Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Television Desperation

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Now that it's summer, the kids are home, the windows are wide open, and the whole neighborhood knows what I'm ranting about: "Turn off the TV!"

When not playing baseball, 14-year-old Malachi is happiest going from video game to computer to TV. I can't stand that glaze he gets in his eyes when he's hypnotized before an electromagnetic screen, so I chase him around the house, shooing him off one screen, only to find him on another five minutes later.

"God, Mom, why are you such a b-chhhhh . . . ?" He just barely exercises enough self-control to avoid cussing me out. That's QUEEN Bitch to you, sonny. I'm a mom, not a friend, and I've grown a thick skin.

Katja, almost 17, usually prefers to bury herself in some young-adult novel but will turn the TV on in the evening if she's home. And my husband, Ed -- forget it, he's been hooked since childhood. Our agreement used to be that he'd only watch once the kids are in bed, but now the kids stay up later than us. Despite an intense full-time-plus job, he still finds 10-20 hours each week to devote to TV. Whatever . . . it's my reading time.

Recent controversies came to a head this spring, when my kids started watching "Desperate Housewives." I admit, I've only been able to stomach one episode and a few snippets here and there. I make an attempt to be informed and to monitor their viewing, but one glance at the clothing, make-up, and hair, and I'm desperately annoyed.

I've presented my case to my family. "It offends me. These women are sex objects. I don't want to support this." Blah, blah, blah. Their responses to my rants range from, "Oh, Mom, you think everything is sexist" to "So, what?" Malachi likes to taunt me, "Why are you so critical? Are you jealous?" And the most insulting response of all: "Lighten up!"

Sorry, all, I'm not going to lighten up -- I'm just getting ready to bear down!

My summer reading is the classic The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, and it's not a book I'd recommend to anyone who just wants to spend the summer looking cute in a bikini. It's been on my bookshelf and untouched for years, and I'm finally ready for it. We're still the Other, the object, the second sex, as the brilliant Beauvoir puts it, and equality continues to elude us. How is it that women have become such public sexual objects? Is it the pervasive media, or the inescapable materialism of the consumer culture we live in?

I know it's always been the case, but it seems more extreme now than I can recall. Driving down a busy street one afternoon, I caught a glimpse of a woman in a microskirt and a snug shirt with a deep V-neck. I was preoccupied, rushing to my meeting, and my first thought was, "Strange to see streetwalkers at this hour." Then I stopped myself, realizing she was dressed just like everyone else.

Beauvoir comments on this phenomenon: "A man's clothes, like his body, should indicate his transcendence and not attract attention; for him neither elegance nor good looks call for his setting himself up as object; moreover, he does not normally consider his appearance as a reflection of his ego. Woman, on the contrary, is even required by society to make herself an erotic object. The purpose of the fashions to which she is enslaved is not to reveal her as an independent individual, but rather to cut her off from her transcendence in order to offer her as prey to male desires; thus society is not seeking to further her projects but to thwart them."

Walk into any middle or high school, turn the TV on, open any magazine, and we see how push-up bras under shirts too small to contain our breasts and skirts too short to cover our butts have been normalized. It's always been common for girls and young women to dress like this, but now even a woman in her forties and beyond is expected to "make herself an erotic object," as the popular stars of "Desperate Housewives" demonstrate and are generously rewarded for. Will it never end?

I resist objectification by being a slob. To my mother's dying day, she pleaded with me to take more care with my appearance. I basically live in my yoga clothes, layering shirts and sweatpants as needed. Since I don't have an office job, I only need to be publicly presentable in whatever shorts and t-shirt I'm teaching yoga in. I'm the hand-me-down queen, and I take whatever clothes my kids quickly outgrow. My mother, always elegant, coiffed, and made-up, was ever dismayed as to how she raised such a fucka-mucka daughter (my term, not hers), especially considering my teenage years, when I carried a collapsible curling iron in my purse and coated my short Korean eyelashes with several layers of mascara. My nails were long and lacquered, and I wore sexy Candies with jeans so tight I had to lie down to zip them.

What happened? As my mom would put it to her friends, "Don't send your daughter to Barnard. She'll come back a feminist." Like many college students, I lived in sweats, and when going out, I cultivated a baggy, funky vintage style. I only got more fucka-mucka when I had kids, when I lived in the '80s/'90s mom uniform of leggings and big turtlenecks with toddler snot stains. Make-up? I threw it out years ago, cakey, dry, and riddled with bacteria. Who had time? With three kids in five years, I barely brushed my teeth.

My daughters will come to their own terms with their bodies, objectification, fashion, sexuality, and the media. It took me into my twenties to come into my own as a feminist, and into my forties to blossom into a radical Queen Bitch. So they have their whole lives to explore these issues. They've already left behind much girlish primping, which peaked around eighth grade. Their bras are more wiry and padded than my plain stretch camisoles, and they spend more time in malls and before mirrors than I care to, but they don't bother with make-up, beauty parlors, tanning salons, and other common feminine trappings. Plus, as athletes, they have working relationships with their bodies, which serve as more than mannequins to decorate. Meiko, almost 19 and attending Barnard College this fall, has expressed interest in studying anthropology and women's studies, so we may be in for some very interesting discussions. Katja's too busy trying out different costumes and personae to look very critically at anything just yet.

After our first argument about "Desperate Housewives," it so happened that Ms. magazine was debating the show.I told Katja I wouldn't ban her from watching the show but that she was required to read the articles and we'd have to discuss them. Attaching a reading assignment to a TV show deflates its appeal by at least half, I figured. Katja read the articles with mild interest, and she basically agreed with the criticism. Still, she thought the show was simply fun to watch. With teenage girls, all I can do is keep pointing out inequities, keep asking questions, and keep leading a productive, creative life myself.

Katja recently decided she'd rather spend her TV quota on "Grey's Anatomy." I fail to see this option as significantly better than "Desperate Housewives," but the costumes are arguably less demeaning, and maybe, just maybe, the Asian character in the show is not as typecast as the Latina in "Housewives."

But then again, she and her friends get together on Wednesdays to watch "America's Next Top Model" . . .


Peggy Hong was born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Hawaii and New York. She is the author of a poetry collection, Three Truths and a Lie (forthcoming, Water Press and Media); the poetry chapbooks Lies and Fables and The Sister Who Swallows the Ocean (CrowLadies Press); and a fine art letterpress book, Hoofbeats (Gokiburi Press). Poetry publications include Spoon River Poetry Review, Rhino, Bamboo Ridge, and Mothering magazine, among others. A graduate of Barnard College, she received a Master of Fine Arts degree at Antioch University with a dual concentration in poetry and fiction. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her husband and three children, ages 18, 16, and 13. She teaches at Alverno College and Woodland Pattern Book Center.


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