Friday, July 16, 2010

So, what are we really saying?

Type in the words "retro housewife" on youtube, and you might be in for a surprise. There are a plethora of homemade videos out there, mostly lampooning the June Cleaver-in-pearls-and-an apron-waiting-at-the-door-with-the-pipe-and-slippers image we so associate, for good or ill, with post-War America.

I chose this one because it's obviously made by young people who very likely have never even seen an episode of "Leave It to Beaver." And the narrative in the video is taken from an actual 1950s era article, which I believe comes from "Good Housekeeping" and made the email rounds a few years ago. It's a list of tips advising women how best to run their households, and (*gasp*) "serve" their husbands. The clip is a strange mixture of cute and cuttingly sarcastic, a brew of the Greatest Generation meets the college Goth. You can almost hear these kids waxing indignant whenever the camera is shut off, declaring "Can you believe that people EVER lived like this?"

Don't get me wrong. There were gender roles in the 1950s that needed a bit of a stretch. Repression and perfection were the order of those days...but my theory is that it was more to be found as a message in the media than in those actual suburban neighborhoods. And the video did make me chuckle. But it also made me think.

What's the hidden things that are being mocked here? Could it be a well-ordered home? A woman who cares enough about her husband to cook his favorite thing for dinner? The very concept of giving to others? Could one even say that it was mocking of women/wives/mothers in general?

Caitlin Flanagan, in her insightful and controversial book "To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Your Inner Housewife", comments about this same narrative:

"[It] advises the housewife to prepare for husband's arrival at the end of the day: to have dinner ready, to minimize household noise and clutter, to avoid assaulting her man with a litany of domestic problems and disappointments, and to inquire about his day. There was a sense back in those innocent years that a day at the office was a tiring event that required a bit of recuperation: a cold drink, a sympathetic companion, a decent meal--all of which, I suspect, functioned as a sexual tonic."

Tonight I'll have homemade Chicken Parmesan waiting on the table when Dave comes home. Our evenings are cozily predictable, marked by good conversation about daily adventures, favorite books, and curling up on the couch. My husband works a dangerous job, and to me, it is a special occasion every time he walks through the door. He even says, "Honey, I'm home!" If he wore slippers or smoked a pipe, I'd bring them to him in a heartbeat.

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