Tempest in a teapot

All of this uproar is convincing me that I need to go out and read a copy of Jane Brocket’s new book, The Gentle Art of Domesticity.

I’d never read Jane Brocket’s blog, Yarnstorm, until the storm surrounding it caught me up, so I’m approaching this as an entire outsider. The first I heard of the book was in the bitter, intense Daily Telegraph review, and then, through this interesting post on Feather and Fan, I found the Woman’s Hour furor over the same book. Basically, from those sources, I could glean only that a woman named Jane Brocket had written a book in praise of domesticity and that a certain brand of feminist had found it terribly threatening. Then there’s the dismissive, intentional language on both Woman’s Hour and in the Telegraph article, suggesting that we refer to all such attempts at passing off the uber domestic as normal as porn, and that’s what sparked Ravelry’s most controversial thread to date. And finally, when I stopped by Needled to see what was new, I found that there’s another fabulous book review up, this time of the controversial Gentle Art. I’ve got a great overview now without a glimpse of the source. It’s like peering through a fogged up window.

However, even without reading the book, it’s set my brain atwitter, and you, dear reader*, must bear the brunt, I’m afraid.

In the end, the stakes on this particular book are not terribly high. Whether Ms. Brocket makes money selling it or not, it will not single handedly turn the tide toward a world of women in aprons preparing perfect meals served on hand glazed plates and hand knit placemats. It is not the gentle art of domesticity that is truly on trial here, but two distinct visions of womanhood. And to be honest, whether Ms. Brocket’s book truly endorses a particular vision of womanhood from her own perspective, it will still be representative of one.

I was born in 1979, so I’ve grown up as a beneficiary of the women’s movement. The 1980’s, when I was forming my own views of womanhood, were a fertile time for the myth of the Superwoman, she who could bring home the bacon as well as frying it up in the pan. The Superwoman wasn’t just a working mother – she Had It All. She was a high powered executive who could slip into something more comfortable after work and make a fabulous home cooked meal before seducing the husband and going to sleep in the bed she’d made so perfectly that morning. Having It All, though, proved to be very tiring, and many women found they couldn’t live up to the myth. Traces of Having It All remain, but mostly, that’s a myth that’s been put to rest. It’s perfectly possible to be a working mother who also has innate domestic skills, but the harm of the myth was that the woman was required to be the one doing it all and it was something she did without effort, because she was superwoman.

Back in the day, the now completely inane shopping and shoes comic Cathy was actually an incisive critique of the Superwoman myth. (Truly! It used to deal with issues like sexual harassment and single parenthood and the feelings of being left behind when everyone else seems to Have It All.) But Superwoman did not die with the idea that a woman could (and should) be everything at once.

Today we seem to have a dichotomy between the Superwoman who works outside the home and the Superwoman who stays at home. These twin deities, so often portrayed as enemies in the major media outlets, are no more the norm for most women than the Superwoman of the eighties. But if they are to be Superwomen, if the myth is to persist, they must be Very Different as well as being Super. The working woman, therefore, is career driven and successful, a perfectly coiffed Madonna in a power suit, while the stay at home mother of myth not only raises fabulous, interested, stimulated children – she does so while keeping a perfect home, and she does so in a post feminist world, a world where she can knowingly wink at the camera while polishing the silverware.

It’s this world into which the recent spate of domestic soliloquys has burst upon the stage, alarming those who fall on one side of the divide or the other. Most of us, I believe, reside somewhere in the middle – women who might work and raise children, sometimes make the bed, sometimes leave the cereal bowls on the table till dinner time, sometimes make a perfect home cooked meal, sometimes decide that a block of cheese will tide everyone over. That they are soliloquys is evidenced by the fact that these are largely personality driven views of domesticity. We do not watch a show on the Food Network or HGTV to see our own domesticity writ large, but to see the domesticity of Martha Stewart, Nigella Lawson, or Rachael Ray.

