During a recent cottage weekend, I asked a friend's vivacious and canny six-year-old what she wants to be when she grows up. The little girl didn't miss a beat. "A housewife!" she declared brightly – causing a sharp collective intake of breath around the screened-in porch.
The adult conversation stalled until finally someone started moaning about the mayor (the safest of bourgeois conversation topics in and around Toronto these days), but a couple of hours later, I found myself washing dishes in the kitchen with the girl's mother – or to be precise, one of her two mothers – an accomplished, successful artist.
"I try not to be discouraging about it," she said of her daughter's ambitions. "Part of feminism is personal choice, right? Also, I'm pretty sure she'll grow out of it."
Or she may not. And then what would that make her? A gentle, empathetic nurturer? Or a lazy, tanorexic narcissist with more time and money on her hands than good sense?
Look to pop culture and the answer is painfully schizophrenic. In the early days of television nearly all fictional wives – from Lucy to Harriet to Mrs. Cleaver – were at home because, well, that's just what most women did (or were expected to do). Today, there are basically two competing narratives for why a married woman would choose to not to work: either a) she's dutiful and sweet (Marge Simpson) or b) she's spoiled (think Gabrielle Solis on Desperate Housewives).
But in a blow to the latter, more pernicious, stereotype, it was announced this week that Desperate Housewives, which is entering its eighth season, will be wrapping up this year.
Marc Cherry, the show's creator and an ABC executive, told the press that pulling the plug on the long-running hit had been a collective decision between himself and network brass, adding that he "wanted to go out when the network still saw us as viable show doing well in the ratings." ABC president Paul Lee described the series as "iconic," saying it deserves a "hero's farewell" (apparently they've planned a plot-twisty ending centred around the dead woman from the first season – remember the one we all promptly forgot about once we got interested in who was getting off with whose hot husband?).
Well good riddance, I say. The women on Wisteria Lane – amusingly arch contrivances though they are – were harbingers of a damaging shift in the way network television portrayed homemakers. The role of the housebound female is as nuanced as the history of post-war family life, yet Desperate Housewives – and the reality series it spawned – managed to trivialize and diminish that role, representing the decision to stay home as simply an opportunity to engage in feuds with the neighbours over the rose bushes.
But if ABC is retiring its cast of catty lady layabouts, that hardly means the housewife is fading from popular consciousness – and the upside is there appears to be a cultural shift here. Many of the stay-at-home wives we are left with on television are much more soulful, funny and complex than the ones from Wisteria Lane. I'm thinking of Claire Dunphy on Modern Family, Mad Men's Betty Draper and Mary Louise Parker's character on Weeds (though technically I suppose she does have a job).
These are women who, unlike the eye-gouging fembots on Desperate Housewives, are soulful, funny, intelligent and complex by turns. And, apart from Betty Draper (a character so steeped in pre-feminist angst you can practically smell her nicotine-infused agony), they are not defined – positively or negatively – by their decision to stay at home. It's simply one choice among many – though admittedly a privileged one.
Still, if Desperate Housewives is thankfully calling it a day, its bitchy spawn keeps on coming – for example, the Real Housewives reality series, which chronicle the lives of rich idle women in various American cities as they compete to see who can come off as the most tacky, superficial, self-indulgent time-waster of them all. The key to the franchise's success, I think, is that it makes average working women feel inwardly superior. But like most reality shows about women snarking at each other, it drags us all down with it.
And brace yourself, ladies, because it's now coming to Canada. According to the show's publicist, Real Housewives of Vancouver has been greenlit and is currently conducting top-secret casting sessions (rumour has it the producers tried for a Toronto version first but were snubbed by the ladies who lunch). The show will air some time in the new year.
Let's just hope that if my six-year-old friend happens to watch it, her dreams of domestic bliss aren't dashed. After all, feminism is about personal choice, right? Even for aspiring housewives.