A queer eye for women's drama
Is the success of two iconic TV shows proof that it is gay men who best understand the minds of women? Brian Finnegan reports.
Do gay men know more about women than women know about themselves? Two iconic television shows which purport to speak about the interior lives of modern women were conceived and propelled into the global consciousness by gay men.
In Ireland Desperate Housewives is rating on a par with the established soap operas, with an average of 41.5 per cent of women aged 15 to 34 tuning in, while in America 41 per cent of women aged between 25 and 45 are watching regularly. American feminist Naomi Wolf claims these viewers watch to "explore a retreat fantasy - of a work-free life in suburbia - and then emerge from it refreshed and with an appetite for their own tough, bracing, more independent lives".
Wolf, who once called Sex and the City a "groundbreaking neo-feminist epic", suggests that Desperate Housewives says "the unsayable without apologies about the female unconscious". But she failed to mention that the people saying the unsayable, and creating these neo-feminist epics, are men who sleep with other men.
Eva Longoria, who plays the frustrated Gabrielle Solis on Desperate Housewives, has spoken about how integral the sexuality of the programme's creator, Marc Cherry, is to the creation of characters so many women identify with.
"Marc has a feminine quality that comes through in the writing that just won't come through with a straight writer," she has said. "He really hit the nail on the head when he wrote these women, because even though the situations are heightened, women can relate to them."
Darren Star, who created the four women at the heart of Sex and the City, not to mention the residents of Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210, makes the links between Carrie and co and his own sexual orientation tacit. "I've always wanted to work with gay characters in terms of basically everything I've done," he's been quoted, "although none of these shows were conceived as 'gay' shows - shows that were about the gay experience, with leading gay characters."
In a 1993 episode of The Simpsons that aired just as Sex and the City was about to go into its final season, Marge Simpson summed it up when she said: "That's the show about four women acting like gay guys." Meanwhile, the New Republic's television critic, Lee Siegel, called Sex and the City an "ingenious affirmation of a certain type of gay male sexuality". That young women saw themselves in Bradshaw and company's antics "was the biggest hoax perpetrated on straight single women in the history of entertainment", he wrote.
Sex in the City was also part of a subtle shift on US television. As the New York Times noted three years ago, openly gay writers and producers have been transforming TV comedy since Ellen came out in the late 1990s. The result has been hit sitcoms such as Will & Grace and a highly successful shift into similar territory in the reality genre, with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and its successor, Queer Eye for the Straight Gal, which is currently topping the US ratings. It was only a matter of time before the shift would turn towards drama, a genre desperately in need of a makeover on terrestrial television in America.
Desperate Housewives' most obvious cultural influence, the 1999 film American Beauty, which gave a high-gloss tragicomic sheen to the quiet desperation of conservative suburban lives, was also written by a gay man, Alan Ball. Ball went on to create the landmark television series, Six Feet Under, a show which pries into the interior lives of a range of similar, multi-generational characters living in quiet desperation over a funeral parlour.
What Six Feet Under and Desperate Housewives have in common are depictions of women hemmed in by the expectations society puts on them, all desperately trying to break free from prescribed mundaneness, and failing. So how does the evolution of female representation on US television's most-watched shows, from independent, savvy, sex-positive city girls to emotionally repressed, ensnared, sexually frustrated women, reflect the evolution of the gay subconscious from which these characters have sprung?
"Sex and the City was about being a woman in the 1990s, a decade that was dominated by the Democrats in government," says Alan Paul of US newspaper OutSmart. "It represented a kind of new freedom of self-expression, after the demise of the Republican stranglehold, particularly during the Reagan years, which were also marked by the shadow of Aids. Gay sexuality and sexual expression were demonised and stigmatised during the height of the Aids epidemic in America, but Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, fought in part on the gays-in-the-military question, brought gay back out of the closet for the 1990s."
Desperate Housewives represents the return of open, unashamed sexual expression to the closet as George W. Bush is re-elected based on a campaign opposing gay marriage. Its characters are all Sex and the City prototypes - the ingénue, the cynic, the predator and the perfectionist - but each of them has been stymied into submission by the narrow society in which they now live, and their sexual transgressions are sinful rather than soulful.
Ailbhe Smyth, head of Women's Studies in University College Dublin, doesn't see these popular images of women created by gay men as corresponding to real women at all.
"Media-savvy gay men give us a very camped-up view of stereotypes of femininity," she says. "What's really interesting here are the perceptions of straight US TV moguls. They have come to a point in their lack of understanding of women that they've thrown in the towel and said, let gay men have a go at it instead. And if this is what gay men think real women are, then God help us all. They have all the power in US television right now, and US television is dictating how we all look at the world."
Brian Finnegan is the editor of Gay Community News in Dublin