Examining the Dark Side of the American Housewife

In her short story collection "American Housewife," Helen Ellis picks apart the myths of what makes a housewife in a hilarious, compelling, and often unhinged way.

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Dec 28 2015, 7:40pm

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What does it mean to be an American housewife? In just two words, the phrase connotes a feminine ideal that's at once one of privilege and oppression, luxury and selflessness. In her new short story collection, Helen Ellis picks apart the myths and ideas about what makes a housewife, painting a compelling and humorous portrait of one of society's favorite tropes.

The collection came about through personal experience. Ellis, a housewife of around ten years, started the anonymous Twitter @whatidoallday in 2011, where she shared humorous observations and one-liners. During Beyoncé's 2013 Super Bowl performance tweeted, "Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster." The tweet was received with great enthusiasm by the Internet, as Beyoncé-themed anything is wont to do, inspiring Ellis, who published Eating the Cheshire Cat in 2001, to start writing what she knew.

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"I thought, 'That could be good! Maybe I'll turn that into a story,'" Ellis told Broadly over the phone. "So I wrote the first story in the collection with that as the first line, and then I thought 'Well, I'll write something else that I know.' Every story I wrote happened to have a housewife as the heroine."

The term "heroine" is used loosely here. The women in this collection live somewhere between the extremes of put-upon stay-at-home mom, like Modern Family's Claire Dunphy, and the vapid luxury of The Real Housewives. Readers won't find June Cleaver or a Stepford wife lovingly and selflessly caring for her family. Instead, the women in American Housewife are fully realized, dangerous, and unflinching. It's easier to imagine these women running a mob syndicate than a bake sale. They know what they want and aren't afraid to go to great lengths to protect what they've claimed.

It's easier to imagine these women running a mob syndicate than a bake sale.

While most of American Housewife feels tongue in cheek, one story in particular, titled "How To Be A Patron Of The Arts," is a complex and moving look at one woman's gradual evolution from a writer to a housewife. It's a story that peeks into the glamorous world of art and society, and finds a woman who has created a happy life for herself at the cost of her own career. Although nothing explicitly sad happens in the story, it's affecting in the subtle shifts that take place over time. Like most of the stories in the collection, it was written from a personal place.

"That story is the closest to the bone. When I was writing it, it was really me deciding if I was going to write again," Ellis said. "And in this story, she decides not to write again. She's very happy and comfortable to leave the arts herself, which is very close to what was happening in my real life. She's happy in her life and she's happy in her marriage, but there is a loss."

The bulk of the collection embraces the relationship between danger and desperation, playing on the image of the housewife as protective of her space by taking that impulse to a comedic extreme. In American Housewife, characters are at their most deadly and conniving when backed into a corner, as saccharine sweet as they may seem. But the stories explore a fascinating dichotomy in our image of the housewife: as both a harmlessly feminine domestic goddess and a lioness who rules her own home. Ellis writes in a way that recognizes the seeming toothlessness of a housewife, the sense that she's spending her days making cookies while clad in a cardigan, but uses that as a cover for darker impulses.

"Every story is a turf war," Ellis said of the book. "Each housewife is the queen of her domain, and whether it's someone invading her personal taste or invading her book club, it's an act of war. There's urgency to that, and there's a power to keeping your home the way you want it. Whether it's scuff marks on your floor or a murderer stepping through your door, these women do not see a line between those two."

Each housewife is the queen of her domain, and whether it's someone invading her personal taste or invading her book club, it's an act of war.

In "The Wainscoting Wars," neighbors sharing a hallway battle to the death over decor, their attempts to take control escalating from passive aggression to violence. In "Hello! Welcome to Book Club!" a book club takes a dark turn as the newest member learns the cult-like group of ladies plans to use her for more than just book recommendations. And for one Manhattan housewife, taking control of her inherited space requires a little murder and a few "Dead Doormen."

Given the complexity of her characters, it's not surprising that the two women Ellis points to as exemplary of the "American housewife" are seemingly opposite. The first is iconic: Lucille Ball's fictional alter ego on I Love Lucy. But the second was someone who might not immediately be seen as a housewife.

"My favorite housewife is Carol from The Walking Dead," Ellis told me. "No one on that show has changed more than Carol. She was a traditional put-upon, abused prisoner when the show started and she has become a champion, a killer, a savior who can take care of her town and take the casserole out of the oven in forty-five minutes flat. She is my hero."