Desperate Feminism or, Why Am I Still Watching This Show?

30 04 2010

My first content post will surprisingly not be about celebrities. I’ve been ruminating about last Sunday’s episode of Desperate Housewives and figured that’s as good a place as any to start. It also gives me the opportunity to experiment with embedding video clips!

Desperate Housewives is a complicated text, especially for a self-identified feminist viewer. Others have grappled with the show as a feminist or anti-feminist text (see the excellent debate from 2005 in Ms. Magazine ). I myself have moved between love of the show’s campy attitude and occasional moments of feminist subversion and an eye-rolling irritation at the ridiculousness of the plot lines and the recuperation of those increasingly rare moments of feminist critique of some of the relationships and issues that drive the show.

I have been known to stridently defend the show to non-watchers (sidenote: I love it when people criticize a show as “bad” or “problematic” when they’ve never actually seen an episode), but maintain that defense is becoming increasingly difficult in the wake of this season’s story lines involving strippers, lesbian relationships, and now, the Fairview Strangler. At the risk of sounding like a jaded hipster, it was better in the earlier seasons.

My viewing of the show is complicated by the fact that it has become a ritual for a friend and me to watch it together on Sunday nights as a way to unwind and drink some wine while we enjoy the latest antics of those ladies on Wisteria Lane. Even when she was out of the country for a year, I still watched it alone, which was never as satisfying. That our weekly DH-fest is framed more as an excuse to spend time together than our undying love for the show may also dull my critical observations of it. This last episode, however, really put my feminist sensibilities on high alert.

I’m not going to do a recap of the whole season here, but one important storyline revolves around “The Fairview Strangler.” First, Julie, daughter of Susan Mayer (Terri Hatcher), was attacked outside her home that left her (briefly) in a coma. The show always centers on several (often overlapping) mysteries, and the mystery of who attacked Julie was central to this season’s overarching story. Everyone first suspected spurred would-be boyfriend (and new boy in town), Danny. He had been pursuing Julie, but she refused his advances because, it turns out, she was having an affair with his (married) father, Nick. Oh the soapy fun! Long story short, the audience and the residents of Wisteria Lane had their suspicions about Nick once the story emerged, but no proof ever surfaced. Then another girl, who was not a main character, was strangled as she closed up the local coffee shop where she worked. The Fairview Strangler strikes again!

In last Sunday’s episode, the identity of the strangler was revealed to the audience (but not to the characters) as Eddie, a high school boy who is friends with other main characters but had not really been a part of the show up until this season. He killed Irina, the Russian “golddigger” who was trying to trick Porter Scavo into marrying her despite all of Lynette (Felicity Huffman’s) efforts to stop the wedding. Look, part of the fun of this show is its use of soap opera/melodramatic conventions in a campy sort of way. Just go with it. Eddie is giving Irina a ride to the bus station after she has been ousted from the Scavo home as a fraud. When he, somewhat jokingly, offers her a place to stay and promises “no funny business,” she laughs and says she is out of his league. This causes him to snap and kill her. The audience sees him bury her body and it is clear that we now know the identity of The Fairview Strangler.

Eddie is the Fairview Strangler

The episode, titled “Epiphany,” brought us Eddie’s back story, showing the audience “how a killer is made.” Putting the audience in the position of understanding, and even sympathizing with, a villain’s perspective is nothing new, and not necessarily problematic. For example, the slasher film explicitly positions the spectator as sharing the point of view of the killer, for both sadistic/masochistic spectator pleasure and, in some cases, as a way for the audience to understand the killer’s motivations (I’m thinking Silence of the Lambs here, which is not exactly a slasher film, per say). In a less gruesome example, characters like Tony Soprano are compelling precisely because of the uneasy spectator position of identifying with an often morally bankrupt character. Sure, Tony ruthlessly kills Ralph Cifaretto, but it’s because he loves that horse! Okay, that’s a bit of a glib example, but hopefully you see my point. Think also of characters like Dexter or, maybe even Ben Linus from Lost (in more recent seasons)

My problem with the “epiphany” about Eddie’s back story on Desperate Housewives is the attempts to get the audience to sympathize with him and to flesh out his character are based entirely on blaming women for his behavior. In other words, he kills women because all the women in his life, most notably his mother, have failed him in some way. In the attempt to make him multi-dimensional, the narrative actually ends up reinforcing tired tropes of “bad mommy” as at the root of all evil and emphasizing a much more one dimensional character motivation. If only his mommy had really loved him!