This means that criticism of the domesticity on display cannot avoid the personal. We reject the brand of Martha Stewart, and in so doing, we look a little closer at Stewart herself. I cannot tell you who Calvin Klein is or what he looks like, but Martha Stewart’s invitation to take her sheets as a model for my own makes it so that just by knowing the name Martha Stewart, I also feel like I know a little about her. And, this, I believe, is why the response to Jane Brocket’s book has been so venomous. The reviewers who dislike Jane’s own domesticity see her as a representative of the form of womanhood that is not just about enjoying a craft, but is about being a domestic creature in the entirety.

I personally feel stifled by both views. I’m a stay at home mother and I consider myself to be a feminist. I love to knit and cook. I have a frilly apron with teapots on it. I feel unspeakably adorable when I wear that apron. I find it practical, as well, in that it has actually protected my clothes from spills and splashes in the kitchen. I’m also a terrible housekeeper. I do not like to clean. It is as much as I can do to force myself to pick up some of the most obvious messes many days. Today I have not cleared the breakfast table. It is 10:25 AM. The boys are at school, and their cereal bowls sit discarded on the table and I do not think I will clear them until I feel like it.

The important part of all of this is that I do not feel like any of this is a reflection of me as a woman. It is a reflection of me as a person – what I do, what my interests are, what choices I’ve made, how I relax, where I succeed and fail. But my husband is just as likely as me to be the one serving the meal, leaving out the bowls, picking them up, washing them, as I am. My husband is going to come home and he will not expect me to have cleaned the house. He will be happier with me if I can show him a drawing I did today than if I can show him the laundry I did.

This is where I think the tempest starts and ends. We are still seeing the art domesticity as part and parcel of the art of being womanly. Perhaps if we looked upon it as one hobby in a sea of hobbies, one that is not truly about what is domestic, but the hobby of being domestic, we could watch the tempest settle down into a well mannered pot of tea, to be served, of course, to oneself, lounging about in a teapot bedecked apron while the breakfast dishes lie fallow on the table.


5 Responses to “Tempest in a teapot”

  1. orata Says:

    Great post. I like the idea of domesticity as hobby… the things involved, like cooking and cleaning, are necessary to everyday life, but the above-and-beyond of butterfly cupcakes and Martha Stewart’s Good Things become separated, part of leisure time, and thus hopefully less threatening to Liz Hunt et al.?

  2. sthomson Says:

    This really hit close to home for me last week – namely when I realized that my fiance is a much better cook than me, much better at gardening than me, and much better at fixing things than I am. I was standing over two burnt chicken breasts, crying, because I felt like such a failure in everything related to the home. The fact that I can go to work every day and do my job better than almost anyone else meant nothing to me at that moment, because I felt hopeless in the kitchen. My fiance, on the other hand, has never felt that sort of pressure (although he definitely has to struggle with social expectations of another sort). When he burns some chicken, he scrapes off the outside and pours on some sauce, or in the worst case he’ll order a pizza.

  3. MrKninja Says:

    “But my husband is just as likely as me to be the one serving the meal, leaving out the bowls…”
    … and then staring at the bowls, staring, willing them to wash themselves.
    SThomson, I know exactly how you feel. I like to cook, and I think I’m competent at it, but the Kninja actually KNOWS what all those spices are for, and what to do with them. When it’s my turn for dinner, I’m terrified of screwing it up, and often just make pasta and salad, like I did tonight.
    But you have to remember that fiance didn’t fall for you over taste buds. It was probably a lot of little things; the first time you laughed at one of his jokes, or the way you wrinkle your nose doing the crossword, or something else that you do unconsciously that warms his heart. Things like that can’t be faked or forced, but they’re part of the glue that holds strong relationships together. Kninja does this one thing– well, I better keep that to myself. You get the point.

  4. Emma in France Says:

    Such a great post. I think you really summed it up well. Domesticity will never be my hobby but seeing it as such does help me understand the role it plays in other people’s lives.

  5. JenMac Says:

    Loved your review of the book. I am now tempted to buy it for myself. My husband and I have been working and reworking our concept of “perfect family”, “perfect wife”, and “perfect husband” since my daughter was born four years ago. Finding a personal balance of feminism/domesticity/nurturing/career fulfullment is a complicated process and it is easy to feel like you are not doing enough and what you are doing is half-ass. Still working on it, though….


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