You’ve Come a Long Way Down, Baby: Marvel Girl v the Stepford Wives

Part of an ongoing conversation. Italic text is Rolf Andreassen, whose comment is here. Orotund text is mine.

The argument concerned this: I say it is abnormal to react with contempt or embarrassment at the sight of Marvel Girl doing household chores. We call feminine those qualities by which females distinguish themselves from males, and also those qualities that attract males to females. Motherhood is feminine because it is the essential quality that distinguishes the sexes. Because Mothers can nurse babies without artifices, and also because they are suited by their spirit and instinct, society expects mothers to do the mothering. Because babies are inconvenient to tote around, mothering is usually done in the nursery, which is usually at the home. This frees up the father to earn the daily bread by whatever means, hunting, farming, factory or office work, he can find. The household chores must be done by someone, and it is more convenient for the mother to do them than otherwise. While there are exceptions, this is the general course of the division of labor for all human beings of all history, including the present.

We are arguing not about a necessary but a contingent relationship. Because household chores are conveniently and usually done by mothers, they are done by wives and maidens as well.

Hence there is nothing unusual, untoward, nor sinister in expecting women to do household chores. A fortiori, there is nothing unusual, untoward, nor sinister in seeing those expectations reflected in common and popular entertainment like a funnybook.

Dr. A answered as follows. I will cover his points seriatim:

It seems clear that we were arguing past each other; some of what you label irrelevancies are quite relevant to what I was talking about.

Be that as it may, if you are talking about a different subject than I am, what is that to me? In a poem, or when relating a dream to a friend in a casual conversation, there is nothing amiss with stringing ideas together stream-of-consciousness style. In an argument, it is an informal logical error.

In particular, when you said “housework” I understood vacuuming, washing the dishes, and changing the bedsheets; you seem to have had in mind something more like nursing and looking after young children.

No, I was talking about both. But whether we insist on the nursing aspects of mothering rather than the housecleaning aspects, my argument is the same.

I agree that motherhood is by construction feminine

I do not know what “by construction” means here. If it means that only an artificial and arbitrary link exists between femininity and maternity, the sentence is worthy only of scorn, not of rebuttal.

I still maintain that housework chores are not particularly feminine or masculine, although as a matter of convenience they may be most often done by women.

The first half of this sentence seems to contradicts the second half. The association of housework chores with femininity is due to the fact that wives and mothers usually, traditionally, and stereotypically do them. That stereotypical association was reasonable, because of the inconvenience of doing things otherwise.

In other words “particularly feminine” means, in part “as a matter of convenience may be most often done by women.”

But you want to have it both ways: You say that taking care of children is a feminine task, but the example you give is sweeping up the dust; the relation is contingent and weak.

I don’t know what you mean by “have it both ways” in this sentence.

The relation between nursing in the nursery and sweeping up dust in the nursery is the proximity and convenience.

I am not sure what you mean by calling the relationship contingent. The relationship is logically contingent, since it is not inconceivable nor impossible to imagine circumstances where it might not obtain.

I am sure, for example, that the Queen of England does not change the diapers of the Prince of Wales, nor does she sweep the nursery or cook his food. So, in that sense, yes, the relationship between femininity and certain feminine things is contingent.

I am not sure what you mean by “weak.” If you mean, as a matter of logic, that at least one other possibility can be imagined, then, yes. If you mean, as a matter of the real world, the relationship is not perfectly uniform and universal, then, again, yes: there are plenty of working Moms and stay-at-home Dads. (It may not be completely irrelevant to point out that the single Moms and absent Dads is more common than finding Dad in the traditionally female role.)

If you mean the correspondence does not reflect the majority of people across the majority of history, the answer is no. If you mean the correspondence happens to exist at present, but might not exist in the future, the answer is no. It is no more “weak” to expect that the women will still be doing women’s work in the days of the Jetson’s than to expect the opposite. If you mean the correspondence happens to exist at present, but ought not exist because it offends the dignity of women, the answer is no.

