Given the arrival of spring, the only season that attaches "cleaning" to its name, it's hard to ignore pop culture's current obsession with housework. TV shows, books and websites all entertain us with images of domestic anarchy, while at the same time, hectoring us with an evangelistic fervour to fight the filth.
Only I suspect the muck they really fear isn't the dust bunnies 'neath the bed, but the sex kittens on magazine covers. I've no doubt that historians will look back on the early 21st century mania for housecleaning-as-entertainment as a subliminal attempt to sweep all that stray porn under the carpet. There's pressure to get that dirty laundry out of public view, so to speak, and organize our closets well enough that we can shove a few things back into them.
The message underlying all that cleansing entertainment is that we're a society out of control. Of course, it's unfashionable to object to the volume of pornography that is delivered casually into our midst via pop music, movies and television. After all, who wants to be labeled a "prude," which is apparently the worst insult that than can be leveled at anyone in an era when talentless celebrities earn their status via Internet sex videos and 'tweens insist that fellatio isn't actually sex.
Exhorting an anxious generation to spruce-up, discipline themselves and set standards and limits is more likely to be welcomed in the context of house cleaning than morality. Which is the only thing that could explain the bizarre popularity of what can only be called immaculate porn.
Connecting the pash for dirt-busting with subliminal angst about the wild thing isn't the leap you might think. Domestic dirt has long served as metaphor for sex, which led to erotic housekeeping images - or what I've dubbed Dust-and-Lust Syndrome (DLS).
Victorians raised dust-and-lust to an art form. This perversion was recorded in loving detail in the infamous Diary of Hannah Cullwick, Victorian Maidservant (Virago, 1984). Through the 1860s and '70s, Hannah tickled the fancy of a wealthy gentleman, Arthur Munby, with little more than a feather duster, as her letters regaled him with her tales of scrubbing exploits. She detailed how she scoured the privy and the scullery floor on her knees, or wiped the fire irons and the chimney grate, naked. When she visited Munby, she would smear her face with grease and soot. (Perhaps a forerunner of naked mud-wrestling in peeler bars?)
Hannah clearly gloried in the hard work that caused many a maid to die young and she enjoyed being "humble" and "low" and "dirty" just as much as Munby enjoyed the vision of her this way - it was a kind of S&M relationship, with mops instead of whips.
TV's most revolting cleaning show, W Network's How Clean is Your House, is reminiscent of the letters Cullwick wrote. It's hosted by a pair of middle-aged British women, Kim and Aggie, who sternly lecture giggling homeowners for their "shameful, dirty ways" - while hinting at their delight in the naughtiness of the mess.
The show documents stomach-churning goo in long, lingering shots. There are toilets so filthy they have to chip off the muck. Many homes are carpeted in used knickers and animal feces - bird guano, horse poo and the droppings of cats and dogs are all explored in loving detail by the camera. As are the science experiments growing on the filthy heaps of dishes in the kitchen. The lens records every obscene degradation in a way that is, oh, what's the word?
Kim and Aggie are, by turns, flirtatious and forceful and, one suspects, likely to cause a flutter in the hearts of the sort of people who have fantasies involving head mistresses and leather straps. And certainly Kim, the bleached blonde with an up-do so tight it suggests hair-in-bondage, has rubber gloves trimmed with that classic-strippers fave, pink maribou. Her cleaning team even gives her a discreet screen of feather dusters - that looks like a burlesque queen's fans -- while she changes into her work togs. We half expect to see her sanitizing that toilet in a matching maribou-trimmed negligee - or maybe a dominatrix ensemble -- but both women opt for medicinal white lab coats.
It would be tempting to dismiss the overlapping images of dust-and-lust as a quirk restricted to a handful of eccentrics, if it weren't for the way sensuous scrubbing has shaped the language we all use. The term "slut" means someone sexually promiscuous, but it also refers to a messy housekeeper, or a slattern. "Scrubber" is British slang for a sexually easy woman. "Smut," a.k.a. pornography, originated as the word for the flecks of coal that dusted the air in 19th century cities. Among the range of definitions for that fine North American word "skank" is filth, as in the floor is covered in skank.
Incidentally, when it comes to costume fantasies, why do you suppose there are so many French maid ensembles outside of France?
And why is spring, which is connected with fertility, the season with which we've always associated cleaning? Don't tell me there's no collision between dust bunnies, Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs.
In Biting the Dust, (Fourth Estate, 1997) a witty history of housework, Margaret Horsfield devotes chapters to the way we have long connected morality and cleanliness.
She quotes the 1844 Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy "cleanliness has moral as well as physical advantages…it is an emblem, if not a characteristic, of purity of thought and propriety of conduct."
