Channel Seven is airing advertisements for the fifth season of Desperate Housewives, which they’re airing starting next month.
This ad just… blows me away. Let’s unpack it, shall we?
A shot of Eva Longoria Parker’s character, Gabrielle (Gaby), walking down the street, fashionably dressed.
Voiceover: You’ll be surprised how much can change in five years.
Gaby opens a door –
– and emerges on the other side, having gained weight, holding a child and holding the hand of another. She is dressed for comfort and her hair has been cut. ‘FIVE YEARS LATER’ appears at the bottom of the screen.
Gaby is now sitting with Edie, presumably in one of their homes. Edie is dressed glamorously.
Edie: What the hell happened to you?
Gaby: [holding a glass of juice] I had two children.
Edie: For what? Breakfast?
The scene changes to a clothing store. Gaby is trying to zip up a child’s pink, frilly costume. The child, Juanita, is wriggling.
Voiceover: Now she’s a mum with a big, fat problem.
A blonde woman, presumably the storeowner, beckons Gaby over to the doorway, away from Juanita.
Blonde Woman: Did you try the costume section? I bet they have a Mrs Shrek dress that would fit her.
Gaby has a politely frozen look on her face.
We see Gaby’s car from the rear.
Voiceover: How will she measure up?
On ‘measure up,’ Juanita is seen to be jogging after the car, be-crowned and with wand in hand.
Carlos (Juanita’s father) voiceover: So that’s your idea of exercise?
Gaby pulls away from the curb and speeds off as Juanita reaches for the door.
Carlos voiceover continues: Have her run after a car?
Gaby has stopped the car. Juanita has stopped in the street.
Juanita: [with a frustrated gesture] Hey!
Another change of scene. There are a lot of little girls in a garden, dressed in pink. It looks like a birthday party. Gaby is moving among them, searching for Juanita, who comes into shot, sitting at a table and eating cake with a golden crown on her head.
Gaby voiceover: Our daughter sucked down half a sheet cake.
Gaby: [seeing her] Juanita!
Change of scene to the family home, where we see Gaby and her husband, Carlos. The voiceovers are presumably from the dialogue coming before the part of the show forming the following section of the ad.
Gaby: And afterwards, no one could find the candles.
Back to the party, and the word ‘FEBRUARY’ is now superimposed on the cake, except Juanita is now eating the ‘R’ along with some of the cake.
Voiceover: This February-
Another scene change. Gaby is now sitting in her car, gawking upwards. We see a bus go past with Juanita in it. ‘NEW BIG SEASON’ is on the bottom of the window in front of her.
Voiceover: -a new big season.
Back in the clothing store.
Gaby: [to the blonde woman, indignantly] My daughter does not have a weight problem!
We hear a prolonged sound of material ripping and Gaby looks quietly mortified. She casts her eyes away.
The screen now features a white picket fence with flowers running through it. The text reads:
NEW BIG SEASON
And the 7 logo is in the bottom right-hand corner.
Voiceover: Desperate Housewives. This February on Seven.
So much hatred for 40 seconds.
I’ve been coming back to this post for a few days because I was concerned that I didn’t have sufficient information about fatphobia to properly critique it. So I went and did some research, particularly concerning the experiences of fat women of colour. I’m afraid I didn’t find anything explicitly about Latina experiences in this regard, so I apologise in advance if I’m missing anything in this advertisement with such coding. See the end of the post for more on my research. It’s probably also worth noting that there are relatively few Latina/o people in Australia compared with the US, which doubtless would inform a more, um, informed racial analysis. Also, I have only ever watched a little of this show at a time, so I’m not in a position to be critiquing the show as a whole.
And, aside from fatphobia, I hardly know where to start. The misogyny? The racial implications? What this ad says about parenthood and the value of children? How is it that Channel 7 dared to air it and why did the makers of Desperate Housewives let this rubbish get into the production stage?
It’s as though something like this was going through the makers’ minds: ‘Let’s laugh at fat people, ‘cause they’re so fat! Let’s employ every stereotype we can think of! They eat lots – even candles! And they can’t run fast and they tear clothes ‘cause they’re just so FAT! It’s just so funny about those fat people and how everything they do is about their fatness because there are no other parts of their identities or lives! Faaaaaaaat fat fat faaaaaaaaaaaaaat. Fat.’
