Wednesday, 24 March 2010


Having spent my time recently haring about to interview men and women for the book I'm working on, I felt like sitting back with a glass of wine and some good TV the other night.

I had taped the current series running on BBC4 entitled Women, and lo and behold, our Lovefilm account spat Enchanted through our letterbox. I ended up glutting on a programme about who really does the UK's domestic work, followed swiftly by Enchanted, Disney's deconstruction of the very figure it has itself created: the cartoon version of the fairytale princess.

The Women doc was about how men and women divide up domestic labour, and whether it has become equally shared -- posited as 'one of feminism's central goals' (I'm not sure it really was a goal, more an object of critique).

is about how A. N. Fairytale Heroine comes to question her faith in the ideal of 'Happy Ever After With A Prince'. She learns to value reason, and to listen to her own emotions, rather than blindly love the first man who comes along. This lesson comes to her as an unexpected by-product of being banished to New York by the power-crazed queen, mother of her betrothed prince.

I would say that my evening's viewing wasn't just connected by watching doc and film back to back in a haze of Chardonnay. Both Women and Enchanted are examinations of the tale of Cinderella.

The Women doc was fascinating. A series of couples, mainly middle class, were interviewed alone and together, to uncover who is doing what in the home. Hey presto, apart from the Ear Nose and Throat surgeon, who clearly and unashamedly outsources all domestic duties, and has a separate ring tone for her nanny, we can conclude that most domestic labour is being carried out by women.

In one case, we saw a woman who runs a very successful illustration business from home, and actually employs her husband as a stay at home father -- but who does not call herself a feminist (instead she actively claims the title of Control Freak, with a pretty giggle).

But the rest was pretty much what we'd expect: women out in the workplace, and doing most of the chores at home, or women actively choosing to stay at home, and therefore doing most of the chores at home.

There were honourable exceptions; separated couples; and satisfied customers who felt they were the winners in the debate, regardless of how much hoovering they had to do. But the work was still being done by the women, however you sliced the working v. stay at home pie, whatever the justifications or the resentments. There is still such a thing as 'women's work'.

I doubt anyone watching expected any different -- I would lay bets that most women watching the ENT surgeon judged her negatively, although she was simply an extremely efficient, brilliantly intelligent, competent person. It was noticeable that the doc started with the (shock of the) surgeon, and never returned to her point of view. And it was also noticeable that the women were not encouraged to talk to each other. All was facilitated by the documentary maker. The women were both connected and separated by the process of making the doc.

What annoys me about focusing on domestic labour is that it erases important differences between women. It posits that all mothers are on an equal footing regardless of the story they lived before they became mothers, or how they are juggling afterwards. So the Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon who has very successfully carried on her career is presented in such a way as to look unfeeling in her efficiency, where the primary school teachers and ex-primary school teachers who either muddle through or have actually given up their careers, but who did not initially achieve the kind of academic success that the woman who became a surgeon must have done, are presented as being somehow more 'human'. But this is an outrageous skewing of reality, and of definitions of caring. What about women's aspiration, the way they are encouraged to succeed at school and university?

The doc nevertheless draws you in. When the stay at home mum is filmed in her kitchen, being happy with her children, we agree that it does look idyllic (although the fact that she seems to be running her home as though it were a primary school is slightly disturbing). Another stay at home mum, who has relocated to the country, is filmed picking fruit and digging up carrots with her gorgeous toddler, and we are at first convinced -- women are really meant to be poised bucolically over the Aga.

But then during the conversation with her husband, we realize that, in her words, the division of labour is a 'one-way street'. Her husband resists doing tasks that he thinks they are both 'equally capable of doing', such as lighting the Aga, but when his wife turns to him and asks why he doesn't do other tasks that they are both 'able to do', such as wash the kitchen floor, he doesn't have an answer. Clearly tasks are and remain gendered, and the man's excuse for not helping his wife is ideological nonsense -- he just wants to preserve his time off for himself.

Enchanted? Well it was just enchanting. How I loved the notion that the fairytale princess can cure social evils with her belief in true love. How I want that to be true. But we see her taking the first steps along the road to loss of naivety, just as I watch my 6 year old taking those steps, hand in hand with Jacqueline Wilson, her shouty mother, and the attentions of the 6 year old boys in the playground.

So although we have a 'Happy Ever After' in Enchanted that is deemed to be based on a more realistic notion of falling in love, through getting to know one's lover well, I still want to see the film that connects Enchanted with Disenchanted, which should have been the subtitle of the domestic labour doc. How do we get from love to running households without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

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