The Vagenda

Keeping up with the Kirsties

Christmas these days seems to be all about the ads. What latest witchcraft have John Lewis employed to jerk upon our tear-ducts like the evil scarf-peddling puppet-masters that they are? Who’s that dancing in the M&S ad, a smile on their face as they quietly survey the ruin of their career and the inevitable slide into panto? Which Hollywood star is the latest to sell out hawking Eau de Starlette, or whatever? And the supermarket ads, of course. You’ve seen the Asda one. The woman does everything: decorating, shopping, wrestling with a turkey, preparing a Mont Blanc of sprouts (which no one likes anyway! Is there any more damning indictment of patriarchy than the fact that a woman has to knock herself out peeling a vegetable no one even enjoys? I’m going to write a feminist book on the subject: Burning Our Brassicas). At the end of all this costume-making, chopping, Christmas card addressing, and general slaving, she collapses into a chair with an expression that suggests she’ll be checking into a psychiatric ward as soon as she’s done the washing-up. Then her husband actually gets up off his arse and carves the turkey…this being beyond the skill of a woman who’s single-handedly organised Christmas, apparently. 
I hate these ads. They make me burn with feminist ire, and want to find the advertiser’s HQ and shell it with copies of The Female Eunuch shot out of a vagina-shaped cannon. So why are they still on TV, in 2012? It’s fine, some people have said, because this reflects reality for many families. Er, OK. Except isn’t advertising all about aspiration? Since when did ads for makeup, shampoo, or cars actually reflect reality? Ad world isn’t the real world, or else everyone else’s periods really do come out blue, and there’s something very wrong with me. So when we produce and screen ads like this, what we’re actually saying is we aspire to a world where women do everything. We’re perfectly happy with that status quo, because, well, it’s Christmas. 
I’ve long thought that Christmas, birthdays, and other celebrations would simply cease to exist if women acted like men. My husband barely remembers to text his best friend on his birthday, and only then when I remind him. I’ve slowly become responsible for his family’s presents too, and all because I don’t want to be shown up when it comes to unwrapping time. I still remember the year they showered us in beautifully wrapped gifts, box after box of delight swathed in silver paper, adorned with ribbons, sparkles, and shimmer. We gave them a hose. With a bow on it. I’m not even joking. 
Recently, this women-doing-it-all trend has taken an even more sinister turn. I’ve noticed that some of my more middle class friends have started ‘making’ Christmas presents. You know this one? ‘Oh, we won’t buy things this year, we’ll make them! It will be cheaper and so much nicer!’ All very well if you already run your own cottage industry making cupcakes/cushions/cardigans, but not so good if you have to a) buy all the materials and b) teach yourself how to do craft from a basic level of complete incompetency. Me and fabrics don’t mix. It all stems back to school Home Ec lessons, failing to thread a bobbin into a sewing machine while being shouted at by a nun (crafts and Catholicism, my twin nemeses). And yet I too have fallen into this ‘let’s make our own!’ madness. Somehow, last Christmas, despite being hugely busy with work and shopping and travel plans, I found myself in the kitchen at midnight, spattered all over with scorching-hot cranberries, making festive jam. There’s nothing like a vicious pectin burn to bring your back to your senses. Why do we do this to ourselves? 
Feminism has been kind to my generation, on the whole. We have jobs, and for the most part our menfolk share the domestic responsibilities. And yet we voluntarily don pinnies, go back in the kitchen, and wear ourselves out making cakes and hand-engraving cards and knitting jumpers. Why? Because it’s retro. Because it’s ‘nice’, and ‘thoughtful’. Because being women, we’re supposed to be the pleasant ones. Despite jobs and cars and liberation, we’re still somehow expected to hold together the fabric (ha!) of society by sending (hand-made) cards and remembering people’s cat’s birthdays. 
The person I blame for this is Kirstie Allsop. Now there’s a recession and she can’t force people to buy fixer-up houses they don’t want and can’t afford, she’s on a mission to get us all baking, but not just that – flower-arranging, felting (I thought that was some kind of dodgy sex act), and even, yes, binding our own books. Who the hell actually binds their own books? It’s like she’s William Caxton in a pinny. But we have to do all this, because it’s so ‘nice’, isn’t it? It’s nice to add even more work to Christmas. It’s nice to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Now she’s got a new TV show helping ‘desperate’ families spruce up their homes by making their own cushions and visiting antique fairs. At the end there’s a helpline for anyone who’s never been to one (I might be making this up.) When I watch these programmes, I just feel it’s adding yet more things to the list that women are supposed to do, or supposed to be – fit, healthy, slim, pretty, glamorous, supportive, successful, industrious…what’s wrong with just watching Loose Women in your pyjamas, eh? What’s wrong with never brushing your hair, and only realising after three straight days you haven’t unbolted the front door once? (I love being a freelancer). 
I say we stop this doing-it-all nonsense, and claim back our time by acting more like men. When it’s someone’s birthday, let’s take them out for shots and send a badly-spelled text, instead of spending weeks doing sugarcraft on their cake. Let’s not send Christmas cards, let’s buy the dinner in the supermarket, let’s give our families socks instead of something thoughtful that took us weeks to find (people moan, but everyone wears socks). Let’s use all that extra time to learn kick-boxing and invent a cure for menstrual cramps and run for Secretary-General of the UN. In short, let’s not do anything that’s stressful and tiring and leaves us with less time for being who we want to be. Who knows, our families and friends might even prefer us relaxed, happy, and already half-cut on eggnog, instead of quietly weeping with our hand stuck up a turkey’s bum.

