Using literary tools to analyze the opening credits of a television show
Author: Junius Wright, Academic Magnet High School

Description of lesson:
In this lesson students analyze the opening sequence for the television show Desperate Housewives to help them explore female archetypal characters and practice applying the literary tools of symbolism and characterization.
In this lesson students will:

Identify, analyze and explain the meaning of symbolism and characterization used in a work. 

Explain in writing how individual examples of symbolism and characterization help contribute to the overall meaning of a work. 

Use visual literacy skills to analyze the opening sequence for a television show. 

Use characterization to justify the identification of different types of archetypal female characters in a work.

Focus Question:
What is the comment, criticism, or statement made by the images and actions in the opening credits of the television show, Desperate Housewives?

Activity #1: Analysis of the title
In this activity students analyze the denotative and connotative meanings of the words in the title.

1. Instruct students to create a word web for the words "desperate" and "housewives". To create the word web students put the denotative meaning in the center of each circle and connotative meanings in outer circles surrounding the inner circles. See the sample word web for an example of how to construct these word webs.

2. After constructing the word webs ask students to use the notes on diction to justify the creator's choice to title the show "Desperate Housewives".

Summary of the opening credits:
The show begins with Lucas Cranach the Elder’s "Adam and Eve" (1526) where Adam is being crushed by the forbidden fruit (a giant apple). Then Egyptian hieroglyphics and the beginning of civilization. (Note the mother and her "exuberant" children.) Then appears Jan van Eyck’s "Arnolfini Wedding" (1434) where the husband watches his wife sweep the banana peel off the floor (from which he has just eaten). A familiar painting to some, Grant Wood’s "American Gothic," (1930) that shows a man, his wife, and a pitch fork. Oh no,the wife's face appears on a sardine can! Then, a newspaper ad of a woman struggling with groceries, and finally, a Roy Lichtenstein-like cartoon of a woman punching her husband.

Activity #2: Analysis of symbols and actions

1. Show the opening sequence to students.

2. Distribute the handout titled, "Opening Sequence Analysis Chart" to students.

3. Use the "Teacher talking points" posted in the side bar to the right to help guide the students through a second viewing of the opening sequence during which you help them identify significant symbols and a primary action in each of the six parts of the sequence. Use the teacher's talking points and focus questions to help students complete the first column of their chart.

4. Instruct students to analyze the action and symbol in each of the six parts of the opening sequence using the literary tools of indirect characterization and symbolism. Instruct students to then record the results of their analysis in the proper columns on their handouts.

Teacher talking points for activity #2

Adam and Eve
Actions: Eve picks an apple from the tree. Adam is crushed by a giant apple.
Symbols: Tree of Life; apple
Egyptian Mother
Actions: Mother is flailing her arms and sinking in a crowd of children.
Symbols: mother, children
Arnolfini Wedding
Actions: Man throws half eaten food over shoulder and woman cleans it up 
Symbols: Woman is pregnant; broom, half eaten banana
American Gothic
Actions: Younger woman tempts the husband causing him to smile; wife frowns and is rolled up in a sardine can
Symbols: the husband standing in front of the barn, the wife in front of the house, husband's pitchfork.
Woman Struggling with groceries 
Actions: Struggles with groceries and drops a can of soup
Symbols: kitchen, woman, groceries

Man and woman arguing
Actions: Woman cries and punches man in eye
Symbols: tears, can of soup in man's hand

Activity #3: Paragraph analysis of the work as a whole
Instruct students to write a well organized paragraph in response to the following question:
What is the comment, criticism, or statement made by the images and actions in the opening credits of the television show, Desperate Housewives?
Remind students that a well organized paragraph should follow the ASE system: A well developed argument, concrete support, and a thorough explanation.
Activity #4: Archetypal analysis of the final scene
The final part of the opening sequence depicts the four main characters of the show holding apples under the "Tree of Life". This final scene is an excellent source for students to be introduced to different types of female archetypes and use the literary tool of indirect characterization to analyze characters.
The final scene in the opening sequence

1. Show students the final scene from the opening sequence. Pause on the final scene where each of the four characters is holding an apple beneath the tree.

2. Give students the handout titled, "Archetypes" and instruct them to focus on the following definitions in the handout:

Archetype: A recurring plot pattern, image, descriptive detail, or character that expresses itself in stories, dreams, or religions. The Earthmother: symbolic of fruition, abundance, and fertility, this character traditionally offers spiritual and emotional nourishment to those with whom she comes in contact. Often depicted in earth colors and has large breasts and hips symbolic of her childbearing capabilities.

The Temptress: Characterized by sensuous beauty, this woman is one to whom the protagonist is physically attracted and who ultimately brings about his downfall.

The Unfaithful Wife: A woman married to a man she sees as dull or distant and is attracted to more virile or interesting men.

The Damsel in Distress: The vulnerable woman who must be rescued by the hero. She is often used as a trap to ensnare the unsuspecting hero.

3. Instruct students to complete the "final scene" handout chart
The following descriptions will help students who have not seen the series complete this activity. 
Susan Mayer, a divorced mother with a sense for humor for drama and in search of love
Lynette Scavo a former businesswoman turned stressed out stay-at-home mother of four, 
Bree Van De Kamp the seemingly perfect mother struggling to save her marriage
Gabrielle Solis, an ex-model whose unhappy marriage has had her beginning an affair with her 17-year-old gardener.

Activity #4 teacher notes
Students should complete their identification of the characters in the final scene in the following manner.

female in the middle: Lynette
Characterization: Holds apple close to her breast 
Archetypal character type: the earth mother

female on the far right: Susan
Characterization: Holds apple out in a vulnerable manner 
Archetypal character type: the damsel in distress

female at the bottom: Gabrielle
Characterization: Holds apple in a seductive manner
Archetypal character type: temptress

female on the far left: Bree
Characterization: Holds apple in a knowing manner
Archetypal character type: unfaithful wife

Article: Article on the art contained in the opening sequence for Desperate Housewives. This article also includes a quicktime video clip of the opening sequence. Scroll to the middle of the article to view the quick time clip. Click here to view the article and clip.

Activity #5: Conclusions 
Use the following prompts to help students apply the new knowledge they gained in this activity.
1. Connect the archetypal female characters presented in the opening credits with female characters in famous works of literature. Consider the following female literary characters:
Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca in Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of Othello
Eve in Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost 
Lenina and John the Savage's mother in Huxley's novel, Brave New World

2. How do the images and actions in the opening credits of the television show, Desperate Housewives help perpetuate or shatter female stereotypes in contemporary society?

3. Why does traditional western society perpetuate the concept that the fall of man is the fault of woman? The opening sequence seems to hint at this with its direct illusions to Eve's act of eating the fruit in the book of Genesis. Perhaps some insight to the answer to this question can be found in the following quotation from the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell, "Woman brings us into the world thus as a society we blame that which brings us into the world."

4. Complete the same activities conducted in this lesson using the opening credits for another show on television that features female characters.

Extention Activity: Analysis of other opening credit sequences
Below are examples of other opening credit sequences that students can analyze using literary tools.

Six Feet Under

The Sopranos





Article on the art contained in the opening sequence for Desperate Housewives. This article also includes a quicktime video clip of the opening sequence. Scroll to the middle of the article to view the quick time clip.
Article on the artwork in the opening credits in artcyclopedia.

© 2007 The Visual Literacy Project