Ideologies of Desperation: Notes on ‘Desperate Housewives’

I’m rewatching Desperate Housewives at the moment.

It was a show that I used to love when it was on the TV, without irony — at least up until the fifth season. I didn’t see any of the episodes after that…

At its best, the show felt like a successor to Twin Peaks in its exacerbation of soap opera tropes and its satirically surreal depiction of suburban “mundanity” (constantly ruptured by murder, adultery and natural disasters), and Kyle MacLachlan’s eventual appearance on the show only made this influence more apparent.

Twin Peaks was the first show that my girlfriend and I binge-watched together — yes, that is a memorable factoid about our lives together and it is a sign of the times — and so I knew she’d like this as well. We’re currently up to season two and she’s obsessed.

I told Robin about this the other day and he mentioned that Mark was also a fan. Lo and behold, there’s an awesome K-Punk post where the most pathologically anal resident of Wisteria Lane, Bree van de Kamp, gets a mention — albeit only in passing.

The Family, Valued

In the post “Family Values“, Mark indirectly reframes the TV show as a series of fables about the paradoxes of ideology, writing first:

In contemporary Britain, the ‘working mother’ is the figure around which many bio-political configurations are organized. The ‘working mother’ gives a new spin to the old Hegelian formula, according to which ‘woman is the eternal irony of the community’. The idea was that women’s labour (in every sense) was essential to the reproduction of the polis, but that women remained outside the community proper, double agents, never fully assimilable into civil society.

This is certainly true of Desperate Housewives, with the women at the heart of the show giving structure to, as well as repeatedly threatening to destroy, their suburban way of life. Indeed, the majority of the show’s gags revolve around this ‘double agent’ scenario, through which the women give shape to their community through the upkeep of their outward images which they can barely keep together for five minutes. The show’s tragicomic fixation is the women’s desperation to adhere to a model home Stepford Wife image whilst revealing themselves — to each other’s constant shock and discomfort — to be all too human. 

Mark’s overarching point, in line with this, is that “‘family values’, once a matter of stated political doctrine, have now receded from the realm of political contestation to become naturalized.” This is to say that the idealised politics of the Family have, in many ways, been domesticated in themselves. Political football has become domesticated ideology. No longer is this a matter to be fought over on the ballot paper but, rather, it is a biopolitical given. “The personal is political” is no longer a slogan for feminist consciousness raising but rather an insidious imposition enforced from within, calcifying rather than liberating us from the Oedipal dynamics of a virulently familial voluntarism.

Mark continues:

… attaining ‘good’ human status involves us FIRST OF ALL being committed to our families. But this naturalizing and prioritising of familial obligations, far from being a self-evident ethical Good, in fact means the end of the ethical as such. Ethics and Justice were founded upon the suspension of immediate tribal and animal interests. As Alenka Zupancic has tirelessly insisted, Kant’s ethical system, for instance, maintains that the only Ethical acts are those which are undertaken with indifference to one’s own (‘pathological’) interests. … Obedience to the Moral Law (the empty form of Duty) — particularly in the context of the contemporary bio-political regime — far from producing dumb social compliance, makes people into anti-social ‘inhuman’ ‘monsters’.

In Desperate Housewives … Bree van de Kamp faces the same ‘temptation of the Ethical’ in that she has to choose between Justice and loyalty to her son (should she protect him from punishment for his drunk-driving knocking down of Gabrielle’s mother-in-law?) To NOT protect him, she is told, would indeed make her a ‘monster’.

But things are not so simple as this. The becoming-ideology of Family Values is precisely a win for indifference. The issue is that the suspension of immediate tribal and animal interests occurs through a superficial positioning we might now refer to, all too cynically, as “virtue signalling”.

What is important, however, is that this suspension and the performing of its opposite are entirely unconscious procedures. Bree van de Kamp is the perfect example. It does not seem to be a question of “family values” for her at all. Superficially and performatively, perhaps, but her ultimate drive is far more selfish than she is inclined to let on — even to herself.

In Bree’s case, it should be noted that it is her son who calls her a monster for threatening to do what is “just”. He fills her with doubt about familial loyalty only to save his own skin. But even so, it later becomes clear that Bree doesn’t really care about this divide between justice and loyalty for any meaningful moral reason. For Bree, the ultimate goal is always to keep up appearances and it is precisely the further mistakes that her family members make which makes this crystal clear to us.

Bree’s son is also only the second horse of her personal apocalypse. He is soon revealed to be both a homosexual and a sociopath — the former is, notably, perceived as being far more dangerous to her conservative sensibilities — and so he is (repeatedly) sent away to military school as he continues to grow into a sort of We Need To Talk About Kevin exacerbated reflection of all of her own neuroses, passed on and allowed to evolve over the course of her son’s resentful psychological development.

Additionally, her husband Rex is unfaithful and then dies from complications following a heart attack he suffered whilst seeing a dominatrix. Bree was too prudish to satisfy him sexually but this is not a humiliation for her in and of itself. The neighbourhood learning of his adulterous betrayal and death affect her social standing the most. These are his two main crimes — his failures to keep a secret and stay alive. 

On top of this, her daughter is sexually active outside of wedlock and she is far more open about her sexual appetite than anyone else in the family (all of whom are, in some way, closeted). Her mother-in-law then turns up later as a self-absorbed, over-emotional narcissist who comes to stay after Rex has died and makes everything about her, wielding her social power through emotional openness rather than repression — which Bree finds incredibly rude.

Later, her boyfriend George is revealed to the viewer to be as murderous and horny a sociopath as Bree’s son is, but his strength is that he is very good at hiding it under an anal retentiveness that rivals even Bree’s own. They eventually become engaged — again, because Bree doesn’t want to appear rude — but, when George becomes frighteningly possessive and unable to keep his cool in public, she breaks it off. In fact, she drives him to an outburst, knowing that only the very public collapse of his well-to-do exterior will give her a satisfactory reason for breaking off the engagement.

In every circumstance, despite the private acts which presage the public outbursts being morally reprehensible in and of themselves, Bree is willing to forgive all so long as any misdemeanour is handled with discretion. Once the upkeep of this discretion breaks down, she is more than happy to throw even her own family under the bus if they embarrass her publicly. Justice and loyalty are, therefore, irrelevant concepts for Bree van de Kamp. They are simply the window dressing for an outwardly facing conservative ideology — the ethics of illusionary traditions and expectation being a natural fit (literally — in that they are worn like a designer garment) for her self-imposed fascistic existence.

To reveal the true politics that run underneath Bree’s personal life is, for her, the ultimate insult. It is to undress her in public and reveal the shame of her imperfections, whether that be her own actions or the guilt of her associations. All of these characters — Rex, George, Andrew, et al. — are guilty of this offence and are sacrificed accordingly, with Bree refusing to allow them to rupture the imaginary wholes that constitute Bree’s militantly constructed reality.

Bree has no family values — she is an island. No one can get in the way of her individualised self even though they may largely constitute those external structures which she holds so dear on principle. For Bree all that matters is the preservation of her own interiority — which is itself an illusion of her interiority.

Do You Believe In The Subconscious?

In the episode my girlfriend and I watched the other evening, something really interesting happened, which revealed just how deeply these ideological repressions go.

In the sixth episode of season two, perhaps the best episode of the show so far — “I Wish I Could Forget You” — Bree finally decides to consummate her relationship with George — at George’s (at first) subtle insistence, just a few weeks following her husband’s death, who died at George’s hand, of course, unbeknownst to Bree.

Unfortunately for George, Bree is still very much hung up on her husband’s memory — or perhaps, to be more exact, the memory of her once-perfect nuclear family of which her husband was a central part — and this is as much a surprise to her as it is to George.

In season one, following her husband’s infidelity, Bree began to date George because she wanted to hurt her husband as much as he had hurt her. However, despite this, Bree was never been able to be physically unfaithful. Bree was happy to make her husband jealous in private, but public infidelity was out of the question. She couldn’t seek revenge at the expense of her own image.

Following Rex’s death at the end of season one, the police become suspicious that his demise may not have been entirely “natural”, believing he may have been some foul play. (And there was — jealous of Rex, local pharmacist George had been supplying him with the wrong medication whilst he is recovering from his heart attack so he could have Bree all to himself.)

Informed of the police’s suspicions, Bree suggests she take a lie detector test as a quick way of absolving herself. However, things don’t go according to plan. The police believe that it was George who probably poisoned Rex but Bree encouraged him to do it. She tells the truth that she did not kill her husband but, when asked if she has feelings for George Williams, she is apparently not so honest.

She answers “no” but this raises a big red flag. The detectives feel vindicated in their hunch at a motive but Bree is caught completely off guard. She feels that she has been alerted to feeling she didn’t even know she had. (George is later called in to take the lie detector too but he tricks the machine and the detectives into believing he is innocent; his well-concealed sociopathy allowing him to remain totally calm and with a steady heart rate when asked outright if he poisoned Rex van de Kamp.)

This reveal that Bree may not know herself as well as she thinks she does catches up with her in season two when, finally allowing herself to be seduced by George, she immediately breaks out in hives.

It is not immediately apparent to Bree why this has happened to her. She assumes it’s George’s cologne but she soon realises there is, in fact, no material explanation for her sudden outbreak of itchiness.

It is her psychiatrist (and former marriage counsellor), Dr. Goldfine, who illuminates another possibility for her. Their scene together plays out as follows:

Dr. Goldfine: So the hives occurred right after you kissed George.

Bree: Yes. It was the strangest thing… And so inconvenient. To be honest, I think we were about to make love for the first time.

Dr. Goldfine: Bree, have you considered the idea that your subconscious mind was trying to sabotage your evening with George?

Bree: Actually, I have not considered that, because that’s… idiotic! 

Dr. Goldfine: You don’t think that being with George made you feel a bit guilty?

Bree: Why should I feel guilty?

Dr. Goldfine: Perhaps you felt you were about to commit adultery?

Bree: Dr. Goldfine, Rex is dead. You can’t cheat on a corpse. 

Dr. Goldfine: Well, maybe that’s not how you really feel deep down.

Bree: Oh, so you think I’m crazy?

Dr. Goldfine: You say you got a case of hives for no reason. I think there is a reason and it’s probably a psychosomatic one. 

Bree: You can think whatever you want but, to be honest, I don’t believe in the subconscious.

Dr. Goldfine: Every time you’ve said “Rex” in this session, you’ve stroked the place where your wedding ring used to be. Why did you do that?

Bree: ….

The fact that Bree declares she doesn’t even believe in the subconscious is the perfect encapsulation of her ideology in this episode, especially when we see her subconscious pointed out to her immediately afterwards. This reveal obviously seems to offend her — a shot of her disgruntled expression ends this short scene.

Bree’s self-imposed fascistic voluntarism is so intense that it allows her to believe that she has control of absolutely every part of her life, both internally and externally, to the extent that the suggestion she might not be fully in control of her actions and emotions is as inconvenient to her politics as, say, the science of climate change. Despite the expertise of a better informed third party, the suggestion seems to be that Bree is aware of the concept of subconsciousness but it’s probably just a conspiracy concocted by communists to curtail our individual freedoms!

This tells us something very interesting about Bree’s character and the show itself as a whole. 

Unknown Knowns

Bree is the only character within the Desperate Housewives universe, at this stage, to be given a concrete political belief system. It is revealed in an episode introduction during season one that Bree votes Republican. She is a woman who loves her country and the second amendment. (Exercising her right to bear arms is more enjoyable than sex for Bree, it often seems.) And yet, for Bree, this self-declared “ideology”, embodied in her every conscious decision and action, is merely an illusion covering up her true belief system.

Here, we might do well to turn to Slavoj Žižek and his critique of “ideology”. Defining the term in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology, he writes:

The most elementary definition of ideology is probably the well-known phrase from Marx’s Capital‘sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es’ — ‘they do not know it, but they are doing it’. The very concept of ideology implies a kind of basic, constitutive naïveté: the misrecognition of its own presuppositions, of its own effective conditions, a distance, a divergence between so-called social reality and our distorted representation, our false consciousness of it. That is why such a ‘naive consciousness’ can be submitted to a critical-ideological procedure. The aim of this procedure is to lead the naive ideological consciousness to a point at which it can recognize its own effective conditions, the social reality that it is distorting, and through this very act dissolve itself. In the more sophisticated versions of the critics of ideology — that developed by the Frankfurt School, for example — it is not just a question of seeing things (that is, social reality) as they ‘really are’, of throwing away the distorting spectacles of ideology; the main point is to see how the reality itself cannot reproduce itself without this so­ called ideological mystification. The mask is not simply hiding the real state ofthings; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence.

Regular readers of the blog will be familiar with this argument already. It’s a central part of Herbert Marcuse’s Freudian analyses of an affluent society and, likewise, Mark Fisher’s calls for the raising of consciousness. Communism, Mark once argued, could not be voted it — it was dependent on a wholesale shift in the collective consciousness. A “communist realism” to counter “capitalist realism“. It was dependent on an extra-political ideological shift. Whilst this may sound impossible and utopian to us today, it’s not unheard of. What were “punk” or “rave” if not pop-cultural shifts in the collective subconscious? They may not have been widespread enough to affect elections but they changed something in us, at least for a time…

What is key here is that they you can’t just vote in the ideology you want to see in the world. In fact, ideology is precisely that which you don’t see. It is that which you don’t know you’re doing — or, in some cases, it’s that which you know you’re doing but you do anyway. It is that which you do every day without conscious critique. It’s how you’ve learnt act in the world unknown to yourself.

It is, as was previously explored, both the affective residue of our own unconscious and the unconsciousness of capital itself. Ideology, then, is precisely the intersection where “our agency is indistinguishable from capital’s own”.

More than this, to critique an ideology hurts. It is not the act of political smugness that so many take for consciousness raising and social critique today. The arguments levelled at the left by the right that left-wingers just hate themselves — “white men’s self-hatred is just pathetic political masochism”, etc. — so often misses the point that the root of such attempts at incisive action are precisely the critiquing of one’s own ideologies as a subject under the sociopolitical hegemony of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. You are the inevitable embodiment of that which you wish to rid the world of. As such, this form of critique is often reduced to magical voluntarism and political masochism but let’s not pretend like the right isn’t recursively demonstrating its own naivety and lack of self-awareness in its outright ridicule of any such an attempt at self-flagellation under capitalist realism, no matter how productive or impotently superficial that flagellation is.

Žižek, discussing this very point, later writes of this recursive ideological subject as a glitch in the system. The perfect ideological subject is one who is invisible to themselves:

We find, then, the paradox of a being which can reproduce itself only in so far as it is misrecognized and overlooked: the moment we see it ‘as it really is’, this being dissolves itself into nothingness or, more precisely, it changes into another kind of reality. That is why we must avoid the simple metaphors of demasking, of throwing away the veils which are supposed to hide the naked reality. We can see why Lacan, in his seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, distances himself from the liberating gesture of saying finally that ‘the emperor has no clothes’. The point is, as Lacan puts it, that the emperor is naked only beneath his clothes, so if there is an unmasking gesture of psychoanalysis, it is closer to Alphonse Allais’s well-known joke, quoted by Lacan: somebody points at a woman and utters a horrified cry, ‘Look at her, what a shame, under her clothes, she is totally naked’.

But all this is already well known: it is the classic concept of ideology as ‘false consciousness’, misrecognition of the social reality which is part of this reality itself. Our question is: Does this concept of ideology as a naive consciousness still apply to today’s world? Is it still operating today?

Answering this question for himself, Žižek later writes that ideology and ‘false consciousness’ are a false equivalence:

… ideology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’, an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ‘ideological’ — ‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence — that is, the social effectivity, the very repro­duction of which implies that the individuals ‘do not know what they are doing. ‘Ideological’ is not the ‘false consciousness’ of a social being but this being itself in so far as it is supported by ‘false consciousness’. Thus we have finally reached the dimension of the symptom, because one of its possible definitions would also be ‘a formation whose very consistency implies a certain non-knowledge on the part of the subject’: the subject can ‘enjoy his symptom’ only in so far as its logic escapes him — the measure of the success of its interpretation is precisely its dissolution.