31 thoughts on “Keeping up with the Kirsties

  1. I have mixed feelings about the ad because at least it is fairly truthful. When my kids were young I remember being LIVID that women did all the work for Christmas but there was no acknowledgement of this and, adding insult to injury, the two figures Christmas is “all about” are both male (Jesus and Santa). So I do view this current ad as some kind of progress but clearly, NOT ENOUGH.

  2. The problem with the ASDA ad, if that’s what you were referring to, is that it portrays a woman doing ALL the work all alone (this sentence calls for a meme…), but it does not acknowledge it as something that is wrong, or consider that the woman might be thanked and lauded for her hard work or, god forbid, her family might offer a hand. It’s the norm, the way things are and should be. I mean, what reward does the mum in the video get? She gets to smile lovingly at her family, and that is supposed to be enough.

  3. Not sure I agree with this… It’s always my boyfriend who wants to make the homemade mince pies and present tags etc, and though he normally requires my assistance (my mother taught me such things, his did not), I view these more as life skills, rather than solely women’s. I’m happy to share these skills with him, and I’ll admit I do appreciate him not expecting me to just do it all for him.
    I’m also not sure about the sexist attitude behind asking us to “act more like men”?? This doesn’t seem much better than the Asda advert, which I hate more and more every time I see it.

  4. Great article, it perfectly expresses the anger I have been feeling seethe and boil under my skin over the last month, and the consequent eruption of this upon seeing the asda advert at the cinema for the first time tonight. I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with acting more like men – especially if you couple it with the suggestion that men should act, well, more like ‘women’, if you see what I mean. :)

  5. If we acted like most men we’d live on pot noodles, never properly celebrate anyone or anything and forget how to cook, sew or clean. That is a sum loss to humanity. It’s them that need to step up and women who need to demand it. Decide together how to celebrate and split the work.

  6. I’ve just taken up knitting. I find it relaxing. The article did make me laugh, and the ASDA advert is depressing, but I think the turn to crafts is not about some form of guilt but more about an outlet for creativity and perhaps even part of the ‘slow’ movement, rather than another cog in the system of suppression. I didn’t send Christmas cards this year, and I don’t feel guilty.

  7. The point is, we ‘voluntarily don pinnies…’ did I get confused along the way or is feminism about having the freedom to choose? No-one forces me to bake and knit and sew, most of the ‘menfolk’ I know would rather the women didn’t put so much effort in and get so stressed. We do it because we choose to. It’s not patriarchal oppression, it’s fun, rewarding, challenging and creative. The Kirstie Alsopp show you mention gets the men involved just as much as the women, so perhaps a bad example.
    There’s nothing wrong with sitting in your pyjamas, eating pot noodles and behaving like a man, but don’t say that the way I CHOOSE to spend my time is wrong. That’s kinda un-feminist of you.

