Alleged college scammer Felicity Huffman played a terrible mother on television well before she was outed for paying a $15,000 to have her daughter’s SAT scores changed as part of a scheme to get her into the University of Southern California. As Lynette Scavo on Desperate Housewives, Huffman portrayed a discontent and begrudged mother-of-four. The character was a hit, largely because many mothers — disenchanted with the difficulty of unpaid labor — saw themselves on Wisteria Lane, clashing with her brood as Lynette did on almost every episode.
In 2012, months after the Housewives finale, Huffman launched a celebrity parenting publication called What the Flicka? To — at least in part — leverage her specific mom fandom. As the actress takes on the role of the defendant in a federal fraud case this week, it’s worth dwelling on Huffman’s side hustle, which has since been scrubbed from the internet. What the Flicka? Was about being a stressed out, jaded, and guilt-ridden mom. It was also Huffman’s aspirational celebrity brand.
In her post-housewives media tour to launch What the Flicka?, Huffman made no bones about the impetus for launching the site. She had found herself at a crossroads. With her show ending, she had the chance to be a businesswoman and a publication seemed like a plausible move because she’d already developed an audience. “When Desperate Housewives ended, I felt like I had a community of mothers,” she told Forbes’ Dorothy Pomerantz in a 2014 video interview. “I wanted to hold onto them.” So she retrofitted a parenting publication to fit her fans, presumably in the hope that she could monetize the half-life of Lynette Scavo.
This was far from unusual. Plenty of celebrities were leveraging their personal brands for online profit. Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP had been doing good business in jade vagina eggs since 2008. Supermodel Molly Sims had created an Instagram-friendly lifestyle brand. And, of course, the grande dame of domesticity, Marth Stewart was out of jail.
By the time Huffman was looking to build her online brand, the internet influencer industry had reached something resembling maturity. There were plenty of agencies like the Women’s Influencer Network (WIN) ready to leverage a personal brand for clicks, views, likes, shares and “lucrative sponsored partnerships.” Huffman worked with WIN and a company called Digital Media Management to build WhatTheFlicka.com, a name derived from her childhood sobriquet.
The publication, she explained, was meant to be a “virtual kitchen counter” for imperfect moms. Huffman was very vocal about being an imperfect (if not downright bad) mom. She said that What the Flicka? was meant to combat the stereotype of the doting, perpetually-blessed and Pinterest-worthy mother. To that end, articles were thick with epithets, cocktail recipes, and rants about terrible toddlers. Also, there was some parenting advice.
The internet is lousy with this kind of content. ScaryMommy has 3.8 million followers on Facebook. So what set Huffman’s venture apart? The real draw was Flicka herself, who offered insight into her mom-life in the Felicitations section. There Huffman dropped personal essays devoted to her blunt, foul-mouthed, edgy perspective on motherhood.
“My first step in setting us free would be to make the phrase ‘Good Mother’ synonymous with ‘Mother Fucker,’” Huffman wrote in a June 2016 post. “Because that’s what we are doing to ourselves, and letting others do to us, being vicious and despicable. We are fucking ourselves.”
Huffman had a propensity for writing in all caps when addressing the realness and anxiety of motherhood. In a January 2015 post about being change-averse, she wrote: “People totally feed into my neurosis when they say shit like, ‘Oh your daughters are so lovely, enjoy it while you can, it goes by so quickly!’ I KNOW THAT, YOU WITCH! I DON’T NEED HELP REGRETTING THAT TIME IS PASSING AND EVERYTHING WILL CHANGE!!”
This sort of candid, if slightly stilted presentation, reflected real struggles for the What the Flicka? audience. They also gave sentiments rarely voiced outside the confines of particularly freewheeling cocktail parties (and ScaryMommy) the imprimatur of celebrity. It’s clear that Huffman understood this. She put her status on display. In one post, she launched into a pastoral story about the massive private ranch where her family vacationed, horseback riding, skinny dipping, and the like. In another post, she interviewed her own interior designer. In another, she shared a photograph of her and her husband, William H. Macy, sitting in a massive luxury tub in a showroom.
Huffman was trying to create relatable content, but she herself was not trying to be particularly relatable. What the Flicka? Was aspirational. The aspiration? Exhibit a sort of DGAF attitude native to higher tax brackets. Not incidentally, that attitude was marketable.
What the Flicka? Got into the commerce game early, offering readers mugs emblazoned with phrases like “I love being a mom, except when the kids are around,” or “Not Not Wine.” There were also t-shirts printed with the slogan “Cool Mom” and coffee scented candles with label reading, “Damn it’s Early,” readers could also download “good enough mom” backgrounds for their phone.
What’s interesting about What the Flicka? In retrospect is just how honest it appears to have been. Felicity Huffman was not doing a bit. Evidence suggests that she took a morally haphazard approach to raising kids and embracing her own privilege. What the Flicka? seemed to glory in the ugliness of parenting. Huffman seems to have done the same.
There’s something of a revelation there, obscured by — who would have thought — truth. Huffman played a character that reflected her attitudes and leverages fans of that character to create a following for herself. The fiction that set the wheel in motion wasn’t a fiction at all. What appeared to be artifice wasn’t.
And this is worth dwelling on, especially in regards to parenting content.
Lots of celebrities use parenting as a means of achieving relatability if not likeability. Celebrity parents, they are just like us. Except that they aren’t, because they are rich. Huffman’s attitudes and postures as expressed on her site were not particularly admirable, but they were totally relatable — as attitudes and postures. But Huffman’s behavior, a product of attitudes, postures, money, and connections, was vile.
And herein lies a lesson for anyone who consumes celebrity parenting content: It’s the same, but different. Huffman wasn’t just another mom struggling to love her role in the domestic sphere. She never lied, but the implication of What the Flicka?, that money can’t buy familial bliss, was pure misdirection. Sure it can. At least to a degree.
Interestingly, some celebrity parents have created remarkably powerful brands. Jessica Alba’s Honest Company, for instance, manages to be playful and thoughtful while offering good and helpful products. It’s worth just under $1 billion. Dax Shepard and Christen Bell just launched a children’s brand for Target. They decided to keep price points low to help parents out. This is all to say that there’s nothing wrong with leveraging celebrity in the parenting space. But as soon as relatability becomes part of the game, consumers of content and goods should become highly skeptical.
In the end, the college admissions scandal is totally on brand for What the Flicka? There’s status anxiety involved and poor decision-making. But the scandal shut down Huffman’s personal brand. Why? Because the whole thing got too ugly when people knew it was true.
“Let me be your friend who laughs in church, gets scolded, and sent outside,” Huffman wrote in a 2014 Felicitations column. “You can be relieved you’re not me.”
Sounds about right.