Sunday, 20 December 2009

Here, have this humourless festive rant!

Something about the way Christmas 2009 is being marketed sticks in the craw. It's not just the creeping sense of frustrated greed, more bitter this year because of the extra hundreds of thousands out of work - it's the fact that we're all supposed to be so cheery about it, gleefully swapping our usual extravagances for home baking, knitting and making natty little baubles out of bits of string and glitter.

Newspapers are full of editorials urging their female readers to "have a crafty Christmas" by hand-making gifts and decorations. These articles are inevitably accompanied by soft-focus photos of terrifyingly blonde grinning women in shapeless knitwear fashioning entire kitchen sets out of balsa-wood, like a cross between a nuclear strike advice handbook and the Boden catalogue.

This bizarre fashion for retro handicrafts started some years before the credit crunch with the revival of Stitch'n'Bitch knitting circles in New York.

It was initially conceived as a fun, feminist reclamation of traditional skills. The meetings were free, the skill-sharing amiable. But as the recession has taken hold the trend has been co-opted by the dark machinery of the women's lifestyle press, desperate for a new manifesto to replace "shop 'til you drop."

Despite the impact of the recession on women, who are losing their jobs faster than men in the financial, leisure and hospitality information industries and facing redundancy and discrimination at work because of pregnancy or motherhood, there's an atmosphere of celebration.

According to the Evening Standard and many, many others, we're all becoming "domestic goddesses" again. Don't fret about losing your job - for the price of a shedload of specialist ingredients you too can bake sparkly fairy cakes, stave off economic Armageddon and save Christmas.

The most brain-bleedingly pointless domestic tasks are now thoroughly fetishised - as long as it's women acting out that fetish, of course.

Cookery classes and exclusive sewing circles encourage young, trendy women to indulge in a sanctioned fantasy of glamorous drudgery that never really existed. For just £310 a session, "recessionistas" can have a training day with Cookie Girl in Notting Hill. Sales of kitchen equipment are rising faster than an organic souffle.

Now, no-one's implying that a little more domestic dexterity wouldn't do all of us some good. Certainly, decades of aggressive marketing of home improvement products, the revolt against traditional gendered labour divisions and the male backlash against that revolt have led many to abandon the basic tools of self-care.

What is being lost is not a prim model of Beetonesque housewifery but the essential human tricks of keeping ourselves clean, clothed and fed.

The current craze for sexed-up retro-domesticity does nothing to remedy this. Instead of everyone rediscovering truly useful, empowering self-care skills, women alone are being encouraged to spend vast sums on instruction and materials for pastimes that have almost no bearing on real life - pastimes that are performative rather than practical.

Who, when you get down to it, really needs to know how to knit a Christmas fairy or ice a lavender cupcake a la Nigella Lawson?

Of all the fluffily sexist trends to come out of "post-feminism," this one truly unnerves me. I know women my age and younger, educated and emancipated, who have no idea how to make a stock or take in a hem but view the baking of immaculate muffins and the embroidering of intricate scarves and mittens as exciting hobbies, pastimes which should be properly performed in high-waisted '50s skirts and silly little pinafores.

Wouldn't it be great, the subtext runs, if we could just go back to the way things were then - when women were real women, men were real shits and the mince pies were really scrummy?

Of course none of this fantasy performative retro domesticity has any basis in reality.

Such hedonistic time wastage has all the historical accuracy of the sort of sexual roleplay which involves Victorian schoolboy outfits and birch whipping canes. Like all such fetish play it is perfectly jolly fun as long as it isn't taken seriously. But if unexamined, there is always the risk that a fetish will bleed into reality.

I utterly disdain the idea of a Crafty Christmas. I refuse to be a "recessionista." I will not be spending my afternoons this December making elegant hat-pieces out of potato peelings or fashioning festive cake decorations from cat litter, or in any way fantasising about being a suburban housewife in a haze of valium in some ad-man's wet dream of early post-industrial capitalism.

Not now, not ever again.

I will be buying a few presents, taking some days off work, getting merry and singing along to the radio with relatives I haven't seen for too long, and that will do me nicely.

