In her piece “Cleaning: The Final Feminist Frontier” in the New Republic, Jessica Grose highlights how women still bear a disproportionate burden of household maintenance. While we’re closer to balancing the domestic burdens between the sexes when it comes to child rearing and even cooking, Grose argues, cleaning is still one responsibility feminism hasn’t yet equalized.
Luckily, New York’s Jonathan Chait has proposed an easy way to rectify the domestic imbalance: Ladies, chill out and stop being such neat freaks. He believes that Grose has overlooked a critical explanation for the great cleaning gap: “Women in general just have higher standards for cleanliness than men do.” Thus, rather than making a big stink about cleaning and trying to get men to actually do more housework, Chait advises women to just “do less of it.”
To give credit where credit is due, Chait is probably right about women caring more about cleanliness. Chait says feminists like Grose shouldn’t assume “men derive equal enjoyment from a cleaner and neater home.” They just don’t care as much, and women shouldn’t either.
Unfortunately, Chait completely misses the part of Grose’s argument in which she agrees with him that women have higher standards—and explains that this is a result not of innate gender differences but of the greater societal pressure on women to maintain a clean home. When her husband’s father visits, Grose says, she’s the one who feels compelled to tidy up, not her spouse, because she’s worried she’ll be the one shunned for the mess. And this double standard is not just occurring inside Grose’s feminist head. Witnessing my boyfriend’s bedroom obstacle course of old sneakers and dirty laundry, visitors have asked how I could have let it get so bad. The messiness becomes a judgment on me, as I’m criticized for my willingness to spend time in such a place. Friends have even suggested it’s my responsibility to withhold romantic contact until he gets his room in shape.
And just think about how messy men are portrayed in popular culture. An unkempt space is a sign of a man’s strong work ethic, as he’s too busy dealing with “real” problems to bother tidying up. It’s endearing when President Obama mentions how his Washington, D.C., apartment as a junior senator was piled with pizza boxes. At worst, messy men have a lovable, “absent-minded professor” quality.
On the other hand, messiness in women usually denotes a life in disarray. In the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary, an opening scene of pajama-ed Renée Zellweger going through a fridge that is mostly empty—save for a few expired items—establishes how pathetic her professional and personal life are. Think of the countless romantic comedies that cut to a shot of a woman’s bedroom strewn with clothes and a half-eaten pint of ice cream to connote depression after a breakup. And if things are bad for messy women, God help the messy mothers. Just Google “messiness guilt” and “mothers” to see how much ink has been spilled on the maternal pressure to clean.
Before Chait begins telling women how easy it is to let go of their uptight tidiness and lower their standards for clean living, he should think hard about who’s going to be judged for all that sloppiness. And then maybe he should pick up the duster.