The Case of the Missing Homemaker

Director Tim Burton, whose work I often enjoy, has created an Alice in Wonderland so flat that even in 3-D it’s two dimensional.  Ironic that one of our few really offbeat filmmakers should transform two incredibly offbeat novels into a dreary by-the-book feminist parable that seems to have been written according to some treatise on mythological story structure.

What’s more, as familiar and obligatory as this feminist parable has become, it’s absurd.  A girl is about to be forced into a loveless marriage, the story goes, but running off to a fairy land of psychologically transformative adventure, she slays the metaphorical dragon and returns ready to become instead…  a business woman!    Shallow idiocy.

In the classic fairy tales and myths, BOTH heroes and heroines endure adventures and trials in order to learn to love, to become worthy of being husbands and wives who live happily ever after.  Movies still tell this story for men:  just think of how many comedies and fantasies (ala Spielberg’s Hook) end with the hero saying, “Oh, I’ve neglected my family for business but now I’ve learned my lesson.”  But that women must likewise inwardly adventure to learn how to dedicate themselves to being loving wives and mothers, even—gadzooks!—homemakers…  this has become a cultural heresy.

Now, I’m an individualist, and I believe that each of us should do as he can and as he pleases.  But I can’t help noticing that our artists have—one—virtually ceased to portray homemaking as a fulfilling task for women and are therefore—two—lying through their collective teeth for purposes of political propaganda.  The homemaking wives I see in TV shows and movies are either misused victims in need of self-awareness and liberation or finger-wagging mommy-doms forced to keep their manchild husbands in line.  And yet, having married a homemaker, having lived in neighborhoods where many of the women around me were homemakers, these images contradict the evidence of my eyes.  Assuming by homemakers we mean women whose primary work is creating a home for husbands and children, then the homemakers I know seem richly fulfilled, good-natured and happy in their work—decidedly more so than most of the full-time job-holding women I meet.  And though they live in what census takers might call male-head-of-household families, the homemakers I know are also generally powerful and respected—likewise more so than most female wage slaves.  This recent survey, read without the New York Times spin, supports that observation.

And something else.  The husbands I know don’t roll their eyes when they speak of their homemaker wives.  They don’t speak of them in fear like some kind of cowed castrati.  Even in the most intimate personal conversations, these husbands speak of their wives with respect, affection, desire and love.  Yes, of course, I know there are plenty of exceptions, but in general male heads of households and their homemaking wives are still the most satisfied people I meet.

American artists—conformist, ideological and afraid of the leftist media on whom they depend for publicity and praise—have gone out of their way to create a cultural landscape that degrades both homemakers and fatherly leadership.  Their entertainments are designed to make women feel that a life of full-time business and part-time motherhood—and a marriage spent nagging their recalcitrant husbands for household help—is where their happiness lies.

Again, I’m an individualist and wish only for each person that he follows his own way.  But I can’t help suspecting that women are being sold a bill of goods here, that many are being made to feel foolish for wanting what in fact they want and dreaming what in fact they dream.

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  • AtheistConservative

    I’m not a Tim Burton fan, but my wife is, so I’m willing to squirm through this one. But I also picked up on the tired revisionist-history “modern day feminist in the old world” nonsense. And I don’t understand it.

    If we’re going back to the classics, obviously there’s something about them we like. So why do we have to ruin them by imposing our idiotic modern values on them?

    Incidentally, this was one of the many things I also didn’t like about 300. The modern tick of making every female character in a historical drama a “spunky heroine” is just so tired.

  • sqt

    You know, I’ve become so conditioned by the kind of ending that Burton tacked on to his movie, that I didn’t even bat an eye. How scary is that? I thought it seemed silly and out of place, but I never thought what the alternate ending should have been. Of course, given the repulsive nature of the guy who proposed, that didn’t seem like a good option either. But given this was a Burton film, it should have been much more inventive.

    I was surprised at how uninspired Burton’s Alice was. I’m also really, really tired of Johnny Depp prancing around in costume with another voice affectation.

  • Chim

    Good insights! This is what I think is ironic: The idea of the repressed housewife seems to come from the children of the 60′s, whose mothers were often homemakers. These 60′s and 70′s women tried so hard to create a world where there was no need or expectation for women to stay home to raise a family, and now many of their children, those of the 80′s-90′s (myself included @26), now having the option, confidence, and competency to choose either path, end up choosing to devote their many gifts to their husbands and children.

