Red Sluts, Blue Sluts
The first pop phenomenon since the election is that salacious howler of a prime-time soap called Desperate Housewives. At this writing, it's the top-rated show on television, and the media are galvanized by its success at a time when red-state reverence is seeping into everything.
Despite its gleeful attitude toward fornication, this show is popular in Bush country. It even grabs men who never watch such sudsy stuff. One reason is its subject: babes behaving badly. These sexy suburban sisters don't have faggot friends – or careers, like most women in sitcoms today. And this trad but funky set-up suits the Monday Night Football crowd just fine (as the risqué locker-room visit by one of the show's stars, Nicollette Sheridan, attests). Yet Housewives also appeals to gay men and feminists: the Sex and the City set. How can the same package attract such a diverse audience? Even more remarkably, how can it succeed in such a chastened cultural climate?
At first glance, Housewives is a pungent rebellion against the ideal of America the Wholesome. Set in the proverbial suburban byway of Wisteria Lane, the show features more unhappy couples than a Doctor Phil special. With a knowing smirk, it showcases infidelity, treachery and outright schadenfreude. If that sounds like a scathing indictment of Bush time, it also plays as a critique of Godless narcissism. This two-edged tenor is what allows the show to cross over from red to blue. Housewives is liberal on the surface but conservative at the core.
The show's creator, Marc Cherry, calls himself a Republican. But that didn't stop him from honing his skills on The Golden Girls, a vastly popular sitcom in 1985 (and a harbinger of the Clinton years, if you ask me). It revolved around a group of sexually active retired women, a radical premise back then and a frisson even now. Thirteen years later, Sex and the City turned this formula into the definitive hip urban comedy of the '90s. The women in both shows never paid for their sins, though they struggled with the complications of their lives. Through it all, they maintained an antic, lusty attitude and a real sense of sisterhood. That's still the stance of liberal sitcoms.
But conservative eras instill a much harsher mood. To meet that demand, Cherry took the libidinous style of Sex and the City and combined it with the breathy excess of Reagan-era dramas like Dallas and Dynasty. Now that spirit is back, with blazing push-up bras. Desperate Housewives has the same lurid venality, the same cartoony ambience and the same over-the-top bitchiness. Its tone is titillating rather than droll. Its characters inspire ridicule rather than empathy. Their transgressions are sinful rather than soulful. And a sense of imminent retribution hovers over Wisteria Lane like the Satan ex machina in a cautionary tale.
Religious conservatives are perfectly willing to be entertained by immorality; they only require that it be punished, at least eventually. As for wives who trespass against their husbands, bring 'em on – as long as they act like sluts rather than sexual adventurers. Such creatures are inevitable in a world where faith has been forgotten along with the knowledge of right and wrong. If that's your take on Housewives, it can be relished as a sendup of the polluted world.
But as all successful producers know, the people of God aren't the only ones who watch TV. So do the Bush-hating multitudes, and they buy stuff – especially those who belong to the feminazi bicoastal elite. They, too, must be entertained. The trick is to enchant viewers on both sides of the cultural divide. Men like Cherry are expert at that task. They have mastered the art of mixing tropes to convey a double meaning. Their most successful products shimmer with moral ambiguity. Certainly that's the case for Desperate Housewives, as it will be for the imitators that are bound to flow from its success.
While the creators of this show understand the golden conservative rule of sinful pleasure – it must beget ruination – on TV this could take many seasons, and meanwhile everyone can focus on the hot means to that hellish end. For different reasons, secular humanists and fundamentalists alike can revel in the foibles of idle, affluent housewives. The right can view the show's sexual politics – women competing for men, men struggling for dominance over their wives – as fidelity to the patriarchal code, while lefties can see the same thing as camp. What's more, a babe is a babe, a hunk is a hunk, and the joys of watching their unseemly meeting cross party lines.
A generation ago, the prime-time mantra was "Who shot J.R.?" Now it's "Why did Mary Alice Young kill herself?" Her girlfriends are dying to know, but we're more interested in whether Gabrielle Solis, the Latina hussy who can't keep her hands off the young gardener, can keep his misgivings and her husband's suspicions in check. Can Bree Van De Kamp save her marriage by finding the ho within? What evil lies in the slatternly heart of Edie Britt? And will Gabrielle's nosy mother-in-law, the victim of a hit-and-run by Bree's self-centered son, ever recover to tell her tale? Stay tuned – and enjoy the show. Just don't take it as a hopeful sign.