The fact that Eddie’s father left him and his mother is the catalyst for his mother’s descent into alcoholism and escalating abusive behavior towards Eddie. He completely disappears from Eddie’s life, which conveniently works to absolve him from any actual responsibility for what his son becomes. We literally do not see him again after he packs his bags and leaves.

So Eddie becomes a killer because his mother (played here by Diane Farr, who deserves much better than this) mistreats him. At best, she ignores him. At her worst, she laughs at him. She tells him no one will ever love him. She tells him he is worthless. He becomes a killer because of the effects of this abuse. Here is the ending of the episode, which encapsulates the abusive home as the root of his impulse to kill.

I don’t mean to make light of the issue of emotional abuse. But it is presented in such a way that any woman who exhibits personal agency becomes equated with his mother’s belittling predictions. In other words, he kills women who have the audacity not to fall in love with him, or at least give him some kind attention. He strangles a prostitute (of course he does, those women are expendable anyway) when she laughs at his offering of flowers. He kills Irina because she says she is out of his league. He strangles Julie because he mistakes her for Susan, who had previously laughed at his marriage proposal. What’s important here is that when women refuse him in some way, they must be punished. More crucially, we are meant to sympathize with this impulse because his mother was so abusive instead of recognizing the victim’s agency in not wanting to be involved with Eddie. Sure, some of those refusals were crueler than they needed to be, but that’s just a convenient excuse. Susan’s refusal wasn’t cruel. In fact, she had previously been encouraging him to develop his artistic talents (something his mother also mocked).

What I find more troubling is the way the narrative shows that his mother’s emotional distance and abuse leads the other main characters to step in (in various capacities) to offer Eddie support and encouragement. These moments not only fail to stop the killer within from emerging, but the narrative also works to blame these women for not being able to stop it. So again we have women (all women in his life, not even just the ones he actually kills) taking the blame, not Eddie. We see each of the main characters try to “help” Eddie at various points in his life. Susan’s encouragement of his artistic talent is most noteworthy here, since she/her daughter eventually become victims. He takes this encouragement of his artistic talents as evidence she must love him, and when she (re)marries Mike instead, she must be punished. All of the women’s interventions eventually “backfire” (though they may not know it yet), and they are added to the list of women whose actions are at the heart of Eddie’s monstrous acts.

The episode ends with Lynette refusing to continue to stand by when she knows Eddie lives in an abusive situation. Even though she is showing him kindness, it’s pretty clear that she’ll pay for that mistake next week. There’s going to have to be some sort of major recuperative action next week that reframes Eddie as responsible for his behavior in order for me to get back on board with this.

On a related but slightly different note, my scouring of YouTube for clips yielded this video that uses Lady Gaga’s “Monster” as background to clips of Eddie as the Strangler. My reading of Eddie makes the use of the song somewhat of a misreading, but the idea that a monster lies where we don’t suspect still works. Plus, what can’t Lady Gaga make better?




4 responses

30 04 2010

So the question is, are you going to watch again next week? And if so, why? I ask as I have the attention span of a gnat and have a tendency to drift out of watching series halfway through but never give much thought to why.

Desperate Housewives has never really done it for me. I watched series one and just never went on to watch the second series. I don’t know why really. I find it quite arch and that’s why I gave up on that programme with the pies and the man who could bring people back from the dead. On the other hand, I love Glee and you could say similar things about that. Although perhaps at the bottom of it, Glee is quite sweet and optimistic.

PS I quite like the grey and orange combo!!

1 05 2010

Oh I’ll undoubtedly watch it this week. I’ve come too far now! I’m a certain sort of completist where once I start a show, I find it hard to quit watching lest I miss something (*ahem* I’ve been watching The Young & the Restless since, oh, I was 12 or so.). Especially in the midst of a season. I’m far more likely to give it up by not watching when it returns in the fall. Though I did quit watching V two weeks ago. But I’ll have to chalk that up to Mike more than me.

I’ll probably get around to Glee, and it certainly is not without its issues. Yet I love it and think the optimism and singing has a lot to do with it. And that Sue Sylvester/Jane Lynch is amazing.

2 05 2010
An Admirer

Am I allowed to say “Keep it up!” even when this is the first post :o)?

There can never be too much feminist media analysis online. By which I mean, AfterEllen and are great (as are some of those TWoP recaps), but I’m always after more!

Any chance you’ll do a retro-analysis of Veronica Mars? I was seriously into that show until S3 went to complete, anti-feminist dung-manure-faeces.

3 05 2010

Thanks for the feedback!

I’ve actually never seen Veronica Mars. Maybe a summer project!

%d bloggers like this: