Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Domestic Hobbies

One of my  DIY projects - I wear it constantly!

I had a day off on Monday. Brendan and I went to Dihua Street to look at fabric for sheer curtains - we also ate lunch, I stopped to chat with my tailor and  got a massage, too. To be honest, I'm the one who cares about curtain colors - Brendan came along to keep me company, give a few opinions, eat delicious shrimp roll rice and make funny commentary (me: "I actually like the idea of this deep taupe color with an intense eggplant purple, but I can't wrap my head around actually using such a Grandma color." Brendan: "I didn't even know 'taupe' was a color until you just said so. This is why you're taking charge of this. If it were me, I'd be all 'Oh, that's not gray? OK, I'll just keep my mouth shut.'")

Generally speaking I've been thinking about home furnishings, paint colors, curtains and other arguably "stereotypically feminine" stuff since we signed the lease on the new apartment. I'm tickled to have a great new space to work with.

After our fabric scouting (Brendan: "I like light colors but let's stay away from anything that screams 'cupcake frosting', 'preschool' or 'retirement home') we stopped for coffee at the outdoor cafe attached to Yongle Market. Brendan was making general social commentary as he read the Taipei Times and later correcting student homework. I was happy to sip my coffee and think about color schemes:  ruby and plum! Persian green and peacock! Cranberry and cerulean!

At first glance this might make us look like the latest thing to step out of Stepford: a silly woman thinking about nothing of substance beyond what color to paint her living room, and a man reading the paper. I realized this, turned to Brendan, and said: "You know, I don't think it's so bad that I'm enjoying one of Taipei's rare sunny days by sitting outside contemplating color schemes. I mean, I have a good job, I can support myself, I'm educated, I'm reasonably politically tuned in and interested in being civically active and have traveled on my own dime around the world. I don't think it's a degradation to my female empowerment that I'm sitting here trying to decide whether to paint a wall of the living room Persian green or peacock blue, or that you are not thinking about it."

Of course I know Brendan realizes this: he married me - clearly he knows me. I just tend to say lot of things like this in a stream-of-consciousness way. It's how I think. Yes, I do tend to keep up a verbal, mumbled, running commentary at home (I can curb it in public) and I'm sure it's annoying as hell!

Which brings me to this piece in The Washington Post - which, by the way, I love the slightly retro hipster art depicting the hipster girl (you can tell because she's wearing Hipster Glasses, has a hipster 'bird' tattoo and totally hipster haircut).   The writer asks:

But in an era when women still do the majority of the housework and earn far less of the money, “reclaiming” domesticity is about more than homemade holiday treats. Could this “new domesticity” start to look like old-fashioned obligation?

I don't earn "far less money" in my field, but the point is taken. And:

Women like me are enjoying domestic projects again in large part because they’re no longer a duty but a choice. But how many moral and environmental claims can we assign to domestic work before it starts to feel, once more, like an obligation? If history is any lesson, my just-for-fun jar of jam could turn into my daughter’s chore, and eventually into my granddaughter’s “liberating” lobster strudel (from the bakery). And as . . . delicious as that sounds, it’s not really what I want on my holiday table in 2050.

Although, to be honest, the societal expectation waaaay back in the day that women would can jam, make clothes and blankets and generally tend the house didn't start because newly settled communities in early  civilizations didn't have legions of just-post-Neolithic women who thought it was "fun", and from there it turned into an obligation such that refusing to do it (or  simply not being inclined to) became a punishable offense. Nobody's really sure why it happened - I don't  entirely buy the evolutionary psychology thing - but I doubt it was because women 11,000 years ago enjoyed housework. 

Women - both in Taiwan, much of Asia and the West - still sometimes suffer these expectations. Women become a target for it when planning weddings and having children especially: it's like everything that people are keeping inside or don't want to admit they actually think comes out.  One person I  knew from Offbeat Bride's planning community was told "learn how to make swan-shaped pastries. Your husband will love that. Men like it when women know how to do these kinds of things."      

Uhhh...really? Because I think Brendan would be all "cool" and then eat the pastry, and he's one of the most in-touch, feminist men I know (which is why I married him, natch)! 

