Monday, March 25, 2013

Too brilliant to bathe, home edition

Emily Shire, weighing in on the gender-and-messiness debate:
And just think about how messy men are portrayed in popular culture. An unkempt space is a sign of a man’s strong work ethic, as he’s too busy dealing with “real” problems to bother tidying up. It’s endearing when President Obama mentions how his Washington, D.C., apartment as a junior senator was piled with pizza boxes. At worst, messy men have a lovable, “absent-minded professor” quality.

On the other hand, messiness in women usually denotes a life in disarray. In the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary, an opening scene of pajama-ed Renée Zellweger going through a fridge that is mostly empty—save for a few expired items—establishes how pathetic her professional and personal life are. Think of the countless romantic comedies that cut to a shot of a woman’s bedroom strewn with clothes and a half-eaten pint of ice cream to connote depression after a breakup.
I've already infuriated the internet with my thoughts on gender disparities as they relate to personal appearance. But I hadn't thought about how this relates to household maintenance. Probably because I'm one of those people who cares about cleanliness but not neatness. But as Shire explains it, it's effectively the same - men can be too brilliant to clean, but women cannot.

As with too brilliant to bathe, this probably does mean that men who don't clean because they're depressed are more easily overlooked, so this isn't all a great boon for men, either. But on the whole, this is clearly better for men than women. I'd be more inclined to say here than re: looks that the answer is less caring-about-it all around, but I suppose it depends how much squalor we're talking about.


redscott said...

What's it mean if you're the guy who may not take a shower on Saturday (cleanliness points to spouse) but are the one who does the dishes, vacuums, and scrubs the tub? Too brilliant (lazy) to bathe but not too brilliant to clean?

Phoebe said...

Not every TBTB will be TBTC, or vice versa!

Jacob T. Levy said...

It's crazy that Shire ends the piece with the view that the existing norms about judging women on the basis of cleanliness are immutable (even though the norms about men doing housework are apparently quite mutable), so the only thing to be done is for men to step up their contributions.

The norms according to which society judges women about household cleanliness arose in a day when a substantial majority of middle-class-and-above wives did not work outside the home, and many in the norm-setting classes had full-time domestic help in addition. So there was a lot of labor available to be thrown at household maintenance, as well as a restriction on the domains available to women for status competitions.

The right response to changing circumstances is to ratchet down expectations of housekeeping and to *stop judging women on the basis of how immaculate their houses are.* There is absolutely no reason to think that the right answer is "keep the expectations where they are, keep the gendered judgements where they are, but make sure that both partners do their part to keep the women competitive for homemaker-of-the-year prizes."

caryatis said...

The problem with that approach is that women internalize these expectations, and once you have an internalized strong preference for neatness, cleanliness or both, you can't get rid of it at the drop of a hat. In that situation, getting the man to do his share might be the best you can hope for.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Why should one think that women are less able than men to break with socialized and internalized expectations?

Phoebe said...


If we return to the personal-appearance example, a common refrain is that women shouldn't care so much, that women put pressure on other women, but that men aren't asking for lipstick and heels, let alone foundation and Spanx. When the truth is that men *are* asking for all of this, but don't quite know it. They know a woman looks better than usual some evening, but not precisely why. And they associate femininity with effort. This is not to say there aren't women who go above and beyond what virtually any man would want in their primping. But the idea that primping is just women being catty to one another isn't accurate, either.

Along similar lines, men may care about cleanliness without knowing that they do, if they've grown accustomed to homes cleaned by their mothers, then wives. As in, they may know they don't care if socks are on the floor, but they may not realize the work that goes into basic non-squalor. (And I'm all for basic non-squalor, nothing more.) If someone else has always been cleaning the bath, you're not going to realize that the bath actually requires cleaning if it's not to become a grimy, moldy thing that leaves you dirtier than when you went in. I.e. that cleaning the bath isn't about keeping it sparkling, more about maintaining non-filth. Much of the "cleaning" Jessica Grose mentions is stuff like dishes and laundry - not make-work like dusting or bed-making.

Looks... are complicated. But with housework, a divide between make-work and hygiene (and a critical look at what hygiene entails - no assumptions that if socks are on the floor for a couple days, plague will ensue) would probably be the answer. That cutting board that had chicken on it? It's not cleaning itself.

caryatis said...

Jacob, I never said men could break with internalized expectations.

Phoebe, I guess the point I was trying to make is that concern over neatness/cleanliness is not as rational as you make it sound. There are legit scientific reasons to clean the cutting board with chicken on it, but most housework is not stuff that NEEDS to be done. It's a series of subjective judgments---How many times can I wear that dress without washing it? Should we do the dishes once a week or once a day? Can we pile stuff on the kitchen table for storage or should it be clear? Should we throw towels on the floor or hang them neatly?

I think this is most of what causes household conflict. It's about personality as well as social training. You might dismiss anything beyond basic non-squalor as makework, but, well, if neatness is what I need to feel comfortable in my home, it's not makework to me. And no, I have no suggestions for how two people with different ideas about what living space should be like can come to a compromise.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Oh, I absolutely don't think that the norms are only held or enforced or expressed by women. (Though I can see how it sounded that way in my reply to caryatis, who treated "women internalize the expectations" as an objection to my "ratchet down expectations.")

My complaint was against Shire in particular, who called for a reform of the wrong norms-- "men should help do their share to let their partners be judged as successful housekeepers" rather than "everyone should shift their expectations downward and everyone should stop judging women as successes or failures based on a pointless and anachronistic standard or cleanliness." It's like writing an article about body image issues and concluding "men should do their part to keep junk food out of the house so that the women who live there don't gain weight."

On the substance-- gender equality at the level of decent hygiene-and-non-squalor-maintenance-- we're in agreement.

Phoebe said...

I think I mostly agree with you on this. Where I see a problem, though, is that if we ask men and women to care less (which I agree we should), many men will respond that they already don't care. Many of these men do care, but don't realize that they do, because they haven't seen what can happen to a bathtub, etc.

caryatis said...

Phoebe, I'm wondering why you assume that men have never lived alone before living with a woman. The average age of first marriage for men, is, what? 27 or 28? That's plenty old enough to have lived somewhere other than your parents' house or the dorm, and to figure out that bathtubs don't clean themselves.

Phoebe said...


Age of first marriage isn't age of first cohabitation. And in roommate situations, bath-cleaning might end up being one person's task.

But your honing in on this point is leading me to reveal how I came to know so much about baths and their potential filth. I - a woman - went from home (where I never had that chore) to dorm to a shared apartment where I had kitchen-scrubbing duty on account of I wasn't as good at cleaning the bath as my roommates were. (Always the best contest to lose, I suppose, but I remember feeling ashamed at the time.) I was kind of ancient when I learned what happens to a bath when left be.

caryatis said...

So are you suggesting it's not typical to live alone before cohabiting? Is that just me?

Phoebe said...

Caryatis, I'm entirely sure that some people live alone before cohabiting. Maybe less so in more expensive cities. Maybe less so among grad students in expensive cities. I'm sure Gallup or some such has looked into this, but clearly my anecdotal evidence (roommates into the 30s) is unrepresentative.

caryatis said...

The average age of first cohabitation is 25. I can't seem to find data on how many 22-to-25 year-olds live alone versus with roommates or parents, though. You may be right that the latter is more common.