Use of Language in Desperate Housewives

This is another assignment for my Concept of Human Communication class.  We had to write about an episode of a TV show and talk about how the characters use language in various aspects such as gender/cultural contexts, wordplay, and so on.



Desperate Housewives is one of my favorite shows because of its interesting characters, intriguing storylines, and its combination of dark, over-the-top melodrama and high, almost campy comedy. For this assignment, I will discuss the use of language in the episode entitled “Mother Said.” The episode has several uses of language that serve the plot through comic effect and the creation of dramatic tension. The main plot of the episode is that everyone has various issues surrounding the upcoming Mother’s Day holiday.
Syntax is a very important part of the show’s comedy. In general, the characters use their words to make a point and sometimes in a clever way.
Several functions and purposes are fulfilled through language. Much of it is comedic. For example, Ellie, the tenant renting one of the rooms in the house owned by Gabrielle and her husband Carlos is actually a drug dealer, but claiming to be a tattoo artist. She walks her client downstairs. Gabrielle asks to see the “tattoo.” Ellie points out that the “tattoo” is “down south.” Gabrielle feels awkward, and the client soon leaves. That was all played for laughs.
With grammar, there does not seem to be a great variety. The grammar is largely and fairly proper, though it does not sound clinical, dry, and to quote someone I heard “like someone reading out of the dictionary.” The only uses of figurative and other non-standard language are the child of one of the characters saying “I call the computer,” and Susan’s mother-in-law Adele (who is a Southerner with a strong Southern accent) using the word “ain’t” and double negatives in her speech.
Semantics is used in a few notable scenes. For instance, Bree is arguing with her husband Orson, a dentist. He wants to take her grandson, Benjamin, whom she and him were raising as their own son before she kicked him out for running over her friend’s husband with a car, to a carnival. She remarks that she wouldn’t want Benjamin to be around while Orson is giving to Edie (a neighbor and a friend of Bree’s with whom he shared a brief, drunken kiss that they immediately regretted) dental exam with his tongue. This use of language is funny because it gives a new meaning to the term dental exam. Later, she tells him that if he wants to take someone to carnival, he should take Edie with him, because she can give him “three throws for a dollar,” an innuendo referring at once to a carnival game and a sexual act.
There is quite a lot of biased language in the episode. Much of it is due to the prejudices and conflicts that the characters have with each other. One example is when Susan’s Southerner mother-in-law refers to the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression.” This indicates a bias against the North, and the view that some Southerners have that the Civil War is the fault of the Northerners. Another example of biased language is not said outright, but instead implied. Bree is angry with her friend Edie because Edie kissed Bree’s estranged husband Orson, though they immediately regretted it. Bree talks to one of Edie’s clients (Edie is a real estate agent). The woman and her husband are considering a house and Edie goes inside the house with the husband; Bree is walking buy and strikes up a conversation with the woman who is tending to her baby. The woman asks Bree if the neighborhood is safe, and Bree tells her that although the neighborhood is safe Edie is not; the implication is that Bree told the woman that Edie has reputation and penchant for being promiscuous and making romantic/sexual advances on other women’s boyfriends and husbands. The clients immediately end their business with Edie. Yet another example of bias comes when Adele is confronting Susan about the fact that Susan is not doing much to sustain the household. She makes references to Susan’s “drawings.” Susan has written and illustrated children’s books and claims that she makes money off of them but they apparently have not sold as well as they used to, not to mention the fact that Susan has not published any new ones in the past the few years. Adele asks how much children’s books pay, and Susan sheepishly searches for something in one of her lower cupboards. The scene illustrates how man mothers-in-law are biased against their daughters-in-law. Adele mocks Susan and belittles her good-faith attempts to be good wife to her son; apparently, she believes that that Susan is not quite good enough for him.
Context is always important with language. It tells one a lot about one’s beliefs, attitudes, situations in life, and so on. One example in this episode involves Lynette and her husband Tom and their conflict with Tom’s child from a previous relationship, Kayla (whose existence Tom was unaware of until about two year prior to the events of the episode). Kayla has been doing cruel things to the rest of their children, and showing no remorse for it. A therapist tells them the Kayla’s behavior is because she does not feel loved by Lynette; when asked by the therapist if she loves Kayla, Lynette admits that it is hard for her to love Kayla given how she entered their family. The therapist suggests that Lynette and Kayla forge a bond by spending as much time together as possible. Tom agrees with the advice. Lynette then asks the therapist to ask her if she loves Tom, in the situational context of her thinking that spending time with Kayla is a bad idea. This clearly illustrates Lynette’s contempt for her stepdaughter. She would much rather have as little to do as possible with Kayla, which given how she Kayla as treated her half-siblings is understandable. Another example of context involves Katherine’s interactions with her abusive ex-husband Wayne; this would be relational context. Wayne returned after many years to forge a relationship with their daughter Dylan. However, Katherine is concerned for Dylan’s safety and wants him to be far away from her. Wayne insists that he has changed. Katherine, using her wit and trying to call Wayne’s bluff says that Dylan is not Wayne’s daughter because she cheated on him. Katherine then goes on to say that she was afraid years ago of how he would react to the infidelity; with a smile on her face, Katherine tells him that she is longer afraid because Wayne has “changed.” Clearly, Katherine is being sarcastic about claiming that she believes that Wayne is now a good man. This was an attempt to get Wayne to leave her and Dylan’s life for good. Overall, the context of their conversation was about how despite years of having no contact with each other, Katherine knows that Wayne has not changed at all, and therefore, she mocks his false sentiments.
There is a fair bit of language styles differing based one’s social group. For example, Adele, Susan’s mother-in-law, as mentioned above is heavily influenced by her Southern American heritage. Her She seems to at first conform the stereotype of elderly Southern women being very warm and affectionate, which is evident when she meets Susan for the first time, hugs her, and compliments her appearance. She believes that the Civil War was instigated by the North and calls it “The War of Northern Aggression.” In addition, she also expresses her opinions of what a wife should be: “a maid in the living room, a chef in the kitchen, and a whore in the bedroom.” This speaks to Adele’s rather old-fashioned views, which are not necessarily uncommon in the Southern United States. Also, as mentioned above, to contrast, Susan is somewhat opposite in personality to Adele. She is more passive and quiet. She is also sensitive to Adele’s abrasive comments about her. Susan does try to defend herself against her mother-in-law’s criticisms, but Adele refuses to accept her daughter-in-law’s excuses and explanations.

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