The homemaker or the sex doll; take your pick

// 15 April 2012

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Rhianna Goozee considers the underrepresention of different roles for women in mainstream media and the general lack of choice young girls have today when it comes to potential role models.

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Pink sprinkled cupcakes, knitting on the way to work, sewing circles, decoupage, home preserves… It seems hobbies traditionally attributed to female homemakers or WI meetings are now trendy. I’ve seen teenage girls knitting on the tube, my not-yet-thirty sister is obsessed with cupcakes and everywhere I look floral patterned homeware abounds. The recent popularity of arts and crafts, baking and other activities has got me wondering what this all means for feminism. Are women also embracing the traditional role of homemaker or are they choosing these activities as a way of relaxing after a hard day at the office? It is possible to be a feminist and still embrace these hobbies? Are women now expected to live up to the image of a 1950s housewife, cooking, cleaning and bringing up the brood all without so much as a hair falling out of place in addition to having a career?

Whilst there has been a revival in the popularity of homely, wholesome hobbies worthy of the WI, the only other alternative to donning a floral pinny, a 1950s style cocktail dress and a docile, subservient smile seems to be to don stilettos, a bodycon dress and a pout. The hypersexualised looks of the women on shows such as Take Me Out and TOWIE appears to supply girls with the alternative to happy housewife… that of a human sex doll. These shows seem to take delight in exhibiting the women in all their fake tanned, big haired, made-up finery and simultaneously providing numerous opportunities to ridicule them for a lack of intelligence. Don’t get me wrong some of the women on Take Me Out are well-educated and have actual careers that they have probably worked very hard to achieve. But they are applauded and shown off as some sort of exception to a rule, whilst Paddy McGuinness pulls an amazed expression. “Wow, a woman who looks like THAT and she’s a DOCTOR? What a wonder woman! How surprising that someone could have both boobs and also a brain!”

This all leaves leave me wondering where all the other women are in the mainstream media: women who work in business, science, sport, education, politics or any other career that isn’t encompassed solely by a desire for fame. Where are the female fire-fighters, policewomen, doctors and nurses? These women do exist and every so often they might briefly show the potential to become a role model for young girls everywhere. They just don’t seem to have the same staying power of the celebrity, unless they appear to be joining the pouting masses and creating a new persona by attempting to look like Barbie. It seems in order to be admired for academic achievements or a successful career a woman must also be beautiful, immaculately turned out and stylish. The achievements alone are not worthy of praise.

I would like to clarify that I’m not saying women who choose to be housewives can’t be inspiring or strong women worthy of respect. My mother chose to devote her life to my siblings and me and she possesses innumerable qualities that I strive for (and on the odd occasion achieve); patience, unconditional love and selflessness amongst many others. I’m also not trying to suggest that women shouldn’t be allowed to dress up, be sexually liberated or take an interest in make-up. What I am lamenting is how underrepresented so many different women are and what a lack of choice young girls have today when looking for role models.

Picture shows a woman in a pink dress looking upwards to her right, with her mouth pinched in an expression of confusion. Her hands are outstretched and each contains a key. This is adapted from a creative commons image by kaili williams and the model in the picture is named as Rosalie.

Comments From You

Laurel // Posted 15 April 2012 at 6:17 pm

i think a lot of the first part can be largely attributed to hipsters to be honest. appropriation and trendifying of subcultural or kitsch or old fashioned or indie things. basically add to your thick rimmed glasses some vintage clothing, a pocket watch, a typewriter and take up a craft. a lot of female hipsters are actually quite willing to identify with feminism and choose a traditionally “feminine” craft as homage, or because they are making a critical choice towards their “feminine” tastes rather than avoiding them to make a point. also just to stand out from the crowd, but yanno…

apart from that i’m pretty much in agreement, because more and more these stereotypes are played out in the media to little girls. i dont find that the women and girls taking up these hobbies are from that age though. theyre mostly from mine. early 20s. there is as there always has been, a lack of female rolemodels who arent cardboard cut outs. it was almost better when very little was aimed at girls and we would just pick male role models than it is with these narrow confines. any call out to more interesting women from different backgrounds getting attention has to be good (though if i get the urge to throw up on the mentioning of business people and police officers as upstanding citizens, forgive me.)

Annie // Posted 15 April 2012 at 9:47 pm

There is a world of difference between the art and craft activities described above and the housework activities which cause so much division. Nobody has to knit, somebody has to do the cleaning. “Women’s” crafts were once associated with housework and drudgery, but they are no longer necessities but choices. We should not lose the wealth of tradition and skill women built up down the centuries in their home-based crafts.