The concept of ‘false consciousness’, for Žižek, externalises ideology. In his eventual documentary film adaptation of his most celebrated book, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology — an unfortunate cultural studies reduction of the central thesis — he nonetheless makes this same argument in a much clearer way through his analysis of the film They Live!, noting how the film’s pessimism is encapsulated in the functionality of its mysterious consciousness-razing sunglasses. Žižek says:

According to our common sense, we think that ideology is something blurring, confusing our straight view. Ideology should be glasses which distort our view, and the critique of ideology should be the opposite: you take off the glasses so that you can finally see the way things really are. … The pessimism of the film They Live! is well justified. This precisely is the ultimate illusion. Ideology is not simply imposed on ourselves. Ideology is our spontaneous relationship to our social world and how we perceive its meaning and so on and so on. We, in a way, enjoy our ideology

This subtle reorientation reverses the voluntarism of the “common sense” argument. Simply taking the sunglasses off your face to free yourself gives you all the necessary agency to decode your own ideologies. The fact that you need to put the sunglasses on, however, renders ideology deeply pathological. And so ideology becomes a useful concept for Žižek because it adequately encapsulates the extent to which we are captured by our surrounding; by eerie agentic capital.

Even if you become aware of your ‘false consciousness’, good luck exiting the structure in which you find yourself based on that knowledge alone. 

Phantastical Realism

It’s also worth noting that the concept of ‘false consciousness’ used here by Žižek is typically aimed at the sentiments of a captured proletarian psyche or a petite bourgeousie. This is not Bree van de Kamp. Bree is pure bouj. She is not being restricted from acting out her own true will by the expectations of the upper classes — she is the upper class! She believes that is what she is, doing at all times, emblematic of her individual freedom. She can shoot a gun — she’s her own woman! But still she is a victim of her own subconscious. This intrusive, unconscious phantasy is the only thing capable of permeating the fantasy of her reality.

As Žižek continues later:

When Lacan says that the last support of what we call ‘reality’ is a fantasy, this is definitely not to be understood in the sense of ‘life is just a dream’, ‘what we call reality is just an illusion’, and so forth. We find such a theme in many science-fiction stories: reality as a gener­alized dream or illusion. The story is usually told from the perspective of a hero who gradually makes the horrifying discovery that all the people around him are not really human beings but some kind of automatons, robots, who only look and act like real human beings; the final point of these stories is of course the hero’s discovery that he himself is also such an automaton and not a real human being. Such a generalized illusion is impossible: we find the same paradox in a well-known drawing by Escher of two hands drawing each other.

The Lacanian thesis is, on the contrary, that there is always a hard kernel, a leftover which persists and cannot be reduced to a universal play of illusory mirroring. The difference between Lacan and ‘naive realism’ is that for Lacan, the only point at which we approach this hard kernel of the Real is indeed the dream. When we awaken into reality after a dream, we usually say to ourselves ‘it was just a dream’, thereby blinding ourselves to the fact that in our everyday, wakening reality we are nothing but a consciousness of this dream. It was only in the dream that we approached the fantasy­ framework which determines our activity, our mode of acting in reality itself.

It is the same with the ideological dream, with the determination of ideology as a dreamlike construction hindering us from seeing the real state of things, reality as such. In vain do we try to break out of the ideo­logical dream by ‘opening our eyes and trying to see reality as it is’, by throwing away the ideological spectacles: as the subjects of such a post­-ideological, objective, sober look, free of so-called ideological prejudices, as the subjects of a look which views the facts as they are, we remain throughout ‘the consciousness of our ideological dream’. The only way to break the power of our ideological dream is to confront the Real of our desire which announces itself in this dream.

Bree encapsulates this absolutely. She is wholly incapable of confronting the Real of her desires. She doesn’t even know what her desires are. She has chosen to believe in political desires so intensely that she has forgotten who she really is. (This is likewise Rex’s complaint during their initial marriage counselling sessions: she wasn’t always like this — to which Bree responds with an apparent amnesia.)