But what do I know? Stockists of craft supplies, baking equipment and ridiculous frilly aprons have all seen a jump in profits and in even jollier festive news Associated British Foods is reporting a 35 per cent increase in sales of bun trays. Let choirs of angels sing.

[published at Morning Star online and titled 'Crafty Christmas? Not on my watch...']

Oh, don't start. I'm only about 50% serious. Really. No, stop it, I know.


  1. Er, yeah. I appreciate that there's probably a point in here somwhere, but lets not just whinge for the sake of it; Look what happened to Greer.

  2. Seriously though, it's got so boring and overdone. Yay, cupcakes and 50s-inspired kitchenware and 'make do and mend' and Cath Kidston prints. YAWN. Enjoying cooking anything else doesn't cut it, it's got to be *baking*. In a retro apron. With a shabby chic union jack cake tin. Pretending to be Nigella.

    It unnerves me too.

  3. Maybe that's the zeitgeist from where you're standing, but I've seen no more than flashes of it, which I frown at and ignore. Are you deliberately looking in places that will get you riled? "Women's" magazines and newspaper sections seem to be almost uniformly inane (exception for high fashion mags, which are crazy, but serious about it). That's surely a feminist problem, but why pick this one bit of idiocy and beat your head against it? Unless the idea was to blow off steam by having a rant.

  4. Two initial comments:

    1 - Equating crafting/baking with the hated spectre of femininity: classic either/or binary logic? Or a case of 'crafting was really cool when me and my feminist mates did it, but now all the posers have moved in it's just so f***ing naff'?

    2 - I hate Kirstie Allsopp more than you do.

    I might post a more considered response later, but in the meantime, have a look at the 'craftastrophes' at and have a good laugh.


  5. I know you say you're only half serious, and I do agree with the media fetishisation of the 50s housewife as being a Bad Thing (I'm trying to find a link to a poster featuring two topless women in frilly aprons, which is displayed seemingly without irony in the house of some women I know, and which makes me monumentally sad and slightly nauseous), but I do take issue with the presentation of the 'crafty Christmas' as some kind of anti-woman celebration of domestic slavery.

    If you look at the wider craft community (which I am guessing you didn't do in too much depth in researching this article, since you mention Stich n Bitch in passing, when the knitting community has all but eclipsed that phenomenon in the almost-decade since it started), there are a whole host of reasons why people craft, some of it's to save money, some is to make presents for people without having to resort to buying stuff that's been made in a sweatshop, or made badly, or transported halfway round the globe. And although there is the potential to spend serious money on crafty hobbies, there is just as much potential to save money, reusing, repurposing, spending time with the kids making decorations out of cereal boxes and tin foil, etc etc.

    There is the whole issue of craft as a luxury requiring leisure time and disposable income, and the privilege inherent in being able to consider making your own clothes 'fun' (this is a huge, and ongoing debate, see the whole Jane Brocket blow-up a couple of years back), but (to butcher a phrase), crafty people aren't a monolith, and some of us do it, not as some kind of postfeminist (<-can we kill that word please?) kitsch, but as a way of opting out of mass production (though that doesn't make it uncapitalist by any stretch!).

    And actually, I think that characterising the renewed popularity of craft as 'fluffy' (mostly female, and therefore trivial?) is pretty damn sexist in itself.

  6. To the latest Anon: I do know that, which is why I make a specific distinction between people who are doing this stuff because they have to, because it's useful or practical, and people who are just indulging a strange little fetish. I think people across the world, men and women, could do with re-learning how to properly cook, how to make their own clothes, how to knit, sew, take care of a home and themselves - but this isn't about that at all.

    I don't think all crafts are 'fluffy'. I think cupcake-making and doily-embroidering is 'fluffy', and not just because it's done mostly by women - because it seems to me like a massive waste of time. I think it's done by women because it's inherently trivial rather than the other way round, if you see what I mean.

