......• Beauty, the Satiric and a Few Desperate Housewives
.........Matt Lau

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As Anthony Lane said recently of Natalie Portman apropos of her performance in Mike Nichol's new film, Closer: "Portman is becoming hard to cast: her beauty is by now so extreme that its sole purpose is the feeding of obsession." [1] "Whose obsession?" one might be inclined to wonder. Surely - and as is far from uncommon for Hollywood's ruling aristocracy - Miss Portman has an adoring following, some of whom are no doubt obsessed. It is no less true that within the logic of her various film appearances she is often the food of another character's appetite of obsession. Indeed, Closer opens with Portman being struck, quite literally, by a passing taxi and with Jude Law's character being struck, in another way, by her. The latter fact - that Law could fall suddenly and (almost) irrevocably in love with Portman - Lane claims we can, as faithful moviegoers, accept a-priori. That is to say: the empathetic viewer finds Law's actions and reactions concerning Portman highly probable: probable in a way that perhaps only one's most palatable fantasies can be - thus, a-priori, axiomatic, what-goes-without-saying, etc. would all seem to apply.

But more than simply kindling the animal spirits of (at least) most heterosexual males nation-wide, Lane claims that Portman's beauty - or the trouble with her beauty is that it - is taking a turn for the sublime. It has increased to the point that it may become a liability to a future film or even her career! Imagine that, being too beautiful: maybe that's what has gotten Iraq in so much trouble. One might applaud Lane initially simply for being willing to think through and undo the clichés of "who's hot?" and "who's not?" But then again, are not these the exact insights for which an effete intellectual turns to The New Yorker in the first place? Aren't commonplaces entirely common when we find them in their common places? Those of The New Yorker occupy one register, those of Maxim another, those of Cosmo another, those of Critical Inquiry and Diacritics are theirs and theirs alone.

Back to Portman: we could claim that, yes, her beauty has an extremity that is unique in that it is today's "by now." On the one hand, when the desirous subject gazes on her today they see her image recorded, but they know that "she looks like this now, out in the world to which this theater and its screen only belong." Her beauty has yet to be dimmed by age. On the other hand, if we leave this factor of the present aside, we might see through the screen and begin to unpack the contemporary myth of glamorized, feminine beauty: the myth of what Roland Barthes calls variously "a superlative state of beauty," "existential beauty," "the fascination with mortal faces," and/or "a lyricism of Woman". [2] Barthes contrasts the "fascination with the mortal face" of Audrey Hepburn with the universal, even Platonic, beauty of Greta Garbo, concluding that the myth of (Hepburn's) substantive, existential beauty has come in recent cultural history to predominate over the myth of (Garbo's) conceptual, essential beauty. The beauty of the phenomenal Event has overtaken that of the noumenal Idea. This might explain the current discomfort with Portman's beauty that Lane relays: if she is passing from the beauty of "women as child, women as kitten," to the Garbo-esque variety, she would appear to be swimming up river against the current of the larger cultural trend that Barthes hypothesizes. [3] Her beauty, that was before merely charming, is now inspiring awe. She is thus in danger of becoming a cinematic anachronism.

What follows is a Barthesian mythic discourse in which we will asymptotically approach the interplay between Barthes' slippery categories of essential and existential beauty. For as Barthes has shown, "the lyricism of [particularized] Women" serves as a historically contingent backdrop for the myth I would like to mythologize and counter-mythologize: that of "trouble in bourgeois paradise" in its contemporary iteration, The Desperate Housewife. First of all, through exemplification it ought to become apparent to the reader that the representations of this myth are as heterogeneous as are the mortal faces of the actresses that help dramatize them. Secondly, we will assemble an ideological critique of ABC's minimally satirical sit-com: Desperate Housewives. Finally, we will turn from Housewives to Buñuel's Belle de Jour for an example of a counter-mythology of the bourgeois housewife. In short, the multifaceted phenomenon of this myth will be read in the three ways that Barthes prescribes: (1) with all due cynicism, (2) as an ideological construction, and finally (3) on its own terms: as a semiotic amalgam of signification. [4] In this third register we will exemplify and unmask - preferring derision to sincerity in tone, and making "sarcasm the condition of truth," as Barthes implores. [5] And it should not go without saying that to present this myth of the Desperate Housewife "as a story at once true and unreal" is no small task, or at least it is not a task for the politically correct faint-of-heart.

