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Desperate racism

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

May 22nd, 2006

In a piece for Ms. magazine last spring, I wrote about the misogyny masquerading as irony in ABC’s Desperate Housewives. At the time, I intended to include a discussion of the racism imbedded in the show’s first season, but most of that was cut for space.

Depictions of people of color only got more problematic in the show’s sophomore season, and last night’s desperate-for-ratings (a hit and run! a shooting! flashbacks to another murder! an adulterous affair!) finale presents a perfect opportunity to address the continued racism in one of ABC’s most highly talked-about, most-watched flagship dramas:

  • In it’s freshman season, there was only one couple of color among DH’s bloated, lily-white cast. The only non-white wife, Gabrielle (Maxim fave Eva Longoria), plays into every tired cliché about oversexed, “spicy” Latina gold diggers, while Carlos (Ricardo Antonio Chavira), Gabrielle’s hot-tempered, domineering husband, is drawn as the embodiment of violent, Latin machismo, demanding sex in exchange for pricey diamond jewelry, ordering Gabrielle to let a lecherous business partner grab her ass if it will help him close a deal, and savagely beating a gay man he mistakenly believes slept with his wife. The only man of color on the show ends up in prison, eventually picking up garbage on the side of the road in an inmate’s jumpsuit.
  • This season, perhaps in response to criticism about the unbearable whiteness of being on Wisteria Lane, series creator Marc Cherry introduced the Applewhites, an African American mother (Betty, played by the incomparable Alfre Woodard) and two sons (one of whom spent the bulk of his scenes shackled like a dog in the basement for a violent murder of a white girl) who move onto the block shrouded in creepy secrecy. But as Mehcad Brooks, who plays non-shackled son Matthew, told TV Guide, “It’s been frustrating” because “We were marginalized and completely segregated from every family except the Van De Kamps.”
  • Despite the promise that their characters would provide the show’s sophomore season mystery, the Applewhites got less screen time than any other family on the show. But segregation and marginalization is perhaps preferable to deeper storylines when you consider that when Marc Cherry does write for Black castmates, they all turn out to be criminals. Over the course of the season we learn that:
  • mentally-challenged son Caleb killed his brother’s old girlfriend, which is why the family fled Chicago and he landed in his basement prison;

    Betty prepares a lethal dose of phenobarbital in preparation to kill Caleb in order to supposedly prevent him from being a danger to others (only to stop just in time when she learns he wasn’t actually responsible for attempting to assault his brother’s new girlfriend);

    and, during the finale (laced with stereotypical scary-black-man-poses-mortal-risk-to-vulnerable-white-girl TV tension) Matthew is revealed as the real cold blooded murderer of his dead ex-girlfriend, not his brother, Caleb, who merely assaulted her and left her for dead.

    In the end, Matthew pulls a gun on his girlfriend’s mother (Marcia Cross), only to get shot and killed by a police sniper’s rifle (Wisteria Lane’s white women are safe again!), and Betty and Caleb hightail it out of the suburbs. Voila — no more African Americans in ABC’s favorite suburb.

    Unless new families are introduced, gold-digging Gabby and parolee Carlos will again be the only family of color on DH in the third season… along with their young Asian immigrant maid whom Gabrielle regularly degrades, whom the couple has tricked into being the so-called “oven” for their baby when they needed a surrogate, and who Carlos used for a little back seat cha cha in the finale.

    Let’s recap, shall we?

  • every African American man on Desperate Housewives: violent criminal
  • the only Latino man on Desperate Housewives: violent criminal
  • the only Latina woman on Desperate Housewives: money-hungry sexpot; and, bigoted and explicitly degrading toward Asian women
  • the only two Asian women on Desperate Housewives: maids exploited by Gabrielle
  • Listen, I know this is just a soapy television show, one in which most characters are flawed in some way. It’s not like DH hasn’t had its share of white actors portraying psychotics: deranged pharmacist George poisoned Bree’s husband to death; Andrew, Bree’s arrogant ass of a son, killed Carlos’s mother in a hit-and-run; Nicollete Sheridan’s Edie Brit intentionally burned down the house of rival Susan (Teri Hatcher); plumber-turned-heartthrob Mike with the prison rap; Paul Young brutally murdered nosy neighbor Mrs. Huber to cover up his dead wife’s murder of the mother of the boy they kidnapped and are raising as their son… I could go on.

    But the difference is that there are also many white characters on Wisteria Lane with whom viewers are supposed to empathize, like clutzy children’s book author and single mom Susan and her affable teen daughter Julie, or Felicity Huffman’s Lynette, an overwrought mom of four rowdy kids who struggles to maintain her sanity at home and (in the second season) at work. Characters of color — in particular men of color — are not given any such range. With few exceptions, they’re there simply to embody ugly ethnic stereotypes.

    Why should we care about DH’s racist and sexist representations (more on the show’s sexism in this Ms. online chat)? Not just because it’s still appointment TV for millions of viewers, but because the narrative being woven around it in the mainstream media is that the show is a semi-realistic reflection of modern women’s lives.

    Dozens of print and broadcast news outlets have described Marc Cherry’s housewives as empowered suburban feminists, while reviewers from the Washington Post to the Jerusalem Post consider the series proof that feminism has “failed’ and been “killed.” Newspapers like the Cincinnati Enquirer claim these fictional women are “surprisingly true to life,” asking readers “whether they’re a Bree, Gabrielle, Lynette or Susan.” London’s Mail on Sunday even rounded up a gaggle of American media professionals to echo the opinion that Housewives has “taken the pulse of millions of married women” by representing the “reality” of life in “a typical American neighborhood.” Meanwhile, the Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil and Montel Williams talk shows have each aired segments parading around “Real Life Desperate Housewives” to showcase the purported “accuracy” of a show in which all families can afford “splurges” like sportscars, all women (save immigrant maids) can aford not to work, and “good girls” rarely have sex, while women in control of their own sexuality are called “the town slut.”

    Add to that sorry list the fact that all men of color are violent criminals and all the women of color are either hyper-sexual “exotic” goldiggers, crazy whackadoos, or exploited victims, and the celluloid version of “reality” offered by this faux-camp soap seems much more like the GOP fantasy than the Sex and the City stepchild it’s been described as.

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