  7. From the latest anon - the blog wouldn't let me post under a name)

    Yep - like I said, I understand where you're coming from, but it was particularly the 'utterly rejecting a crafty christmas' that got me - and wanting to put in the third motivation for homemade. I don't make my own clothes/knit presents because I *need* any more clothes etc etc (so it's not for any practical reason in the way that darning socks or fixing a hem would be), but I also don't do it to conform to an image. I just want to create, and I can't draw, so I use textiles, and I know a lot of people who see things that way.

    Re the fluffy thing, OK, I see your point, but 'fluffy' is an adjective typically used to describe female-oriented things, so perhaps not a great choice of word. However, I would again say that 'I don't understand why people would want to do this activity' does not equal 'this activity is trivial and a waste of time'.

    I realise I'm totally not even responding to the post now, so I'll stop. Basically I agree that the media are creepy when it comes to policing what women ought to do, but I wanted to point out that maybe feminists shouldn't do it as well. Have a good christmas!

  8. I think your right and I have a whole lot of ambivalence with this stuff. For example, I have friends who do a Stitch n Bitch. It looks fun, although I'm usually working.

    The same friends and I have a kind of craft evening on Mondays, although the emphasis is partly a kind of fine arts craftiness I guess. Someone knits, I've been working on a pop-art piece on British consumerism, someone else is designing tattoos etc. We also bake something like cupcakes, or muffins, or do a mini-buffet. This is mostly because we like food, especially fresh hot food! This is, of course, personal experience and not helpful to general definitions, but I wanted to add it nonetheless.

    I do agree, though, the 50s housewife is once again being fetishized. My other problem - different, and linked - is the burlesque look. I think this is fetishized in a similar manner, and has similar kinds of connotations I think. I love the look, and I kinda also love the general 50s housewife look too - but I worry about both when it comes to repeating prescriptive stereotypes.

    I wonder if it's a bit like the high heels debate - in that, they can be seen as a tool of oppression, so if we like wearing them, and do so for ourselves, are we just still perpetuating that culture, even if we're feminists and going in with open eyes, thinking critically. I read a blog post on this (from an F Word link I think) and the writer liked high heels, and in fact, because of the shape of her feet, felt more comfortable in them. However, she worried about the associations and also about a reductive, prescriptive feminist that says that you can't wear things like that.

    Where do you stand on this?

    I hope that wasn't too off-topic, for me, it's all linked...

  9. It's only a few buns?

  10. I'm with 'Anon' on this one: the reasons for crafting are many and varied, and are not helped by bandwagon-jumpers such as Allsopp (who's desperately trying to reinvent herself now there's no market in property porn on TV). Also, the 'performative' aspect Penny referred to is key: there's a recognition that such a routine is temporary, and that at some point one has to go back to the 'real world', in which a woman makes and pays her own way and buys microwave ready-meals from Lidl/Waitrose (delete according to taste/income) or makes 'proper' food from scratch. Otherwise, it's just another proxy war against those bits of femininity the writer most dislikes (see 'pink', high heels, make-up, Barbie, etc.).

    PS: Penny what kind of cake-baking isn't 'fluffy'? I'd suggest rock cakes, 'cos they sound well 'ard - like Ross Kemp in a cookery show called 'Ultimate Baking'.

    PPS: Christmas is when crafting goes mad (and bad): hand-made things by a kid is kinda cute; by an adult...well, see the Regretsy link in my earlier post.


  11. Stumbled upon this via the Guardian. Great post. I groaned when I saw Kirsty 'making' Christmas. Yeah she got by with a little help from some very exclusive friends. I watched with horror and managed to not to put my foot through the tv. How much did all that cost Kirsty? Smug doesn't cover it.

    My daughter (14) made gingerbread men for her friends as presents, one had a stab wound, blood pouring forth, x's for the eyes! I'm doing patchwork tea cosies from bits of material I've cut up from clothes the children wore as infants and giving them to auntie and nana. We bought from a store (John Lewis), old fashioned paperchain strips and made them yesterday. They look good. They all decorated with garish glitter some cheap baubles and it was brilliant fun. All this for about 20 quid. Saves going to the city centres and spending a fortune on the ice rinks etc.

