How to Be a Woman

There are several clips that I have collected that make deliberate note of the ways in which women work to construct their identities, and how that work is shaped by their husband’s expectations of them. Although each scenario is embedded within the specific social-historical expectations of husbands and wifes, they each expose interesting contradictions between what a good wife ‘should’ be and what the characters actually are. 

 

 In the pilot episode of Bewitched (first aired September 17, 1964) Darrin sits Samantha down and tells her he has come to a conclusion about  how he will deal with her confession that she is a witch. He ultimately decides that he loves her, and wants to be with her, but makes it clear that Sam must learn to be a “normal” wife. He makes it clear that he expects her to learn to cook, keep the house clean and be a dutiful daughter-in-law. Samantha  promises not to do any more magic, but as Susan Douglas notes, “[t]here wasn’t a woman in the audience who would have given up that kind of power.” [1] Samantha proclaims “soon we’ll be a normal happy couple, with no problems, just like everybody else!” While this may have been somewhat tongue-in-cheek, since clearly no family is problem-free, it does support the myth that if a woman stays at home and does what she is “supposed” to do, everything will be just fine. Darrin ends the scene by addressing the camera and saying “so my wife’s a witch, every married man has to make some adjustment…” but in fact it is Samantha who is expected to make the majority of the adjustments.

 

In the episode of Married with Children where Peggy gets a job (first aired Sunday May 31, 1987) she begins the scene by attempting to explain to her neighbour how she must pretend to clean so that Al will value her contribution to the household, and buy her a VCR.  Marcy does not understand why Peggy needs to scheme in order to get Al to pay for the VCR. Peggy says that Marcy does not understand because she makes her own money. Peggy feels that she ought to work as hard to get Al to spend money on her as he works to earn. When Al returns from work, Peggy’s plan to manipulate Al into buying the VCR goes as planned until Marcy interferes to explain the subtext of Peggy’s ploy. She gets up on her quasi-feminist soap box and begins to try to explain to Al that Peggy’s contribution to the household is just as valuable as Al’s, only to be cut off by Al. Peggy sees that her plan is failing and resorts to her original ploy saying that they will discuss it further after she has spit-shined his shoes. As discussed in the “To Work, or Not to Work” section, Al does not give in, and Marcy convinces Peggy that she should get a job in order to pay for the VCR herself. Peggy’s attempts to educate Marcy on how to be a woman mirror Al’s attempts to teach Steve, Marcy’s husband, how to be a man. Neither Peggy nor Al see their neighbours as acting as “real” men and women, because the traditional gendered power balance is inverted. In some ways, however, Al and Peggy’s relationship, however otherwise dysfunctional, is shown to be equitable, if only because they are both equally dysfunctional and lazy, and equally snarky and conniving towards the other. While it is clear that Peggy is working hard to construct her image as “hardworking” to Al, it is equally clear that Al sees straight through it, and it appears that his denial to give her a VCR has more to do with Marcy’s interference than an act to control of the family’s finances. As Al notes later in the episode, he enjoys complaining, and not being able to complain about how Peggy leeches money off of him at every opportunity does not make him happy. Although their marriage is not an “ideal” marriage, they do not want it to change. 

 

In the first episode of Desperate Housewives (first aired Sunday October 3, 2004) Bree makes an attempt to please her family by taking them to a western-themed restaurant for dinner, as a change from the gourmet food she usually prepares for them. Her husband blurts out that he is tired of living in a “detergent commercial” and wants a divorce. When she goes to get salad for him from the salad bar, she becomes distracted, and accidentally includes onions on his plate, which cause him to have an anaphylactic shock. The clip begins in the hospital, where he is recovering. He tells her that he is frustrated by her constant need for perfection in every aspect of her life, and reveals that she was not always this obsessive women who polishes the cutlery in restaurants with her napkin and has perfectly groomed hair. This upsets Bree, but she is unable to express her emotions in front of her husband. Instead, she makes an excuse to excuse herself to the bathroom where she cries, only to emerge without a trace of sadness on her face. Bree continues to work very hard to win her husband’s love back throughout the season, even going so far as to cut the springs of the hide-a-bed to encourage him to move back into the master bedroom. In Bree’s house, the sterility of the household, the “starched white napkins which lie neatly rolled up on the dining-room table” serve as a metaphor for, or perhaps evidence of the emotional sterility of Bree herself. [2]  The message about femininity is that Bree’s failure to make an emotional connection to her family results in her failure as a wife and mother, and no matter how hard to works at keeping up appearances, her fractured family life will not fix itself without her motherly love. 

 

[1] Douglas, Susan J. 1995. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

[2] Macdonald, Myra. 1995.  Representing Women: Myths of Femininity in Popular Culture. New York, NY: Edward Arnold.

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