washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Ellen Goodman

The Truths of 'Desperate Housewives'

By Ellen Goodman
Saturday, November 20, 2004; Page A19

BOSTON -- I'm not supposed to like "Desperate Housewives." It's either post-feminist or pre-feminist. It's too racy or too retro. It's either an example of the backlash or a product of the cultural collapse.

The "DH" steaminess has the American Family Association railing against its sex in the suburbs. The "DH" locker room promo on "Monday Night Football" has the Federal Communications Commission in wardrobe malfunction mode.

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So sue me. This show had me from hello. It wasn't the mystery or the lingerie. It was Lynette.

In the very first episode, the woman who left her high-powered job to be overwhelmed by four kids ran into a coiffed and manicured former co-worker who asked how she likes her new life. After a one trenchant pause, Lynette repeated the cliche for all seasons: "This is the best job I ever had."

You have to love this woman struggling to fit her round soul into the square hole of her PTA life. The mom doing the best she can with a mother's little helper from her twins' attention-deficit disorder medication bottle. The wife in love with her clueless husband but willing to bop him when he suggests a little unprotected romp.

Never mind the campy cast, the Stepford Bree, the ditsy Susan, the sleazy Gabrielle. It's Lynette who speaks truth to power -- the power of the updated and eternal myth of momhood.

This "truth" is that even a woman who purposely chooses to be a full-time mom can be one nap away from losing it. The "truth" is that mothers who would throw their bodies in front of a truck for their children also fantasize about throwing their kids in front of a truck. Okay, a little wooden truck.

There's a mother lode of TV shows this year: The powerful and unpredictable mother of would-be presidents on "Jack and Bobby." The real women on the "wife swap" shows, which are in fact "mom swap" shows. But Lynette is the pick of the crop.

Lynette's entire cohort grew up with the message that women can choose what they want. This is especially true for the subset of families who can afford mortgages on their own Wisteria Lane. The women are subject to a never-ending supply of books about the dangers of children in other care. They are also treated to recycled articles about other women leaving corner offices for home without a word about what happens after that happily ever after.

Today's mothers worked hard and had children later. The postpartum choices they face include 60-hour jobs or none. At the same time, women who can afford to stay home are now seen as the lucky ones. Indeed, many feel lucky.

But in unexpected ways, the new sense of choice has stifled the permission for complicated feelings about full-time motherhood. Love it or leave it.

Have we come full circle to a post-feminine mystique? Felicity Huffman, the actress who plays Lynette and who is the mother of two young children, says, "There's one way to be a mother, and that's basically to go, 'I find it so fulfilling and I've never wanted anything else and I love it.' And if you do anything that diverges from that, you're considered a bad mother. I didn't know this existed until I became a mother, and the pressure is phenomenal."

I wonder whether women have been so busy fighting the mommy wars that we've forgotten that shared pressure. In her over-the-top way, Lynette is a rare character in the demilitarized zone, talking to both sides.

She's saying, yes, you can want to be at home and still admit to going nuts at 5 p.m. Yes, you can be fiercely in love with your children and long to pack up the minivan and drive off. Yes, you can be dedicated to doing the right thing and not at all sure you're doing it.

This is still largely a discussion among women. We don't yet have a prime time show about desperate husbands trying to support the families on Wisteria Lane or making costumes for the school play.

But if you are looking (hard) for signposts of a slowly changing society, "DH" is not just the No. 1 show among women between 18 and 34. It's also the No. 2 among men of the same age. Right after, um, "Monday Night Football."

ellengoodman@globe.com


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