  • Mark

    So…is this an Alice in Wonderland review or a comment on hyper-feminist ideas in pop culture entertainment or something else? C’mon Klavan.

  • JMJ

    Couldn’t agree with you more. As someone who spent 8 years living the feminist “dream” of being a single career woman in a non-traditionally female career but then left the workplace to be a homemaker after marriage and babies came along, I couldn’t be happier. I was absolutely miserable living the feminist ideal of what makes “modern” women happy. I worked hard, yet never got any respect… and never felt fulfilled. Now that I am a stay-at-home mother with a stellar husband, two little boys and another on the way, I am blissfully happy and feel very fulfilled. Most of the women I know feel the same way, too (even the ones who weren’t fortunate enough to find a good husband or have babies yet. They’d trade their “careers” in a heartbeat for what I have).

  • Mike

    I felt this would be the type of movie my wife would enjoy but would put me to sleep. I was only half right; my wife fell asleep too.

    Hollywood will not celebrate the homemaker, and other traditional work roles of women, until they are fulfilled by men. Until then, they will presented as soul-robbing endeavors.

    Witness Gail Collins conversation with David Brooks, found in the February 17 NYT.

    Ms. Collins offered this nugget: “Maybe it’ll turn out that working-class young men can adapt to the changing economy, which no longer values their physical strength, and learn to become secretaries.”

    I have yet to be involved in a work environment where ‘secretary’ is not a pejorative (unless on Secretaries Day, of course). ‘Administrative Assistant’ and ‘Organizational Co-Ordinator’ are the preferred job titles that I’ve seen. But she offers it so generously here. Justin Timberlake brought ‘sexy back’; maybe she would like for him to bring ‘Secretary’ back too.

    Also from Ms. Collins: “It would seem to me that a country that spent so many generations celebrating the stay-at-home housewife could work up a little enthusiasm for the full-time dad. Just saying.”

    For a country that has spent the last two generations celebrating total self-fulfillment and narrowly defining what that can be, you would think she could work up a little enthusiasm -in the name of equality, if not consistency- that both women AND men enjoy the full-time, self-indulgence she advocates.

    Just saying.

  • Jake

    It’s funny you should mention that, mike, b/c some of the happiest folks I know are homemaker Dads. You hardly ever see that portrayed either, unless they have jokes about the guy being metaphorically castrated thrown in there.

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  • SeeingDouble

    Andrew, nothing ironic about it. Burton left ironic behind 20 years ago with the kindly mother who adopts Edward Scissorhands. The guy is in Hollywood lockstep, albeit with putrid shadows and ghoulish colors. He should get his jaundiced oeuvre patented:
    “See Tim Burton’s Latest nightmare in all-new RANCID-VISION!!!”

  • Neecie

    You are right, Klaven. Women are being sold a bill of goods. It is sad that women who, by nature, get the most fulfillment in life from the relationships in their lives are told that they have to focus on a career which will never give them as much satisfaction as taking care of their family. Oh, I know that is not true of all women. My mother-in-law resented being a homemaker. She was so happy when her two daughters chose to go back to work after the births of their first children, and was appalled when neither of them returned after the births of their second children. I think she felt they were throwing away a freedom she never had. But my sister-in-laws tried the working mother routine and they didn’t like it.

    I, on the other hand, never intended to work once kids came along. I read Jane Goodall as a kid and I knew my primates would need me. So, I became one of those happy homemakers who is too happy to notice that I’m … uh … not happy—according to the feminist.

    I have had working mothers tell me how they didn’t see how I could stand having all that free, unstructured time, that they would be bored out of their minds. I guess they like having someone dictate how they spend every minute of their day. I am too busy teaching my kids, reading the news, researching various science topics of interest, studying literature and philosophy, to spend much time worrying whether or not I have enough intellectual stimulation. I may not be a Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey, but I have my own anthropological study—who knows maybe I will write a book someday and call it Boys in the Mist: A Study of Early Men. Anyway, I guess I am happy in my freedom. I am so in love with my husband that I forget to wonder whether I would be happier with someone else. Yes, it’s a real miserable experience. The only downside is that I wish we could find a way for my husband to work at home with us—then it would be perfect.

