The case for growing up and grabbing a broom

A New York Times essay attempts to make The Case for Filth:

A recent, large cross-national study on the subject by an Ohio State sociologist found that “women’s housework did not decline significantly and men’s housework did not increase significantly after the mid-1980s in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.” [..] So why won’t men pick up a broom? Why won’t they organize a closet?

Beats me. And, frankly, I’m DYING for a plausible answer to that question.

At least one thing is becoming clear: The only possible solution to the
housework discrepancy is for everyone to do a lot less of it.

Oh, I see. You’re not going to attempt to answer the question (why can’t men pick up a broom?) and just leap to the age-old slacker roommate copout: hey, if it bothers YOU, then YOU should be the one to clean it up.

Actually, he goes one further: if it only bothers you, and not me, it’s inappropriate that it bothers you, so don’t bother cleaning it up. Which, frankly, is a line that ought get any roommate kicked out on his rear. Or at least on the hook for whatever it costs to hire a cleaning service.

Cleanliness feels organic while being highly constructed. [..] the relativism of hygiene over time is amazing. [..] There exists no agreed-upon definition of “what has to be done” in a household.

True enough. So why should the person with the highest filth and chaos tolerance, and the lowest standards for what constitutes a livable habitat, automatically “win”? Isn’t the real answer for the members of the household to come to some sort of agreement about what has to be done?

You may have had this argument yourself: Should housework be measured by the time spent on the task, or by effectiveness? What is necessary work and what is puttering? Should work that is physically taxing, like yard work, count more than work that isn’t, like the dishes?

An excellent question. I think this couple that decided to start bidding on on domestic chores might be heading in the right direction, though. Because once you have to put a dollar value on how much you don’t want to do a thing, that tells you exactly how much the chore is worth to you.

It got me to start thinking of how to quantify aspects of domestic service, starting with what a professional would charge. So, taxi service from my yoga studio on Capitol Hill to our apartment in Northgate — that would be about 30 bucks, so I’ll call “Paul picking me up from yoga” a service worth thirty bucks. Then I found that experienced house cleaners charge thirty dollars an hour. Of course! One hour of housework is worth a ride from yoga. It makes so much sense.

Except, I think scrubbing a toilet is worth more than that. I think that’s worth, oh, fifty or sixty bucks an hour. Maybe a hundred.

In an essay in New York magazine on the subject of housework in his own marriage, Jonathan Chait defended male indifference to housework as a question of having different standards than women.

Funny, that. Another male writer has the same premise as this male writer: the problem with unequal gender-based division of housekeeping labor is that women have unreasonable standards compared to men. If women were just reasonable, like men are, we wouldn’t have this problem.

Do guys have any answers to any questions that don’t boil down to “nagging women should back off and let men do whatever they want”?

When I cook, my wife tends to be responsible for the dishes. But she hates removing the cutlery from the dishwasher. [..] Every well-managed household is full of such minor insanities.

Sooo…. he thinks “The only possible solution to the housework discrepancy is for everyone to do a lot less of it,” yet here is is just a few paragraphs later, talking about a “well-managed household.” How exactly does he think a household gets well-managed without housework? Space aliens?

Households do not spontaneously organize themselves without effort. The managing of a household is, in fact, housework, just as surely as scrubbing a toilet. If he’s unable to recognize that, no wonder he thinks the solution to unequal division of labor is so “simple.”

in “The Second Sex,” Simone de Beauvoir identified housework as the key impediment to the liberation of women: “Woman is doomed to the continuation of the species and the care of the home — that is to say, to immanence.” [..] “The healthy young woman will hardly be attracted by so gloomy a vice,” she writes. [..] Simone de Beauvoir was wrong. Millions of young women are deeply attracted to the gloomy vice of domestic labor. Martha Stewart has made an empire of immanence. The bizarre phenomenon of modern young women proudly making their own candles, knitting and raising chickens

Um, no. Chores such as emptying the dishwasher are housework — knitting and raising chickens and stuff are hobbies. If you can’t tell the difference, you have no business talking about domestic labor, because clearly you don’t understand the problem.

I’ll give you an example: I cook as a hobby. I also cook as not a hobby. But cleaning up is never a hobby. Dishes and all that is domestic labor. I would like my husband to do the dishes when I cook, but it’s never happened. (And I think I really would feel better about this state of affairs if it were worth money to me… like, yeah, honey, you get the homemade pizza for free, but cleanup afterward is thirty bucks an hour. You’re welcome.)

The fantasies of domestic perfection are the feminine equivalent of “Ice Road Truckers” and “Deadliest Catch” and beer ads. Domesticity is the macho nonsense of women.

What a pithy, yet entirely nonsensical, statement.

