Sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, I missed the spread of up-to-date magazines that used to be on offer. (What is the actual chance of catching COVID from a magazine? It’s all about aerosols, not fomites.) The only distraction, apart from my phone, was the wall-mounted TV. I can’t read my phone without my glasses, and I was wearing a mask, so I had to watch TV.
The only live TV I’ve watched in years is BBC News 24.
The dentist’s TV was tuned to a commercial channel. It was 11am. An older couple sat on a couch in a studio set. The woman wore too much makeup and the man was jovial and a bit pleased with himself, like someone whose career had comfortably peaked at middle management and who could afford to retire tomorrow if he had to. Sitting the requisite distance apart on another couch, a woman I vaguely recognised as a former girlfriend of George Clooney presented a selection of cheap and ugly boots with professional enthusiasm.
Who watches daytime TV in 2021? Even as this question formed in my mind, the answer was sharply clear to me, from the age of the hosts and the price range of the tawdry merch: women aged 50+, of average means, who spend the days at home. In short, women like me. I was whacked, metaphorically this time, on the head by my own snobbery.
In all my years of working at home, as a freelancer, as a PhD student, and now under lockdown, I have never watched daytime TV. By this I mean the leisurely ‘breakfast shows’ and the low-gear soaps, traditionally aimed at housewives or, these days, retired housewives, because the younger generation have social media.
I am not a housewife. Anyway, being a housewife implies that you live in a house, not in a flat. Since leaving the parental home, I have always lived in flats. There is no such thing as a flatwife. The sort of houses lived in by normal people, as opposed to those who can afford housekeeping staff and annoy their neighbours by digging basements for home cinemas and pools, are out in the suburbs, originally conceived of as dormitories for people—men—who work in cities. Cities are public spaces; suburbs are private and domestic.
Being at home during the day often means being on your own, marginalised from public life. In the 1960s, Betty Friedan wrote about the despair of women alone in the suburbs, with no greater existential purpose than housework and childcare. In 2021, a 30-something woman called Mrs Hinch inspires millions of online followers with her endorsement of cleaning products. She is actually described as a housewife, which just seems anachronistic.
Formed by 1980s career feminism, as a younger (and more judgemental) woman I defined housewife as a woman so dull-witted that all she could aspire to was housework and popping out sprog. Given the extremely limited pool of interesting and well-paid jobs and the persistent gender pay gap, this now seems a reasonable aspiration for a maternally inclined woman—if she can find a man prepared to fulfil a traditional breadwinner role. This is not a problem addressed by contemporary feminism.
In the last year, the external worlds of work and school have been superimposed on the private domain of the housewife. Home no longer represents respite from work; it’s the place of work, for everyone. And guess what: the kids want back at school, and the grown-ups miss the workplace.