How harmful can the 'Housewives' be?

Monday, December 5, 2005

BVU Women's Studies gathering finds a lot of dirty laundry - and some stereotypes - in today's TV hits

Everyone has a little dirty laundry.

Or so the tagline for TV's favorite Sunday night sexy melodrama says.

But there's not much Tide getting toted to the laundry rooms in the Buena Vista University dorms that night, as students, along with nearly 26 million other people, put their schedules on spin cycle to spend the evening with the "Desperate Housewives" phenomenon.

For Annamaria Formichella-Elsden, that's not good news.

The coordinator of Women's Studies at BVU finds the stereotypes being spread by "Housewives," a wave of reality shows and other recent media hits to be a giant step - backward.

Recently, she invited students and faculty to join her in the Forum for a Sunday night viewing of "Desperate Housewives" - using the show to spur discussion of gender issues and stereotypical behavior as depicted in the ABC blockbuster.

"I think this campus could benefit if students felt they could be more critical of the stereotypes that the media is spewing out," she said. "I really fear that people - and students here - are coming to measure themselves against the unrealistic characters being portrayed on television."

Taking advantage of the "Housewives" was a way to connect with students that wouldn't seem like a dusty sociopolitical debate.

Ironically, the Women's Studies coordinator had never seen the show before sitting down with the crowd of about 20 who answered her invitation. She said she had asked students which show would be the best for discussion on gender issues, and "Housewives" was their immediate pick.

"Since then, the question I keep getting is, 'When are you going to do this again?' I thought that maybe we would do it with different shows, but people really are asking for more with 'Housewives.'

Housewives Mania

The second-year show was nominated for 15 Emmys, and was last week's highest rated show on TV. The plot revolves around the suicide of suburban housewife Mary Alice at the beginning of season one. She becomes a voyeuristic narrator for the weekly installments on the comic-tragic capers of her friends - man-hungry single mother Susan, ex-career woman and now mother of four Lynette Scarvo, Martha Stewart-on-steroids Bree Van De Kamp, and Gabrielle Solis, who has everything she's ever wanted but still can't find happiness.

"I was pretty troubled by the show, and I am with a lot of shows," Formichella-Elsdon said. "For one thing, who looks like that? I think it's important for young women to realize that it's okay not to look like that, and in fact, if they could look like that, it would take so much time and money and energy to maintain it that they'd never have much of a life anyway."

Many who watched the show with a new critical eye that night found that the values it preaches are pretty superficial, she said.

"The message is that you need to look a certain way, and you need to accumulate stuff. After people see that message enough, they start to believe it," Formichella-Elsdon said. "I do think some people watch shows like that just to be glad they aren't like the characters."

In the episode the group studied, the show begins with the narrator intoning, "Every woman dreams of her wedding day," and the plot features a woman passively waiting for her boyfriend to propose in order to fulfill her life.

"This is 2005, come on," the educator reflects. "Why can't she go ask him? The story ends with her dressed in a wedding gown, crying, out in the street. What it is saying is that a woman is unfulfilled if she is not in a certain type of relationship, that she has no power over her own life."

In another case, a "Housewives" character seemingly slipped a date-rape type drug to another character to make it easier to have a sexual encounter. "That hits too close to home. That's just the kind of issue that we have to deal with on campuses," Formichella-Elsdon said.

In a sense, society seems to be going backward, she feels - returning somewhat to the 1970s-era image of supermodel thin, glamorous, submissive, ultra-feminine sex symbols as the ideal for women.

"Can you imagine even using the term 'Housewife' to describe someone in 2005? I know plenty of stay-at-home moms, and 'housewife' isn't a word I would use to describe any of them. You know, it sounds like you are married to a house. It sounds 1950."

Reality is Overrated

She isn't just picking on "Desperate Housewives," Formichella-Elsdon notes.

"Reality shows are everywhere these days, and they seem to be made to create a conflict and animosity among the cast. The way they put it together makes people out to be pretty bad at heart. In this formula, there can't be much of a positive to show young people, and the sexuality is so played up. that this version of so-called reality is really troubling."