This, like many a dubious idea, can probably be blamed on religion. Many sects have interrelated ideas about virtue and cleaning, but the Puritans probably said it best "cleanliness is next to Godliness." Of course, once you establish that something is sacred, there will always be someone who gets off on defiling it.
Feminists clean house
Existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir believed that cleanliness was next to celibacy. As she noted in that classic feminist tract The Second Sex (1949), de Beauvoir had nothing but contempt for the constraints domesticity put on hot sex.
"It is noteworthy that the rage for cleanliness is highest in Holland, where the women are cold, and in puritanical civilizations, which oppose an ideal of neatness and purity to the joys of the flesh," she wrote. In the Mediterranean, de Beauvoir assured readers, they live in a state of "joyous filth" because "the love of the flesh and its animality is conducive to toleration of human odour, dirt and even vermin."
I'm not sure who should be more offended: the Dutch or the Italians? (Although Simone dB. may have been onto something when she said the Dutch culture was obsessed with hygiene. The self-cleaning toilet featured in this video making its way around the 'net was filmed in Switzerland, but manufactured in the Netherlands.)
For some of us, this egg-headed embrace of grime is comforting in that it suggests that those unwashed dishes littering my sink make me interesting rather than lazy.
However, it also implies that, in their zeal for beating back scum, pop culture's soldiers of clean are engaging in what shrinks call "displacement."
Is it an accident that the arrival of tasteless series like Showcase's Web Dreams - a Canadian-made reality show about the web porn industry that seems more like a trailer for their sleazy sites - coincides with equally tasteless series about people overcoming their slutty ways? Along with Kim and Aggie, Clean Sweep, Mission Organization and Neat all have good cleaning triumphing over evil mess - but not before we get the thrill of seeing people who wallow in squalor in a positively Cullwickian fashion.
Feminists, like the late Betty Friedan and social historians like Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, (For Her Own Good, Anchor Books, 2005) have long since established that norms in modern housekeeping were advocated by advertisers bent on creating markets for their products. Additionally, they see most housekeeping as a conspiracy of "busy work" designed to distract women from making political demands.
So, an 884-page ode to proper housekeeping might be seen as another form of feminist backlash. But that 1999 tome, Home Comforts: the Art and Science of Keeping House (Scribner, 1999) was written by lawyer and philosophy professor Cheryl Mendelson who had clearly benefited from feminism. And despite its self-righteous tone about the "decline" in contemporary housekeeping, the doorstop was a surprise bestseller.
Although this woman admits that she owns two mangles -- ancient machines used for ironing sheets - she claims to be against returning to an era when housekeepers were made to feel "guilt" or "shame" because they didn't meet artificial standards for well-kept homes. But Mendelson, like any good lawyer, argues that there also have to be reasonable, accepted standards of behaviour in order to keep chaos and suffering at bay.
In a chapter called "My Secret Life," Mendelson blames the social revolution of the '60s for robbing us of the safe, comfortable homes developed over the previous two hundred years. "[Social standards in cleaning] … provided something that the contemporary household lacks, which is a sense of entitlement to a recognizable standard of everyday living [her italics]… Where standards are viewed as merely arbitrary and subjective, people come to feel that such comforts as fresh beds or good meals are not their right or are not worth working for."
Mendelson sounds like an evangelist as she explains why we should keep house well, as much as how to do it. And it's clear that for her "housekeeping" is a metaphor for social order. As Mendelson notes, she believes that housework has meaning because it makes a home, which she implies is a safeguard against "…seeking outside supplies of entertainment, society, and comforts."
And who can we count among the commercial suppliers of "entertainment, society and comfort?" Does anyone think she's talking about simple housekeeping?
"This sense of being at home is important to everyone's well-being," Mendelson's sermon continues. "If you do not get enough of it, your happiness, resilience, energy, humor and courage will decrease. It is a complex thing, an amalgam. In part it is a sense of having special rights, dignities, and entitlements -- these are legal realities, not just emotional states. It includes familiarity, warmth, affection, and a conviction of security. Being at home feels safe; you have a sense of relief whenever you come home and close the door behind you, reduced fear of social and emotional dangers as well as of physical ones…
"Inadequate housekeeping is part of an unfortunate cycle. As people turn more and more to outside institutions to have their needs met (for food, comfort, clean laundry, relaxation, entertainment, society, rest) domestic skills and expectations further diminish, in turn decreasing the chance that people's homes can satisfy their needs."
And what needs were we referring to, again? She sounds like Kinsey preaching the gospel of sex.
But with all this in mind, it will no doubt be easier to get enthused over the annual drudgery of spring cleaning if you keep the power of dust-and-lust in mind. Whether it's outrage over Britney Spears videos that inspires you, or a penchant for scrubbing floors a deux (or trois) there's nothing better for inspiring a little urgency in the grime patrol.
© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)shannonrupp.com.