were more likely to deal with the problems of others or to need help in dealing with their own."  This is the very case of Susan and her fellow ‘desperate housewives’ representing women as insecure because they are unable to deal with rejection from the male.
Narrator Mary-Alice represents women as vengeful. Even though Mary-Alice is not alive she still seems to reflect bitterness towards men, for example, in an episode where Edie’s fiancé tried to run from her and crashed his car Mary-Alice hostilely reacts with: “it never occurred to him that God could be a woman,” suggesting that all women have some sort of revenge they want towards men. Women in Desperate Housewives are represented as rivals for male attention which can also be seen through Edie. The competition for male attention leads to lack of trust, argues Matthew Gilbert (2004) . This could be because, like Alex from Fatal Attraction (1987), the rest of the women feel intimidated by Edie especially as she dated Susan’s ex-husband and more recently Gabrielle’s ex husband Carlos. This can be supported by authors Sherianne Shuler, M. Chad McBride and Erika L. Kirby who use the communication theory to explore the intimacy between the female characters and describe the Desperate Housewives women as “more reminiscent of the bitchiness of Mean Girls than the celebratory intimacy of Carrie Bradshaw and her friends.”  Instead, Desperate Housewives contradicts the values of successful, independent women which are portrayed in Sex and the City. The ladies of Wisteria Lane portrays women as being unkind to each other for the competition of male attention and the male is portrayed as a prize which results in the women competing for him resulting in malice from the women. This can also be linked to that of Dynasty (1981-1989) which is famous for women being aggressive over men. Edie is similar to the character Alexis who comes across as vindictive and constantly trying to aggravate Krystle, this is like Edie and Susan’s relationship.
Also apparent in Desperate Housewives is male to-be-looked-at-ness as the result of female desire and disappointment. Brian Singleton argues “Hegemonic heterosexual masculinity is determined in the gaze of the women; and while the ladies living on Wisteria Lane are continually disappointed in the men, they nevertheless persist in their desire of heterosexual masculinity only to perpetuate the fantasy promised by the spectacle of the male body.” Both Gabrielle and Susan can support this as Gabrielle is unhappy with her relationship so she seeks pleasure from continually and secretly looking through the window at her topless gardener. Thus portraying housewives as being isolated within their homes because Gabrielle finds her only option is someone under age and also because whenever her and the gardener are having sex or sneakily kissing it is always in her house as opposed to somewhere else. This suggests that she finds it difficult getting away from her house because Carlos will question where she has been because if she is a housewife so she should be looking after their home. Similarly, Susan finds a doctor attractive and in order to fulfil her pleasure she pretends there is something wrong with her so that she can go to the hospital to see him whilst he is checking on her health. Again, this portrays women as needing constant doses of male attractiveness. This is insulting to women rather than a sign of equality because they are seen as incomplete without a man.
Another portrayal of women in Desperate Housewives is the perfect/typical housewife. Gunter reveals “marriage, parenthood and domesticity were shown on television to be more important for women than men” and that “married housewives” were “the main female role shown” (1995). Sadly, Desperate Housewives still carries the stereotypical views of women from more than ten years ago. The most obvious examples of this are Bree and Lynette. Bree is an obsessive and compulsive housewife who is punished for being too perfect and is determined to rescue her marriage. Again, this represents women as not having independence if a man is not present in their lives and also supports Gunter’s 1970 study that women were shown to be “married housewives”. Which supports Sally Brady’s point that women really have not come far in equality and diversity. Bree is described as “preppy-lovely...Her life was neat, her china polished, her designer ensembles perfectly pressed." This description of Bree shows that she is like how every housewife wants to be portrayed, stress free. However, this perfect lifestyle seems too perfect and is done to mirror how a ‘real housewife’ should be and disguises the real problems she faces. She tries to be the best mother by using ridiculous punishments on her children which result in their rebelling against her obsessive longing to be the perfect housewife. Whilst at home Bree is constantly cleaning or cooking perfect home made meals for the family. This striving to be the ‘perfect mother’ is apparent in many Indian films, in particular Mother India (1957), where the protagonist Radha wants to be the idealistic mother to her children. Portraying women as because being brought up and taught how to fend for their husband and children is a very old fashioned view of a woman. Mother India holds traditional and patriarchal values which we do not expect to see in a modern programme like Desperate Housewives. Therefore, Desperate Housewives continues to promote sexist ideologies to the audience by representing women as homemakers; “Female characters were unlikely to work, especially not if they were wives or mothers.” (Gunter’s 1970’s study) Bree’s appearance also reflects upon the objectifying way women are presented as her hair is always immaculate which is done to look good for her husband and if women do not do this they will not make the ‘perfect housewife’.
Lynette “represents the wider debate of the pressures placed on women in contemporary society- she regrets leaving her high-powered career to look after her children”. Lynette feels obliged to leave her job because her ‘real job’ is to raise her family. Lynette attempts to be the ideal mother to her four children but cannot be consistent as a housewife which leads to her stealing her children’s ADD pills, representing the ‘modern mother/housewife’ as struggling to balance family and career which is why she no longer works. However, when Lynette used to work it used to be in the same place as her husband, who did not like the fact that she was always more successful than him. This frustrated him: “I’m not gonna hide behind my wife’s skirt!” This shows that he was ashamed of the fact that Lynette was better than him at the same job and he found it unbearable because she is a woman which is why he was embarrassed and refused to fade into the background because as a man he feels he should be more successful than his wife. Here, her husband could mirror what is going on in society, as he cannot accept it when she is shown as more successful than him, which is the reason she cannot succeed and is portrayed as struggling to keep a balance. This can be seen as hegemonic because the media is male dominated, who, along with the male audience, may feel threatened of Lynette being portrayed as successful which is why she is presented as suffering. The suggestion being that it is impossible to be a good mother and a successful career woman, thus the underlying message is that woman should stay at home. Unlike Bree, Lynette is always dressed in baggy clothes, looks tired, her hair is always a mess and she wears little, if any, make-up. Again, this shows the struggle of the ‘modern housewife’ which is what Lynette is representing as opposed to the ‘traditional housewife’ who is represented by Bree. Sharp states “reality TV shows subvert the television rule that women should never express dissatisfaction with housewifery and motherhood. What Desperate Housewives exposes, she argues, is what these shows desperately try to keep hidden, namely our cultures deep ambivalence and contradictory attitudes towards housewifery and the homemaker.”
Overall, It seems that at a time when women are meant to be more empowered and liberated, Marc Cherry portrays women as more ‘desperate’ than ever through Desperate Housewives and that Desperate Housewives is ‘just another example of…cultural sexism’. Cherry reinforces the old stereotypes of women, suggesting that the show is the result of hegemony because the male dominated media is injecting old stereotypes of women back into society. It could also be suggested that Desperate Housewives is a male backlash against feminism which is why men are happy in thinking women cannot cope with having a career and being a mother at the same time, this is emphasised through Lynette.
 Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, (2006), pp. 6,7
 Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, (2006), page 7
 David Gauntlett, (2002), page 77
 David Gauntlett, (2002), p. 43
 Kenneth MacKinnon, (2003), p. 66
 Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, (2006), page 13
 Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, (2006), page 13
 Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, (2006), page 12
 David Gauntlett, (2002), page 43
 Sally Brady, (April 2005), page 54
 David Gauntlett, (2002), page 43
 Sally Brady, (April 2005), page 54
 Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, (2006), page 12
 Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, (2006), page 14