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Same day as the US

I was rushing through town on my way to work when I saw a large ad:

Same day as the US

If you watch American TV series and you live outside the USA, you know what this means: a local TV channel is publicising the fact that it broadcasts a popular series (was it Game of Thrones?) on the same day as it is first broadcast in the US.

But why does it matter to a European audience to see a TV drama on the same day as people in America can watch it – so much so that it becomes the central slogan to promote the series?

I can think of two answers to this question.

by Hans, Pixabay, CC0 1.0.

The first one is the most popular one with academic researchers (sociologists, geographers, literary historians…) who study questions like these. They tend to see simultaneity as a symptom of the modern age: these days, we get more and more opportunities to experience things at exactly the same moment as others are experiencing them. After all, we have telephones and the internet, and, more generally speaking, satellites and all types of wires that connect us with the rest of the world.

And because simultaneity is now possible, we also feel compelled to do things at the same time as everyone else. We are rushed along to stay in touch, to remain up to date, to keep ourselves informed. We would be ‘so yesterday’ if we couldn’t tell who betrayed who in yesterday’s soap, or what’s the latest foolish thing a president across the ocean has said.

Some of these researchers and critics would also add something about the US holding a global cultural monopoly: why do we need to watch everything on the same day as in the US?

In my research job, I read a lot by these authors, so this is the explanation that immediately sprang to my mind.

And the explanation certainly has an aspect of truth to it. It keeps us on our toes when it comes to considering who decides what is important in life – do wealthy American production companies decide what to do with our free time? do our own governments tell us how to be fit for the job market? do IT corporations tell us what hardware to use to be cool? And why do we give those people so much power?

But it’s also a one-sidedly pessimistic view on human motivations, one that risks dividing people into meek sheep on the one hand and clever critics on the other.

Sani ol Molk/Abu’l-Hasan Khan Ghaffari Kashani, illustration (1849 to 1856) for One Thousand and One Nights

Perhaps these researchers and critics forget to look at a second possible answer, a more pedestrian one.

Because why, really, do you look forward to the next episode in your favourite series? Because you want to know what happens next.

We all love a good story. We all love an interesting character. This has nothing to do with modernity, and only a little with powerful corporations.

Think the Odyssey, think One Thousand and One Nights, think animal-trickster cycles such as the African/American Ananse-Tori. You don’t (just) want to be up to date with your peers when listening to a story. You’re simply dying to find out what happens next. It’s not (just) a social or economic pressure: it’s something personal between you and the story.

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Are we done with ironing?

Time for the follow-up post to ‘Ironing board will soon be obsolete‘!

Do you iron?

We were lying by the pool, so my friend’s question was an unexpected one. She herself is a non-ironer, and she seemed to be gauging whether this makes her a bad person. Luckily, I could set her at ease: I do not iron my laundry either.

And your mother?

Well yes, the works: from cardigans to underpants.

While the recently released UN report ‘Progress of the World’s Women’ draws attention to the burden of unpaid care and domestic work that falls on women globally, it also allows us to ponder how the more affluent parts of the world deal with these tasks.

Clearly, women in wealthy countries are no stranger to the difficulty of juggling different duties within the limited hours of the day. However, I found that the question my friend asked me by the poolside signals a remarkable change that we see with today’s young people. This generation of emancipating women are using their time in a new manner.

In the second half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, housewives set towering standards when it came to the proper maintenance of furniture, floors, windows, linen and clothes.

To give an early example from a British housekeepers’ manual (pp. 6-7): every day, the blankets but also the sheets had to be taken from all the beds, and mattresses had to be

turned over daily. Feather-beds must be turned over and shaken in all directions.

The bed should then be completely remade,

and drawing your hand along the lower edge of the pillows, so that their form may be seen, the bed is made.

Before making a bed, wash your hands, and take care that your apron is not dirty.

Although these efforts may have yielded some health benefits, they were primarily aimed at enhancing a family’s respectability. Next to this, they may have helped mothers who were caring for only a small number of children, but who had nevertheless been excluded from the work force (it was a matter of pride for couples when the wife did not ‘have to’ work), to give purpose to their life: to feel needed.

In the 1970s and 80s, second-wave feminists were already different wives from their mothers. No longer did they just take care of home and family: they turned to paid work in massive numbers.

Still, they had been raised with their mothers’ domestic ideals: a perfectly neat interior, especially when receiving guests, the children always scrubbed and combed… Beside their paid jobs, wives and mothers continued to spend twice as many hours on home and care as their husbands, both in the UK and in many other countries (see the Multinational Time Use Study database). This ‘second shift’ of work is what led to the feelings of stress and inadequacy many women know so well.

In other words, the baby boomers were stuck with a historically high bench-mark in all matters domestic. In spite of a substantial growth in paid labour participation, which now absorbed much of women’s time, the baby boomers have never really rid themselves of this standard.

This is a thing which we do see happening with their children. Many of the young women who are starting a household today, and their partners, too, are taking on a new mentality. Of course, women’s time scarcity can also be alleviated by men’s greater involvement in the home, and by hiring professional help. Partly, this is also what is happening. However, the other obvious option young people see, is to simply lower their expectations.

A photo by the USA Department of Agriculture. Extension Service: 'Washington, D.C. Dusting mits with which dusting can be done with both hands develops speed and efficiency. Dusting mit or dust cloth in the pocket, dusting as you clean, eliminates travel time.'

A photo taken by the USA Department of Agriculture, Extension Service, around the 1940s: ‘Washington, D.C. Dusting mits with which dusting can be done with both hands develops speed and efficiency. Dusting mit or dust cloth in the pocket, dusting as you clean, eliminates travel time.’ (Currently in the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park. Photo provided on Wikimedia Commons.) Did the federal government occupy itself with the efficient cleanliness of American homes? I’m no expert on this, but it would seem so.

Hoovering, mopping, replacing linen and making beds: everything happens less often in this generation. Except for a formal shirt now and then, none of my friends ever iron as far as I can tell. Even folding is occasionally abandoned. (A weekly dusting has already been history for a while: in my work as a professional housekeeper, the different priorities of different generations of clients have become abundantly clear.)

Yes, guests like to sleep on clean sheets, but that does not mean the entire house must shine. Kids don’t like to worry about their clothes in the first place. And who knows what will happen to the pressing iron? It might do nicely enough as home decoration next to the washboard and the spinning wheel.

If these first indications persist – if women are grasping this opportunity to turn their back on perfectionism, and men are growing just as modest in their expectations – then, perhaps, we can look forward to a little less pressure in our stressful lives. Which is why the best place imaginable to start a discussion about housekeeping, was indeed the poolside.

This column has also been published in the University of Sheffield’s History Matters and, in a different version and focusing on the Dutch instead of the British situation, in NRC Handelsblad on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2015.

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Ironing board will soon be obsolete

8 March is International Women’s Day. A day to think about the freedoms women and men have. And about the question: if these freedoms are unequal, how come? If even relatively rich, well-educated women are less happy in life than men, how come?

Photo of a Coleman's gas-heated pressing iron form the 1930s, by Sobebunny, 2010.

Photo of a Coleman’s gas-heated pressing iron from the 1930s, by Sobebunny, 2010.

A small contribution to an answer and a solution appears in today’s issue of Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, under the somewhat fanciful title ‘No More Dusting, Ironing or Hoovering’.

An English reworking of this article is now on Historian at large as well.