    I don't feel like a domestic goddess though. Just like doing these things. Sewing calms me down. I've always loved it.

  12. There's no question that there's a strand of the crafting revival that's all about longing for the simple 'truths' of the prefeminist era. So much is obvious,but I suppose one has to defend the right of human beings to make retrograde choices.

    What really worries me is the neoluddite rhetoric that accompanies a lot of this stuff; the notion that technology is always, necessarily detrimental to 'authenticity', 'quality' or 'human connection'. Hence the spurious notion that 'craft' - an activity frequently undertaken with deluxe equipment, in the vast acreage of free time only 21st humans possess - is an activity that reclaims autonomy and liberates people from the complex claims that capital, authority and responsibility make on our psyche. I wouldn't want to say it can't ever be liberating, but the vein of technophobia it often carries is really suspect to me.

    I'd say that the current wave of suspicion about technology can be alternately the angel and demon on the shoulder of the modern progressive: while it can animate serious concerns over climate change, globalised exploitative capitalism and structurally unequal social relationships, it also tends to suggest solutions to those problems that harken back to a fictional golden age, in which the rights we have spent so long struggling for are conceived of as somehow transhistorical. I think we can argue that the moral force of those rights is transhistorical, but their establishment certainly isn't -- they are a feature of industrialised modernity. Not that we shouldn't strongly critcise industrialisation and the entrenched striations and elites it can produce, but the argument that the relationship is an unproblematically causal one is simply stupid.

    Which is not to even begin to address the danger of fetishising the accidents of prefeminist 'craft', without recognising the substance and processes behind them. I suppose one doesn't want to be po-faced about it, and I don't think it's by any means universally true that anyone who sews, knits or bakes is consciously trying to revert to earlier models of society, but it's certainly a sizeable minority.

    But fuck it, it's Yule. Talking about class and capital is like shitting in a Santa hat.

  13. I'm in agreement with 'Anon' (11.59 12.24) as much as the media bandwagon jumping is annoying (I'm with everyone on the Allsopp WTF? The show wasn't representative of any hobby, what she did was a ton of those 'experience this...' days) I don't see the problem with crafting, baking, sewing, whatever that persons hobby is. I don't believe the hobbies are the problem at all, just something else that's been seized upon as something 'some' women do & enjoy so is now being shoved down the throats of all women with the insistence that they too must do & enjoy these hobbies.

  14. There's a very good post on this very thing here....

  15. Red El, the long haired one.22 December 2009 at 17:23

    As far as the fluffy cupcakes go... sometimes, it's just nice to have nice things. I'm learning to bake because I'm unemployed, but have a sweet tooth and cannot afford to spend £8 on a box of four fancy muffins. My apple pie, though, would never appear on one of these "back to basics in the kitchen" sessions for girls. Presentation, rather than the existence of these things, is the problem (I think perhaps this is what you're getting at and some of those above have missed it?).

    These things are presented to women, and only to women. If you see a man making a frilly cupcake, he's either presented as a flamboyant homosexual stereotype or he's Jamie Oliver. The frilly cupcakes are, while pretty and tasty and nice to have, a rather unpleasant gender division that tells men they shouldn't go near the kitchen or have nice things, and suggests in a rather unsubtle way to women that they should get busy being pretty little immaculately manicured domestic divas. The frilly cupcakes give us no middle ground- no cakes for boys, no trousers for girls.

    There's no practicality, no useful skill, no actual value in the frilly classes. There is no sensible pie. They're for women with a lot of money and a lot of time to enjoy playing at being life-size dollies, rather than as an aid to anyone who may have to face real life. That they're being advertised as useful in the face of all this suggests some serious problems in society's mindset.

  16. I just found you through Dark Purple Moon (Carnival link).
    I Adore this post. Seriously.
    As a blogger in the more 'green' blogosphere with the 'yoga' combo- there is a LOT of pressure to DIY and... well... BAKE. Don't get me wrong, I am a FANTASTIC baker, but seriously- I have no idea why all my female relatives, friends and blogger-peeps bake SO friggin' much for xmas. As if an ARMY of people will eat their cookies.

