Desperate HousewivesEscapism and the Social Audience:
Desperate Housewives as a Model for the Modern Soap
I noticed something peculiar lately: Even years after closing its final season, Desperate Housewives remains a popular, closely-followed, often-replayed television phenomenon. Running for an impressive eight seasons, Desperate Housewives almost immediately acquired an obsessive cult-like following, and the degree of its widespread popularity prompts an immediate question: Just what is it about the show that viewers find so appealing? It is the consideration of the interactions between show and audience that make Housewives such an interesting point of departure for an analysis of mass culture, especially as it pertains to the American female. In her essay Soap Opera and Utopia, Christine Geraghty interacts agreeably with critic Richard Dyer’s contentions, regarding soaps as escapist modes of entertainment. “Dyer proposes that entertainment functions by offering ‘the image of something better to escape into, or something that we want deeply in our day-to-day lives” (Geraghty, 217). Desperate Housewives certainly finds itself well within the bounds of this assertion. On a base level, the sex of the protagonists (if not merely the very title of the show) immediately establishes a common identity between characters and primarily female audience.
The women in the show are relatable on the basis of gender and their positions as mothers and wives. Yet this does not alone sustain interest; there is a dire need for something more provocative, something fresher. The escapism afforded by Desperate Housewives is operated by a simple means. The women in the show are attractive and wealthy. They provide something to be wished for. The primarily female audience is provided with a glimmer of hope– that the drab, monotonous life of a housewife can, indeed, evolve into something sexy.
I would suggest also that the beauty and material wealth– or as Geraghty and Dyer call it, abundance– of the housewives is not believable enough to maintain a substantial audience. The popularity of television has exposed the audience to such a wide range of soaps that there must be a far more complex threshold of relatedness in order for a show of such a nature to attain success. Thus, current renditions of utopia in television must be corrupted on a sub-surface level in order to solidify themselves as legitimate. The image of the happy, wealthy housewife is instantaneously (and stupidly) gratifying. Yet, it is the gossipy, violent, and overtly sexual tensions underlying this glamorous foreground that make the show that much more appealing.
Desperate Housewives provides a mode of escapism not only because of its extravagance but because of the chaos underlying it. The show is in a complex subliminal dialogue with its female viewer, telling her that the lives of the housewives are also marked by daily strife. This is the threshold of a raw and provocative relationship between viewer and soap. Yet this common ground is not sensational or attractive as it is. The difficulties of the women in the show could not be those of the female viewers. A real housewife would not want to watch Bree struggle to fix a vacuum or watch Gabrielle scrub dog feces from her child’s jeans. So, the show sexualizes and romanticizes the struggles of life as a housewife, so that the audience member not only escapes into a world in which she is an attractive, sexual, and wealthy individual, but also one who’s problems are romantic and even dangerous. It’s inherently clear that the housewives of the soap are, indeed, desperate. They’re all severely depressed, egomaniacal, possessive, and sexually frustrated. But their desperate situations– unlike those of their giddy home-making viewers– concern murder, infidelity, suicide, alcoholism, and sensuality. Desperate Housewives achieves such high levels of popularity precisely because it sexualizes and romanticizes not only the basic roles of its characters but also the struggles that they face. The bad is made sexy and fresh as well as the good.
As a whole, the show seems to muddle many of the preconceptions about the organization and strategic appeals of American soaps. Like it’s dynamic approach to utopian escapism, the show seems to tinker with certain soap-genre stereotypes. Geraghty claims that the “energy” inherent in US soaps can be attributed to strong male characters, as opposed to being provided by strong female characters in British soaps. But Desperate Housewives is different. Men in the show, while often intelligent and attractive, are rarely viewed favorably. While complex and appealing, the men are often cheap, perverted, misogynistic, and wholly flawed. For instance, Bree’s husband is a masochistic sex addict; Gabrielle’s lover is an attractive young man who mows her lawn– and a high school student. Somehow, regardless of their surface appeal, the men in the show are all somewhat corrupted, inadequate, and only temporarily satisfying. For the most part, the housewives– however vain– are in control, not the men. Geraghty’s claims about “abundance” are relatively well-aimed. The utopia of Desperate Housewives is set agains the backdrop of materialism– wealth is an ever-present reality in the show. The women rarely want for anything, setting the stage for more dramatic and complex problems. “Intensity” and “transparency” are what eternalize the drama of the show. The viewer knows and sees all, while the public in the show might not. The characters are all vulnerable and prone to unexpected outbursts of emotion; as women, this furthers certain controversial stereotypes. The women all seem to be at least partially unstable and psychologically discombobulated. I would argue that this is a further strategy to employ viewer escapism– which is nearly synonymous with a gross attachment to the show. While the female viewer indulges in the pleasures and scandals of the housewives’ lives, she is also fed the message that these women are unstable. This is a trick of good screenwriting. The show makes it obvious that the characters are all slightly luny. This obviousness fuels the viewer’s ego: If she is smart enough to realize that the characters are crazy, she can indulge shamelessly. Thus, she can take pleasure in the fantasy while still holding herself above the show, because she is sane and the characters are not. Despite all of its dramatic appeal and inherent sexiness, the show nonetheless leaves its female viewers feeling “better” than the women they’ve just watched on television for an hour. All things considered, it is the nature of “community” that is most prevalent in Desperate Housewives, but also most simplistic. The illusion of community created is the very premise of the show– that these housewives are, on a surface level, close friends. Yet the very source of entertainment in the show is the lack of community on a sub-surface level. Beneath the title of “friendship” exists complete and utter chaos, fueled by gossip. Thus, as Geraghty asserts, the real community is established in the relationship with the audience.
