Desperate Mormon Housewives

By: Nate
February 12, 2014

Evolving Stereotypes of Stay at Home Moms (updated with new poll below!)

Claudia Bushman observed: “In the 1950s, the (LDS Stay at Home Mom) exemplified the ideal American Woman.”   This changed in the 60s through the 80s, when the ideal woman became the career woman.  In this period SAHMs were often demeaned for failing to live up to their potential as women, perpetuating backward stereotypes, and selfishly having more children who would gobble up the earth’s resources.  This was moderated somewhat in the 90s and early 2000s, as fears of about a “population bomb” began to ease, and more balanced attitudes towards woman’s roles began to be emerge.  Prominent educated career women started abandoning the workplace for the home, with more and more working mothers admittedly feeling envious of the SAHM lifestyle.

Yet, SAHMs are still somewhat marginalized in today’s culture and media.  The ideal woman of today is still a career woman, who expertly balances work and home.  But popular media has found a tantalizing new platform for today’s SAHM.  A new stereotype has recently emerged: the bored, desperate, highly sexualized housewife, exemplified in media such as Desperate Housewives, The Real Housewives of Orange County, Atlanta, New Jersey, etc..  Additionally, a number of popular terms have been coined in the last two decades to describe the stereotype: hot mamma, MILF, cougar, tiger mom.   While an average SAHM might not always be well respected in the broader culture, if she is “hot,” she now has our undivided attention!

A New Subversive Stereotype: The Highly Sexualized SAHM

In an economic era when many married women can’t afford the luxury of a single income, today’s new stereotype epitomizes our modern wealth aspirations, as the women do on Desperate Housewives.  To a certain extent, it is the resurgence of the mid-20th century “ladies who lunch,” wherein a woman’s worth was measured primarily by the wealth and status of her husband, and her own ability to socialize in the leisure class.  But today’s SAHM stereotype is not a lady of leisure.  Rather, she epitomizes ideals of hard work and meritocracy which she flaunts with her perfect figure, “I work HARD for this body!”  “Wow, she had three kids and she looks like that!?”  The modern world fetishizes athleticism.  “Hot mom” is today’s ideal athlete, bouncing back to her perfect figure after her pregnancy in record time.   She also shows off her wealth with her beauty: the financial ability she has to get expensive cosmetic procedures, Botox treatments, and tummy tucks, and the ability to buy designer clothes which highlight her best features, and hide her least.  “Tiger mom” also shows off her dedication to hard work and education by tirelessly raising overachieving children who are shuttled between an endless string of music lessons and sports activities.  Today, children are a fashionable accessory for the sexy SAHM, and they often reflect the mother’s own idealization of her own fading youth.

Sexual expectations for women have also changed, and SAHMs now have a number of advantages over other women.  Popular culture’s sexual ideal has increasingly become less a budding virgin, and more a mature, sexually experienced woman.  SAHMs have the experience, and the sexual desperation and boredom that comes from years of monogamy.  Motherhood and pregnancy have also been eroticized in popular culture.  Having a baby is no longer seen as inconvenient, or an irresponsible consequence of sexual activity, but a demonstration of physical prowess and total womanhood.  A mother is no longer a woman who has lost the flower of her youth, but rather a woman who has proved her sexual worth and ability.  She was desirable enough to bag a successful man, and now she is even more desirable because she stays thin and beautiful even after having kids!

Are Mormons Embracing the New Stereotype?

Of course most LDS women reject this offensive new stereotype.  I know many SAHMs who couldn’t be happier with the choice they’ve made, and the validation they feel at home and church is more than enough without seeking for the validation of the world or embracing the media’s sexual objectification of women.  Nevertheless, I think many Mormon women feel ignored and under-appreciated for the sacrifice they are making as SAHMs.   In most cases, it is not a financial luxury to be a SAHM like it is for the cougars on Desperate Housewives, but an unselfish sacrifice they make for their children and their religion.  Even if their husband has only a modest income, many still choose not to work, and do not hesitate to have even more children, even if this further limits their financial opportunities and compounds stresses.  For such a noble sacrifice, Mormon SAHMs certainly deserve respect from society, as they had back in the 1950s. Instead, unless they are also “hot,” they are all but ignored by the broader culture.  Daily, they run the gauntlet of their ungrateful, gadget addicted children and husbands, and hear weekly cheerleading on the Proclamation on the Family, which desperately tries to validate these women.  Is it enough?  For many it is.  But for some it isn’t.

