The XX Factor

Can Getting Rid of Women for a Week Teach Anything About Gender and Labor?


Will a week with no women actually help with equality? 

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Lifetime’s new reality TV series The Week the Women Went, strikes me as a new low in reality TV: arguing with a straw man. The show bills itself as a social experiment where all the women of a small town in Georgia are removed, proving … well, nothing, I’d imagine. If the producers think they’re making some bold feminist statement, they’ve missed the point. Outside of a few troglodytes on the Internet, sexists have never argued that society would be better off without women. Instead, the argument was that if women start competing for “men’s” jobs, the world wouldn’t have enough butt-wipers and floor-scrubbers, and then where would we be? No one on any spot on the political spectrum will be surprised to find out that without women cleaning and organizing the world, things will start to fall apart. The only question is what we think of that fact.

As entertaining as it will be to see small town Southern men helplessly flail around their own kitchens before resorting to take-out, I doubt the whole exercise will generate any more respect for women beyond a nicer Mother’s Day gift this year around. If anything, that will just reinforce the conservative argument that men are incapable of handling basic domestic chores and support staff work, and so—sigh—they’ll have to be left with the easy work, like running the world and having power. But that’s okay, because women can look forward to regular head pats and assurances that domestic labor is the hardest, most important job in the world, and anyone who disagrees hates Ann Romney and all mothers. I suppose it’s always possible that the men in this town, which was clearly selected to be as conservative as possible, will step up and handle their new workloads without complaining or freaking out, but I’m skeptical. For one thing, that wouldn’t make good TV, and for another, there’s no real incentive to get good at “women’s work.” After all, the women will be back to work in a week.

But I’m ever the optimist, so while I doubt this show will tell us anything new about women’s domestic labor, I do hope it helps draw attention to the underappreciated workers of the pink ghetto. Most of the media attention on women’s work focuses on trumped-up battles over the allure of home vs. the allure of well-paid professional work, but that discourse ignores how much of women’s paid employment in this world is an extension of the caring, cleaning, and organizing work that defines the domestic realm. Nursing, education, service work, secretarial work, and the unfun organizing and accounting work of running small businesses are all fields dominated by women. Seeing the world of business come to a standstill without women holding it together should be interesting, and maybe something could actually be learned about valuing that labor the way we should.