As technology evolves, so do the marketing strategies that supplement shows like Desperate Housewives. As social networking becomes a part of daily life, producers and media marketers employ the powers of Facebook and twitter in order to advance their own advertising capabilities. I find the use of Facebook in particular to be a curious point of analysis when examining Desperate Housewives as it relates to mass culture and Geraghty’s assertions of utopia and escapism through soaps. The Facebook page of Desperate Housewives has nearly 11 million “likes” on its profile page, meaning that many people are subscribed to electronic updates and alerts regarding the show and its stars. Yet, the interaction between the show’s Facebook page and its fans is not merely related to production or tabloids. The page also facilitates discussion, regarding what’s happened in the show, what might happen, and how entertaining the soap itself actually is. In this sense, Facebook has furthered the attachment discussed in Geraghty’s essay– it has expanded the utopia escape beyond not only the television screen, but also beyond personal interaction. “...community is not simply present in the soaps themselves, it is also experienced in the interaction between the programs and their audience. Soaps offer a common currency to viewers which permits the enjoyment to be shared with those who do not watch the programs together” (Geraghty, 221).
The widespread integration of Facebook into daily life has magnified significantly the show’s ability to, as Geraghty claims, “unite disparate audiences” (Geraghty, 221). The realm of unification now extends beyond the living room; beyond the workplace; beyond the bar or pub. Now, interactions are depersonalized, and a fan or follower of the soap can talk excitedly about the next episode or the a character’s behavior on a publicly accessible and worldwide stage, interacting with the click of a mouse with millions of other viewers. Thus, the escapism takes on a new and far more incestuous and addicting form. Viewers can gossip, just as the characters in the show gossip, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, unhindered and unimpeded by the restrictions of phone conversations, work schedules, or to-do lists. Suddenly, the television show is as much a part of the audience’s life as any other communicative commodity. The Facebook page lends a face and a personality to something that previously could not transcend the bounds of an LCD screen. The excitement on behalf of the viewer is realized through a direct interaction with the soap. The audience can now take an active role in a literal medium of interaction, not only with others, but with an electronic personality of the show itself. Facebook allows a soap to bridge the gap even further between the sphere of the private and the public, integrating itself fully into the framework of daily life. As Geraghty claims, the viewing of a show is merely a portion of the experience. Much of the infatuation comes with the pleasure and excitement of carrying the gossip from the screen to the real world, indulging in conversation and discussion with others of a mutual experience. Facebook allows that escapism to extend even further into the realm of real life. The question of whether or not this is an insignificant luxury or a shallow poison prompts a separate, equally complex point of analysis.
Desperate Housewives is an experience, and for its primarily female viewers, it is a source of indulgence, self-righteousness, and gossip, creating a vessel for escapism. The popularity of the soap can be attributed to its dynamic nature as a source of pleasure and common ground. The utopia discussed in Geraghty’s article is thus brought to life through a complex web of linkages between reality and fantasy, allowing viewers to identify but at the same time separate themselves from the characters of the soap. In the context of modern drama, it seems to be this strategy in particular that nurses viewer attachment. Modernity and technological advancement has also played a pivotal role in expanding the sphere of escapism beyond the confines of personal discussion to the broad forum of social media through mediums like Facebook, which create an artificial personality for all that the show embodies.
Geraghty, Christine. "Soap Opera and Utopia." Comp. John Storey. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A reader. Harlow: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006. Print.