But you were looking for analysis.
The treatment of Juanita in this ad on account of her fatness is outrageous. While any other child would have been able to choose whichever costume she pleased, not so for Juanita. The store doesn’t provide much in the way for girls of her clothing size, except the Mrs Shrek (um, I think you mean Princess Fiona?) costume. It’s not just that the store is unaccommodating, leading to the embarrassment of Gaby. That’s bad enough in itself, both in that many a little girl would be upset because of such a store and because it’s not Juanita’s apparently meaningless reaction to not finding a dress that fits, but Gaby’s. It’s also that Gaby’s reaction is embarrassment. Juanita’s fatness is presented as shameful, not the storekeeper’s lack of larger sizes or her bigoted advice. And of course it’s just so embarrassing that Gaby has to deny her daughter’s fatness – which she presents as a ‘weight problem’. Fatness in itself is not a problem; associated health issues can be, but we’re not shown those if they exist.
But of course fatness is something to be solved, according to this ad. Not fitting in the dress is bad. Eating cake is bad. Not being able to catch up to the car is bad and means you need more exercise! And just for emphasis, Channel Seven have added in fat-coded voiceovers and text. Juanita is a ‘big fat problem’. There is text reading ‘BIG NEW SEASON’ in big letters for emphasis – twice. One of those times is right at the end of the ad, just so you’ll remember for sure. Importantly, Juanita is voiceless in all this, something that I’ll address in more detail later on.
Gaby is presented as a struggling, failing parent because her child is fat and this failure is associated with her own change in looks. She’s dressed in casual clothes with less make-up and her hair cut now that she has kids. She’s frazzled. Looking after “the fat kid” took it out of her. The idea of Gaby’s looks having changed because she had kids and that she’s the worse off for it is implicit in the before and after. After all, women should be glamorous, right? While it’s an ad and we can’t expect a character run-down, it’s telling that only Gaby’s looks and motherhood are the things we know about her. That’s how we relate to her. Note that her other child, who is slimmer, is not at all a matter of concern. Fatness is the root of all Gaby’s problems. (More on motherhood later.)
All of this is tied in with the appearance of Edie, who I’m told is the sexy man-stealing one. That’s a whole post by itself and I’ll leave it out of here. In any case, Edie is dressed fashionably in a leopard print outfit and make-up. She doesn’t have children. Essentially, she is presented as the beautiful woman Gaby once was, the ideal that she’s lost forever. ‘Cause that’s what having a fat kid who stresses you out and giving up your fashionable image does. I’m not sure if or how the orange juice relates to this, but that Gaby has one and Edie doesn’t raises a question mark for me because food is seen as bad and fat-inducing in this ad. Edie criticises Gaby’s looks, and the ‘breakfast’ comment is apparently a comment on Gaby’s size. Actually, there are so many ways to read that comment, but they’d require more of an insight into the show’s background, so I can’t help you there. A quick look at Wikipedia tells me that she used to be a model and she’s unhappy with her new body, so this is almost certainly a fatphobic comment.
Notably, fatness means that Juanita is presented as being far from ideal girlhood. And because it’s all “look at the fat girl!” in this ad, she isn’t given an opportunity to express all the different pieces that make up her personality. She’s not given much voice at all. There’s no means allowed for her to move beyond “fatness is bad” and establish her own character – and none that will allow her to move into self-defined womanhood. She’ll never be one of the pretty, dominant ones like Edie or her mother of five years hence. And little girls are indoctrinated in the need to conform to femininity early. Only a costume is good for her, because she can only dress up as another rather than wear the clothes she wants for herself. Even though she finds a fairy costume eventually, it’s like a cruel joke of the show’s makers. Fairies are beautiful, powerful beings and Juanita is time and again presented as anything but. Girls and women are only successful and self-defined if they fit into the dominant paradigm of beauty.