My favourite craft, knitting, is an enjoyable and creative pastime, requiring the mathematical skills women are often presumed to lack. Many people have rediscovered it both as a creative outlet and as an antidote to boredom on the bus. I am a feminist, a professional and a knitter. The state of my home is not relevant to my enjoyment of knitting, which is not a domestic chore but an artistic release. I do not knit socks because we need them or because I have nothing better to do, but because it is fun. I think making something yourself from handspun, hand-dyed wool may also be a mildly subversive act in a world of globalised mass production and consumption.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 15 April 2012 at 10:43 pm

I agree with Annie on the arts and crafts stuff. Sewing, knitting, lace-making, baking, painting, music-making and many more arts and crafts are all wonderful and creative activities that often require significant skill. I think that a lot of the derision towards them is because of their association with women, as I have never heard any critique of woodwork, furniture-making or similar ‘crafts’ performed by men. Annie makes a great point about them being leisure options, but it is also worth pointing out that many of these crafts are also potential sources of income, and certainly were for many women in the past. They were a popular forms of work for women as they could be performed at home and allowed flexibility for people who also had housekeeping and/or childcare responsibilities.

I recently went to a great exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia that placed women’s crafts (quiltmaking, needlework, paintings) alongside famous art by men from movements like the arts and crafts movement, etchings, inkdrawings, paintings, vases from Wedgewood and a tapestry by William Morris etc. And it was striking how well women’s crafts sat alongside these works- they were of equal beauty and quality. Yet, for generations, women’s crafts have been seen as ‘crafts’, of lower-quality and lesser skill, while men’s equivalent works are ‘art’. This division needs a lot more critique.

None of this is to say that women with different hobbies, jobs and other markers of identity shouldn’t be more widely represented in popular culture!

Shadow // Posted 15 April 2012 at 11:31 pm

The reason why malestream media consistently ignores women’s diverse experiences and lives is because malestream media is a very powerful tool of the Male Supremacist System. Malestream media continues to invisibilise women and instead consistently portrays women as how men perceive women aka we are all stereotypes and easily interchangeable.

See these two links as to why it is essential we all learn how to engage in media analysis and media criticism. Once we ask the right questions we can begin to recognise the male-centric propaganda and lies malestream media is ‘constantly producing.’

Helen Louise // Posted 16 April 2012 at 3:55 am

As a crafter and a feminist, I find this post a bit insulting. It’s not feminist to devalue ‘feminine’ hobbies. And I don’t think any feminist should be discouraging women from doing things they enjoy in their own leisure time.

Suz // Posted 16 April 2012 at 10:45 am

I do wonder what the poster would make of me, someone who knits in between running simulations for quantum physics in work. For me, knitting, crochet and spinning (the fibre one, not the sweaty one) have been great ways for me to reclaim femininity without having to buy into a lot of the cosmo-femininity that doesn’t work for me.

I agree with the basic idea of the post, that there aren’t enough diverse female role models in the media. My partner and I think that big bang theory became much more watchable when they introduced female nerds. However, sneering at the arts and craft movement and questioning whether these women could possibly be feminists makes me think that the writer doesn’t actually know the first thing about it.

Rose // Posted 16 April 2012 at 11:21 am

Tried knitting once, bored the hell out of me…. sounds like a good way to make a bad bus journey worse – I’ll stick to my books! But thats just the thing, isn’t it? I didn’t like it, and didn’t have to do it, if someone else likes it, they can do it – well, women can, men may feel demeaned by the idea of doing it (especially in public), as it is considered female, and therefore intrinsically ‘lesser’.

When it comes to traditionally female crafts, I see alot of guys looking down their noses at it – or taking it up, and claiming that it was traditionally male after all!

Personally, I’m the veg. gardening, baking, chutney making sort – love it, and makes economic sense. If any guy thinks he’s above it – he’s not going to get any of the produce.

Rolemodels? The image of the hedgewitch. Herbal healers I meet growing up (that were totally self-sufficient, and amazingly comfortable, and intune with nature). So, people disrespected by most of society. I felt that TV based rolemodels were just limiting me, compared to some of the strong, intelligent women I meet, (who had themselves rejected mass media, go figure!).

Samantha // Posted 16 April 2012 at 3:04 pm

I also agree that the post, whether intentionally or not, seems a little too dismissive of crafting/ baking etc. Crafting and baking are some of the most creative and rewarding things you can do on a daily basis. Creating stuff is empowering. It is also an antidote to a culture where you have to get drunk off your face to have a good time.

It is not unfeminitst to enjoy these activities, it is fun, creative and a great space for connecting with other women. Yes, we could do with more role models in the media but don’t make out crafters are embracing a oppressive activity- you couldn’t be more wrong.

Holly Combe // Posted 16 April 2012 at 3:20 pm

@Suz (and Samantha, whose comment I’ve now just read). I wholeheartedly agree with all the comments about reclaiming crafts and ‘feminine’ hobbies. I also think Rose makes a very good point in highlighting how men are possibly less free to do them in public because of those ‘feminine’ associations.

