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  • Writer's pictureKirby Clark, MMT

Pop Culture Fridays: Desperate Housewives

Sometimes coming across a depiction of massage therapy in popular media can be about as rare as coming across a character with my first name...

I am Kirby Clark Ellis, MMT, BCTMB and this is Pop Culture Fridays!

Desperate Housewives was a drama-edy mystery television series that ran for 8 seasons on ABC from 2004 to 2012. 

Toward the end of season 4, Carlos Solis is left blinded by an injury sustained during a tornado. Between the season 4 finale and season 5 premier there is a five-year jump in time where all the main characters are in totally unexpected circumstances from how the audience has come to know them before. 

For Carlos and Gabriel Solis, this means they are reduced to lower middle class financial status sand surprisingly blessed with not one but two children. 

Early on in the new season, we are shown flashbacks to Gabriel’s first pregnancy where she shares her concerns about their finances and inability to care for a child.

Carlos mentions he is considering a job in massage (although he uses the word “masseur”) because he needn’t his vision, “it’s all about the touch”. 

And despite both their tendencies for jealousy, Gabriel concedes, “it’s not the worst idea in the world”. 

And that’s true- massage therapy has historically been a great profession for the blind or visually impaired to support themselves and their families. 

In fact during the 1960s, a blind man was one of the first massage school owners in Arkansas as well as serving as secretary of the Arkansas State Board of Masseurs & Masseuses. 

There were blind students at my alma mater, Blue Cliff College in cohorts before me. And I’ve  even had the pleasure of teaching a blind student hot stone massage last year. 

In a different episodes’ cold open, the voice over narration also uses the word “masseur” to describe Carlos’ position. We learn that Carlos has gained employment at the local country club where he has become an expert on “how to make women happy”. 

From scented candles, new age music, and apple schnapps (which- you can read my full opinion about massage and alcohol here) Carlos goes above and beyond to customize his sessions to perfectly match his individual clients. 

But one unusual afternoon, Carlos appears to make one client “happier than he intended”. The client, Virginia, is shown to grip the table linens (which in this instance are just towels), while here feet spasm and writhe. Giving the impression that she’s experienced an orgasm on the treatment table. 

I’ve told you before that arousal during a massage can happen with or without sexual attraction to your therapist and that’s true. It is completely natural- but a full on orgasm from just first touch is a bit of a stretch. 

The scene jumps to Carlos flipping the table (removing the soiled linens) when a colleague tells him that his last “reservation” (meaning appointment) canceled and offers him a ride home.

Carlos confides in this colleague, deferring to the other therapists’ 14 years’ experience, asking if he’d ever accidentally given a client an orgasm. When his colleague repeats the question loudly, Carlos urges him to keep his voice down, acknowledging that he could potentially be fired with our without cause in this situation.

Carlos claims that all he did was touch this client’s back. To which his colleague flippantly remarks that “the bodies of these old broads droop and that anatomy isn’t always where it’s supposed to be”. Carlos pushes back saying that he may be blind, but “my sense of touch is just fine”. 

“Well maybe she just really liked the massage- you wouldn’t believe the moaners on my table”. But Carlos insists this is different and describes the client as quivering and barely able to breathe. 

To put this question to rest, Carlos’ colleague says the surefire way to be certain is to check Carlos’ gratuity- they are both shocked to find $300 left to him. As Clay puts it, “enough for two orgasms”. 

When Carlos brings the very generous tip home to Gabby- she ignorantly pays it no mind, she’s just happy to have some extra spending money. 

Later, when that same client, Virginia, drives Carlos home in her chauffeured car, 

Gabrielle lets it slip that she is Carlos’ favorite client. Which visibly pleases Virginia until Gabby clarifies, “well maybe you’re MY favorite of Carlos’ clients” after expressing gratitude for “that crazy tip you left Carlos”. 

Virginia tells them both that Carlos has helped her back problem like no masseur she’s ever had. Reporting that she is pain free for the first time in years! This prompts Gabby to brag about Carlos’ “magic hands” (which- you can read my blog post about here), claiming that Carlos “hits the sweet spot every time”. Which as a double  makes Carlos uncomfortable. 

As she starts to leave, Virginia asks Carlos to consider a proposal she’s made to him- for Carlos to accompany her on a trip to Europe as her personal masseur. She explains that she wishes to keep the treatment plan going now that progress with her back has been achieved. The details include a commitment of two months in exchange for $50,000 each month. Which leaves Gabby all but speechless and exuberant at the opportunity. 

This is also not uncommon for clients at a country club, resort, or spa to make suggestions about their therapist becoming a “personal massage therapists”, all with varying degrees of seriousness. That’s not something I could ever see myself comfortable with even for $100,000- but to each their own.