  8. It depresses me that because I like making cards and jam etc. people look at my life and think ‘wow poor oppressed woman’. There’s something majorly muddled about that. I agree with you Ali, it all comes down to the choice thing.

  9. What’s wrong with baking or crafting? They’re actually enjoyable pastimes, and in case you haven’t noticed, a huge number of guys have gotten into cooking in a massive way over the past 20 years too. Maybe it’s not for everyone but this article really seems like it is looking down on people who enjoy certain hobbies simply because they’re ‘girly’. If I want to bake, I’ll fucking bake. And I’ll eat the results quite happily too. The delicious, delicious results.
    And surely if ‘men’ (All men. Every man ever. No exceptions, it seems) are crap at remembering birthdays and are incapable of buying thoughtful gifts or cards that’s their problem, not mine.

    Rail against the ads, that’s fine. Most Christmas ads, and ads aimed at women in general, are bullshit anyway. But don’t sneer at people just because you don’t get the appeal of their hobbies. Just as it’s not the media’s place to tell me what to do, neither is it yours.

  10. Of course there’s nothing wrong with enjoying knitting and she isn’t actually saying that. She’s saying that the weight of expectation means many women feel they don’t have a choice but to do all the craft-and-cooking donkey work because otherwise they’ll let everyone down and ruin Christmas. As women, we’re taught from such a young age to be ‘thoughtful’ and ‘put others first’. Boys are rarely, if ever, taught this: their mothers clean up after them, do their laundry, let them trample all over the plants in the garden and hunt local pets, and generally treat them as tiny potentates. Most men don’t think ‘have I made enough of an effort?’ – the fact they’ve made any effort at all is seen as reason for them to be crowned with laurels.

  11. I bake and I even knit (very very badly; the nuns did not manage to teach me well). It’s more about the expectation that women have to do everything, including hand-make things.

  12. I made presents this year. In August I made apricot & orange chutney, spiced pickled pears, rhubarb & ginger jam, and pomanders. I enjoyed it, it didn’t cost me any more than buying presents would have done, and it meant I had most of my Christmas presents organised months ago. I’m not handing back my feminist credentials.

  13. Ditto. My sister asked me to make her a scarf as a present because, get this, if you make it yourself (or have someone make it for you) you can have it the way you want it! If you don’t like making things, fine. If you do, knock yourself out.
    Also, I effin love sprouts.

  14. But I don’t think we are expected to do all those things, that’s my point. No man thinks Christmas would be ruined if the women don’t make chutney and jumpers.

  15. I love sprouts too. And I like making things for people I care about eg my family and friends. Partly for selfish reasons eg craft helps me to relax and clear my head from the stresses of work. And I also you can give bloody lovely presents that are one offs.

  16. I interpreted this article not as a criticism of craft but of how it can interact with perceptions of femininity to increase women’s workloads. Like Claire McGowen points out above, it is about the expectation that women will do it and creating homemade gifts usually does cost more – in time. Women’s time is exactly what they usually contribute and are not recognised or recompensed for.

    What needs to be looked as is not whether the gifts are homemade, but rather who is making them? Who is considered responsible for making sure the children have a presents, the grumpy great aunt gets a card and that festive dinners are edible and served on time?

  17. Ali, if women don’t do everything, will men do it? Chances are, no. Because boys are much likely to have not been taught to be as thoughtful and caring as girls as LL has pointed out

  18. Same again. I like to have a bit of a knit to help me shut my brain up and focus (very handy before writing an essay I find).
    I agree with the article in that people shouldn’t feel a pressure to make presents but they really can be a nice solution if you enjoy it.

  19. Exactly right with the time topic. I rarely see an appreciation or acknowledgement that women spend their time more than anything else to get things done

  20. Maybe the men I know are just a bit different then, but all the men in mine and my husband’s families are active and involved. My husband happily writes cards and wraps presents, my dad has always been in charge of cooking the Christmas dinner. This article, in its criticism of the stereotypical Christmas mother, is just as stereotypical, lumping all men ever into one box of useless, lazy, can’t-do-it-unless-their-mother-taught-them-to, selfish gits. That’s just not the world I live in!

