Register Monday | December 5 | 2022

The Return of the Housewife

Daft, Designer or Desperate?

There are few things I love more than food and themed parties. Pulling these together, my girlfriends and I have decided to throw a desperate housewives dinner party. The menu will include devilled eggs, a savoury salad made with Jell-O, a casserole dish prepared with a can of Campbell’s condensed soup and maybe a trifle thrown in for good measure. We will swill Mother’s Helpers (gin and tonic) while cooking—to ease our wifely sorrows—and wear our aprons when we sit down to eat. We contemplated inviting some guys in pleated chinos to sip beer in the den, but finally decided that they would ruin the vibe.




We think this is a hilarious plan—the food is so untrendy that it’s actually, amazingly, cool again. My sister, who lives in England and is in the know about such fads, tells me that hot oatmeal is actually the new “it” food and a major repopularization of homey food is underway. But while we laugh ironically and talk about hello dollies and TV dinners, there is a part of the evening that reflects a more sincere attraction to the feminine. We are women of the twenty-first century. We hold down good jobs and think of ourselves as righteous babes. We think it’s sad to be a desperate, house-bound homemaker (unless, of course, you want to be one). So what’s the attraction to domesticity?

In North America, there is a widespread fascination with the 1950s, and lately, I think we’ve developed a perverse hankering for those domestic days. Aprons are sexy, after all: there is something comforting about tying the strings tightly around your waist and something lovely about the hourglass figure that comes as a result. We wear square shoes, seamed tights and fitted tweed blazers (Coco Chanel would be proud). My sister recently bought a bolero, and once again people actually know what that means. You don’t need Vogue to tell you that femininity is in style, it’s on MuchMusic: bootylicious Beyoncé and Gwen Stefani’s uber-blond, Marilynesque coiffure (both women, it should be noted, have created megamillion-dollar empires while looking like bombshells). There is major nostalgia happening onscreen, too, with Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman as spokeswomen for this housewife fad. Far from Heaven, The Hours, the remake of The Stepford Wives and the new TV program Desperate Housewives signify as much.

I don’t think that we really want to return to the fifties—old copies of Good Housekeeping scare the bejesus out of me—but there is a drive to revisit this period and fiddle with the mythologies. Movies like Far From Heaven try to retell these histories from women’s points of view; not as wives and mothers, but as individuals. This is not new. Virginia Woolf wrote about this seventy years ago (only it took a bunch of men—Michael Cunningham, David Hare and Stephen Daldry—to bring this to a mass market in the book and film versions of The Hours).

Why the fifties? In the sixties, feminists ripped off their pointed bras and burned them. In the seventies, women were braless in sparkly disco tops. In the eighties, women did it all, strapping on their eighteen-hour bras to be high-flying execs (with good hair) by day, super moms by night. In fact, by the nineties, it was almost a faux pas to be a stay-at-home domestic goddess. The term “housewife” was stigmatized, and some fool tried to recharacterize the occupation as “domestic engineer.” It just wasn’t catchy enough.

We want to be moms and we want to be good at it. And though you might not guess it if you saw us dancing on tabletops at the local bar, a lot of us like to be domestic. There is something very satisfying about giving your boyfriend some leftover beef stroganoff in a Tupperware container.

So now it’s a new millennium, and we’re back to loving our A-line skirts, our red lips and our cleavage. We have great careers and we want to have children—but maybe not simultaneously. When the time comes, most of my friends want to be around to watch their kids grow up. We want to be moms and we want to be good at it. And though you might not guess it if you saw us dancing on tabletops at the local bar, a lot of us like to be domestic. There is something very satisfying about giving your boyfriend some leftover beef stroganoff in a Tupperware container. All within reason, of course. We won’t do our boyfriend’s ironing or massage his feet after work. We worked all day, too.

The Feminine Feminist is making her stand. She’s independent and believes in equal rights—but doesn’t mind looking cute while sticking up for her values. Although some would say that high heels and armpit-shaving are ways that men control women, I think women have been trying to re-appropriate their own beauty. No one should dictate what we wear. Some women just like the colour pink. Some don’t. Some women don’t like to wear bras. Some women like fishnet stockings. This is a definition of feminism that I can work with: a woman’s equal right to choose—not only her shade of Lipglass but also how she wants to live her life.

The question is, are we getting dangerously close to regression as we totter at the edge of the dream of the domestic goddess? We have healthy role models, like the gorgeous Nigella Lawson, the British culinary sexpot, who is making her mark and her millions in style. Hers is a fairy-tale ending. But consider the recent presidential election, which does not really have a happy ending. It wasn’t just George W. Bush and John Kerry standing up on those podiums, it was also the candidates for First Lady. Teresa Heinz Kerry has her career, has raised a family and is nothing short of an outspoken, intelligent, financially independent heiress with style. Laura Bush is the epitome of Christian Family Values. And while she stood solidly behind her man (on anti-abortion issues, on mounting the Iraq war, on squashing gay rights), so did the majority of Americans. So let’s celebrate the return of the feminine, let’s wear those kitten heels. But c’mon, girls: let’s not be stupid about it.

Emma Appleby is a fabulous force on the Montreal scene. Read more recent columns by Emma Appleby.