After Virginia leaves, Carlos expresses his hesitation to Gabby without telling her about the orgasm that happened in the treatment room. Claiming that he has other clients besides Virginia that he Can’t disappoint and that he could be fired for taking two months off to accept a better offer. Gabby points out that once Virginia’s rich friends find out “what you can do”, they’ll be lined up around the block. Which is precisely what Carlos is concerned about – that he will become known for unintentionally providing sexual favors.

Later, on a mission to sweet talk Carlos’ boss at the country club into the two month leave from work, Gabby runs into Carlos’ colleague from earlier, Clay. In a humorous misunderstanding, Clay lets it slip that Carlos believes he’s unintentionally given Virginia orgasms. In a jealous rampage, Gabby demands to know if Virginia is in the country club spa right then and there. But Clay informs her that Virginia prefers “her place” so she sends a car for Carlos to provide massage as her home. Clay even goes as far to disclose Virginia’s personal information, namely her address!

A big no-no! Although the profession is not explicitly bound by the rules of HIPPA- massage therapists should (and often do) make the effort to comply with client privacy. Even when talking to other professionals, but certainly not speaking to members of the public about a specific client. And most definitely not disclosing residential information like a client’s address.

Sneaking past a housekeeper, Gabby finds Carlos giving Virginia a massage in a second story bedroom. Carlos is shown providing massage to her upper shoulder and neck fibers. Carlos demonstrates good communications skills, asking about depth of pressure and comfort for Virginia. While most of the dialogue and Gabby’s eavesdropping reactions are played for laughs to sound inappropriate- nothing is actually suggestive or sexualized. 

When Virginia gets a crick in her neck, she lifts her head up from the table’s face cradle- discovering the spying, Gabrielle. Virginia tactfully doesn’t raise alarm, but simply asks Carlos to leave the room for her to “take a business call”. 

When she asks Gabby what she’s doing there, Gabby confronts her about the orgasm. To which Virginia is mortified; “he could tell?” She further ensures Gabby that the orgasm only happened once and that it hasn’t happened since. When Gabrielle threatens that she won’t allow Carlos to go to Europe with her, Virginia explains that her husband is gone, that she is estranged from her family, and that living in her loneliness has manifested as an actual physical pain. In what is an honest and beautiful soliloquy of real-world benefits of massage and bodywork, Virginia makes the case that Carlos has “healed” the pain and loneliness and all but begs Gabby to not end their “friendship”.

Gabby (in a rare form of sensibility) makes the suggestion that the relationship between Virginia and Carlos be ended before it gets any weirder. But Virginia uses Gabby’s affinity for travel and couture fashion against her to expertly manipulate Gabby into allowing the therapeutic relationship with Carlos to continue.  

In a different episode, the Solis family is shown to be enjoying the spoils of Virginia’s company. 

The girls enjoy playing in the backyard while Gabby lounges with a margarita in the pool. 

But with Virginia out of earshot, Carlos voices being uncomfortable with accepting so much generosity from his client. 

As Carlos puts it, “It’s a bad idea to mix business and pleasure” and that the orgasm fiasco is all the more reason to maintain professional distance. 

And Carlos is right- from the very start, this therapeutic relationship has been perverted with cases of Transference and Countertransference from both parties- Virginia and the Solis family. 

But paradise soon turns into a nightmare later that night when Virginia inserts herself into a family movie night with Carlos, Gabby, and the girls- literally crawling into bed next to them.

Leveraging her wealth and exploiting their sympathy for her loneliness, Virginia masterfully begins to manipulate them into her life- making plans to devote rooms of her home to the Solis’ and insisting the girls call her grandma. 

This finally scares Gabby into wanting to go home and sever ties with Virginia. But Carlos wants to keep his commitment to the European trip, insisting that they can’t walk away from $100,000. 

He also insists he warned Gabby about getting to close to clients and blurring the lines between personal and professional relationships. 

Later on, once Gabby forcefully pushes Virginia away and insults her, Virginia makes a call to the President of the Country Club, claiming that the way Carlos touched her during her last massage was highly inappropriate and that she trusts he will take care of it. This does get Carlos fired.

Which is also an unfortunate reality- when it comes down to accusations of inappropriate behavior most of the time it is a “he said/she said” situation that is hard to investigate and even harder to prove. 

Each case is going to be different, but it is not uncommon for employers to fire a therapist before investigative determinations or adjudication have been completed. 

I’m not saying that Carlos didn’t make mistakes, but he also didn’t commit the offense that Virginia accuses him of. His behavior certainly could have been handled by blocking him and Virginia from working together and some refresher courses on ethics and laws instead of terminating his employment.  Virginia eventually calms down and recants her story, getting Carlos rehired. The story between Virginia and the Solis family gets complicated from there and doesn’t involve massage therapy very much. 

Accompanying Vlogs:

Peace and Healing,

Kirby Clark Ellis, MMT, BCTMB

But what about you? What are some of your favorite OR Least favorite representations of massage therapy in pop culture? Let me know in the comments below.

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