CULTURE & ARTS
01/25/2016 11:40 am ET

Pop Culture’s Housewife Problem, Explored

Domestic women are portrayed onscreen as hysterical, soap opera-loving dimwits. It’s time to change that.
Christopher Polk via Getty Images

In the otherwise cheery suburban dwellings of North America lives a lethargic subspecies of the phylum "Housewifius disgruntledus," kingdom "Mammalia." 

She has been observed spending long hours nestled on a pre-fab floral couch, downing glasses of red wine, curlers in her hair, watching soap operas on television without shame or irony. "Not Hanz! Anyone but Hanz!" She shouts at the screen -- an inanimate object -- revealing just how silly and hysterical she's become, or perhaps has always been. 

It's a trope we’ve grown comfortable with: older women who’ve put family and domestic duties before their careers are portrayed onscreen as lazy, petty and all-but-useless. Sure, there are the bossy, with-it exceptions that serve as foils to their lazy husbands, but these moms are often young, conventionally attractive, and actively involved with parenthood. Once the kids leave the nest, the housewife is left to wallow in soap opera-fueled sadness.

If you saw “Joy,” the promising but ultimately cobbled-together film with a stellar performance by Jennifer Lawrence at its center, you’ve witnessed a recent iteration of the stereotype. While the titular Joy is a strong woman juggling familial problems with her creative pursuits, her mother is a shallow character who spends long days glued to a bed, broken by divorce and idealizing the unrealistic relationships shown on her favorite TV shows. She’s bug-eyed and mumbling, struggling to define herself after a thwarted attempt to fit the housewife mold. She’s couched as socially useless, a character we’re lead to laugh at rather than sympathize with.

The way we think about stay-at-home moms has gotten a facelift -- one that’s praised by some, and sneered about by others.

It’s a decidedly Western stereotype, brought to life in Arundhati Roy’s book The God of Small Things, where the most deplorable character is an elderly woman who adores all things American, drawing tenuous connections between neighborhood gossip and comparable scenes from TV. Again, her character is out-of-touch and petty; as readers it’s difficult to find in her any redeemable qualities.

This archetype serves as sharp opposition to how housewives were first characterized on TV: June Cleaver, of “Leave It to Beaver,” might’ve had banal interests, but her ability to instill a certain cookie-cutter morality into her boys’ lives was framed as noble. Regardless of your opinions on traditional ideas concerning the nuclear family, it’s inarguable that to some audience members, June represented a kind of impossible ideal.

But, as a 2011 New York Times response to the “Real Housewives” phenomenon explores, the way we think about stay-at-home moms has gotten a facelift -- one that’s praised by some, and sneered about by others.

The author, Carina Chocano, points out that a serious decline of conventional marriages -- that is, marriages that result in having kids -- means that becoming a housewife has, since the '70s, been a choice rather than an obligation to be fulfilled nobly, chin up. Moreover, a life of dish washing and care providing has since been positioned as counter to feminist ideals, a lazy option for lazy women, or at least women not prone to questioning the status quo. This is especially clear when watching the “The Real Housewives” series, where wealthy women with trivial concerns and listless days are mocked for their aimlessness.

More recently, the binary of feminism versus housewife duties has been replaced with the concept of the do-it-all supermom, a woman expected to have the strength and time to nurture a career along with a gaggle of well-fed kids. This is where shows like “Jane the Virgin” get it right, featuring a flustered young woman zipping around Miami, missing grad school deadlines and small but important milestones in her infant son’s life. Jane’s attempt to do it all is so harrowing it lends the show the pace of a car chase, but it’s not a wholly critical look at the juggling act of career and motherhood -- she ends each day wiped and grateful.

This has become the expected role for women, but more recently the concept that stay-at-home motherhood is a viable if not noble life path, one that’s hard to achieve alongside a full-time career. Although pursuing both is possible, the stigma around selecting one path or the other has lessened.

Some European countries have even begun legally recognizing the time-consuming work involved in raising children by suggesting universal incomes, rewarding all citizens, day-job holding and otherwise, an equal stipend. But pop culture seems not to have caught up with that notion, continuing to sketch housewives as goofy, lazy caricatures, less fully realized than their job-holding counterparts.

Attempts to add nuance to fictional housewives have been made in the years since “The Real Housewives” first aired, with mixed results. While “Desperate Housewives” was on its surface a satirical subversion of the old tropes, the characters reaffirmed them in many ways, serving as funny yet uncomplicated caricatures. And while Betty on “Mad Men” was granted episodes worthy of sympathy from the show’s writers, the audience discussed her, rather than the womanizing Don, as the show’s villain.

More recently, nuance has been successfully added to the trope with the cliche-busting sitcom “Jane the Virgin,” which has already introduced us to type-A heroines and emotionally mature bad boys. The protagonist, Jane, is a hardworking romantic who balances motherhood with a job, grad school, and time with her doting mother and abuela, Alba Gloriana Villanueva. The three women live together, and are often shown swooning over soap opera together, including the cheesy, escapist show “The Passions of Santos.”

In the world of “Jane the Virgin,” dedication to family is considered on par with a successful career, and Jane herself is often seen speeding around town trying to invest equal time in each pursuit.

Although “Santos” is the butt of many jokes on “Jane the Virgin,” the women who watch it aren’t framed as silly. Rather, Alba and Jane are passionate perfectionists who take pleasure in watching ideal romantic scenarios play out. The show informs their romantic choices on occasion, but rarely outweighs their more practical values.

In the world of “Jane,” dedication to family is considered on par with a successful career, and Jane herself is often seen speeding around town trying to invest equal time in each pursuit. The writers acknowledge that such a full plate is tiresome, but don’t give favor to one path or the other. While ambitious Raphael is flawed, his dedication to his work is admirable; while homebody, soap-loving Alba is sometimes a little whimsical, she’s also hard-nosed and opinionated.

More than anything, lazing on the couch isn’t framed as a pursuit shared by unserious, aging mothers -- it’s instead a bonding activity that three very different women can share, much like the experience of curling up to watch the show itself.

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