Knitting is much more equivalent to, say, going out to your garage and building a cabinet — a domestic activity that was once necessary (because you couldn’t just go to the store and buy that stuff) and now is done for entertainment value.

Dieting and fitness are the macho nonsense of women. FYI.

And, in this light, it is not surprising that men have not started doing more of it.

Yeah, if you define housework as “frilly Martha Stewart domestic niceties that nobody actually needs to do unless they feel like it” it’s not surprising that men aren’t doing more of it. BUT WHAT ABOUT SCRUBBING THE DAMN TOILET? Paying the bills? Laundering towels and bedding? Dusting? Vacuuming? Taking out the garbage? Getting rid of unneeded items on a regular basis to keep the house from looking like an episode of Hoarders? Trying to make sure that flat surfaces — tables, chairs — don’t fill up with junk and stay that way so that they become unusable for their intended purpose? What about cooking? Cleaning the kitchen? Making sure there’s food to cook? Getting rid of spoiled food? Replacing lightbulbs?

Do you want a list? I bet your wife could provide you with a list.

The future probably does not involve men doing more housework.

Sigh. Probably. But don’t try to tell me that’s not bad news, okay? Don’t try to tell me it’s no big deal that we still haven’t answered the question about why men can’t seem to pick up a broom.

Here is the good news: Men’s behavior may not be changing, but women’s is. According to a 2000 study by University of Maryland sociologists, time-diary data from American adults show that the number of hours spent on domestic labor, not including child care or shopping, has declined steadily since 1965. This finding is mainly due to declines among women, both those with jobs and those without jobs. They have cut their housework hours almost in half since the 1960s.

Three plausible explanations for that: 1. Labor-saving devices. 2. Weird stuff women used to do that didn’t really need doing (ie ironing sheets). 3. Households drowning in chaos and resentment.

Number 1 is great. Number 2 is the premise of this essay. But number 3 is the problem. If women are doing less housework, but that means households are less functional and people are unhappy, then nobody is actually winning.

Caring less is the hope of the future.

Error. Insufficient data. He assumes that the reason for the decline is entirely #2.

Housework is perhaps the only political problem in which doing less and not caring are the solution, where apathy is the most progressive and sensible attitude.

You know, this sort of condescending nonsense is exactly what the term “mansplaining” was invented to describe. See, ladies, the problem isn’t that men aren’t doing their share — the problem is that you care too much! Be more like men — who are, naturally, in this as in all things, the default measure of reasonableness — and just force yourself to care less!

Fifty years ago, it was perfectly normal to iron sheets and to vacuum drapes. They were “necessary” tasks. The solution to the inequality of dusting wasn’t dividing the dusting; it was not doing the dusting at all.

Ironing sheets I’ll grant you — but not dusting? Seriously, dude. Some of us have allergies.

The solution to the gender divide in housework generally is just that simple: don’t bother. Leave the stairs untidy. Don’t fix the garden gate. Fail to repaint the peeling ceiling. Never make the bed.[..] A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Hope is messy: Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.

Okay — listen — apathetically giving up on domestic maintenance and living in filth and squalor is not the sign of a progressive and sensible attitude. IT’S A SIGN OF DEEP DEPRESSION. It’s not normal or desirable and I’ll bet you anything the writer is not actually okay with it. Nobody enjoys tripping over random junk every time they go upstairs, or staring up at a disintegrating ceiling all the time, or sitting on an unmade bed, or dealing with a garden gate that doesn’t work every time they come home. That’s why rich people hire housekeepers and stuff.

I’m guessing that the writer simply assumes that a maintained level of moderate chaos — like most households have — is the result of unchained domestic apathy. His praise of “filth” and “squalor” makes sense only if he has no idea what true filth and squalor really are — if he thinks that everybody can just give up domestically and you still somehow have a household that is “well-managed,” where people do things like cook and empty dishwashers.

Maybe he’s never seen a true real-life “bachelor pad” household that conducts itself as he’s recommending. But I have. THEY ARE FAR MORE DISGUSTING THAN YOU CAN IMAGINE. It gets to the point where you can’t use any objects and don’t want to touch any surfaces. You walk inside and inhale dust, rat droppings, spoiled food, dirty socks and start coughing and don’t want to take off your coat or sit down. They look bad, smell bad, and don’t actually function very well as households. The level of chaos generated when people don’t ever clean up at all for a prolonged period is stunning.

But it’s true that only guys seem to end up living that way. Why? We still haven’t answered that question. Why are men so frequently unable to stir themselves to grow up and grab a broom? It’s not merely the addictive nature of video games and Internet porn, is it?

And if men are generally more tolerant of filth than women — for whatever reason — it is NOT EGALITARIAN TO ORDER THE WOMEN TO BECOME MORE LIKE THE MEN. That is pretty much the opposite of egalitarian, actually.