  21. I think you’re both right, LL and Ali. To take one little example: I’m really sick of my husband’s family including me in their group emails where they discuss who’s getting whom what for Christmas. I have my own damn family to worry about, why the hell should I do his Christmas shopping too?! Fact is, he does it himself, every year, and does a fine job of it without any help from me. He’s great, but the family *expectation* is still that I am somehow responsible for the presents, since he was brought up with the womenfolk doing everything.

    I think that’s probably at the root of the problem – no matter how much effort the men make in reality, society still expects women to do everything, and like it.

  22. I love sprouts too! They are so deliciously mouth-watering. I agree that it is just a choice, but I like making things at Christmas, and so does my boyfriend. We make Christmas cards together, and do gingerbread decorating. I love Kirsty’s show, though I do get that it’s not reeeally a money saver, and some of her tips are wack (wrap your presents in newspaper?! Alright, if you want to get black smudges all over everyone’s gifts) and my bf loves Nigella’s show, so we combine the two and make Christmas about baking and making and it’s super gross coupley fun :)

  23. Absolutely. Of course lots of people enjoy crafting, baking etc, but I do wonder how many of these people have children (do, please, correct me if I’m wrong). I managed to make one homemade present this year (DAMN proud of myself!!) and that was only when my kids were ill and just flopped on the sofa in front of CBeebies, leaving me alone. When you are a parent, there is no time at all for such activities. And of course, who is it in the ads and programme that’s supposed to be doing all of this découpage and shopping and wrapping and icing? It’s not just women, it’s mothers.

    Repeat: there is nothing wrong with enjoying crafty hobbies. You are still a feminist. The problem is with society telling women/mothers that they SHOULD be doing so.

  24. I see where you’re coming from but can’t say I agree on all points. I can’t stand Kirstie Allsop’s priviliged homemade life approach, but I do love a bit of baking and making. And when I gave handmade chocs and chutney for Christmas this year it felt so much better. And they were fun to make. It’s my small way of trying to be less of a consumer around Christmas. And btw I’m definitely not middle class! Just creative.

  25. I think it’s terrible to all those who enjoy applied arts or have taken up a craft to suggest Kirstie Allsopp’s programme has led to this ‘craft celebration’ which she repeatedly has claimed as being inspired by her series. I am an illustrator who creates art using embroidery and I run an all female co-operative of artists and we stitch, print, knit, create ceramics and make art. We’re feminists and our work may be ‘handmade’ but we enjoy it and make it the way we want to. There’s a lot of crafters out there but I hardly think that crafting is a waste of time and we should ‘claim back our time by acting more like men.’We can do whatever we want and not feel forced into it. As women we can do kick-boxing, find a cure for cramps AND perhaps embroider a picture of our friend’s face as a gift if we want to. Being creative is wonderful. If you don’t want to do it yourself, support some amazing females artists out there by going to open studios and fairs and buying something bespoke and classic.

  26. So I can be feminist if I enjoy baking, cooking and crafts? I don’t force my handmade objects on people, they buy them happily on the run up to Christmas, my art too.

    Oh and who do I enjoy baking, cooking and crafts with? My twin sons (11).

    I’m really going to shoot myself down here but I was a stay-at-home mum when they were little too. Enjoyed that as well. Thought it was all about choice so I did. That was my choice.

  27. This is a really thought provoking article. I missed the Asda ad (thankfully), but I have just read The Return of Sexism by Natalie Walters and she touches upon this (in a bit of a ‘I feel I need to mention this but don’t have time to research it properly’ sort of way, I thought). I enjoy all of these pastimes that I suppose are traditionally ‘women’s work’. I do it because I enjoy it. It’s a creative outlet that I don’t get in my professional life. I get to make pretty frocks that make me feel glad when I wear them, because they are the length I want them to be, not the length the high street dictates. I don’t see this as a return to traditional roles for women. I don’t get my gladrags on whilst darning my husband’s socks and making sure he has a hot dinner on the table when he returns home. I think that this issue is being turned into another battering ram against women when it really needn’t be. No one is suggesting that you *have* to do this. Although I am concerned about the polarisation of representation of women in the media – either throwing up in a gutter whilst wearing a short skirt and high heels, or busy entering their home made pie into the county show. Both rather extreme representations of femininity, methinks.