Not an Odalisque

A Feminist Domestic Goddess?

with 2 comments

The last few days of my life have been unrelentingly domestic. Nine guests were staying at my house for a friend’s hen party, so I cleaned the house from top to bottom, kneaded brioche, made beds and counted towels. They’ve gone now, leaving me with a big pile of laundry and instructions to get on with decorating the wedding cake.

I like to think of myself as a feminist, but on days like this I don’t look much like one. Other indicators include my frilly pink apron, hand knitted jumpers and home-made handbags. I buy pink patterned cupcake cases and boil my own strawberry jam. Last week I made my own butter. Yesterday I spent hours sewing half a dress.

Can I be a feminist and still impersonate a 1950s housewife? I’m not sure. The obvious recourse is to consent. Unlike women of the past, my generation has the freedom to do as we please, I’m told, so whatever course we take results from an “empowered choice.” I think that argument is insulting. What were women before the sexual revolution? Mindless automatons? Do we make our choices free of any constraint today? Of course not. We live in a culture and it can be very difficult to defy gendered expectations, as I can verify after getting into a cold sweat about revealing my unshaven legs. Seventy percent of women won’t leave the house without make up. That isn’t free choice, that’s fear. Conforming to a gender role can’t be excused with the word empowerment, and the best way I can describe the impulse to do so is “Stockholm Syndrome.”

That said, there is a key difference between the apron I wear and the one my grandmother did. Hers was more practical and donned earlier in the morning. I doubt she had “Riots not diets” cross-stitched onto one of the pockets. My apron, you see, is singularly unsuited to actual cooking. It covers little of my body and can’t be washed at high temperatures, so I have to be careful not to get it too dirty. But that’s ok because keeping flour off me is a secondary role; I’m not sure whether its primary role is prettiness or to make an ironic comment on aprons.

An apron you can’t get dirty. A signifier of feminine domestic servitude which incites riots. This is a garment which calls itself into question. Furthermore, with its pink cotton and black lace combination, it invokes all sorts of naughty garments you don’t normally wear in the kitchen (unless you have a sturdy work surface), and that brings together two feminine roles to compare and contrast. In other words, my apron is subversive, it reveals the inherent absurdity of the feminine roles by overemphasising them and recombining them in new ways. So, surely, I can remain a feminist by being kitsch in the kitchen.

Well, that’s what I thought. The idea is to play with gender roles, in the knowledge that I can’t fully escape them, I can have a bit of ironic fun. Not everyone recognises what I’m doing, but I don’t intend on worrying about that. A lot of people have no idea what I’m on about even when I put it into words.

As time goes by, though, I begin to question it. That began when I discovered Cath Kidston. She’s the one doing all the chintz and paisley patterned bags women started carrying lately, in pink and pastel shades. Her shops are like temples to a bygone era. She sells fabric and sewing patterns, but in case you can’t be bothered to sew she also sells ready-made items. Her first product was a patterned ironing board cover, but the home wares have expanded to include such items as egg cosies and floral patterned radios. You know, the necessities.

Don’t get me wrong, this is my kind of shop, but it did get me thinking. The radio will set you back £200, the egg cosies are £5 each. Like my apron, they represent domesticity rather than really engage with it. After all, if you can afford £38 for the sewing basket you’re probably not making your own dresses to avoid Primark’s steep prices, and the person who pays £5 for a scrubbing brush can probably also afford a dishwasher.

All this is fine, after all people spend their money on far sillier things than decorative scrubbing brushes, but I do think it interesting that the lifestyle my grandmothers were desperate to escape, one of cooking, cleaning, sewing and washing, has been recast as a product they could never have afforded. Playing is fine, and fresh brioche for breakfast is really very nice, but where is the impulse coming from?

I’m inclined to blame Nigella. She made domesticity unspeakably sexy, pulling off an inspired fusion of mother and whore with every lick of her chocolate covered fingers. I think she’s great. But not remotely feminist. I suspect that, no matter how much quality time I spend with my Kenwood Chef, I’m never going to have the sexual appeal of Nigella Lawson. I may learn to make very good cakes, but at the end of that, I have cake, not sex. That is, to be fair, a very good consolation.

If some of Nigella’s appeal lies in motherhood, the reason I participate in the cult of domesticity must, surely, lead back to my own mother. The mother who made my third birthday cake in the shape of my teddy bear, to my great delight. The mother who sewed me a princess dress from pure gold fabric, on the machine I use today. Putting on my pink apron, am I trying to be the woman I remember, nostalgically, from the sunny days of my childhood?

If I am, I’m doing it wrong. You see, the last time my mother used the sewing machine was when I was five. My father tells me that my third birthday cake looked perfect, but was almost inedible. I don’t remember her making another cake after that. She bought them from the shop.

In one conversation with my father, the world came crashing down. I’d always assumed that my mother had the ability to bake and sew, to help me make Easter gardens and Nativity Play costumes, but had been too busy, delegating to my father, to sweatshops and bakeries, out of necessity. It turns out that I was wrong. The only thing worse than my mother’s attempts with the sewing machine, apparently, were my mother’s attempts in the kitchen. On the other hand, she was rather good at public sector finance.

So who am I trying to be? The mother who never existed? A pale shadow of Nigella Lawson? Am I trapped in a mode of patriarchy I didn’t even know was there? Or am I truly using the freedoms second wave feminists fought for? I’ll have plenty of time to think about it this afternoon as I wash sheets and make rhubarb jam.

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Written by Not an Odalisque

June 16, 2010 at 10:49 am

2 Responses

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  1. I like this piece. I don’t really relate to it as a fellow wannabe domestic goddess, but I just like the way you write about gender roles without it being some kind of polemic. Some feminist writing (probably including some of my own) can be so preachy and loaded. I like the way you just look at something and give it a chance to have various meanings. Nice one!

    Quiet Riot Girl

    June 21, 2010 at 7:49 pm

  2. Not sure how I missed this blogpost, but have just read it, and I love it.

    impeus

    August 8, 2010 at 2:16 pm


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