It's true though: I feel that my desire to  decorate, or my love of jewelry-making, or my skill with cooking and baking, don't threaten or contradict my being an empowered woman - but that's because I have the freedom to choose to do these things or not, as I wish. For what it's worth,  men have the same choice. Who chooses to exercise it is really not my concern, although I'd like to see a socialization process from childhood that encouraged boys who are so inclined to pursue these hobbies without fear of being seen as 'effeminate' or 'unmanly'.

Frankly, I'd like to see gender assignment be stricken entirely from the various hobbies one might have. I'd like to see cooking, knitting, quilting, painting, canning, hiking, computer geekery, doing various sports, enjoying good whiskey, wine or beer, stamp collecting, insect collecting etc. lose their 'feminine' and 'masculine' labels entirely.

I would not, however, want my generation's desire to knit, bake and can to become our daughter's expectation that she should enjoy these things, to become her daughter's obligation to do them, to become her daughter's renewed fight for liberation from expectations that she do them. It is all too easy to see she likes to sew and cook become women like to sew and cook, then women like to sew and cook, so they should do those things, then, women aren't predisposed to working outside the home, after all they are naturally better at sewing and cooking, then woman, fix my shirt and cook my dinner!, then you're a woman and you don't like to sew and cook? What's wrong with you? You must be a morally bankrupt harlot! Send her to Dr. Englebert for shock therapy!

I say this, even though it's a bit repetitive, because I've seen a very similar thought process in individuals (usually men, but some women too). I think it's relevant to this blog because, while Taiwan is a much better place for women to live than other Asian countries, I have seen similar thought processes here - again, mostly among men, but you hear it from women too.

Which begs the question - at what point would expectations that a woman should enjoy things that can genuinely be "fun", like sewing and cooking, become an expectation that she should also do things like, oh, say, all that other housework that falls under virtually nobody's definition of "fun"? It's all well and good when one does things that many see as pleasurable, but what about all that domestic stuff - like scrubbing and sweeping - that nobody really enjoys? When does that include giving up gains in the workplace to stay home and do that work, because women "enjoy it more" or "are better at it"? And does that lead to discussions of "nurterers" or "providers"? As the article says:

Many champions of the DIY movement explicitly say that domestic work shouldn’t be about gender. But I’ve also noticed a resurgence of old-fashioned gender essentialism from some surprising sources. I’ve lately been hearing things like “There’s just something natural about women taking on the nurturing role in the home” coming out of the mouths of women’s studies grads and Ivy League PhDs.

This bothers me, because I do think that this tendency is far more 'nurture' and not nearly as much 'nature' as people think. Millenia of social 'nurturing' towards these roles can, in fact, create what seems like a natural tendency. Even if some of it is biological, not all of it is.

It also bothers me because I'm sorry, I just don't feel that way. I like my DIY projects but I am not, not, not a nurturer in the home (this is not a "the lady doth protest too much", this is my reaction to years of hearing people say that "women" are like this, implying that I, as a woman, should also be like this). I'm not a caregiver, really - I'm a natural provider. I'm pretty good at winnin' the bread, bringin' home a large chunk of the bacon. I can be  nurturing but it is not a role I take to long-term. I can provide short-term care but long-term nurturing would drive me up a wall. It's one reason why I'm not inclined to have kids. I'm good at certain types of DIY but not a dynamo in the domestic sphere: I'm terrible at housework, both at remembering to do it and at executing it. 

I have the freedom to enjoy my various DIY hobbies because I can do them without fear that it will lead to an expectation that I would prefer doing them to working, or that I can't or shouldn't be a breadwinner because I'm "just a silly woman" who likes to bake, decorate and make jewelry. I am sure there are still people out there who believe that staying home might be an option that I choose someday (it won't - I guess you never can say but if either of us stayed home it would just as likely be Brendan), but generally speaking they don't say so (thanks!) and most people wouldn't question the coexistence of my career with my hobbies. My mother does  a lot of  DIY and my mother-in-law is an expert quilter, and nobody would question that they are empowered women. 

