Desperate Housewives, an ABC original series, has gained popular recognition in the television industry since its original premier in 2004. In specific, this series, which will be going into its eighth season this coming September, tells the fictional, yet intriguing story of the lives of five women living in the suburbs of Wisteria Lane. Though this show has come to be highly appreciated by many of its viewers, it is imperative that one also notes the not-so-appreciative portrayal of women that this show also depicts. One episode that does a great job highlighting such depictions is Season 5 Episode 21 entitled “Bargaining.” In sum, this episode uses the character Gabrielle Solis to emphasize hegemonic masculinity and patriarchal lifestyles through the reinforcement of America’s feminine stereotypes.
To begin this analysis in regards to patriarchy, one can refer to the opening remarks of the show when Gabrielle is shown kissing her husband goodbye as he leaves for work and promises him that she will make him his favorite dinner if he brings her roses upon his return. In addition, a few moments later, Gabrielle is then shown vacuuming their living room floor. The key to understanding this stereotypical, feministic exploitation is being able to realize that the producers chose to show Gabrielle performing such acts not because it fit well in the storyline, but because, as accepted by most Americans, that is what a female is expected to do.
An additional illustration of patriarchy in this episode occurred while Gabrielle was sitting around a table with her four girlfriends and proudly exclaimed, “I am the wife of Fairview’s Latino businessman of the year!” This is important because it is not her own career she was excited about, it is her husband’s, ultimately telling viewers that a wife should be proud of her husband’s corporate accomplishments and not worry about her own. This is because, as was mentioned previously, Gabrielle’s character was made to encompass this country’s feminine stereotype.
Each of the above examples undoubtedly support the American theory of patriarchy, which as stated by Johnson, can be referred to as the “valuing of masculinity and maleness” (Johnson 94) and the “devaluing of femininity and femaleness and the primary importance of a husband's career and the secondary status of a wife's” (Johnson 94). Though however unfortunate, this society functions around a lifestyle in which men have a disproportionate share of power where men and women are considered opposites. Since there has yet to be any complete rejections to this patriarchal theory, it allows for stereotypes to easily be incorporated into the varying forms of media today, especially television.
Moving further, in relation to the emphasis placed on hegemonic masculinity through the usage of feminine stereotypes, much could be used to support this analysis. Aside from the fact that Gabrielle is made to be seen as a woman who’s life basically revolves around that of her husband’s, this show’s producers also exploit her femininity in an extremely demeaning manner in this episode. In particular, it all began when Gabrielle was called to come pick her daughter, Juanita, up from school because she was wearing an unnecessarily heavy amount of makeup. Gabrielle, who had no idea that Juanita put on makeup before she left the house, was extremely embarrassed by this occurrence and asked her why she had done such a thing. To her surprise, Juanita replied by explaining to her that the girls at school were making fun of her and saying that she was not pretty enough to be Gabrielle’s daughter.
In the next scene, Gabrielle and her husband, Carlos, are shown talking to Juanita about what happened and what they can do to make the situation better. To summarize, Carlos decides that it would be a good idea if Gabrielle went to his formal dinner party where he was to accept his award for Fairview’s Latino businessman of the year without any makeup on to show their daughter that it is not makeup that makes a female beautiful. Though at first this seems as if it would be sending a positive message to females, it is quickly reversed to show quite the opposite. In fact, Gabrielle quickly pulls her husband aside and says “I am not walking into a ballroom full of people without my face on,” explaining to him that she will not look beautiful without her foundation. Nevertheless, Carlos still convinces her into going through with his idea as Gabrielle ends with the note “Fine, I will make the ultimate sacrifice and be ugly for my daughter.”
Unfortunately, just as one thinks this is where the message will be ending, it gets worse. Gabrielle, Carlos, and Juanita arrive at the party and Gabrielle immediately states that she feels as if she looks like Carlos’ “anemic lesbian sister.” Then, as the first person comes up to greet their family, Gabrielle announces “I’m not ill, I’m just not wearing makeup” and continued to restate that same claim to everyone that approached her. This occurrence clearly displayed Gabrielle's discontent with her natural self especially because, despite her own belief, she still looked beautiful without the makeup.
Not only does such a depiction tell it’s viewers that to be a woman you must do whatever it takes to make yourself appear beautiful by use of makeup, it also complies to Wolf’s theory of the Beauty Myth. The Beauty Myth, as explained by Wolf, is a social ideal that shapes women’s behaviors and appearances and tells women that “the quality called ‘beauty’ objectively and universally exists” (Wolf 121). This ultimately influences women to want to exemplify such a quality themselves and they do so by manipulating their appearances.
Furthermore, the Beauty Myth also explains how women are their own worst enemies (Wolf 122). This is also illustrated in this episode of Desperate Housewives. As the night comes close to an end, Gabrielle gets so overwhelmed by her own conscious telling her she looks horrible that she rushes to the bathroom to try to find someone who will let her use their makeup. During this process, one girl actually looks at her and tells her that she really does look sick and no one else wants to help her. According to the Beauty Myth, this was all due to the competitive factor that drives women against each other. Because men want to be with women who are ‘beautiful,’ women have all come to be intimidated by each other’s appearances.
Lastly, this episode closes with a final reinforcement of femininity by portraying Gabrielle’s motherly qualities. In short, Gabrielle is shown as a nurturing mother comforting her daughter about the day’s events while tucking her into bed. This scene shows how child care is a priority in a woman’s life because it is Gabrielle tucking her daughter in and not her husband. Additionally, the fact that Gabrielle holds the role of the primary caregiver shows how “hegemony requires that ideological assertion becomes self-evident cultural assumptions” (Lull 62-63). In this society, America’s accepted culture still glorifies the old assumption that the female, or wife, is to embody the nurturing, caring role in their child’s life rather than the husband. This is because the mass media’s influence has become so strong over the people that it is not always noticeable to those who are subordinate to its messages.
On the whole, it may be appropriate to consider “Bargaining” as being quite over-productive in its process of constructing an understanding of femininity and masculinity in this episode. With such a strong emphasis in patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity by use of many feminine stereotypes, it would be extremely hard for the viewer to avoid the absorption of these beliefs made about gender in this element of popular culture. “Bargaining” tells its viewers that women must cater to and support their husband in his occupation, must exemplify ‘beauty,’ and must be the primary caregiver to their children. If both the women and men of this country do not soon realize this negative influence that the mass media holds over the people, this country will continue in a downward spiral of subordination and will never successfully escape the media’s gender-binding control.
Johnson, Allan. "Patriarchy, the System: An It, Not a He, a Them, or an Us." It's Not Just about Gender. (1997): 91-98. Print.
Lull, James. "Hegemony." Gender, Race, and Class in Media. 'Ed'. Gail Dines, Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003. Print.
Wolf, Naomi. "The Beauty Myth." Female Beauty. (1991): 120-125. Print.