A Very Housewifely Abreaction
The works in this exhibition were made during a time of significant disorder in my personal life. I found myself given notice to quit my home of 16 years and have still been unable to find a home for myself and my 8-year-old.
As I was creating these works it became clear that they represented not only my personal situation but how women in general deal with crises that impact on their families. I became fascinated with taking broken things and putting them back together, mosaicking otherwise ordinary objects such as tumble dryers and frying pans; making something decorative from something mundane and broken. It occurred to me that this is what women do, we take the ordinary ingredients of daily life and make them into a home, a sanctuary, a place where our family feels safe, we take homelessness and make it into an adventure so our children don’t feel scared.
What is the cost to women though? The relentless drudge of cleaning and cooking; deciding what everyone is going to eat and wear; the heavy burden of emotional gatekeeping. Of course, some women enjoy it but for those of us who don’t; those of us who feel crammed into it by societal expectation, what impact does it have on us? The relentless, repetitive, sheer Groundhog Day-ness of housekeeping and caring for our families can take its toll.
The exhibition is the embodiment of how one woman deals with these expectations; it recreates the liminal space she inhabits in her head; her sanctuary, created from the ‘tools of her oppression’. There is joy and playfulness in the space, tinged with hysteria. She has taken the broken things and made them into an adventure.
How is it though, that well into the 21st Century, women are still seen as the people who are naturally better at maintaining the physical and emotional well-being of their children and partners? Are we hard-wired for it? No, of course we’re not, there isn’t a dedicated part of the female brain containing the files named ‘really good ways to get burnt pans clean’; our uteruses are not fleshy Filofax’s carrying all the children’s dental appointments, contact numbers for the school or the date of your Mother’s birthday; having a vagina does not make us better at washing up.
It is training that makes us and society believe that we are natural caregivers to our families; that we are innately better at keeping housewifely order. We are told from a very early age that we are biologically predisposed to listening and being emotionally available and that our sense of worth should come from being sexually desirable at the same time as instinctively knowing everyone else’s needs and putting them first.
These beliefs are firmly rooted in gender. Gender is a set of societal expectations placed on women and men that attempts to dictate how we should behave. These expectations and ‘rules’ are designed to control us, to make us ‘self-police’ our behaviour, it is not a real, tangible thing. Gender causes men to believe they should be emotionally tough, not talk about their feelings; it tells us what we’re allowed to wear, how we’re allowed to present ourselves, how we should interact.
We are not only still allowing gender expectations to govern our lives but we seem to be embracing it more than ever. The material, biological reality of sex is being overshadowed by the myth of gender. We are told that being a woman means ‘this’ and being a man means ‘that’.
All of these things were mulling around my head whilst making the work for this exhibition, not always consciously. Exactly one hundred years since women were given the vote in the UK we are still tussling with the ridiculous idea that men and women are naturally aligned with their gender roles. What can we do about it?
Well, we can refuse to comply, we can poke fun at the ridiculousness of it, we can continue to ignore the expectations and refuse to accede that sex is the same as gender. Or, we can try doing the dishes with our vaginas but I wouldn’t recommend that – it’s messy.
Stacey Guthrie – June 2017