I also mention this with relation to Taiwan because while back home, the idea of a "house husband", while rare, is basically accepted. At least it's conceived of. I mention the word "house husband" or "stay at home dad" in Taiwan and I get laughs - oh! What a cute word! Haha! - in a tone that clearly indicates that it's a hilarious idea from the West but of course no family in Taiwan would include something so preposterous as a house husband. It's unheard of, and not considered seriously - when it should be.  You still hear stories like that of one of my students:  she once told me she spent the weekend cleaning her apartment, because her mother-in-law was visiting, and expected his (ie her son's) apartment to be clean and would criticize her (the daughter-in-law) if it wasn't spotless. 

I say this believing that these days, for most women in Taiwan and the West (but not necessarily the rest of Asia), staying home is done out of choice, not expectation. In the West, men have the same choice. In Taiwan, they really don't.

Taiwanese women don't seem to be pushed to pursue 'feminine' hobbies, but I do see them steered away from 'masculine' ones. Most people wouldn't necessarily expect a Taiwanese woman to enjoy cooking, scrapbooking or sewing but they would definitely not expect her to enjoy, say, whiskey tasting, woodworking, computer geeking or certain sports - and they might judge her negatively for those things, far more harshly than I would get judged back home (which is not that harshly at all: women can pick up "masculine" hobbies with little problem - it's men picking up "feminine" ones that stirs derision). 

I will say that I have noticed that Taiwanese women are not expected to enjoy cooking - or even to do it regardless of enjoyment - nearly as much as women in other Asian countries.  There are still some old-school mothers in law who do the cooking because they think they should, or are happy to, or have convinced themselves that they're happy to. There are others who expect that their daughter-in-law will do it. Other than them and possibly a few misogynist men, it's far more acceptable for a Taiwanese woman - at least in Taipei -  to say "yeah, I don't cook" or "we eat out a lot because I'm a terrible cook" or "our domestic helper cooks because I can't" or "sometimes I make fried rice or fish, but that's it" than it is  for a Japanese, Chinese or Korean woman to be so  honest.

I can, however, imagine an American man picking up, say, making jam more easily than I could see a Taiwanese man doing it - and I see neither picking up knitting or quilting. Yet you hear so many expats saying that Taiwanese men are 'effeminate' or 'not manly' (I don't agree, though - well, I almost always don't agree. When I see a man walking by holding his girlfriend's glittery pink heart purse, I have to admit...). That brings up a whole new discussion of gender dynamics in Taiwan that I might explore in a later post.

It's also worth pointing out this section: 

"...writer Erin Bried recalls serving her dinner party guests a homemade “rhubarb” pie accidentally made with look-alike Swiss chard. One might chalk this up as a simple goof (hey, they’ve both got red stems!), but Bried sees her mistake as something much more serious: “When did I lose my ability to take care of myself? . . . What is simultaneously comforting and alarming about my domestic incompetence is that I am hardly alone. I’m joined by millions of women, Gen Xers and Gen Yers, who either have consciously rejected household endeavors in favor of career or, even more likely, were simply raised in the ultimate age of convenience and consumerism.”

This vision of what it means for a woman to take care of herself is either radically new or incredibly retro. Bried is a senior staff writer at a major national magazine, yet she’s framing her ability to take care of herself around her ability to bake a pie.
Exactly - this is why I am posting this at all. I frame my ability to take care of myself around my ability to be self-sufficient, to create and  nurture good relationships, to set and achieve goals and have enough time and money to do things I enjoy. This includes being able to take care of a home, but by that I mean "cook myself a decent, edible meal, not give anyone food poisoning, and keep the place relatively clean without ruining my stuff".  You know, not that much more than one normally expects of bachelors. Being able to bake a pie, is really, honestly a bonus. It would  genuinely scare me to see a new generation of women framing their abilities around only what they can do in the home, and not just a part of what they're capable of, and things like pie baking and knitting are placed where they belong: nice skills to have, but not strictly necessary. Not necessary the way being able to earn a living wage (even if you, with your partner, choose not to do so in lieu of equally valuable contributions at home) is, or being able to clean without destroying your floor, cook a basic meal without killing yourself, handle your own finances or have satisfying relationships are.

I guess I don't have a clear point, other than to provide my thoughts on the article above and tie it in a few ways to my own life and  what I've observed in Asia.