Mythologizing Desperate Housewives: ABC's Debt to Buñuel

Desperate Housewives, ABC's first hit show this decade, gives form to at least a few longstanding myths of the bourgeoisie. "Trouble in paradise" is one way of putting the myth promulgated by the explicit contents of the show. The sordid and lascivious details of the soap opera's plots and subplots are nothing particularly new to TV melodramas. But they sure seem that way when the entertainment press - earning its bread by making something out of nothing - reports on them. There's the show's omniscient narrator, Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), who committed suicide in the first episode and who for some reason hasn't left the neighborhood she hated enough to kill herself over; she actually seems to be enjoying deriding her friends from the (not-so) distant beyond. There's Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria), an ex-model turned nouveau riche homemaker, who is perhaps the shows most notorious character because of her affair with a 17 year-old boy from the neighborhood who landscapes for her (what an original fantasy!). [6]

Do I need to go on? The concept here, within the show itself, is, again, that of "trouble in paradise," or if we follow Barthes' instructions and construct an ephemeral neologism for it, [7] we might call it Bourgicide. Things might seem fine in archetypal suburbia, but we soon discover that the great mass of housewives on Wisteria Lane lead lives of not-so-quiet desperation; these women are all but intentionally undermining the ostensible stability of their middle-class lives. They are terminating their own social order with extreme prejudice, as though they were following orders. The question, then, is whether the show exploits an exceptional, nightmarish undercurrent of what is otherwise a truly normal middle-class social life or if it confirms a darker truth about this life - that desperate loneliness and unseemly betrayal are the rules in the bourgeois milieu and not the exceptions. Or perhaps more precisely, if they are exceptions, they are constitutive ones that contemporary bourgeois life must disavow in order to function.

This notion of disavowal brings us to another mythic concept the show exemplifies: namely, the somewhat banal debate about the gap between American's professed moral outrage at popular culture and their entirely contradictory fondness for consuming the stuff. As Robert Scheer failed to understate it in a recent column for The Los Angeles Times, "We are a nation of lascivious hypocrites." This is about as close, however sadly, as the American press will get to a demystifying critique these days. Scheer asserts his thesis based on the contradiction between two recent major surveys of the American public: (1) In a New York Times-CBS News poll approximately 70% of the respondents said they "believe that mass culture is responsible for debasing our moral values;" (2) according to all reliable indicators of television viewing habits, the two most watched shows in the country are CSI, CBS's graphically violent who-dunnit series, and ABC's Housewives. [8] Apparently Americans either love these shows, but they hate that they love them or they hate these shows, but they sure have a funny way of registering their disgust.

The trouble with Scheer's critique is that while he seems capable of taking the first step of lambasting this hypocrisy, he seems downright confused about what to say or do next. Without irony he participates in the worst kind of bourgeois mythic logic: this is just how it is; sex and violence are what sell; it's all a matter of supply and demand; high culture is no match for the low stuff if the hidden hand of the market is left to govern the media; etc. Even when the trashy commercial culture he cites is abhorrently jingoistic, Scheer balks at denouncing it, having apparently spent all his invective credits condemning his fellow consumers. He quotes the infamous lines from the country song, "Shock and Y'all," by Toby Keith - "You'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/ It's the American way" - but only so he can display his PC liberal credentials: "I'd never ask for such drivel to be banned." [9] Scheer has thus arrived at the rather paltry horizon of liberal-democratic ethics, where we are compelled to accept the right of others to free speech (along with all their other rights), especially when we disagree with how they exercise this right (or their others, like practicing religion or voting for candidates one opposes). There is no finer example of this phenomenon than the prologue that Noam Chomsky wrote for a book on Holocaust Revisionism. [10]

So it seems that we have arrived at Barthes' point that the semiological reading and the ideological reading need each other. Giving names like Bourgicide to the concept of bourgeois desperation only takes us to a certain limit of analysis that is perhaps to quick to condescend to the very audience one would like to reach: namely, the bourgeoisie themselves. Meanwhile, Scheer's extremely modest critique of ideology gets caught up in the pluralist ethos that underpins the capitalist mode of production he thinks he is demystifying. But what if in some cases, even together, these strategies are not enough? What if the bourgeoisie has already embraced the derisive tone of the mythologist? What if this ruling class sustains its hegemony through cunning gestures of self-deprecation? I would contend that this is at least somewhat the case with Housewives if only because it is billed as minimally self-reflexive and ironic. It is a bourgeois myth that sees itself as a satire of the bourgeois myth of tranquil life in the suburbs. It is effectively a third-order semiotic system. What then is to be the characterization of the mythologist, if satire is now the explicit aim of the myth-machinery the Barthesian mythologist wants to decipher and oppose? Are we to be sincerely disgusted instead? (Hopefully not.)