Which introduces the next point:

You say that the comic is merely teaching that women doing housework is normal, and that this demonstrates that Marvel Girl does not hate her sex; you offer the analogy of Clark Kent driving to work and being harangued by his boss as a typically male activity.

I don’t recall using the word “teaching.” To regard popular entertainment as a tool of propaganda or socialization is a neurotic fixation of the Left, and no idea of mine.

Let me first note that Marvel Girl is in costume; the correct analogy, then, is not Clark Kent, but Superman, allowing his boss to harangue him. […]  I suggest, however, that for Marvel Girl, the superhero (not her secret identity) to do housework is not normal, any more than it is normal for Superman (not Clark Kent) to sit typing up articles in the office building of the Daily Planet.

My claim was not that it is “normal” for girls to dress in costumes and clean house using telekinesis. My claim was that housecleaning is a normal and girlish activity, and there is therefore no shame associated with showing Marvel Girl doing housecleaning, any more than showing Clark Kent being yelled at by Perry White.

Whether Clark is in his crimefighting get-up or not is beside the point: the point is that men’s work is not necessarily portrayed as all that glamorous.

I submit that Superman comics do not waste time showing how his superpowers make Clark Kent’s life so much easier.

You mean, Superman comics do not show The Man of Tomorrow using his powers for trivial or silly things like acting as a super-cook to feed his Pal, Jimmy Olsen, a super-supper?

His Grin is as Goofy as Marvel Girl's.

Further, I suggest that Marvel Girl’s sweeping up the dust is not a particularly feminine act, as I noted above. Caring for children, fine; the incidental chores of owning a house, no.

Humbug. If Marvel Girl had been shown doing some chore that was not particularly feminine, let us say, using her telekinesis to sweep the walk or walk the dog (which is not a stereotypically male or female chore) we would not be having this discussion.

You are objecting precisely because the chore being shown was woman’s work.

Incidentally, you asked “Who enjoys chores?”; one answer seems to be “Marvel Girl”, judging by her goofy grin.

Or she could be enjoying the fact that she can get her chores done in an instant using her Way Cool Brainwave-Powers.

Even in the most stereotyped “sexist” television commercial showing a Ozzie & Harriet housewife wearing pearls and scrubbing floors, the enjoyment portrayed was always either a matter of pride of workmanship, or pleasure at the convenience of the latest commercial product or labor saving device to get the job done.

So Marvel Girl is not being presented as someone who enjoys being a woman and doing feminine things; she is presented as someone who enjoys boring household chores which are assumed to be her task because she is female.

We are arguing about whether that assumption is a natural one. The only thing I said about enjoying the chores was that no one does.

The balance of your comment is humbug. You might read this into the panel in question, but if so, you are going out of your way to read into it what you want to see. There is no hint that the boring nature of the chores is what pleases her, as opposed to the daydream wish fulfillment of being able to do onerous tasks with Way Cool Mind Powers.

It is the automatic assumption that some tasks are women’s work whatever the other talents of those women, and that they like it that way, that raises hackles.

You are conflating three assumptions here, perhaps four: (1) the assumption that household chores are woman’s work. (2) the assumption that household chores are women’s work no matter what the talents of those women (3) that the women find doing household chores fulfilling and pleasant (if that is what you mean by “they like it that way”) or (4) that the women like living in a society with the unspoken expectation that women do the household chores (if that is what you mean by “they like it that way”).

So far, all I have argued is that (1) is the natural assumption. I further made the argument that raising hackles over assumption (1) is neurotic.

Since the only other alternative seems to be to expect women only to do men’s work and to score them or pity them when they do women’s work, if given a choice between expecting the norm and hating or scorning the norm, reason suggests we should expect the norm, and not react with snarls of hate or sneers of contempt when we see something that reflects the norm.

Naturally, there would be a different argument if the norm is some gross tyranny that cries out to heaven for retaliation and rectification. It is true that housework chores are ‘women’s work’ by all accounts, are more tedious than men’s work, go without due thanks, and are never done.

Whether this is due to a sinister conspiracy or is merely a natural condition  common to all mankind, is a separate argument.