  • Margaret Evans

    I saw ‘Alice’ last weekend, and I agree with you, Andrew. The conclusion feels tacked-on and gratuitous, kinda like the Mad Hatter’s silly little dance near the end. (Tim Burton couldn’t resist reminding us of what a “rebel” he is, I guess! As if the Depp’s “Hatter” weren’t weird enough already…) You gotta love how Burton sets it up: Alice’s only choices: Stay in “Underland” with the creepy Hatter; marry the unattractive, snobbish twit; marry somebody more desirable, but he’ll turn out to be a philander (like her sister’s husband); or become a “businesswoman.” As Alice set sail for… wherever (the West Indies?) at the end, I could only think, “Right. THAT would happen…” Completely unrealistic for the period. If you want to be “period” AND “modern,” why not give Alice a legitimate love interest who appreciates her mind AND her body, and let them live happily ever after? Well, because that would go against the popular wisdom, right? That’s completely impossible, according to Hollywood…

  • Mo

    Can’t speak to the movie because I haven’t seen it. And I’m happy for those women who are fortunate enough to find some man to work for them and take care of them.

    But the reality is that many women don’t find that. They have to work to survive in life. It’s not by choice, but by necessity.

  • Mike

    Perhaps we could say the dream Burton depicted was as fantastical above ground as below. ‘Alice in Fantasyland’?

    The waxen faces of the hopeful Groom and despondent Aunt are almost out of ‘Beetlejuice.’

    And the obvious business logic explained by novice to master reinforces the idea –popular today as it was in Cambodia in the 1970′s–that children know better than their parents.

    Add in the idea that this young, nubile girl is sailing unescorted on a merchant ship to Asia: will those scenes be in the Director’s cut?

    (BTW, what effective bookends Burton creates with the Groom and Aunt, suggesting Victorian society presented only a Morton’s Fork to young women.)

  • Webutante

    Great review and perceptive take. The negative politicization of the homemaker and the myth of her dissatisfaction flies in the face of a huge body ofcontrary evidence which you aptly observe. And you didn’t even touch on the preponderance of sexual satisfaction of the lowly housewife who is content with her lot in life, far away from the glass ceiling. It’s a wonderful life for those fortunate to have it and not have been carried away by the Women of the post-feminist Worldview.

  • JervisTetch

    Burton has proved, as he did in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, that it’s entirely possible for a grown man (and, indeed, a whole culture) to entirely miss the point of a story whose themes were originally intended for children.

    I’m tempted to say that everyone in Hollywood should start all over with Seuss and work their way up, but that would probably just mean more stinkers like The Grinch and The Thing in the Hat.

  • ari

    Well, the almost aggressive erasure of what women are doing in the home has been going on for much longer than the 1960′s. The short story ” the chrysanthemums” by steinbeck, a workhorse of freshmen lit- does not make sense. She’s a housewife in an agricultural area, with no -anything- no chickens, no herb garden, no kitchen garden, no formidable baking- no skills whatsoever. This came out the year after Gone With the Wind. Why did it not strike the editor as a peculiar little story? Why is it considered a sensitive and touching vision of country life? It doesn’t correspond to a single farmer’s wife, not one- I asked. I even called up grandmothers who were alive during the depression, to ask what they were doing, as well as their cousins. It does however, answer Mr Steinbeck’s career question- if I am a homeless, unclean, alcoholic vagabond, will I still get laid? The answer, is possibly yes. Which is, again, really bizarre, in that the story came out in the 30′s, and I don’t recall any urban legends about hoboes getting laid, but there are plenty of jokes about Fuller Brush salesmen, and dairy delivery men getting some. You know, employed guys? This story made it out in the 1930s, and has been haunting anthologies since then.

    I think there are enormous zones of privacy that stereotypical writers cannot imagine to traverse. Like the statistical bit about maritally satisfied conservative, religious, monogamous couples. It’s really hard to imagine that the woman in the pink polo shirt is can take her shirt off. Or that that man in plaid pants is the greatest thing ever, as far as his wife is concerned. Or that there is happiness and satisfaction and ease in a suburb. Not smug complacency, but ease.

    I am a housewife with three children. My mother, grandmother, stepmother, mother-in-law- reacted with horror when we decided to have more than one child, and then that we decided I would stay home to care for them. The kids are all A students, healthy, active, imaginative, loved, sheltered, and at ease with themselves and the world- the various grands love them, and really wonder why I have it so “easy” with such “easy” children, rather than asking why they managed to have such distressed, difficult children, themselves. My best friend has the same dilemma. None of her relatives ask how she won the “gifted child” lottery, while they lost. They aren’t particularly “gifted,”- they are sheltered, encouraged, and allowed to flourish. And they are beautiful.


  • Beta

    so cam you tell me “What does the ‘political economy of homemaking ‘mean?