After all, there is satire a la Housewives and then there is satire. I contend that Housewives' satire is a safe and playful variety. This is evidenced by the fact that the show itself has been satirized rather effectively and most recently in an Onion article entitled, "Desperate Times call for Desperate Housewives." [11] Housewives' satire functions as an attempt to maintain a certain distance towards the sordid details of the show - details that renders its ongoing events highly improbable. But Housewives doesn't simply sustain the myths around it all the more effectively because it has a cynical and minimally ironic distance towards itself; it sustains the reality of bourgeois life through its very unreality. This crucial distinction is spelled-out by the noted mythologist and Leninist provocateur, Slavoj Zizek, as the transition from what Barthes elsewhere termed l'effet du réel to what Zizek himself calls l'effet du l'irréel: "This effect of the Real is not the same as what, way back in the 1960s, Roland Barthes called, l'effet du réel: it is, rather... l'effet du l'irréel. That is to say: in contrast to the Barthesian l'effet du réel, in which the text makes us accept its fictional product as real, here, the Real itself, in order to sustain itself, has to be perceived as... unreal". [12] L'effet du réel is neatly analogous to the effect of the Barthesian mythic sign: in the case of either the text or the mythic sign the goal is to establish a fiction or a certain hazy knowledge of reality as a full-fledged constituent of the symbolic order.

We should claim, however, that what Zizek adds to Barthes' view is not something that is missing from Barthes own analyses; rather, these are exactly the kinds of augmentations of the mythologist's analytical apparatus that Barthes had in mind. Bourgeois society changes and the mythologist must change with it. Moreover, this is perhaps precisely where the task of the mythologist ends - in a satirical appraisal of a given myth - and the task of what Barthes' calls "the artificial-mythologist" begins. The latter is necessary because, as Barthes points out, characterizing a myth as "at once true and unreal" tends not to be enough: "it is extremely difficult to vanquish myth from inside: for the very effort one makes in order to escape its stranglehold becomes in its turn the prey of myth: myth can always, as a last resort, signify the resistance which is brought to bear against it". In response to myth's vicissitudes Barthes demands that we try and beat the myth at its own game: "Truth to tell, the best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce an artificial mythology: and this reconstituted myth will in fact be a mythology. Since myth robs language of something, why not rob myth?" [13]

One need look no further than the films of Luis Buñuel to see the myths of the bourgeoisie being robbed and reified as counter-myths or artificial ones. Indeed, Buñuel's Belle de Jour provides a neat juxtaposition to the half-baked satire of Desperate Housewives. [14] Our Barthesian slogan for Housewives might go something like this: Desperate Housewives: cynically undermining bourgeois norms in the manner of a supplement that only further sustains them, through the supplement's very unreality. By contrast our counter-slogan for Buñuel might go something like this: Buñuel: terrorizing the bourgeoisie on the silver screen since 1928: or, satirizing them in such away that they don't know they are being satirized; they are horrified instead. Although the limits of this practice of manufacturing derisive slogans should be readily apparent when one simply views the diverse body of work that is perhaps too breezily reified as "Buñuel": "Have you seen a Buñuel film?" "Do you know Buñuel?"

In Belle de Jour, Severine (Catherine Deneuve) is a ravishingly beautiful, but significantly disaffected bourgeois housewife living in Paris. Her waking like is filled with opulent but empty consumer goods; her emotional distance from her husband is palpable. The film also portrays her various dreams, daydreams and fantasies, which darkly belie the economic comfort and safety of her life. When Severine learns from a girlfriend that an acquaintance of theirs of equivalent social standing is working as a prostitute, her downward spiral is commensurately set in motion.

At first, she is able to maintain her double life as a prostitute by day, under the pseudonym "Belle de Jour," and as the chaste young wife of a handsome doctor by night. But things fall apart when a number of scenarios intersect. First, a handsome, young criminal falls madly in love with Severine and wants to see her away from her place of business. Then, a friend of her husband's, who also fancies her, discovers Severine's secret when he pays a visit to the brothel. This latter fact causes Severine to summarily quit her brief career; this, in turn, drives her dangerous lover, Marcel, to follow her from her fantasy into her bourgeois reality. Marcel shoots her husband, Pierre, out of jealousy, leaving him blinded, crippled, and unable to speak; predictably (which is precisely Buñuel's intention), the police kill Marcel as he tries to escape the scene of the crime.

It is worth interjecting here that Buñuel's satire is more in the presuppositions of the film, than in the film's execution. Indeed, we might claim that the film itself is subversive in its orthodox realism: the camera work, with a few exceptions and even in the surreal moments, is done noticeably without flourishes or special effects; there are long takes with stilted, humorless dialogue; there is no musical score; and so on. Where Housewives winks to the camera like a feckless version of the early Godard, Buñuel says, "What camera? This isn't a movie; this is the tedious life of a beautiful creature coming undone." But this is not to say that Buñuel is participating, strictly speaking, in the mythological effet du réel: that he wants his audience to mistake his fictional film for reality. Instead, the notoriously ambiguous ending of the film is perhaps as close as cinema can get to Zizek's effet du l'irréel. Buñuel himself is rumored to have said that even he did not understand the film's ending.