It is only a short step from such an assumption to the assumption that women cannot do any other work, and should be actively prevented from wasting their time trying.

It is this short step where we part ways.

You are making an arbitrary emotional association between the idea that women do women’s work and the idea that it is right to discourage or forbid by force of law women from entering the professions. You treat the two ideas as if they are the same, and react to one as if it is the other.

Hence, your association is false to facts. The two ideas are distinct. No matter how badly women were treated in the days before they were allowed to vote, this has nothing to do with Marvel Girl doing housework.

Marvel Girl boasting about how easy it is to clean house is not an advertisement for a law forbidding women to practice law or medicine.

And here I think we’re at the heart of the objection: There was a very long period in which women were not only socially discouraged, but actively prevented, from becoming doctors or lawyers or whatever.

The relation between your concern that women not be oppressed and your raising hackles at the sight of a girl doing housework is disproportionate and illogical.

Illogical, because you are treating the idea “girls doing housework is normal” as the same idea as “nothing but housework is normal for girls” as the same idea as “custom should disapprove or the law forbid women to work in the professions” and from this stringing together of ideas, you reach the conclusion that no portrayal of a girl doing housework as honest work is allowed.

Your stance makes sense if and only if the only way to allow women to work outside the home is to hate housework and despise it, and to always show housework, home-making, and by extension motherhood and all family life, as despicable and low. Any portrayal of home-making as normal or worthwhile is suspect.

Your stance makes sense only if there is no middle ground and no compromise: if any innocent portrayal of happy homemaking raises hackles because it tramples women, then no innocent portrayal of happy homemaking is allowable anywhere.

The absurdity here is that, in order to please the ambitions of a few professional women, society as a whole must despise homemaking and motherhood, and teach our daughters to avoid this source of life’s main happiness. We must burn the village to save it.

The argument (if we could call it that) could with equal logic be applied to anything feminine of any kind whatsoever, including signs of respect and dignity traditionally accorded to women and to motherhood.

In my close encounters with Leftist, as far as I can tell this is indeed the case. Everything, glamorous or not, everything associated with femininity, even such things as a high school boy being unwilling to wrestle a girl and gouge out her eyes, yes, everything that distinguishes men from women is regarded by the Left as the Yellow Star the Nazis forced Jews to wear.

The argument, or, rather, the neurosis, is absurd, if not malign. It certainly is not conducive to the happiness of women to tell and teach them that their sex is despicable, nor to tell them that all signs of revering their sex are secretly malign attempts at dominion and oppression.

The world view presented is loveless and horrible, and allows sexual congress only as a pastime of mutual exploitation: I need not expand upon what such a world would be like. It is present around us.

And one of the given reasons for this was that women were not well suited to such activities. Now, we can certainly argue whether women are on average as good at men at such tasks; the evidence does not appear conclusive either way.

I suppose that depends on the task. In the military, female aviators are routinely given a pass when a male aviator would flunk for the same performance, in order to satisfy quota numbers, which has led to the deaths of some female aviators.

The evidence is conclusive enough to those not locked into the ideological green-colored goggles from Oz that makes the cut glass in the city look like emeralds.

But whatever the location of the means, the widths of the distributions are such that a blanket prohibition on women having outside careers cannot possibly be the correct approach.

Cannot possibly? I suspect it is not the correct approach, but the horrors of the modern age and the breakdown the nuclear family certainly do not make it impossible that this is the correct approach.

But his has nothing to do with Marvel Girl, or even with the proposition that seeing girls doing housework is normal and fitting to their sex.

So when someone argues that “housework is feminine”, it is very easy to hear “and therefore women should stick to that and do nothing else”, because for a long time that was the reality.

Likewise, this has nothing to do with Marvel Girl, or even with the proposition that seeing girls doing housework is normal and fitting to their sex.

Perhaps that’s an overreaction these days, but after all the time when women doctors were one in ten thousand are well within living memory.

And perhaps your view of the world is antiquated, trapped like a fly in amber in the late 1960’s, about when the Silver Age comic we are discussing was written, or in the 1860’s, the heyday of Progressive thinking.

