Army, prison, mob, sister, footballers: These are the first words of television show titles in which wives is the second word. There’s The Good Wife; then, if she’s not good enough, Wife Swap. There’s Desperate Housewives, but who cares any more, because now we have The Real Housewives franchise (granted, it is the desperate housewives who seem real and the real housewives who seem desperate, but that’s why we have adages about truth and fiction). There are Housewives in Orange County, New York City, Atlanta, New Jersey, Beverly Hills, Miami and now Vancouver; that Canadian debut was the highest-rated premiere in Slice network history, drawing 1.2 million North American viewers.
There is one show called Husbands and it’s a Web-only series in which all the husbands are men.
And somewhere, Lucille Ball cries.
When before has what we call “society” been so contemptuous of the Tenth Commandment? When have we been so flagrantly invested in the wives of others? They may be defined by what their husbands do, but only insofar as shows must be named; really, audiences have never been more interested in how spoiled, rotting women spend their days.
In the Housewives shows, men figure only nominally: to buy diamonds, say, or to send inopportune texts that speed up the superfluous plot. Ditto on the disparate, but formulaically alike, Wives shows. Even Don Draper, Mad Men’s man’s man, is paling rapidly next to his shiny new wife. Still, there’s no time to gloat. If wives on television don’t necessarily belong to one man, they are entirely products of, like, The Man. For richer and richer still, they serve as status symbols no longer of private lives, but of public consumption in a world where there soon threatens to be no other kind.
Wifedom is not only in vogue but also in Vogue, which has embraced fashion’s recent mania for the mid-century frau thing (see: Raf Simons for Jil Sander) without any of its double-edged irony; or wait, perhaps it’s Vogue, brand name for all glossy, statusy, feminine aspiration, that led us here.
Consider one of its favourite cover girls, Beyoncé. In 2000, still with Destiny’s Child, she sang third-wave femme anthem Independent Women, which Billboarded at No. 1 for 18 straight weeks. “If I wanted the watch you’re wearing,” went the bridge, “I’ll buy it/ The house I live in, I’ve bought it/ The car I'm driving, I’ve bought it/ I depend on me.”
Carelessly hidden was the message that women must literally earn their independence, or maybe it was just that a song about bona fide emotional liberation wouldn’t have made for the hottest music video. Either way, when Beyoncé went solo in 2003, her first album was Dangerously in Love. It was written almost entirely about Jay-Z, her bajillionaire future husband.
Over the same few years, Sex and the City was striding high – in $500 stilettos. What began as a subversive dramedy about male failings and female bonding turned slowly, incontrovertibly into a couture show. As on the runways in Paris, it would end with a bridal gown. They saved it for the 2008 movie: a meretricious wish fulfilment that dead-ended in Carrie’s walk-in closet, in the house Big bought her. Or rather, should have ended, its sequel being so bad, decadent and reality-deaf that it seemed to spin all female trouble, ever, into #whitegirlproblems.
If there had been in the original show a dream of female independence from marriage as property ownership, of lives lived not in gilded stability but in strange beds and familiar brunch company and imperishable real women love, that dream was dust. To watch Sex and the City II was to picture a Manolo Blahnik stomping on the human face forever.
“Domestic goddess, professional shopper, mother of five, wife, jet setter,” one of the Vancouver Housewives says in the show’s premiere, reciting her titles as proudly as though any but “mother” signified actual work. Another (if they won’t distinguish themselves, I won’t either) tells us she planned to go to law school, but then, oops, got married; yet another says her primary income is “two divorces,” for which she “worked very hard.” One does work – in fact, many Housewives across the franchise are self-employed, albeit mostly in ways made feasible by husbands or the show – and acts half-martyred over it; also, calls herself a “momtrepreneur.” They all brunch and shop and drink together, just like in Sex and the City when Sex and the City was smart, but they are not friends and it is difficult to imagine them having sex. That would be too much like doing something.
Soon, Girls comes to HBO and will, maybe, return us to the quondam hope of Carrie et al. I’m most interested to see not how the sex/love/relationships work, but how, and whether, the girls themselves do. I want to know what price female independence; whether it will come back to what we can buy for ourselves, or what we can do for ourselves.
My own “girls” are half-and-halved between those who cook and pickle things and knit infinity scarves for their boyfriends and those who keep nail polish in the fridge and lovers on the side. Yesterday, I ordered groceries just so I could also get cigarettes delivered, so yes, I am in the latter camp. I’m not usually apologetic about it: Having grown up with a mother who was retrograde in most ways, I find nothing adorable in the Etsy-driven redomestication of the modern girl, even when considered as legit corrective to the undomesticated, late-capitalist modern wife. Hip kitsch homey-ness is still too close to home.
And yet, along the same drift, I wonder how much right I have to hate-watch television’s wives (which is why, until researching this piece, I didn’t watch them at all). Are they not just the plastic Frankenstein monsters created by a material-girl culture playing at emancipation? Put a harder way: Do I, too, not often say I want to get married without being married? I don’t know if I can pay the price either, if I can’t pay it in cash. I know only half of my friends understand.
But we have no split of opinion on one woman: Beyoncé, whom I have come, at length, to reconsider. When last week her Tumblr went live, I sat rapt for hours. I can swear on my mother’s Bible that I do not read celebrity gossip and will never after this piece watch Housewives again, but I can’t say I will soon or ever stop obsessing over the revelation of Beyoncé’s married life. Such glamour she has, such beauty, performed with the highest degree of “hey, it's just B!” normalcy. It should unnerve me: She is the realest housewife, the world’s trophy.
And yet for all her trappings, B. seems not trapped at all. The things she has she can afford herself, but that’s not why. It’s that she revels in what can’t be bought. Love is the most egalitarian thing. Marriage – a financial institution so disrepaired that on television it’s mostly parodied, and in real life Statistics Canada has, to save money, stopped gathering data on it – makes us forget that.
Beyoncé brings it back. She looks safely in love, and not just with her man, nor with her house and car and watches, but with her sister, her women friends, her own life, her self. How strange that her uncontemporary pursuit of wifely happiness, transcending its huge expense, looks so much like freedom. I only do not covet it because I remember that once it was private.
Special to The Globe and Mail