The Fury of Women Scorned

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At last week's debate in Tempe, Ariz., it was ladies' night. George W. Bush traded in his scowl for a disciplined smile that analysts said was meant to seem less angry to female voters. John Kerry vowed that his minimum-wage proposal would help "9.2 million women who are trying to raise their families." Moderator Bob Schieffer ended the debate by asking what these husbands, each the father of two daughters, had learned from the "strong women" in their lives.

The candidates are not the only ones anxious about strong women today. TV executives are too, after the out-of-nowhere success of the No. 1 new series Desperate Housewives. ABC's dark-humored soap suggests that all is not well on Venus in 2004 — and that you underappreciate women at your peril, in TV and in life.

Television, the pros say, is a women's medium. Women watch more prime-time TV and are believed to make more household viewing choices. But you wouldn't have known it by watching lately. Like post-9/11 politics, much post-9/11 TV has been manly and daddy-oriented. The networks have churned out CSI clones that have mostly male leads. After a ratings drop-off among young men last fall, executives blamed new shows starring women (Karen Sisco, Miss Match). Family sitcoms hew to the formula of lumpy guy with hot, smart but secondary wife. Bush's answer to the "strong women" question — that he learned "to listen to them" — was According to Jim politics. He's the likable hubby who needs Laura to point out his foibles, but he's still the star.

Desperate Housewives is the kind of show many TV execs believed wouldn't work on a network today. It's satiric. Unlike CSI, it has a complicated serial plot. (The guy-gal thing again; networks run scared from shows that ask for a commitment.) And it's a show with all-female stars that sets its drama on the home front, whereas Cold Case, Alias and Crossing Jordan star individual women in law-enforcement (read: guy-friendly) roles.

But viewers did watch — more than 20 million an episode — particularly women, who made up 63% of the adult audience in the first two weeks. So it's hard not to see the show's success as a comment on TV, and maybe society. Reality shows like The Bachelor and The Swan — one area of TV targeted to women — are retro, happily-ever-after fantasies, even if women watch them ironically. Desperate Housewives is an unhappily-ever-after story. Single mom Susan (Teri Hatcher) was abandoned for another woman. Lynette (Felicity Huffman) is abandoned at home with her bratty kids by her business-traveling husband. Gabrielle (Eva Longoria) is abandoned emotionally by her rich spouse. They get mad and get even, through affairs, subterfuge, even poisoning. When her husband asks for a divorce, Bree (Marcia Cross) serves him a salad with onions, to which he's deathly allergic.

Like The West Wing, Housewives is well made but stacks the dramatic deck shamelessly. Its characters — as thin as mica flakes, especially the men — are very affluent, and it's set on Wisteria Lane, a picket-fence never-never land. We don't see women juggling home and career; there aren't any nannies or day care in sight. All this allows the show to be "brave" by indicting a cliche of suburban life without really depicting how any of its viewers live.

But if the show's milieu can be phony, the resentment it taps into is not. When a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics study found that working men still do less housework than working women, we should have seen the success of Housewives coming. And men aren't the only villains. There are also women who righteously judge other women: the local gossip, the neighbor who chides Lynette over how she disciplines her kids. None too subtly, these bad women are piggy looking and dowdy, unlike the lissome, likable Huffman and Hatcher. It's not the most feminist way of drawing distinctions, but sisterhood goes only so far (on both sides of the camera: the creator and 6 of the 10 writers are men).

You pay attention when this feisty message suddenly resonates with a big chunk of your audience — or your electorate. It may be a stretch to link a TV diversion closely to politics, but campaigners do that for a living. A study this summer by Nielsen and the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project found that the Republicans advertised far more heavily than the Democrats on crime shows, to reach law-and-order-focused men.

In 1994 we were told it was the year of the angry male; 2004 may or may not be the year of the angry female at the ballot box, but it sure is on the idiot box. And you have to wonder if the same advisers who directed Bush to smile and Kerry to target working moms might not want to throw some ads toward Wisteria Lane. In this discontented autumn, the poll margins are razor-thin. And not only the housewives are desperate.