There is a very strong association between the form of propaganda you like, and real, forcible, restrictions on what women were allowed to do.

So the association between femininity, female-ness, motherhood, maternity, and housekeeping is contingent and weak, but the association between funnybooks-as-propaganda and forcible restrictions on what women can do is not just strong but very strong?

The comment lacks proportion.

It is not a necessary connection, one can certainly imagine a society that socialised women into housewifeness as the norm but did not forcibly restrict their choices, but historically the association is correct. Objections to the form of socialisation you want, then, are actually objections to the historically-associated restrictions. That does not seem improper to me.

Your association is like an allergy. You associate the sight of a grinning girl doing housework with the idea that there is a sinister conspiracy of propaganda being directed against girls to stifle their ambitions, and looming one step behind are the Secret Maternity Police ready to whip cringing girls out of the offices and factories and into Stepford Wives suburbia.

*     *     *

You pass over without comment the core point of disagreement, which is whether it is dishonorable or insulting to think of women doing women’s work.

I have no reason to assume it is dishonorable. Without that crucial lynchpin, the argument that it is right to have our hackles raised by a sight of girls doing housework because there is a “very strong” emotional connotation between women doing women’s work and women being burned as witches (or whatever the penalty for working outside the home was in the Dark Ages of 1969) comes unstuck.

My personal experience does not bear out that emotional connection. I was raised on post among Naval officers and men, who were absent for months out of the year. The Navy Wives ran their households and neighborhoods, and there were no more men present than in Themyscira, the ancient capital of the Amazons. The husband’s paychecks came to the wives, and the men had no ability to spend a dime of it while at sea. The sacrifices the husbands made by spending their lives in military service, often without even seeing the family for months or years, were routine, and never in my hearing was a single word of complain voiced.

The notion that the servicemen enjoyed independence of being the breadwinner at the expense of their longsuffering wives does not match my experience of those times. There was nothing in it that looked any more difficult or dishonorable to me, then or now, than the work their menfolk did. Raising kids is not easy, but then again, my Dad served in a warzone.

Let me finish by repeating comments from other readers who already answered this argument more breifly and clearly than I did:

John Hutchins says:

[…]“Incidentally, you asked “Who enjoys chores?”; one answer seems to be “Marvel Girl”, judging by her goofy grin.”

Because she is able to get a spotless house with little effort that will be the envy of all of her girlfriends.

I would like to point out that while a woman has children at home the most economically and socially valuable thing that she could be doing is raising the children.

I do not see how promoting motherhood is nearly the same (a short step) to promoting the oppression of women. To me it would seem that promoting sexual liberation and the decline of marriage is promoting the oppression of women. Saying that the traditional role of women is not valuable or wrong is the same as saying that half of humanity throughout history has had no value. Motherhood rather then being disparaged as something of little worth to the women or to society should be put in its proper place as the most honored of all possible professions.

” It is not a necessary connection, one can certainly imagine a society that socialised women into housewifeness as the norm but did not forcibly restrict their choices”

There are places in the world with this type of society. There are also places where being a housewife is pretty much mandatory and places where being a housewife is considered socially equivalent to being either a slave or a pampered princess with no responsibility (which is a interesting contradiction made more interesting that it is often the same person espousing both views (slave and pampered princess) within the course of a conversation).

Robert Mitchell Jr says:

It is also an error or dishonest to claim women had their choices forcibly restricted, when it was wives who restricted, not women. The historical record is clear, The Holy Roman Catholic Church allowed women who took vows to become doctors, lawyers, and other “outside careers”. Outside of the Church, it is ignorance or dishonest to claim that women were forcibly restricted in their choices and that men were not, when for most of recorded history the declination was not the current imaginary “Men Vs. Women” but actual, real, documented, social classes. Are you really claiming Mary, Queen of Scotts had less choices then a Russian serf, because he was a man? Did Hatshepsut, Female Pharaoh of Egypt, burn with shame because her sex kept her from having the freedom and choices a male slave tied to the Nile did? No, you have either been sold a lie, or are selling a lie.