However, it didn’t seem to me that the writer was “sneering” at the art and crafts movement. My reading was that she simply asked some questions about what the (mainstream?) popularity of those activities might mean for feminism. Personally I would tend to prioritise the right for us to engage in whatever activities we genuinely enjoy and the task of chipping away at the stereotypes that code certain things as ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’. But, having said that, I also think such questions can be asked without it necessarily meaning that the art and crafts movement is being denigrated. I appreciate we’re talking about a very fine line here but maybe we have a cultural paradox going on, where the act of reclaiming is sometimes being subtly co-opted by the Conservative mainstream in order to reinforce limited gender roles?

Holly Combe // Posted 16 April 2012 at 3:36 pm

PS: When I refer to a “fine line”, I mean the line between asking critical questions about possible mainstream popularity/framings of certain activities and simply being critical of anyone who embraces those activities themselves. (I’d say the difference between transcending traditional framings and Conservative attempts to reinforce them tends to be much more clear!)

Suz // Posted 16 April 2012 at 3:41 pm

@Holly, I think it was particularly when she said “It is possible to be a feminist and still embrace these hobbies?” that hackles got raised. By asking that question, it implies the writer is at least open to the idea that it’s not possible to be, say, a feminist knitter. If I asked if it was possible to like cheddar and be a feminist, a reader would probably be wondering what I had against cheese.

From what she’s written, it would seem that the writer has little or no knowledge of (and I keep using this particular example because I know it best) the current crochet and knitting community. It has strong roots from within feminism and while being a knitter doesn’t make one a feminist, there are plenty of loud, proud, strong feminists with needles in hand. It’s not just possible for a knitter to be a feminist, but it’s absurdly common. You (general you) can’t just dismiss us as 1950 housewife wannabes.

IronFly // Posted 16 April 2012 at 4:10 pm

Rose: “I felt that TV based rolemodels were just limiting me, compared to some of the strong, intelligent women I meet, (who had themselves rejected mass media, go figure!).”

Ditto. And in turn I rejected mass media too.

Rhianna: “Whilst there has been a revival in the popularity of homely, wholesome hobbies worthy of the WI, the only other alternative to donning a floral pinny, a 1950s style cocktail dress and a docile, subservient smile seems to be to don stilettos, a bodycon dress and a pout.”

I’ve seen many, many other “types” of women in mainstream media than just those two examples. Female presenters of documentaries and sports shows are usually a good source of interesting, multi-faceted, inspirational women.

Having said that, yes a lot of women in the media are hyper-sexualised, but should that in itself make them beyond the scope of being a good role model even if they’re a doctor/scientist/policewoman etc.? Why must we, even as feminists, continue to categorise women into neat little “types”? I think it’s BS personally.

As long as people can see that the sexualisation is done FOR the media, and that the media does not accurately represent real life (never will) then our young people will have a better sense of perspective about the whole thing. Or am I being too optimistic? Surely everyone can see how much of a pantomime Take me Out actually is??

Holly Combe // Posted 16 April 2012 at 5:05 pm

(Ha, don’t get me started on Take Me Out… I’d say “pantomime” pretty much covers it though so, yes, maybe a bit of optimism’s no bad thing here!)

Rhianna // Posted 16 April 2012 at 7:03 pm

I’m glad to see my blog has got people talking! However, having read your comments I feel I should clarify myself on several points:

First and foremost, I in no way intended to ‘sneer’ at arts and crafts activities or anyone who makes the choice to bake in their spare time. I enjoy baking myself amongst other traditionally ‘feminine’ activities. Perhaps asking the question about being feminist and enjoying these hobbies was a clumsy way to express myself. Although I’ve probably held feminist views all of my life, I’ve only recent started reading, writing and thinking about it in any depth. I suppose this question reflects my own discomfort in embracing femininity whilst avoiding reinforcing the traditionally defined gender roles that this might allow (the fine line that Holly mentions). It’s also true that I don’t have much knowledge or experience of the knitting or related movements but the issue I was trying to address was more about the way that activities are viewed in mainstream culture by everyone, not just those who are part of the movements. My main aim was to question why only certain images of women are more eagerly taken up by the media whilst others remain neglected, as it seems to me that those accepted by media tend to be the more traditional ones.

To interpret what I wrote as suggesting that “feminine” hobbies are in any way inferior choices or women with any sense should choose “masculine” hobbies would be doing me a disservice for several reasons. Filtering of acceptable activities to produce some sort of androgynous homogeneity would be the very opposite of the variety and diversity of choice that I would like to see in mainstream culture. On the other hand, suggesting that hobbies are suited for men or women only and that this in some way confers a value judgement on them (with male-orientated hobbies superior) would only be reinforcing the male supremacist system that someone mentions above. I read somewhere recently about how the respect, value and indeed wages that a particular career attracts tends to reflect the extent to which it is considered to be a masculine job (i.e. masculine=intrinsically valuable). This is not something I stand for at all.

