Not So Desperate Housewives

Historian of suburbia Mark Clapson peers over the fences of Wisteria Lane to discover a fifty-year-old myth still at work.

Desperate Housewives, the American TV hit series set in  Wisteria Lane, is just the latest in a long line of portrayals of suburbia to show women as troubled creatures in paradise. Behind the manicured hedges and the weather-boarded walls of their comfortable homes, suburban women are apparently desperate because they are discontented. This desperation, the storyline goes, leads inexorably to promiscuity, or to all sorts of spiteful or vengeful behaviour. The TV series was a big hit in Britain, a country that is heavily suburbanized, like the United States. Some newspaper television reviewers took it a little too seriously, declaring that the women of suburbs everywhere are living on the edge of reason because suburbia is so fundamentally boring.

Such contempt for suburbia is nothing new. Since the 1950s, social scientists, fiction writers, television sitcoms and men’s magazines have all viewed the women of suburbia as precariously inhabiting a spectrum of emotional conditions ranging from numbed acceptance through shades of disgruntlement to extreme frustration and its unnerving symptom, infidelity. How did this picture develop?

A good starting point is David Reisman’s cultural criticism of the American city, The Lonely Crowd (1950). Reisman visited a number of the new middle-class tract suburbs that spread across America after the Second World War, many of which came to be known as Levittowns, after developer William J. Levitt who built vast new communities in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Lamenting the ‘suburban sadness’ of young women in their new houses, Reisman described the ‘captivity of the housewives tied down in their suburbs’ by children and the lack of a car. He was struck by ‘the eagerness of the housewives to talk to somebody’, and he patronizingly declared that ‘the visiting intellectual finds the lives of these women empty’.

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