The threat of the Real is obvious, and it is a threat experienced by all the residents of Wisteria Lane. Their apparent commitment to their families is precisely their ideological desire which they routinely fail to fulfil to their own satisfaction. The Real of their desire that they daren’t confront is the rampant individualism through which they put themselves before everyone they profess to love and care about.

But this is not to gender the Real in any sense. It is simply around the matriarchal family structures that the borromean knot of the Real in Desperate Housewives reveals itself. What is left to roam outside of these events, wholly uncommented upon but nonetheless present, is very telling.

Domesticated Market Stalinism

Lynette Scavo is, in many ways, Bree’s complementary opposite. She’s a former powerhouse business woman who gave it all up to be a housewife after she became pregnant with twins (having another son and then a daughter in quick succession afterwards). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lynette is resentful of her new domestic existence, constantly battered and buffeted by the wills of her children rather than being out there in the office smashing deals and ruling the roost. That world was easy for Lynette. The world of motherhood is not.

In season one, Lynette has a nervous breakdown. Intimidated by her neighbours — Bree especially — she ends up addicted to Adderall, initially acquired to treat her twin’s apparent ADHD. However, following one frank conversation with a particularly impressive mother, she discovers Adderrall to be the secret ingredient behind many a supermom’s domestic productivity. It quickly becomes a problem for her.

In admitting to her failure and addiction, confronting the Real of her desire to be a good mother and the transgressive lengths she’ll go to to fulfil that desire, Lynette makes the other women confess to their own realities also, resulting in one of the season’s most affecting scenes:

Once she recovers from this low point, Lynette decides to make some changes, becoming more vocal in expressing to her husband Tom that she needs more support around the house. However, when Tom is offered a promotion and selfishly decides to take it, she purposefully sabotages his chances. When he eventually finds out what she has done, he gives her something of an ultimatum and demands they swap gender rolls so that he becomes a stay-at-home Dad and she goes back to work, because her resentment is starting to threaten their marriage.

Unfortunately for Lynette, she finds herself working for woman who is “childless by choice” and deeply resents working mothers being given any sort of special treatment in the workplace to accommodate for their duties at home. It’s the one recurring scenario in the series which I find cuts close to the bone. The liberties that Lynette’s boss takes are almost too much sometimes; too evil, and Lynette’s willingness to roll over and do as she’s told is difficult to watch, having been introduced in the first season as one of the most wilful and independent of the female protagonists — more so even than Bree, who is less wilful and more the prisoner of her own expectations.

This frankly torturous inability to find a work/life balance becomes her character’s central subplot in this second season and, in this very same episode in which Bree discovers her own subconscious, Lynette’s dilemma is poignantly expressed entirely through commodities — encapsulating the other side of the affects of eerie agentic capital.

Told to lead a marketing pitch at work, her co-workers ridicule Lynette’s old, worn and often food-stained business suits, imploring her to find something new to wear for an upcoming corporate pitch. Their ridicule hits home, to such an extent that Lynette decides to treat herself. Her husband is appalled when he later finds her at home with $3000 worth of suits laid out on the bed. He gets her to return them all, pointing out how the money would be better spent on their children’s futures. She sees reason and returns them — bar one $900 suit which she wears for her board meeting, all the while keeping the tags on it so that she might return it later. (Unfortunately, she’s discovered. Her boss rips off the tags, humiliating her in front of the clients.)

We can return to Žižek here again. What Lynette demonstrates, imposed upon her by her colleagues, is an extreme form of commodity fetishism, which Žižek — via Marx — describes as a key vehicle for the spread of capitalist ideologies.

Lynette believes that this fancy new suit will make her better at her job. It will make her a better person. She will command a room better. It will make her more attractive and likeable to her colleagues and clients. This is far more important to her than the suit in and of itself, and so the “meaning” of the suit legitimises the $900 expense for a pitch that is probably worth far less to her in terms of her actual wages. This is because the value of the suit as a commodity is somewhat secondary to the role it plays in her social relations. As Marx famously writes in the first chapter of Capital:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.