Sen. Barack Obama recently revealed the results of a Kaiser Family Foundation study that shows that the number of sex scenes on TV have more than doubled since 1997 - and characters, fictional or reality, are much more likely to be shown as sexually indiscriminate.

"We don't teach our children that healthy relationships involve drunken, naked parties in a hot tub with strangers - but that's what they see when they turn on 'The Real World,' " said Obama, the father of two young girls.

"When they're fed a steady diet of these depictions over and over again from the time they're very young, this behavior becomes acceptable - even normal," he said.

Not everyone feels such shows are potentially harmful. Viewer Tina Bess says she got such a kick out of watching Bree lift her husband from his casket and change his tie in front of a packed church in "Desperate Housewives."

"I live vicariously through the characters," she said.

"Housewives mania" is still in full bore. The show has spun off its own soundtrack CD, mainstream magazine covers, contests to find real desperate housewives, sunday night screening parties across the country with champagne-splashed cocktails and plates of calamari, and a game known as "Bimbo," in which fans mark off squares such as "pill bottle" and "handcuffs" when they pop up on any given episode.

Impact on Young People

Do teenagers and young adults just use this viewing for mindless entertainment, or are they starting to emulate the behavior they are bombarded with?

"Right here at BVU, I do think there is pressure to look a certain way, and to be in a relationship to be accepted. If you don't fit the current model, you may have lower self-esteem. I would say that this is a very conformist campus," the educator said.

In the campus media of late, there has been considerable attention paid to off-color tee shirts, for example. "They all seem to reinforce the gender stereotypes. Of course, everything has to play off 'Beavers' in some way with a sexual connotation."

One popular chain store women's shirt reads across the chest, "Who needs brains when I've got these?" Formichella-Elsdon said.

One of the most popular BVU sports-related shirts in recent years, sold by the hundred, read in large letters, "Loud, Proud and Plowed."

The pressure to conform may cause some students to wear a message they otherwise would not choose to buy on their own.

Fighting for Individuality

As Formichella-Elsden looks to expand the role of the Women's Studies program, she hopes to involve the public, recruit adult women who can serve as role models and mentors, and create a steady flow of speakers and innovative events such as the "Desperate Housewives" introspection.

"I would really like for students to think more broadly, and to consider whether their own values and beliefs are internal, or coming from what others think of them," she said.

One recent speaker on eating disorders told students that she herself had suffered from both anorexia and bulimia.

"That event was well-attended, which tells me that either we have a problem with eating disorders here on campus, or at least a lot of students may know and care about someone who may have an eating disorder," Formichella-Elsden said.

"There are far too many people going to the level of risking their lives to pursue that goal of the ideal that the media is handing us. They feel hopeless and worthless if they can't achieve it."

In fact, she said, she has just read of one of the stars of "Desperate Housewives" admitting a serious eating disorder situation of her own.

"It seems like even the perfect people may pay a price," Formichella-Elsden said.

Males are not exempt from the stereotype pressures, either.

"That's a hard issue to get at. I have an assistant who is especially studying masculinity issues. The stereotypes connected to masculinity are just as limiting to boys and men as femininity can be to girls and women."

Watch one of the ultimate fighting competition reality shows to see the impact in action, she says. "I would say that steroids today is the male equivalent of anorexia."

Beating Superficiality

In an ideal world, the Women's Studies expert would like to see shows and movies and music telling young people that "it's okay to be who you are."

"I would love to see shows with characters who have goals that are something besides how they look and how much money they want to have. What ever happened to individuality as a goal - people wanting to express themselves and to improve the world around them? Based on the media we see, we have become superficial. But guess what, happiness based on superficial goals will always be a superficial happiness - a false promise."

So. Everyone has a little dirty laundry.

But outside of the Housewives' Wisteria Lane, not everyone's comes in a size 4 evening gown.

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