The Real Story Behind "American Housewife"

Photo: Michael Yada/ABC.
After Sarah Dunn had kids, she started to feel ignored. “I’m not just talking about men,” Dunn tells Refinery29 over the phone. “I’m talking about no one wanting to talk to you at a party. Just being a mom was like becoming invisible.” Dunn's first TV series, American Housewife, an ABC sitcom premiering October 11, is shining the spotlight on all those moms out there who feel as though they fade into the background.

Dunn, a novelist set to release her third book, The Arrangement, in March, wanted her show to be a throwback to Roseannea sitcom that made it clear moms could be funny, flawed, and, most importantly, the main attraction.

“The moms are not the stars,” Dunn says of most sitcoms. “They’re funny, but they’re not carrying the show.” It’s true: Constance Wu is the standout on Fresh off the Boat and Wendi McLendon-Covey gets lots of laughs as an overprotective mom on The Goldbergs, but these women are supporting players. “Nobody knows how funny middle-age moms are. Nobody knows this!” Dunn continues, excitedly making the case for more mom comedies. “Part of what I wanted to do was to make a show where women with kids could see their struggles and that the pains in their asses are real and someone else feels them.”

I really don’t think you need to be 40 and have three kids and have a body of an 18-year-old.

Sarah Dunn
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Dunn certainly isn’t afraid to share those "bad mom" moments through her show, which is unapologetically autobiographical. The pitch for American Housewife stemmed from the fact that, in the upstate New York town where Dunn lived with her journalist husband and young son and daughter, now 7 and 6 years old, she had become “the second fattest housewife.” (The original title of the show was actually The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport, but it was changed because Dunn feels the new title "opens doors instead of closing them.”)

Through narration, Dunn’s TV stand-in Katie Otto, played by Mike & Molly’s Katy Mixon, gives us a peek at what’s going on inside her head. Sometimes she's complaining about the local moms with their green drinks and Fitbits who constantly tell her she’s “so real.” But more often than not, she’s going on about her Alex P. Keaton-like teenage son and green juice-drinking teenage daughter, who Katie says she’s trying to “help fit in less.” Katie is also trying to help her youngest, Anna-Kat, who has a bit of obsessive-compulsive disorder, “fit in more.” No surprise, Anna-Kat is her favorite child, even if it is surprising to hear a mom actually admit that out loud.
Photo: Adam Taylor/ABC.
But Dunn isn't looking for Katie to be a stereotypical housewife. The kind who's thought to be spending her days eating Bon-Bons or flipping tables; instead she's having a second breakfast with her best friends to vent about motherhood and womanhood. It's something Dunn does in her own life to stay sane, and suggests other moms do, too.

Being a stay-at-home mom may be a good decision for the kids, but for moms it often means putting their careers on hold. "That’s a conflicting situation for a lot of women,” says Dunn, who was a stay-at-home mom and novelist before creating this series. "It’s really difficult and it sucks, and even though you choose it, doesn’t make it suck any less."

Dunn feels the situation is only made worse by the fact that women aren’t really allowed to be honest about the pressures of motherhood without being judged. See, for example, Chrissy Teigen who, after having her baby girl Luna, was mommy-shamed for going out to dinner with husband John Legend. This, despite making the valid point on Twitter that an hour out of the house means, “Happy mommy, happy daddy, happy baby.”

Women are required to do it all, but in a way that the rest of society, or at least, the internet, sees fit. And they often have to do it all while looking a certain way. “I really don’t think you need to be 40 and have three kids and have a body of an 18-year-old,” Dunn says, echoing something Katie says nearly word for word in the American Housewife pilot. “I really think we need to get out of that mind-set.”

The way society views the female body — specifically the way women view other women’s bodies — is certainly a topic of conversation on the series. When we first meet Katie, she’s staring out the window, lamenting how her neighbor “Fat Pam” is moving away, making her — you guessed it — the second fattest housewife in her Westport, Connecticut, town. Throughout the first episode, there are jokes aimed at other women, specifically those of the Lululemon set with “flat stomachs and thighs that don’t touch.” But the pilot's main shenanigan finds Katie looking for someone who is bigger than her to move in across the street so she won’t be "vice fattest."
Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC.
Some of the jokes about women’s bodies may rub people the wrong way. (There's one in the pilot about finding an “urban youth” or someone who looks “terroristy” to keep her neighbor from selling her house, that's also sure to raise eyebrows.) But the show is looking to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable from a female character, portraying one who speaks her mind, even if you don’t agree with her.

And sometimes, Dunn’s bosses don’t. She says there have been discussions of making Katie more likable. “Everybody wants to soften a character, especially a woman,” Dunn says. “That’s the battle I’m fighting but so far, I’m doing okay with it.” She admits, “I yell at people a fair amount." But when she’s not yelling, she’s asking, “What Would Murphy Brown Do?” in honor of the titular character that Dunn wrote for nearly two decades ago. “Would she meet in the middle?” Dunn asks. “No, she wouldn’t.” Neither will Katie Otto, or, for that matter, Sarah Dunn.

Being the boss means Dunn has to be the one who fights for her characters and her staff. With 10 writers — an equal split of male and female with experience ranging from one who’s never worked in TV to others who’ve been doing it for 20 years — she feels the pressure not just to make the show funny but successful as well. “Everyone has to pay their mortgage, so the scripts better be good.”
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Photo: Adam Taylor/ABC.
Dunn often used to say in pitch meetings that she was making this show for women. She was told if she didn’t stop saying that, her show probably wouldn’t get made. “And I said, ‘I don’t care. I’m writing this show for women. Period,’” Dunn says. “All I care about is women.”

Specifically, she's focused on women who don’t often see themselves on TV, which includes Dunn. She proudly says that the best part of pitching this show was not having to wear Spanx to any of the meetings — something that had just become part of the routine. “I would finish my pitch, get in the elevator and just take my Spanx off and put them in my purse," she says. "I swear I’ve done that 30 times, at every network. This was the first time I didn't, and I felt free. It felt awesome.”

Now she wants other women to feel just as awesome — that Spanx-free kind of awesome that lets them know they’re not invisible, that someone on TV really gets them. A recent scene, in which Katie walks past a sidewalk cafe only to knock someone’s coffee cup right off the table with her hips, gave Dunn a taste of the sort of impact her show might have.

“There was a woman who was working on set, and I overheard her say, ‘This scene is the story of my life,’” Dunn says. Incidentally, the scene was actually the story of Dunn's life, inspired by her own struggle to get down those tiny aisles of a plane without knocking someone with her hips. But the scene made her realize that no one was telling this kind of story.

"I want some woman to say, ‘That’s the story of my life’ and know, ‘I still exist, I’m out there,’" Dunn says. "They can be proud of their body and of what they’re doing, and they can see themselves on TV. That's all I really want."

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