    Although I see the distinction between practical handiness-craftiness and 'fluffy' craftiness (a la Martha), I really didn't make the connection between recession-green movement. The majority of 'green' bloggers are moms and housewives. It's a little weird. and the PRESSURE to craft-bake-create this xmas.

    It's surreal. And the pressure isn't just on those women who don't have a job, it's there for those of us who do.

    For example- my colleague, who also has a masters degree and works full time, isn,t married nor does she have children, lives in an apartment in the city... is a crazy crafty fiend. I'm SO tired of her facebooks stats of 'Baking the Zillionth batch of biscotti' or 'sewing produce bags as gifts'...
    Just the other day she asked her bf what he would prefer she make- homemade cheesecake or gingerbread dessert for his family xmas... Right. If I were making something for my fiancé's family xmas supper, he would damn well either help or make his own equivalent.

    sigh. rant over.

    thank you for validating my annoyance. it was ridiculously needed.

  17. PS Ross Kemp doing "Ultimate Baking"? Thank you to the anonymous person who suggested that for reviving my sense of humour.

  18. Penny wrote, "I think cupcake-making and doily-embroidering is 'fluffy', and not just because it's done mostly by women - because it seems to me like a massive waste of time."

    I am not a domestic goddess, and I don't bake often, but I can assure you that I have never found making cupcakes a waste of time. Probably because I like eating them. As do others.

    I just don't get why some feminists who probably wouldn't mind a spot of cooking if they had invited friends around get their unfrilly knickers in a twist about the humble cupcake. If you wish to explain, that would be helpful.

  19. My crafty christmas involved a tablesaw (my present from my husband!), automatic planer, chop saw, and drill press. Take that, post-feminism arts and crafts!

  20. Actually Anonymous, the saw and things sound very enjoyable. At the age of 36, I did woodwork for the first time, eventually making a small book case. And last month I did soldering for the first time on a stained glass taster course.

    I cannot claim to have found woodwork or metalwork easy, I was slower than the others around me, but it was fun to try.

  21. Vanilla Rose, the woodworking was fantastic and I love doing it. Now if only my husband would stop telling me how 'hot' it is that I can use power tools and just accept it as a natural thing I enjoy just like all my other hobbies, all would be right with the world. I do woodworking for MY benefit, not his!

  22. *blowing-off-steam-alert!*

    I really struggle with issues around the explosion of retro, crafting and all the other trends that are being cashed in on and used to further pigeon-hole women left, right and centre. I'm a card-carrying feminist (f*ck "postfeminism", sorry!) who, at least superficially, loves 50s style, cupcakes, frilly aprons, high heels and a world of other things fit to make plenty of modern fems balk. I also love at least as many things that are considered 'masculine' and aggressive.I'm just as happy making 'pointless', fluffy cakes, wearing silly clothes as I am doing DIY, playing contact sports and wearing utilitarian clothing. I refuse to stop doing something because of the stereotypical connotations of it... fashions change and can be claimed, reclaimed, subverted and so on - just because something in one time or place represents or reminds us of something undesirable doesn't mean it can't shed those connotations in a different context.

    But my dilemma is that I constantly hear myself and other politically active women justifying our actions, whether it's wearing heels etc or baking stupidly fancy cakes. Whilst my general feeling is 'up yours, I'll bake, wear, say and generally do whatever I like, and I will fight for anyone's right to do the same (or different)!', I can't help wondering if I'm just sticking my fingers in my ears and going
    'La la laaaa, I don't want to hear about how things I like are gross and wrong because I'm annoyed by so many things that sometimes I want something shiny and superficial, la la la laaaaaaa!'

    Most annoying of all (well second most, after Kirsty Allsopp) is that I'm internalising all of this as if it's my own fault that the uber "feminine" has been repackaged and sold as fun, empowering, ethical, chic or whatever else and that I happen to like some of the things on offer even if I hate the connotations! Arrrrrrrgh!

  23. I think that (with the exception of things like fox hunting) we have the right to enjoy whatever we darn well like, no matter how frilly or unfrilly it is.

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