I am certainly not saying that women should take up football and reject sewing because traditionally male activities are more worthy of their time. Neither was I suggesting that women in male-dominated careers should be given more air time than any other women. What I was calling for was the diversity of roles and activities that women take up to be acknowledged. I suppose the examples of women I chose were partly a writing device to base the main argument of the blog around, that of wanting a more representative portrayal of women in the media. This would include women who knit, who bake and who stay at home to bring up their children, (as well as women who both knit and teach quantum physics!).

Ironfly mentioned female sports and documentary presenters… Whilst it’s true that there are some inspirational women in these roles it’s also true that they tend to be young and attractive, and often white, and so still not a representative sample of real women, I would say. Just look at recent debates over the tendency for older presenters to be replaced by younger women (Arlene Philips amongst others). I still feel that my point is valid that we are flooded with images of women in either traditional domestic or hypersexualised roles, and little else.

Glosswitch // Posted 16 April 2012 at 10:32 pm

I think it’s a question of who’s appropriating these activities. The Daily Mail featured an article on Kirstie Allsopp a couple of days ago, which aligned “traditional crafts” with skills that women had supposedly “lost” since going into the world of work (because they never worked outside the home before 1950 or something). I’ve no idea whether this is really Allsopp’s view – it’s certainly something the Mail wants to push.

I think terms such as “homemaking” don’t necessarily help as they blend together household tasks like washing and cleaning with creative, pleasurable activities. So if you knit you supposedly have the makings of a good little housewife (which is rubbish – I knit and my house is a tip. But the knitting does help to mitigate the disapproval when my partner’s mum comes to visit…).

Anyhow, off to make some more scarves that no one actually wants but which I LIKE MAKING, dammit.

Annie // Posted 17 April 2012 at 9:08 am

Kirsty Allsopp is immensely annoying – her Christmas craft show clearly had crafts for the boys (ice sculpture with chainsaws) and crafts for the girls (making cute things). In that form television is restricting women and, indeed, pushing them back into the home.

What we need is to see empowered women artists and crafters, especially those so skilled they make their living that way. There was once a programme – Mastercrafts – which had a weaver and a stained glass artist who both produced beautiful modern craft. I can’t remember what the artists looked like, but I do remember their art. I’d like to see a programme on freeform knitting and crochet, fibre art as pure art. I’d like a programme on modern quilting. I’d like to see women wielding chainsaws too.

I thought it was a really good blog post which provoked lots of thought, self-examination and discussion. It made me realise that actually I harbour a little bit of guilt at doing something so traditionally feminine. I shouldn’t. Fibre arts are one area where women lead the field and we should feel no shame in that. Nor should we let men discover these arts and then show us how they’re done ‘properly’, which happens so often.

Molly // Posted 17 April 2012 at 4:15 pm

The most interesting sentence in whole article for me is:

“Are women now expected to live up to the image of a 1950s housewife, cooking, cleaning and bringing up the brood all without so much as a hair falling out of place in addition to having a career?”

This very much encompasses how I feel! Which is, continually a failure because I don’t have a successful career, a clean and lovely house or the ability to handcraft lovely things. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with the portrayal of women in the media, but I definitely put down my crafty magazine and feel disheartened my home isn’t full of crocheted things and vintage finds. I also feel under pressure to have a worthwhile career, from my own sense of self-esteem and my partner who wants me to fulfil my potential which he believes is of some quantity. Wherever this “new femininity” has come from, I think it’s real – the world is adding more things to the pile of stuff women are expected to do and be. I for one feel very much like I don’t measure up to any one strand, let alone the whole ball of wool!

IronFly // Posted 17 April 2012 at 10:48 pm

I don’t think the media will ever accurately and fairly represent real life, nothing ever does. But I do agree that the types of women offered up by the media are very limiting compared to the types of men featured.

Molly – it’s almost as if we’ve been liberated and given all these lovely choices but now feel as if we’re in another trap, to be successful in everything rather than picking a few things and being good at them. I think if that’s the case it’s a tragedy and a misinterpretation of the idea of freedom.

(slightly going off on a tangent here but…)Personally I think this obsession we (I mean society, not feminists) have with careers is a bit sickening and detrimental in so many ways. People working themselves to death, people associating their identity and self-esteem too much with their jobs, obsession with making more money and judging others as lazy if they chose to live otherwise e.g. having a chilled out lifestyle, p/t work, no climbing the career ladder crap, lots of free time to spend with friends and family and nature). I could go on forever.

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