Monday, September 29, 2008

Don't You Know Childcare Is Women's Work?

This is what appeared in my Sunday paper, and I have to say I'm more than slightly appalled. It isn't that I look to For Better Or For Worse for my feminist thought of the day, but I would be all the more pleased to not see this kind of "joke" anywhere ever again. Elly is a stay at home mom. So why can't John spend a good portion of the evening with the children? Why is he (and the other fathers/spouses) equated to a babysitter by the waitress? Why are John and the other fathers depicted as less likely to actively parent and more likely to view parenting as some chore designated to these ladies? Why is the demeaning of fatherly importance considered humorous?

The sad thing is, I have read a lot about the feminist movement devaluing fathers and husbands; but I disagree. This devalues fathers, this idea that mothers are and should always be the primary caregivers. The idea that women should cut their fun time short because otherwise they will have to "pay big time" for having left their children in the care of their spouse is much more insidious and not feminist in the least. It reinforces those gender roles of women being the caregiver and the primary parent and men being the breadwinner and the head of the household. And these are the gender roles and the divisions of labor that affect how women and men see the world and their places in it and also effect rulings in child custody battles. If the overriding idea of the land is that the woman is automatically the parent and the man has to be paid or bribed or have his time with his children forced upon him, then judges will rule accordingly.

Crankosaur recently wrote a post discussing men's doofishness around the house, and why it is not, as some would claim, an example of feminism run amuck but an example of the traditional societal norms rearing their ugly heads, saying:
The purpose of the Stupid Husband is not to put men down, but rather to put women down, to insult them, to reinforce a gendered division of labor.
It is also something Sarah Haskins lampoons in her most recent Target: Women, saying in response to the commercials "Everyone you live with is an idiot!" Which is pretty much the lesson commercials want us to take from them. Men, children, and teenagers can't clean up after themselves, which is why we women have to clean up after everyone without recognition and not fume over that whole "unequal gender divide in housework" statistics because men (and children... and teenagers) just can't help it. They are apparently genetically predisposed to doing stupid things like leaving the lid off of the blender and betting on how many paper towels it is going to take to clean up one of their spills. The feminist movement helped women gain access to and respect in areas in the public domain, but in too many cases it has not had the effect of legitimizing men's work inside the domestic sphere. And television, commercials, and comic strips help reinforce the notion that there are still areas that are almost solely women's work. That just by being one half of a reason someone is alive is no reason to actively and equally parent them, that making a mess does not mean having to clean it up, and that food preparation is a gendered art - unless, of course, they are chefs, in which case they will predominately be male.

That sort of reinforcement rankles. I would give anything to have more television shows and movies portray the man either cooking or cleaning or hanging out with his kids independent of his wife or girlfriend making him. I don't know how to make what is still considered a woman's domain, and thus beneath most male involvement, into something men will voluntarily do, will expect to be responsible for. I suspect it has to do with figuring out how to make women and men actually equal. From where I stand, one of the reasons the gender divide is still so great in terms of housework duty is because society devalues areas in which women have traditionally had greater influence. To call a man a woman is still a grave insult because to be a woman is undesirable; thus, to do chores traditionally designated to women is also undesirable. Commercials and television shows and comic strips like the one above only continue to make that assertion; we need to work harder at making the opposite one.


John said...

Wow. "For Better or Worse" gets an awfully large spread, considering the fact that that joke could have been told in four panels.

Anyway, I took the strip to mean that they had stayed out later than the time they and their husbands had agreed upon. In the interest of being fair, a wife would have the right to be upset with her husband if he stayed out later than he agreed to, especially if they were sharing childcare duties. I didn't see it as bribery or a question of who is the "automatic" parent, just that they had an agreement and accidentally broke it.

As for how to motivate guys to do chores, I think Penny Arcade stumbled upon a rather interesting solution. Naturally, it will only work on RPG geeks, but that's at least a few people (judging by game sales, anyway.)

petpluto said...

"I didn't see it as bribery or a question of who is the "automatic" parent, just that they had an agreement and accidentally broke it."

I would agree if the comic had stopped at the "look at the time" comment, maybe even adding in the "we're going to pay -big time". It is the inclusion of "we've been away from the kids for so long" that raised my hackles. Along with Elly being a stay-at-home mom I definitely got a "mom is the primary parent; dad is only the babysitter" vibe (an interpretation furthered by the waitress's own confusion, allowing for fathers to be equated with babysitters).