(Note: I wrote this several years ago and while Instagram has now outstripped Pinterest as women’s favoured platform for sharing recipes and home decor, I’m reposting the article because the issues it addresses are sadly far from outdated).
Teeming with endless pictures of magnificent cakes, sumptuous floral bouquets and festive holiday decorations, millions of women participate in the popular social media platform called Pinterest. Here women take photos of food and ‘pin’ these recipes, as well as crafting how-tos, and home décor tips on virtual bulletin boards. Others then endlessly repin this material, making Pinterest a kind of modern day digital home almanac.
Pinterest’s user pool is predominantly women and the most popular pins circulated on the site are Food & Drink, Crafts & Home Décor, Women’s Fashion and Weddings. Is this cause for concern? Are we falling victim to what some feminist’s call Pinterest’s regressive gender stereotyping and ‘back to the kitchen’ mentality’? Does Pinterest mania make us more interested in conventional womanly pastimes than say, the pursuit of equality?
I don’t think so. As a feminist, I see this belittling of the urge to beautify, decorate and celebrate as undermining the important domestic work women have done in the home for eons. And while I have no problem that Ms. Magazine encourages its readers to move beyond “traditional feminine pursuits” to pin topics on politics, domestic violence prevention, rape culture awareness etc., I do take issue with the implication that domestic pursuits are less than progressive.
Let’s face it, creating beauty and ritual in everyday meals and household objects has been a preoccupation of women for thousands of years. From Africa to China, Europe to the Americas our foremothers cared deeply about adorning every household aspect of life, from pots, weaving, embroidery, house painting, furniture to bedposts. But what we’ve forgotten is this ‘beautifying’ was about much more than décor. It was part of what can only be described as an ancient women’s religion in which the home was seen as the spiritual centre of daily life, and the hearth a sacred altar.
Spinning, weaving, harvesting, cooking, cleaning, and what we see today as ‘quaint’ decorative crafts were once ritual objects in a women’s magic designed to bring prosperity, joy and protection into our homes. And no part of the home or daily life was considered too mundane to be blessed and/or made beautiful.
In many ways these domestic traditions could be said to be preserved and passed down through Pinterest. Could this have something to do with Pinterest’s spell-binding allure today? Does Pinterest thrive because some part of us recognizes what has gone missing from our modern lives? Has “pinning” an image of those cookies or cake we no longer have time to bake become a kind of ritual, one that insists that everyday details of domestic life are still sacred and meaningful?
I’ve spent a lot of late nights pondering (during pinning sessions when I just can’t tear myself away from the computer and go to bed) what itch of mine—exactly—was getting scratched in these glowy ambient depictions of casseroles and wooly home knit mittens? And what I observed was this: here, the ordinary is rendered extraordinary by the “feminine” touch. Here the normally mundane objects of our daily lives are elevated into something iconic, even transcendent.
Obviously Pinterest isn’t all sugar and light. I agree with critics who say it can promote consumerism, superficiality and the glorification of appearances – à la Martha Stewart. And let’s not forget this is a world of mostly white privilege. But what I see evoked in the multiplicity of recipes, home crafts and “home how to’s” is a cross cultural legacy of the domestic arts that have not only historically made everyday life more pleasurable, but spiritually meaningful.
And whether we actually make time to crochet those lovely little potholders or weave the corn dolly we’ve pinned is beside the point. Something draws us back over and over again to pin images of double dark chocolate torte cake, plump cinnamon buns and ravishingly laid out dining tables.
Granted this may be a guilty pleasure – but c’mon is it really a regressive feminine pastime? In an article for Forbes.com, author Victoria Pynchon claims “it’s hard to find business women, feminists, and politics on Pinterest” and the site “looks like the Ladies’ Home Journal of 1962 or Good Housekeeping in 1958.” Is Pinterest, as Amy Odell, editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine argues “killing feminism” by “reinforcing the retrograde, materialistic content that women’s magazines have been hocking for decades”?
Again, I don’t think so. Fact is these same magazines have also been hocking the pro-work agenda of second wave feminism for decades. In the late 60’s, led by icon Betty Friedan, women en masse were urged to reject the housewife role because ““she can find identity only in work that is of real value to society” — by which she meant, “work for which, usually, our society pays”.
And for the most part it failed to address the additional barriers of class and racial discrimination faced by black, immigrant and women from ethnic minorities. Many of these women were already in the workforce, but none had yet to achieve “equality”.
In the following decades the subsequent glorification of the white superwoman “who can bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan” reinforced the idea that what happens in the public workplace is “work”, but what women do at home—cooking cleaning and childcare—is not. This left the unpaid economic labour which maintains the private sphere (upon which the public sphere cannot function) firmly in place.
The result? Today regardless of gender or race, modern economics has left it near impossible for anyone to indulge their inner Martha. Only a very few can afford to be ‘homemakers’ any more. Those who choose to work in the home as stay at home parents are economically penalized in more ways than one. Denied the same tax deductions as parents who put their child in daycare, families in which one parent stays home are taxed more heavily than families in which both parents are working.
So when will we decide as feminists to assign the same economic value to the work done in the home (cooking, cleaning and childcare) as in the workplace? Historically a man’s castle may be his home, but lets not forget his castle was created and maintained by “the angel in the house”. It was her unpaid labour which made possible the modern glorification of the private sphere as refuge from the cold hard world of the public.
And it is still the private sphere of the home, of food, holidays and family upon which Pinterest still revolves. And in our secular world, I see Pinterest’s domestic images symbolically speaking of our perennial and collective yearning to not only make our homes a sacred refuge, but to create beauty, to share joy in celebration, to nourish family and friends, to express our love of life.
This isn’t about romanticizing or sentimentalizing “women’s work”. Because no matter our gender or race, isn’t it time to reevaluate the “labour of love” that takes place in the home as having not only economic value – but emotional and spiritual value to our entire society?
So go ahead, take a picture and post it to Pinterest. And don’t let anyone shame you into thinking that interest in “traditional feminine pursuits” is the reason we have yet to achieve equality. Buying into the notion that “pinning” recipes in this virtual temple of the domestic arts is somehow trivial or regressive – only serves to reinforce the same old tired gendered stereotypes upon which economic inequity continue to stand.
Closing Note: I’m posting this link to a documentary I directed called The Vanishing Housewife over a decade ago. It is still relevant to the issues in this post, in fact nothing has changed. While this clip is kinda slow (I didn’t edit it!) it does sums up the economic/feminist issues surrounding the value of unpaid work in the home today.