Book Review, Non Fiction, Television

Book Review: Welcome to Wisteria Lane: On America’s Favorite Desperate Housewives, Edited by Leah Wilson

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From Sahar’s Reviews’ vault:
I recently reread this great book from the team at Smart Pop Books
and it was just as enjoyable and thought provoking as the first time.

I don’t watch as many television shows as I used to, or as many as I would want to. Time is fleeting, but that is not the main reason for this decision. What I prefer over watching numerous shows as a passive viewer, is to watch a limited number as an active one. I like taking the time to think about what I am watching, to read up on various themes and concepts the show touches upon, as well as have interesting conversations, both in real life and online, about these concepts. Those of you who regularly read my reviews are probably nodding your head as you reading this, especially if we follow each other on Twitter and have had wonderful “twonversations”.

Welcome to Wisteria Lane on Sahar's ReviewsDesperate Housewives is one such show. I spend a lot of time watching it, reading about it and discussing it. No wonder, as the show both fascinates and repels me. On the one hand, its portrayal of women as stereotypical, overly sexual and boxed creatures drives me nuts. On the other hand, it does greatly make up for it by using its four main characters brilliantly to underline certain unhealthy realities in our less than Wisteria-lane worthy lives, so much so that I can often be found nodding my head in silent approval. But while I found many fans of the show, I found it hard to find people who shared my passion for discussing the psychological, emotional, and social themes that can be so easily found throughout the show.

I have not been a fan of Smart Pop Books for long, as I quite unfortunately did not discover them until recently. But I am now addicted to their weekly essays (which you can sign up for either on their website or here) and despite an often exhausting 60-hour work week, I make time to devour their books. I recently got four of them: The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration, Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in The Matrix, Fringe Science: Parallel Universes, White Tulips, and Mad Scientists, and Welcome to Wisteria Lane: On America’s Favorite Desperate Housewives. What with my two years worth of Fringe reviews (which you can find here), one would think my first choice in the four books above would be obvious. But surprisingly enough, it was the Desperate Housewives book I reached for first. I don’t know if it is because of my love-hate relationship with this show, because the last season is currently airing or because of the recent release of the documentary Miss Representation. Whatever the reason might be, I was not disappointed.

Reading though Welcome to Wisteria Lane felt like reading through a collection of conversations I would have loved to have about the show, with friendly, humorous, and very frank friends. I got to explore themes such as the characters’ sexuality in Julie Kenner’s essay, “Sex and the Television Suburbs,” in which she explores the fact that although on a superficial level, the show seems cutting edge, its depiction of female sexuality is quite archaic. I also loved Laura Caldwell’s essay on cat fighting, aptly titled “Girl Power Witty or Cat Fight City?”, which once again underlined the archaic concept of the catfight that continues to survive even in today’s supposedly enlightened society.

The one essay that particularly stood out to me was the one penned by Whitney Gaskell, “Will the Real Bree Van de Kamp Please Stand Up”, in which contestants of a fake television game show, “Which One Is it?”, have to figure out which of three seemingly very different Brees is the real one: the perfect housewife, the sexpot and the spitfire – only to conclude that the three versions are part of the same whole. How often are we women of the twenty-first century given a certain, limited role to play? And if we choose to play a little out of the box, we are told that there is something wrong with us. Bombarded with images of the supposedly perfect, one-dimensional woman we are supposed to be, many women begin to wonder if there is something wrong with them, when in fact, they are just gloriously human.

Another essay that stuck another chord was Deanna Carlyle’s “America the Superficial? Watching Desperate Housewives with the Europeans,” which tackles the subject of the seeming dichotomy between America’s products, such as Desperate Housewives, which carry layers of themes and concepts, and America’s seeming superficiality. As a Canadian, I have heard way too many anti-America comments (granted, I hear a lot of ribbing about Canada, but that’s another topic of conversation) that are based on nothing more than weak assumptions. The way Carlyle explains it is pretty interesting: the way Americans are, for example, presenting details about their lives in the first meeting rather than being more reserved such as, say, Germans, is not superficial as much as it is a necessary way of life that developed because of the American way of doing things. Presenting details about their lives is a way for the very mobile and very multicultural Americans to get to immediately feel safe knowing that their new neighbor (the fifth in as many years) has common values and will not be disrupting the way of life around the neighborhood too much. As for the Germans, and the Europeans in general, although increasing in recent years, their mobility is nothing compared to that of Americans, explaining why this habit did not evolve as a part of culture – there was no need for it.

As Jill Winters puts it in her essay, “The Lost Boys of Wisteria Lane”, the very title of the show is deceptive, in that the four main female protagonist in the show are anything but desperate. Just like the women in this show are anything but the archetype housewives, their husbands, the natural counterparts, are anything but the archetype. And while Desperate Housewives is not what one would call a healthy show (in that it has sex, drugs and violence embedded throughout the storyline, as well as less than stellar morality), with books such as Welcome to Wisteria Lane: On America’s Favorite Desperate Housewives, one is bound to glean a lot of interesting answers to questions of morality pertaining to female relationships, marriage, and what makes or breaks a community-building process.
First published on 19 December 2011.
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