It does lead me to a final point, though, that a resurgence of domestic hobbies isn't what we, the new generation of feminists, need to be fighting for - in the West or in Taiwan. We still have a lot of other things to tackle:

Equal Pay for Equal Work: this gets better all the time, but those who say that women's salaries are lower only because of the kind of work they do or amount of work they put in vis-a-vis family time miss the point. The first point is that no, studies clearly show lower paychecks for the same job done at the same level of dedication. Secondly, jobs that typically are done by women (teaching, nursing etc) are generally speaking underpaid - they deserve far more than they get. Especially teachers, who are professionals just like doctors or lawyers, although in a different way.

Equal Dedication to Family: a lot of women drop off in the workforce because the societal expectation is still on them to be the 'nurterers' and 'caregivers' - so  they're expected to cut back at work far more than men.  Flextime for family should be something that both parents can take advantage of without stigma. Making the business world family-friendly is not just something that working mothers need, working fathers need it too. The lack of childcare support, which keeps a lot of women who are not so well off that they can afford a nanny or private day care at home, is also a big problem (less so in Taiwan where many people have family to fill this role, but still a problem).

This also includes equivalent/fair childrearing time done by both spouses -  even if one stays home - and equivalent time doing housework or other domestic tasks. If the family decides they're going to make their own cheese or  jam or grow their own vegetables, then I want to see men getting in on that action, too. 

Insidious Beliefs about (against) Reproductive Freedom: 'nuff said. It just doesn't go away. That's sad.

Virulent Misogynist Beliefs: far worse than "oh she's a woman and she likes making jam" are  people who genuinely believe that submissive women are "better" than assertive ones, who believe that beauty is truly more important for a woman than brains, who believe - openly! - that women are the gatekeepers of sexuality and chastity and that men can never be expected to be responsible, and who place ridiculous expectations on women - that we can't be too smart, that we always need to be just a bit thinner or more buxom, that we should be super skinny and yet still cook amazing brownies and not be afraid to eat them, that we should make less than our spouses or not be quite as successful. This group includes anyone who likes "Asian women" for being "more beautiful, slender, submissive, gentle" or whatever tripe, and especially those who say that openly. (It does not include men who are dating an Asian woman just because he happens to like her for her - I want to be very specific about that).                                          

It's one thing to have a personal preference for certain personality types, and there is nothing wrong with women who are quieter, not as naturally assertive, not as take-charge - and nothing wrong with men who tend to like those women. There's nothing wrong with two people who agree that they want a more traditional home life. 

It becomes wrong when someone decides that submissiveness, quietness and other qualities traditionally pegged to women are "better" than women who are talkative, take-charge, assertive and maybe a little brash. It becomes a problem when you believe that being a woman means you should be a doormat. It becomes a problem when they criticize any other personality type in a woman as 'unfeminine' or 'undesireable', or imply that all women 'should' be a certain way by virtue of them being women.

I will add that those guys are wrong, simply by virtue of the fact that women like me exist. They're just wrong. If they were right I'd be a miserable spinster (not that all unmarried women are miserable or could be called spinsters - I'm using a term they'd use). I wouldn't have a happy life and wonderful husband who prefers me to all the "slender, beautiful, quiet, submissive" women out there.

Equal Representation: those who say "you've won the battle, what are you still crowing about?" clearly haven't looked at the numbers for female representation in politics, the vitriol of attack ads aimed at female candidates that sometimes border on sexist (and sometimes blatantly are sexist). They haven't looked at the numbers at the higher echelons of business or wealth distribution. Oprah is famous for being an extremely wealthy black woman because she's the exception, not the norm. Cher Wang, again - exception, not the norm. We are underrepresented and attacked when we try to represent. This needs to change.

Societal Treatment of Abuse, Rape and Harassment: again, 'nuff said.

Basically, yes, there are issues raised by this resurgence of domestic 'hobbies' among young women, but that's not nearly our biggest issue. Let's tackle the above first, just as our mothers and grandmothers did, and not really worry about who likes knitting and who doesn't.

1 comment:

US tax Abroad said...

that's such a gorgeous necklace you made!