Housewives on TV: You've Come a Long Way, Baby
New Shows Are Redefining What It Means to Be a Housewife
By SHEILA MARIKAR
May 3, 2008 —
They used to cart their kids off to school, arrange tea roses and greet their husbands with plates of meat loaf and mashed potatoes.
Now, they cart their kids off to the detox center, arrange midday romps with the gardener and greet their husbands with a sheepish grin and an armful of shopping bags.
They are today's TV housewives. And they couldn't be more different from their pop culture predecessors.
"Desperate Housewives" brought the stay-at-home mom and single gal too old for the city back into vogue four years ago. Then came "The Real Housewives of Orange County" in 2006, a reality series following the lavish lifestyles of five grown-up California girls. In March, its East Coast spin off premiered: "The Real Housewives of New York City." Now, Bravo, home of the "Real Housewives" franchise, is developing a show based around a group of women in New Jersey.
Not since the days of June Cleaver and Donna Reed have housewives been such hot characters. In the '80s, the corporate, catty career women of "Dynasty" ruled the airwaves. In the '90s, power shifted to the single, stiletto-heeled vamps of "Sex and the City." Today, it's all about the housewife, or perhaps, the househottie -- the woman who can provide for her family while staying fabulous.
"We're redefining what housewife means. It's an outdated term," said Jen O'Connell, executive producer of "The Real Housewives of New York City." "We're showing that housewives are more than just women who stay at home and make cookies and shuttle the kids to soccer. They're sexy, they're smart, they're often working women."
O'Connell scanned the sea of New York City socialites to select five women for her show to follow. For candidates to make the cut, simply having kids, a harried husband and a penchant for making pot roast wasn't enough.
"Not only did they have to juggle kids, and a husband or a boyfriend, they also had to have careers, charities, other activities outside of just that role of being a mom and a wife. That was a big deal," she said. "They had to be multidimensional women who were hard-charging."
According to Melissa Grego, editor of HollywoodReporter.com, housewife-themed shows have a built-in appeal for one of advertisers' most sought after audiences: housewives. No wonder: With sexy next-door neighbors and fancy Hamptons parties spliced with scenes of bitter better halves and screaming toddlers, shows like "Desperate Housewives" and "The Real Housewives" combine wish fulfillment with just enough reality to be relatable.
"Female viewers are traditionally a big driver of TV viewing overall," Grego said. "Programmers and advertisers historically targeted what they called 'lady of the household.' The lady of the household was considered the person making the purchasing choices and also largely making the choices of what's on the tube. What draws both viewers and good reviews? It is both about escape and relatability. That's what these shows provide."
Why the resurgence of the housewife now? Camille Paglia, social critic and professor of media studies at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, believes women are more interested than ever in watching domestic drama on TV because of the tension they face in their real lives.
"The return of the housewife issue with a vengeance does suggest that there's been a new twist in feminism," she said. "Women who want to have children and want to have a career are in a very difficult tug of war. There have been so many reports of young, college-age and 20-something women who are more troubled about the choices they're going to have to make than the gung-ho women of the baby-boom generation who saw their career as their identity."
"No matter what a woman does, she has to defend it," she added. "If she's a stay-at-home mom she has to defend it, if she's a working mom she has to defend it. It's a charged area, and I don't see any resolution to it soon."
Which means, according to Paglia, that TV shows about women and the choices they make about their jobs and families will continue to thrive. She just wishes they could get that wretched old word out of their titles.
"'Housewife.' It's absolutely archaic," she said. "It descends from a period when a woman and home were fused and there were no options of any other kind. It comes from a time when as a woman, either you were a nun or a spinster or a housewife. There should be a national word search for something new."