This last scene begins with a noticeable exception to the otherwise understated direction: the establishing shot of the exterior of Severine and Pierre's apartment building has a image of leaves and trees - connoting Severine's masochistic fantasies - superimposed on top of it. This special effect foreshadows the ultimate interplay of reality and fantasy that precipitates. Severine is inside her apartment dressed in a muted way that contrasts with the more sprightly or lavish clothing she dawns throughout the film (Deneuve was after all a model and her wardrobe in the film, provided by Yves St Laurent, is often the subject of an empty conversation). [15] Perhaps she is wearing black because she has embraced her role as Pierre's pious nurse. She seems to say as much when she tells the catatonic Pierre that she hasn't dreamed since his accident. This admission signals a major psychological change for her character: at all earlier points in the film she was given to vivid daydreams, fantasies, etc. Perhaps Pierre's accident was her dream-come-true.

Severine sits up; something has changed. Pierre is suddenly awake; he takes off his glasses and smiles at her. "What are you thinking about Severine?" he asks. "About you, Pierre," she replies. This is also one of the first questions that Pierre asks her at the film's outset. In the opening scene of the film a small tiff in the horse-drawn coach leads Pierre to have the two drivers remove Severine from the vehicle, take her into the forest, and torture her while he watches her plead for forgiveness. We only come to realize this first scene is a dream after the film shifts abruptly to the couple's seemingly ideal domestic life in Paris: one second Severine is about to be raped by the coach's driver, the next she is lying listlessly in bed and Pierre asks, "What are you thinking about Severine?" In this initial scene this question signals the return of reality and reality's hegemony over fantasy as such: her dream has awoken, as usual, to reality. When Pierre asks the question again at the end of the film it has the opposite effect: at the moment of his question Severine's reality has awoken into its dream. And because the film ends in the dream - a signature feature of a number of Buñuel's films - the reality principle of the film itself is called into question. The audience is left wondering, "What just happened?" "Why don't I understand?"

Perhaps more importantly viewers should feel that the joke is on them: the target of Buñuel's satiric derision is thus the bourgeois audience itself. It is as though he has built a highly contrived film-noir plot into the reality of the film just to see the look on people's faces when Severine's dreams overtake the film's reality at the end. This is where we should return to Zizek's point apropos of Barthes: "the Real itself, in order to be sustained, has to be perceived as... unreal." Though this does not completely resolve the chimerical ending of Belle de Jour, it is a start.

What if it is imperative to Severine's survival that her reality be superceded by one of its constitutive fantasmatic supplements? That's fine for her, but again, to return to the audience, the function of Severine's unreal fantasy has the opposite effect on them. On the one hand, l'effet du réel is achieved when Severine mistakes her own fantasy for reality. On the other hand, this moment liquidates the realism of the entire rest of the film for the audience: we saw realistically depicted events transpire, we were given relatively clear indications of what was dream and what was reality; but now, to put it simply, the story ends in a dream and nothing before seems real. L'effet du l'irréel is here the uncanny dissolution of cinematic realism - the bourgeois mode of representation and mythical production par excellence - into the unreality of the surrealism that might someday again come to dominate the cinema (I can dream, can't I?). Significantly, however, l'irréel does not sustain the Real through its very unreality at the end of Belle de Jour; instead, here l'irréel seems to call the myth of realism into question in a manner befitting the Barthesian moniker of "artificial mythology."


[1] Lane, Anthony, "Partners." The New Yorker, 12/10/2004.

[2] Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, trans. Annette Levers, New York: FSG, 1998 (1972), p. 57-58.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, p. 128.

[5] Ibid, p. 12.

[6] Desperate Housewives, writ. Marc Cherry, ABC, 12/23/2004.

[7] Barthes, R., Mythologies, New York: FSG, 1998 (1972), p. 120-121.

[8] Scheer, Robert, "The Invisible Hands Hold the Remote," The Los Angeles Times, 12/23/2004.

[9] Ibid

[10] Zizek, Slavoj. "Lenin's Choice," Revolution at the Gates, New York: Verso, 2002, p. 169. See also: Manufacturing Consent - Noam Chomsky and the Media, dir. Mark Achbar, Peter Wintonick, DVD, Zeitgeist Video, 2002 (1993).

[11] The Onion, "Desperate Times Call for Desperate Housewives." 12/22/2004.

[12] Zizek, Slavoj, "Lenin's Choice," Revolution at the Gates, New York: Verso, 2002, p. 232.

[13] Barthes, R., Mythologies, p. 135.

[14] Belle de Jour, dir. Luis Buñuel, writ. Luis Buñuel, Jean-Claude Carrière, DVD, Miramax, 2001 (1967).

[15] Ibid


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