This is also very interesting with regard to fatphobia in terms of how the valuing of women according to their looks is complicated by race. A little 101. White-dominant culture tells women of colour that their hair or their skin or their eye shape or any other feature constitutes something wrong with them and that they should aspire to a white model of female beauty. Women of colour are subject to even more bizarre beauty standards because of this. The ideal white woman is slim, with a defined waist and small, curvy hips and large breasts. White girlhood, in aspiring to this figure, must also be slim all around. Often, women of colour belong to ethnicities in which a large bottom, for example, is common. As such, in presenting this idea of perfect white womanhood and expecting girls and women of colour to fit its specifications is playing into both misogyny and racism. Again, I apologise, I do not know how this specifically plays into Latina experiences and Latina experiences within the US. Perhaps my research skills aren’t as good as I thought; if someone could shed any light, I would be grateful. But it’s pretty obvious that white womanhood is being held up here and big fat Juanita is failing miserably to meet its requirements.
Both the shopkeeper and Edie are slim, white and blonde. These models of white womanhood are the critics of the fat Latina girl and her mother. Even though Edie is ostensibly a friend – Gaby and Edie are both regular characters on the show and they’re sitting down talking – it’s still apparently appropriate to place her as a better, more beautiful, more successful human being. Can we say racist? It’s only Carlos who objects to the treatment of his daughter. Wikipedia tells me that he’s blind at this stage of the series, which should tell you something.
I am also concerned with the treatment of motherhood and children. This ad seems to say that motherhood will take away the value of a woman: her looks. Motherhood will leave one frazzled and irritated and it’ll suck the life out of you! Mothers are incapable of being ideal people, this ad says. If this is an attempt to move beyond the vision of women as exclusively mothers, it is very warped. Worse yet, the child in this ad is presented as the reason for this, the cause of the bad things in her mother’s life. This presentation of the child-parent relationship is very hurtful. There’s a great deal of contempt for Juanita, from her mother’s exasperation to the shopkeeper’s casual dismissal. She didn’t do anything wrong. She was born and she is fat. Nothing wrong there, yet implicitly she’s to blame for her mother’s failures or sinking or however she sees herself or is conveyed.
In the ad, Gaby is a bad parent, not Juanita a bad daughter. I’ve mentioned Gaby’s misplaced defence of her daughter in the clothing store. Making Juanita run after the car is cruel and humiliating. In her complaints to her husband, for example, Gaby perpetuates a sour dynamic in her relationship with her daughter. Juanita is not to be loved but to be dealt with.
But in all of this, Juanita has no voice. The ad is from Gaby’s perspective and she’s seen in Gaby’s terms. While there are many shots of her, we don’t get to understand her perspective, her thought processes or her feelings. She only says one word. Notably, it’s one of protest. This functions in a similar way to the male gaze in that Juanita is the other who exists to be commented on and looked at and denigrated. She exists only as a big fat problem, not a person.
What must it be like for the little girl in that role?
This is poor both in terms of the show’s content and Channel Seven’s use of the content in the form of an ad. The makers of Desperate Housewives see fit to poke fun at a child and her mother and, by proxy, children, mothers, Latinas and other women of colour, fat people and female people. And that’s pretty disgusting. It’s so much worse because on top of that, Channel Seven pulled together all these nasty elements, wrapping them up in a 40 second advertisement that encourages laughter at the expense of marginalised groups. This has taken me a long time to write and, looking back, I find it hard to believe there was that much to say. I feel as though I must have embellished somewhere, but I didn’t.
Channel Seven and the makers of Desperate Housewives are willingly profiting from oppression. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Here are some links of interest I read or reread during my research for this post. There are some good primers on fatphobia and race in there.
fillyjonk’s An anthropologist on Mars at Shapely Prose
Julia’s Fatness and Uplift: Not a Post about Push Up Bras at Fatshionista!
Tara Shuai’s A Different Kind of Fat Rant: People of Color and the Fat Acceptance Movement at Fatshionista!
fillyjonk’s response to the above post: Giving a shit at Shapely Prose
Renee’s Which Race Has The Most Beautiful Women? at Womanist Musings
Renee’s Black Women Can Be Beautiful Too at Womanist Musings
Professor what if’s What if Desperate Housewives was flashing forward not only in years, but also in its representation of race, class, gender, and sexuality? (A review) at Professor, What If…?