Battlepanda: Who's got the Swiffer gene?


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Who's got the Swiffer gene?

Another day in the blogisphere, another flamin' battle-o-the-sexes discussion. This time, we have Matt Yglesias sensibly pointing out that it is a problem that even in households where both partners work, women still do 70% of the housework on average. This brought out the "toolicious" commenters who are all like "but is it our fault if my wife wants to dust the lampshades while I find reading the newspapers a better use of my time? There are simply differences between women and men is all....", these dumb-as-ass comments in turn necessitating a comprehensive smackdown by Belle Waring...

Of course, it is patently ridiculous to paint men as paint men as naturally less tidy due to some fuzzily defined evolutionary psychology reasons. We pretty much didn't have a need to clean house until we, um, lived in households nice enough to bother cleaning, which didn't happen all that long ago. And besides, casual observation will tell you that both men and women are naturally messy until the good habits of cleanliness and neatness are inculcated in them. Sometimes this process takes decades, as those who have been in the dormrooms of college students will be able to tell you. Girls get a head start in this process because societal expectations often means they start doing more around the house at an earlier age, and also because youngsters model their behavior on their elders. But men who have the same habits drilled into them, say at the military, become just as fastidious.

It's so simple really. Lets take away all the gender stuff for a little while and just think about it... Why do we need to keep clean and tidy? Apart from basic hygiene issues, which is a no-brainer, we accumulate a lot of crap in modern life -- laundry piles up, magazines pile up, dishes in the sink pile up. If we don't take care of the crap as we go along, life becomes inefficient, if not intolerable. Why is it so hard to understand that it is simply good SOP for everyone to lead an ordered life in a pleasant environment? And since we recognize that such a state is desirable, why is it not completely intuitive that each person in the household should pull their weight towards achieving that goal? There are no efficiency gains in making one person the drudge of the household, because the tasks are so fragmented anyhow. Now having said that, I think people who take the swiffer to the top of their ceiling fans more than once a year are nuts, and it's true that they're disproportionally female. But I think that's societal pressure too. Nobody is born with an innate compulsion to keep non-visible surfaces completely clear of dust. It usually takes decades of exposure to unreasonable standards, disapproving tut-tuts in your general direction, cleaning product commercials reinforcing how keeping the house spotless is your duty etc. etc. to induce this psychosis. A personal example: My boyfriend and I are both somewhat lacking in the tidyness department, but not disasterously so. I would say that we are a good match -- no major free-rider or tragedy of the common problems. I am more likely to take a whole afternoon to blitz through the whole apartment while he is better about picking up as he goes along. But the moment we find out that guests might be arriving, all bets are off. I start running around like a headless chicken stuffing junk into closets and scrubbing surfaces like they've never been scrubbed before, while he saunter about, unconcerned by the fact that people are going to be here! they're going to see that we're living like animals! Is he just naturally more sanguine about societal disapprobation than I am? I don't think so. But I get more freaked out because I have this vague sense that people are going to think badly of me if the apartment is dirty in a way that they are not going to of him. I'm sure that this is an unfounded fear most of the time, but that doesn't make it any less salient.

I have a feeling that both the Stepford Housewife who is more like a high-priestess to the shrine of her immaculate home and the frat-boy who has so many dead pizza boxes in his room that his floor is no longer visible are victims of gendered expectations of behavior. Their lives can both be made better if they broke out of their rut and loosened up or started picking up accordingly. The first step to doing that is to stop fooling themselves that their behavioral patterns around the house are predicated on whether or not they have a Y chromosome.