Yesterday, Jonathan Chait suggested that maybe women could get over their disgruntlement over doing more housework than their male partners by just ... well, by just doing less. Or as he put it:
Women in general just have higher standards of cleanliness than men do. People who care a lot about neater homes spend more time cleaning them because that makes them happy. And while I agree in general that domestic life requires more gender equality, the housework problem has a partial solution that’s simpler and more elegant: Do less of it.
Let us skip-hop around the stereotypes innately baked into the assumptions about hetero partnerships here and break down the risible assumptions in the passage above. Then I will explain how they tie into last summer's breakout novel, Gone Girl, which will eventually be used by time management consultants as an inspiring story about the power of a well crafted to-do list.
Tidiness and gender are not linked on the X chromosome. Your attitudes about order and cleanliness are likely shaped during childhood, and a lot of them are situationally based. If men's affinity (or lack thereof) toward housework were genuinely a sex-linked trait, they would not exhibit the kind remarkable adaptive behavior that leads to things like "men's participation in housework in U.S. families has nearly doubled in the past 40 years, and their amount of time spent on childcare has tripled."
Chait goes on to point out that people who clean more do it because neat homes make them happy, then suggests ...
Wrong supposition the second: "The housework problem has a partial solution that’s simpler and more elegant: Do less of it."
So rather than look at the reams of evidence noting that people in marriages with a more equitable division of household labor are happier and saying, "Hey, I could keep the counter clean and keep my wife happy -- win-win," we have someone saying, "Suck it up, lady who is happy in a neat house. Sink to our standards."
In other words, what's a little lady-specific happiness in the face of not having to wipe down the booster chair after every meal?
This whole "You'll be happier if you just like what the guys like" argument reminds me of my favorite passage in Gone Girl, where one of the novel's central characters -- a Gen Xer like me who hit the dating pool right around the time noted public health researcher Jenny McCarthy burst into pop culture as the girl to date -- delivers a gimlet-eyed appraisal of what it means to adopt the male-approved "cool girl" personal:
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”
Needless to say, the character concludes, men don't feel the need to reciprocate by spending a weekend binge-reading Bronte.
And I feel like this, "Learn to love a little squalor, lady!" argument is basically the Cool Girl pressure brought to domestic labor. Why should the men bother, amirite? Why can't you be cool about a mountain of dishes in the sink? Or visible crumbs in the carpet?
(I had to take a deep breath to even type those last two sentences.)
The entire "Just do less housework, duh" argument is so dismissive. It devalues the tidier partner's desires for a calm and orderly refuge, and it devalues the actual labor that housework entails.
And while I'm ranting, suggesting that the only reason women care so much about housework is we confuse the contents of a glossy magazine with reality is pretty damned dismissive too, especially when the concluding passage suggests that raising young slobs is an empowering message about achievement.
No, it's a message that you're not responsible for your own space or things, or for respecting the wants and feelings of people who share your home. And if you can't cultivate basic executive-function skills at home, where the stakes are comparatively low, where and how will you develop them?
Housework is not some shelter-based version of dressing up and playing princess, it's not an exclusively female phenomenon and it's not something that just goes away with a little rhetoric about equality.
Housework is, at its heart, about demonstrating a fundamental respect for yourself and your loved ones by valuing your shared stuff, your shared space and your shared time enough to take care of them as precious and limited resources.
If you can't cultivate an ethos of respect in the most intimate environments ... well, then, you've got bigger problems than whose turn it is to rinse the food out of the dish drain.