To misquote Ghandi, Robbie Williams and the great Mike Buchanan, “first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then you fight them, then – well, then you get told to get back in the kitchen, make them a sandwich and iron their shirt”. Sound familiar? It should do if you’re a feminist. “Get back in the kitchen” – a command that even my dad thought was a bit sexist in 1976 – is back in vogue. Got embroiled in a heated online debate? Getting a bit too uppity and clever for the likes of your designated mansplainer? Well, then, it’s “back in the kitchen” time for you, missy!
As argumentative techniques go, I have to say, this one’s a total bummer. Men only ever say it – or one of its many minor domestic servitude-related variants – to annoy you. No other reason for it. It’s not as though you can literally make your opponent a cup of tea and deliver it via a tweet, or iron his shirt and present it, crease-free, in your next CiF comment. They just want to make you cross in a really minor, low-level way that isn’t permitted to spill over into full-on rage because that would just be silly. I mean, seriously! “Make me a sandwich”? You want to install a twitter alarm button for that? (Actually, I do. The stupid domestic requests alert. Only it would be misused and you’d end up barred from all social media just for saying you fancied a custard cream, so it’s never going to happen.) Anyhow, people only say “get back in the kitchen” etc. to rile you but the trouble is, it works. Then you get extra-cross at yourself for feeling riled. Then you get even more cross with yourself for being meta-cross with yourself (or maybe that’s just me). Whatever, it’s really annoying.
There’s never been a time when women weren’t wanted in the kitchen. To be fair, it’s not that bad a place, providing you’ve stocked up on your coffee and bourbons. Moreover, even the most equal households have kitchen-based tasks that need doing. I don’t mind that. If my partner asks me to make him a cheese toastie, I don’t storm off in a huff at his privileged assumptions regarding my domestic role (but I don’t make him a cheese toastie, either, at least not at first. I wait until he’s making one and ask if he’ll make me one, too. Half the time this works, which I guess is more or less fair). Real domestic labour can be divided up however you like it. In practice it’s often not divided equitably, but that’s a different issue.
The sandwich-request-as-bid-to-stifle-debate is a different matter. I find it surprisingly hard to deal with, not least because I find it so belittling. Why? you might ask. It’s just a sodding sandwich. I know. That’s part of the problem. On the one hand it’s so trivial and daft that you’re not allowed to feel belittled. On the other the context in which it’s uttered – and what’s really meant by it – is completely enraging. But how to express that? You can’t ask a mansplainer “so are you telling me to …?” because all you’ll get in return is “ah, but I didn’t say that, did I?” Argh! Sometimes I bloody hate subtexts, I do.
Years ago, when elderly male relatives made quips about modern women needing to get back to home and hearth, there was at least an element of self-deprecation. These men were not (by and large) simply saying “I need my tea making!” but expressing their own puzzlement at a changing social order. I don’t hear this now when the same phrases are used. Young men – men who supposedly never grew up at a time when men expected their wives to wait on them – use “back in the kitchen” as a straightforward put-down. It’s a shorthand for telling women they’re still viewed as interlopers. We might now have given you rights but we know where you came from. You’re only here on sufferance, and on borrowed time. Even when it’s not coupled with an aggressive follow-on, it’s still nasty, entitled bullying. It’s a way of saying women won’t ever be viewed as equals, no matter what they do. It’s got nothing to do with who actually irons the shirts and everything to do with whether women’s voices and contributions are taken seriously in the outside, supposedly male world.
Of course, men who use insults like these are probably a damn sight more scared than you are. What if one day you are taken seriously? What if one day pretending it’s a level playing field while talking over women stops working? What if bit by bit the edifice crumbles? Who will cook tea then? To be honest, I don’t know. But the next time I’m ordered to make a virtual sandwich, I’m scoffing it myself.