So it should come as no surprise that some LDS women have been embracing aspects of this new, subversive stereotype which holds such appeal in the broader culture.  Forbes Magazine voted SLC “most vain” city in America in 2007.  Today, we still have the highest number of plastic surgeons per capita outside of Beverly Hills.  Utah also ranks higher than average on per-capita porn consumption.  Commonly assumed to be only a man’s problem, Mormon Heretic’s recent post noted that LDS women can also suffer from porn addiction.  Or perhaps some women may be trying to compete for the attention of their porn addicted spouses by embracing the new stereotype.

I came home to Provo over the holidays and was surprised to see 50 Shades of Grey tucked into the bookshelf, beside the Collected Writings of Hugh Nibley. The book belonged to my sister-in-law who said all her married girlfriends in West Jordan were reading it.  Are her girlfriends active Mormons?  “Sure,” she said.  Will you be going to see the movie?  “Of course!”  Then I went online and found that there is an LDS book club studying 50 Shades of Grey.  I even met a stake president in Utah, who, in-between recounting faith promoting anecdotes from General Authorities, mentioned in passing that Desperate Housewives was his favorite TV show, and he hasn’t missed an episode!

The Promises and Perils of the New Stereotype

Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to be beautiful or looking young and healthy.  Youth and beauty have obvious social advantages in society.  People who have plastic surgery experience a surge of confidence and well being.  This plastic surgeon defended the choice many Utah women make to get “restorative” surgery (tummy tucks, liposuction, breast lift), because LDS women have children younger than most, and pregnancy takes a heavy toll on the body, thus putting LDS women at a disadvantage compared with most women of their age group.

A little vanity can also be a good thing.  Vanity is a powerful drug, and there are not many acceptable drugs available for Utahans.  Living in the “most stressed” state is tough, and Utahans have no coffee, alcohol or cigarettes to help them get through the day or take the edge off.  Cosmetics and mommy makeovers could be healthier substitutes for those drugs.  But like all drugs, vanity can easily become all-consuming and addictive, distracting us from things of deeper value.  It can also distract our children from those things we know to be of greatest importance to them.  Elder Holland warned:

In terms of preoccupation with self and a fixation on the physical, this is more than social insanity; it is spiritually destructive, and it accounts for much of the unhappiness women, including young women, face in the modern world. And if adults are preoccupied with appearance—tucking and nipping and implanting and remodeling everything that can be remodeled—those pressures and anxieties will certainly seep through to children…If you are obsessing over being a size 2, you won’t be very surprised when your daughter or the Mia Maid in your class does the same and makes herself physically ill trying to accomplish it.

Perhaps most problematic of all, is the message our own obsession with appearance might be sending to others.  If we cannot find satisfaction in the life God has given us, without resorting to extraordinary measures to alter that life, what does that say to people who have been given so much less?  Life is already so unfair, yet we keep ever expanding the gap between the haves and the have nots.  Now it is not just money and posessions that seperate us, but beauty and youth can also be purchased or extended for those who can afford to buy it.  As Jesus said, “To him that hath shall be given, and to him that hath not shall be taken away even that he hath.”

I’m reminded of a scene from Howl’s Moving Castle when the vain Howl mourns over the loss of his beautiful blond hair.  He weeps openly about it in front of Sophie, his homely housekeeper, “I see no point in living if I can’t be beautiful!”  This hurts Sofie, who angrily cries out: “Fine, so you think you’ve got it bad!  I’ve never been beautiful in my entire life!”