Desperate Housewives was a mystery/dramedy TV series concerning a group of four housewives in a suburban neighborhood who attempt to solve the mystery of the death of one of their friends. They also deal with various other challenges to their families.
One of the four wives, Bree (played by Marcia Cross), learns that her husband Rex (played by Steven Culp) has been cheating on her with another married woman, Maisy Gibbons (played by Sharon Lawrence), who is a sex worker and dominatrix. Maisy took this up for money when her husband lost his job.
To understand Maisy Gibbons, you first need to know how she spent her afternoons. Her mornings were spent running errands for her husband. Her evenings were spent washing dishes and helping with homework. But her afternoons, well, they were spent in the company of men. Frustrated. Misunderstood. Lonely men. Willing to pay money to feel a little less lonely. And Maisy Gibbons was willing to help them.Mary Alice Young, the deceased and omniscient narrator of the series
As we’ve seen before, Maisy’s sex work and dominance is normalized by being framed as a form of gender-appropriate nurturing and support of her family.
It’s Maisy who tells Bree that her husband has sexual desires he’s afraid to admit to her. Bree was raised with very traditional ideas of marriage and sexuality, so this revelation hits her hard.
Maisy: “Why don’t you just tell Bree what you need? Tell her what you want.”
Rex: “Because she’d say no.”
Maisy: “So? I’ve said no to some things you’ve asked me to do.”
Rex: “Nah, that’s different. I don’t care if you reject me.”
Maisy snaps her fingers and Rex lies face down on the floor.
Maisy: “Rex, trust me on this. Sometimes, when you love somebody, you’ve got to make sacrifices for them.”
Rex: “Love or passion? That’s an awful choice to make.”
Maisy: “Yes, it is.
As Maisy walks on Rex’s naked back in stilettos, the camera focuses on the portrait of Maisy’s seemingly perfect family. Sex work and sadomasochism are portrayed in opposition to the upper-middle-class nuclear family ideal.
In episode 14, when Bree has reunited with Rex, he admits to her that he goes to Maisy because he wants to be dominated.
Bree: “You had an affair. You went to another woman for sex to give you something I couldn’t. At least have the decency to tell me what that something is.”
Rex: “Bree. I can’t.”
Bree: “Why not? Rex, please tell me. Let me prove to you how much I love you.”
Rex: (deep breath) “I like to be dominated.”
Rex: “Never mind.”
Bree: “Rex, please, I want to understand.”
Rex’s method of teaching Bree is to show her a video. We see them sitting apart on the couch, while audio of a stereotypical femdom-malesub scene plays.
Bree: “What the hell did your mother do to you?”
Bree: “Come on. This just reeks of unresolved childhood trauma.”
Rex: “This has nothing to do with my mother, Bree. This is a preference.”
Bree: “It’s a perversion.”
Rex: “For god’s sake, you promised to be supportive.”
Bree: “What do you want me to say? ‘My husband likes to wear metal clamps around his nipples, hooray’?”
Rex: “I want you to say you’ll try it. Just once.”
Bree: “Try what? Hurting you? You actually want me to hurt you?”
Rex: “So I can feel pleasure, yes.”
Bree: “Fine.” She slaps his face. “So, was it good for you too?” She walks off. Rex has nothing to say.
Later that night, when they’re going to bed, Bree asks, “So how does this domination thing work?”
Rex digs a box out of the closet.
Rex: “So there’s nothing to be afraid of. Mostly we’ll be constructing simple scenarios and acting them out.”
Bree: “So, it’s like we’re in a little play.”
Rex: “Sort of. And if things do get too rough, we’ll have a control word. If one of us says it, the other backs off immediately.”
As far as it goes, this is an acceptable introduction to BDSM. It’s followed by some comic moments as they squabble over the choice of a safeword.
Rex lifts a pair of handcuffs out of the box.
Rex: “Handcuff me to the bed.”
Rex: “Bree, you are not going to regret taking this journey with me. This is going to infuse our marriage with more passion than you can imagine. You just have to trust me.”
Bree: “I do.” [Looks at the handcuffs.] “Would you mind if I ran these through the dishwasher once?”
The last image of the episode is Bree looking at the handcuffs hanging in her dishwasher. In Bree’s ideal of domestic femininity, these items are contaminated– “dirty”– by their association with Maisy, the “bad” woman. Bree must ritually cleanse the cuffs before they can be recuperated into her ordered, clean, domestic space.
Later plotlines in the series include Maisy being arrested for prostitution and threatening to release the contents of her “little black book”, which would include Rex. As Bree’s family further disintegrates, she blurts out that Rex is into S&M to her pastor (S01E19). BDSM figures as another source of stress on Bree’s family and another secret to keep, rather than something that can strengthen her connection with her husband or give her pleasure. Rex was killed at the end of the first season anyway.
The killing-off of Rex suggests that, as we saw in One Night at McCool’s, a male who is submissive and/or masochistic cannot fit within normative views of gender. (Dominant and/or sadistic men can fit, as seen in the popularity of Secretary and Fifty Shades of Grey.)