Žižek, in turn, writes, clarifying the role of the fetishised commodity in capitalist social relations:

In feudalism … relations between people are mystified, mediated through a web of ideological beliefs and superstitions. … In capitalism the subjects are emancipated, perceiving themselves as free from medieval religious superstitions, when they deal with one another they do so as rational utilitarians, guided only by their selfish interests. The point of Marx’s analysis, however, is that the things (commodities) themselves believe in their place, instead of the subjects: it is as if all their beliefs, super­stitions and metaphysical mystifications, supposedly surmounted by the rational, utilitarian personality, are embodied in the ‘social relations between things’. They no longer believe, but the things themselves believe for them.

For Bree, her beliefs and superstitions are abjectly internalised and made pathological, her striving for perfection totalising her character (whereas Lynette’s purchase is an extension of her social desires), Bree effectively objectifies herself into a walking-talking “commodity” whose motherly labours allow her to accumulate social capital on Wisteria Lane.

Lynette’s commodity fetishism, however, remains somewhat removed from herself. By keeping the tags on she undermines her social capital accumulation as if revealing to her peers that she hasn’t fully given herself over to the commodity and what it represents. And therein is the key. 

What is most interesting and most telling about this scene, however, is not the suit in itself but the product that Lynette has been tasked to sell. 

In a sort of ultimate and obscene irony, what is being sold to her clients through the signified value of her suit is a collection of fetishised and exoticised images of communism.

These placards aren’t actually acknowledged in the scene itself — at all — but, as we can very clearly see, Lynette is pitching a product called Kamarov Vodka, advertised with images of Stalin himself no less. Their campaign promises to introduce “a new world leader” into the vodka market, complete with hammer and sickle and the encircled-A of anarchism…?

The meaning of the signs themselves seems to be totally irrelevant, throwing red herrings into midst. For the longest time I tried to unpick the significance of this product in the broader context of the episode but I just couldn’t’ make sense of it and yet, when we consider the episode as a whole, we might see things gradually slot into place.

I think what we have here, represented so succinctly in a single scene, is the entire ideological lesson of Desperate Housewives, encapsulating one of Mark’s greatest concepts from his book Capitalist Realism: “Market Stalinism”:

The idealized market was supposed to deliver ‘friction free’ exchanges, in which the desires of consumers would be met directly, without the need for intervention or mediation by regulatory agencies. Yet the drive to assess the performance of workers and to measure forms of labor which, by their nature, are resistant to quantification, has inevitably required additional layers of management and bureaucracy. What we have is not a direct comparison of workers’ performance or output, but a comparison between the audited representation of that performance and output. Inevitably, a short-circuiting occurs, and work becomes geared towards the generation and massaging of representations rather than to the official goals of the work itself. … This reversal of priorities is one of the hallmarks of a system which can be characterized without hyperbole as ‘market Stalinism’. What late capitalism repeats from Stalinism is just this valuing of symbols of achievement over actual achievement.


It would be a mistake to regard this market Stalinism as some deviation from the ‘true spirit’ of capitalism. On the contrary, it would be better to say that an essential dimension of Stalinism was inhibited by its association with a social project like socialism and can only emerge in a late capitalist culture in which images acquire an autonomous force. The way value is generated on the stock exchange depends of course less on what a company ‘really does’, and more on perceptions of, and beliefs about, its (future) performance. In capitalism, that is to say, all that is solid melts into PR, and late capitalism is defined at least as much by this ubiquitous tendency towards PR-production as it is by the imposition of market mechanisms.

We have not simply seen the sublimation of “Family Values” into ideology. It is rather that “Market Stalinism” has replaced family values as such. The family, expected to function like a micropolitical corporate entity, encapsulates a form of PR-production at the most intimate and private levels of society. Social media too — as we’ve recently explored — has only served to atomise this process further, down to the level of the individual, wherein your online faciality (in particular) is indistinguishable from a shop front.

The final shot of Lynette’s boardroom pitch couldn’t be less subtle on this point.


  1. This was a thrill to read, I’ll be seeing Bree more intently. I second the previous reply; it would be great to read what you’d have to say about Susan, Edie, Karen and Gabrielle. Or Paul Young and Martha, they are very intricate characters too.

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