“I love that moment when you first come downstairs and you can tell the turkey’s already in the oven.” So says the placard outside my local Sainsbury’s, complete with the picture of a traditional Christmas roast. This quotation has started to irritate me every time I leave the house. “That moment”? Is this something with which I’m meant to be familiar? Is it meant to be pleasant? Because to me it sounds frankly disconcerting.
For many of us, wouldn’t our first thought on sniffing the turkey-scented air be “hang on, am I in the right house?” Turkeys don’t just put themselves in the oven, or at least you’d hope not (and if that’s the sort of poultry Sainsbury’s are now selling, I’m steering well clear).
Every time I see this advertisement I’m reminded of one thing: the trivialisation or even erasure of unpaid domestic labour, especially at Christmas. That said, it’s only now I’ve reached adulthood and have children of my own that I realise what a total pain in the arse Christmas can be. So much cooking, cleaning, tidying and washing when you’re sure you should be dozing drunkenly in front of the Coronation Street Special. You’d be forgiven for feeling taken for granted even without the addition of turkeys which take all the credit for cooking themselves.
Women’s magazines in particular make me shudder. Your easiest ever Christmas dinner! Make your home sparkle from just £1! Best-ever canapés from the UK’s top party planner! Your Christmas dilemmas … solved! You never see this on the cover of FHM and GQ. Spending the whole of Christmas caring for others is, apparently, a woman thing, and while that’s not literally the case in our household, the overall message is that it bloody well should be, especially if you’ve got kids. After all, that’s what mums are there for! We love it!
I consider this to be a feminist issue and yes, I’m aware how dramatic and self-indulgent that sounds. Given all the other oppression faced by women globally, who wants to be whinging about tearing greasy strips from the leftover turkey carcass while everyone else hits the sherry? It’s just the stuff of life, a minor, repetitive detail. Yet the little things add up, whatever the broader cultural context. If women lack financial independence, political status and physical freedom, it’s not because they are weak, frivolous or disengaged. Whatever localised opportunities they have gained, women the world over still do the majority of unpaid domestic work while the other half of the human race hasn’t really noticed.
Clearly Christmas is a frivolous, highly culturally specific example to pick on. Nonetheless, we still haven’t come to terms with the degree to an unequal division of household labour affects even fairly privileged women’s lives. The media representation of a middle-class family Christmas shows this, I think, in a particularly vivid light. To be standing alone in a kitchen, faced with dirty plates, dead animal carcasses and filthy pots and pans isn’t hell on earth, no. But if everyone else is slumped on the sofa, half-sozzled and intermittently mumbling “need any help, love?” (in a tone that makes you know it’s not sincere), it’s pretty clear what your status is. Whatever else you are, you’re only a woman and the things you do for others are seen as background noise.
The ongoing acceptance that women should do the majority of domestic tasks and that this work should be unpaid ought to trouble today’s feminists far more than it currently does. Perhaps it’s just not engaging enough. Why focus on dirty socks when media representation, sex and violence appear so much more immediate and pressing? We seem to have internalised the belief that because housework is, to a certain extent, trivial and repetitive, the issue itself is too trivial and repetitive to concern us. We’ve bought into the idea that to complain is to be an uppity snob who thinks she’s too good to pick up an iron. We’ve equated a subject not being edgy with it being irrelevant. Conversations about women’s work, started decades ago, have been left unfinished. Younger feminists aren’t interested, whereas older ones can’t take time off from cross-generational caring work to reiterate the original points.
We want our feminism to be dramatic. And yet, do you know why we’re not always getting it? Do you know why many women aren’t the activists we’d like them to be? Because they’re at home cleaning up all the shit. They’re poor and lack choices because no one pays them for the work they do. The work they do isn’t paid because it’s still viewed as women’s work, only to make matters worse, hardly anyone even admits this today. We pretend to live in a post-women’s work world, in which heterosexual couples divvy up roles in a cultural vacuum (and if an individual woman gets a poor deal, well, that’s her lookout). The light-hearted way in which we treat mum doing everything around the home – granting her a bonus “Night Off” KFC bucket if she behaves – masks a more insidious process of re-normalising an aspect of inequality which used to be questioned far more directly.
I realise this is a lot to read into a poster showing an admittedly delicious-looking Christmas turkey. What we need is a domestic revolution and obviously it’s unlikely to happen in between finishing off the pudding and munching on some late-evening turkey sandwiches. Still, if I had one Christmas message for young feminists, it would be this: however you spend the holiday season, whether or not you celebrate Christmas, if at some point you’re planning on smashing the patriarchy, just don’t leave your mum to clean up after you.