You’ve bought gifts, sent cards and cooked for hours. Forget Santa’s little helpers, it’s women who do all the work at Christmas, says India Knight
’Tis the season to, er, be really harassed and run around like a blue-arsed fly, getting Christmas ready while the men in your life lie around watching the football. At least that’s the impression the ‘festive’ adverts give, a whole slew of them featuring the same theme: knackered Mum narrowly avoids becoming a fatality of exhaustion while her loved ones mooch around not doing much at all. The men are on the sofa, or have vanished at the crucial moment, only to reappear with a bottle of champagne, which is fine but literally butters no parsnips.
Is the Fifties-style division of domestic labour that features in many of this year’s ads the reality? Are women really happy to work themselves into the ground during the Christmas period, because it’s all worth it in the end? Are mums not only primary carers but primary doormats too?
It is certainly true that the harassed wife and mother breaking her back to make Christmas lovely for everyone used to be the stark reality: in the Fifties, the period the advertisers seem to be harking back to, women generally speaking stayed at home and men went to work. The domestic sphere was an exclusively female one, and what was true for 11 months of the year became even more so for the 12th. The idea that men would contribute to getting the festive meal ready was straightforwardly absurd. This sense of Christmas being women’s work was revisited often in subsequent decades: all the sitcoms of my childhood – in the Seventies and Eighties – played on an identical theme: if the men weren’t actually down the pub while their wives got everything ready, they were slumped on the sofa with a bottle of Scotch, wearing a paper hat and indulging in a non-stop telly orgy. Moreover, there was a men-only complicity inherent in these comedies: the poor old blokes, forced to talk to their mothers-in-law and their wives’ relatives. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the men might be called on to untangle the fairy lights, and that was it.
I want to object to these ads – and plenty of people do – on the basis that they are retrograde and dimly sexist, but I recognise myself in them. Not just myself but my mum, my sisters and all my girlfriends. Asda’s ad – the most uncompromising in its portrayal of intense, chaotic stress leading to domestic contentment around the Christmas table – speaks to me directly, and not because I am Asda’s targeted customer (the supermarket used their customer database to find out what the reality of Christmas was like for most of them, and what they came up with is what you see on screen: not so much an ad as a little piece of reportage).
And I don’t think the ad speaks to me because I am a doormat: it speaks to me because it’s utterly familiar. I have no shortage of obliging, helpful males around: some of them are even pretty good cooks, and it’s not that I have to do everything on my own. But here’s the thing: I want to. This isn’t because I am a drudge or a martyr – it’s because I know what works. And what works, in both senses, is me.
“I have no shortage of helpful males and it’s not that I have to do everything on my own. But here’s the thing: I want to”
People who don’t understand the peculiar joys of domesticity often forget that, for many women, domesticity is control. It’s a whole self-contained world, and you’re the boss of it. You don’t make your children dinner because the b*stard men don’t know how to boil an egg. You make your children dinner because it is an expression of love. Obviously it doesn’t always feel that way, but the fact remains: you are the queen of your kitchen, and what you say goes. That may not necessarily be true of every other part of your life. Not everyone is busy bashing at the glass ceiling. Home, and what goes on in it, is far more real. It’s not a game, or playing at being a housewife: it’s your world and it keeps on spinning every single day, and at some point you have to make it work.
So, yeah: of course you could provide men with lists and point them in the direction of Sainsbury’s, and of course it would be sexist to point out that they might not shop as efficiently as you do, not being as familiar with the lie of the land, or that they might do their weird male thing of buying random things in either insufficient or extravagant quantities. But the fact that it’s sexist doesn’t make it untrue. It is a fact that, if you want something done, you’re probably better off doing it yourself. Christmas is merely an extension of this, and this is why the ads in question paint a true picture. I think the reason that we feel we should object to them has something to do with a small gasp of realisation: “My god, that’s me.” And after that gasp comes thought number two: “Blimey, that’s not very evolved, is it?”
But do you know, I think it is. Because I don’t think that domesticity is some sort of failure of feminism: I think it’s a beautiful, amazing thing, a daily feat; and I don’t think running around trying to get everything ready makes you a tragic victim. We may object, on paper, to being portrayed as stressed housewives, but at this time of year, that’s what many of us are. We may be all sorts of other things too, of course – nobody is mono-dimensional. But at Christmas time, I don’t think it’s wildly out there to depict the reality of most women’s lives, which is basically, “Waaah, so much to do, not enough time.” We get it all done in the end, of course. We get the dinner on the table and we look around at the faces of the people we love, and we exhale and feel delighted with ourselves for having carried it off. Again.
So I love those ads. To me, what would be really sad would be if the women watching them – the ones who didn’t instantly recognise an aspect of themselves – suddenly thought, ‘Oh god, is that all I am, the Christmas drudge?’ To me, the ads are a celebration. There’s all the time in the world to break balls and kick ass. Once a year, it’s Christmas, and women make it brilliant.
India Knight’s new novel Mutton is out now (£12.99, Fig Leaf Penguin)
Picture credits: Rex Features