Housewives on the edge

In 1963, a former housewife named Betty Friedan royally took the piss out of “The Donna Reed Show” with the release of her controversial and groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique. The landmark feminist work shredded the myth of the happy housewife of the 1950s, unrealistically idealized in such classic television shows as “Leave it to Beaver.”

Steeped in Friedan’s own personal, miserable experience, The Feminine Mystique paints a drastically different picture of American housewives, one without the joy supposedly found in scrubbing, cleaning and folding the day away and far from the blissfully complacent Betty Crocker.

Friedan frankly and accurately depicted a lifelong domestic jail sentence, replete with serious depression, alcoholism and, often, suicidal tendencies.

Many years later, a young Cindy Sherman began her now-famous exploration of stereotypical depictions of women, through a series of self-portrait photographs where the artist used wigs, makeup and costumes to transform herself into caricatures of women: vamp, ingenue, spinster — and housewife. Sherman’s stark and minimalist photographs examined the way the entertainment industry relegated women to flat, one-dimensional roles, revolving around either sexual attractiveness or motherhood.

With a hefty dose of inspiration from these two women, local photographer Judy Eliyas has created a series of 11 tongue-in-cheek self-portraits that mock the glamorized falsity of domestic slavery during the supposed golden years of Americana.

Like Sherman’s early works, all of Eliyas’ photographs are untitled self-portraits in glossy black and white. But instead of chameleonlike transformations, Eliyas sticks with the theme of Friedan’s disgruntled domestic serving wench of the 1950s.

The artist adorns a series of tatty wigs styled in flips and pin curls; she stares coldly into the camera as she engages in a series of cleaning and cooking tasks, all while dressed to the nines in pearls, evening gloves, vintage gowns and frilly lace aprons.

Eliyas thumbs her nose to the sheer absurdity of the notion of a modern-day Donna Reed by juxtaposing each vintage scene in a fully modern kitchen or living room. As she pulls a tray of store-bought muffins from her gleaming oven, with her high-heeled foot gracefully pointed and her gloved wrist bent, Eliyas is the sardonic opposite of today’s harried go-go-go soccer mom.

Part of the appeal of Eliyas’ photographs is the mystery in her expressions. Her matronly face is slathered with pancake makeup, disguising her sentiment. At times she wears the vacant deer-in-the-headlights expression favored by today’s supermodels; other times she looks downright aggravated.

In Eliyas’ send-up of the glamorous Hollywood starlet, she languishes poolside in a vintage bathing suit, smoking and sneering, flashy costume jewelry layered over white elbow-length gloves. Her plastic reality is reflected in the bowl of fake fruit sitting next to her.

In another photo, Eliyas plays the perfect hostess balancing a tray with a crystal pitcher of milk and a plate full of Hostess Cupcakes, the quintessential ’50s treat, which also tastes remarkably like plastic.

The last two works push the theme of absurdity to the limit, and Eliyas looks like one of Friedan’s closet alcoholic housewives who’s taken one too many Valium and finally gone off the deep end. She wears a filmy negligee while pinning plastic bags to a clothesline; in another picture she is caught placing plastic-wrapped heads of lettuce in the washing machine.

Unlike Sherman, a recluse who was never photographed in public out of character, Eliyas will appear at the opening reception of her show this Friday. Perhaps she’ll even don her role as the perfect plastic hostess, complete with a string of fake pearls and a tray of cupcakes.


The opening reception for Judy Eliyas’ Untitled series is Aug. 30, 6-9 p.m., at Miller’s, 279 W. Nine Mile, Ferndale. For more information, call 248-414-7070.

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]
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