Sunday, July 22, 2012

Maid: Unpacking Ambivalence

Sometimes, while I am engaged in some unpleasant cleaning task, I think about how nice it would be to hire someone to do some of these cleaning jobs.  I'm not talking about a weekly whole-house cleaning (I can't envision that, somehow), just having someone in occasionally to clean the kitchen and bathrooms.  When I'm on my hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor, the vision of a professional service sweeping in and leaving behind clean, gleaming surfaces beckons to me.  And yet, apart from the time we hired a cleaning service when we moved out of our rental house (it seemed a good investment to make sure we got our deposit back), I haven't succumbed to the temptation of professional house cleaners.  In part, this is due to entropy (the irony of doing hours of scrubbing because I'm too lazy to call and arrange the service does not escape me) and being worried about the quality of their work (will things get broken or damaged?  I know I can do this safely and carefully -- will they?), but I also have a strong discomfort with the prospect of handing off my cleaning to professionals.  It seems the epitome of bourgeois privilege to not have to do one's own cleaning.  Let's face it, even with all my careful talk about cleaning professionals, the term that comes to mind is . . . maid.  And I'm not ready to have a maid.

Common Place/Lugar Común exhibit at the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, DC (January, 2012)

A couple of years ago, there was a lengthy discussion on the WMST-L list (a listserv focused on teaching Women's Studies) about maids and their employers.  It emerged in response to a post about a photography exhibit, "Lugar Común", in which Latin American domestic workers and their employers were photographed and interviewed (you can see more of the photos here -- it is a large file to download, though).  The WMST-L discussion explored the politics of domestic labor (as well as similar cleaning services in commercial establishments such as hotels and cruise ships) and there were many interesting points raised about the nature of domestic work and its relationship to gender, race, and class politics.  But I was simply struck by the strong feelings the topic evoked.  Several posts claimed that paid domestic labor was exploitative, and one person theorized that there was a corrosive effect on those who grew up within a household which employed maid services.  Why does the professional cleaner elicit such debate, when we rarely hear similar conversations about the myriad of other services we pay for?  Why am I uncomfortable with hiring someone to do my cleaning, when I have no problem paying for any number of other services?

From Women's glibber: State-of-the-art women's humor edited by Roz Warren
(Click on the cartoon for a larger (and more readable) version)

My first guess was that it was due to the gendered nature of the work.  We are fine with professional landscapers, because yard work has traditionally been men's work, but cleaning has traditionally been assigned to women, and perhaps the discomfort comes from paying someone for "women's work."  After all, similar controversies arise over paying for child care, another aspect of the domestic work traditionally assigned to women.  But cooking, too, has traditionally been women's work (at least in the home), and I have no problem with getting take-out food (interestingly, though, our delivery persons are almost always men, as are many of the cooks in our take-out restaurants).  Similarly, I don't hesitate to hand over clothes to a professional for alterations or mending (I hate replacing zippers and shortening pants, and the dry cleaners do a fine job of it).

Perhaps it is the fact that cleaning is strenuous, and often unpleasant, work.  Maybe I just feel guilty fobbing off such difficult work onto others.  Yet I hired a gutter cleaning service without a qualm and feel not a twinge of guilt when the landscape company comes out to dig up a new bed in the garden.  While I would (understandably) feel bad if I left all the unpleasant cleaning tasks to Q, I clearly don't feel bad about hiring professionals to do the dirty work.  

Some have argued that cleaning work is demeaning.  If true, that would certainly explain my ambivalence -- I would be uncomfortable hiring someone to do demeaning work.  But what makes cleaning a demeaning task -- why would this work be any more demeaning than cooking, digging, or mending?  For that matter, why is house cleaning more demeaning than gutter cleaning?  Both involve cleaning, after all.

Perhaps the key difference is the degree of intimacy.  Gutter cleaning is completed outside of the house.  Maids come inside; we give them access to our home, a privilege only typically allowed to intimates.  When I was in college, my room was burglarized, and I vividly remember the feeling of violation that accompanied the experience.  The thieves were in my room, rifling through my things; I was less distressed by the items stolen than by the intrusion into my personal space by strangers.  House cleaners are not intruders, to be sure (we invite them into our homes) but they, too are strangers, touching our belongings.  Indeed, what they clean is very personal.  They clean dirt we create:  the food we spill, the oil of our fingerprints, the dust from our shed skin.  While the gutter cleaners hose out leaves and pine needles, maids clean our bodily effluvium.  It is an intimate act to clean someone's home. 

(This leads me to wonder whether other personal services evoke the degree of ambivalence and discomfort elicited by maid services.  Massage, pedicure, and waxing, for example, are certainly intimate -- do we see that work as demeaning, as well?  Is it morally questionable to pay a woman for a bikini wax?  Or is it less intimate because these are typically performed in a semi-public setting -- would it be more problematic if she came to your home to perform the service?  Am I less uncomfortable with maid service in hotels because of the semi-public setting, or merely because I didn't personally hire the cleaners?)

This intimacy is then entwined with gender and power.  Women and girls have been traditionally assigned the bulk of (unpaid) domestic labor, including house cleaning.  Historically, women have been lower in status than men and our culture tends to devalue the feminine realm, which might then explain why house cleaning seems demeaning.  In hiring the maid, we are asking someone to complete an intimate task that is devalued and completed only by those of lower status -- of course that would seem to demean her.  As a feminist, I would argue that women's work is just as valuable and worthy of respect as men's work; it is only cultural prejudice that devalues women's work and makes it seem lacking in dignity.  Cleaning may well be difficult work, and often unpleasant, but it is not intrinsically demeaning to clean.

Common Place/Lugar Común exhibit at the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, DC (January, 2012)

But I cannot ignore the aspects of social class and power that shape the relationship between employer and domestic worker.  It is typically people of the middle and upper classes who hire cleaning services, mostly performed by those of the working class.  These relationships are often ambivalent and fraught, mixing affection, guilt and sometimes disrespect in complex ways.   As noted in the Lugar Común exhibit, these are "delicate relationships that must negotiate between physical proximity and social distance" (Art Museum of the Americas, January 2012).  Part of what makes the Lugar Común exhibit so intriguing is the removal of typical status cues.  By having all the women dressed identically, it becomes difficult to ascertain who is the employer and who is the employee; our traditional frameworks of class and status are destabilized.
In the interest of underscoring the individual qualities of each woman and breaking down hierarchical relationships a normal framework for the photographic documentation was established:  the same white T-shirt, distance, lighting, posture, and backdrop.  Through these parameters, both similarity and diversity, with no external classifications, are revealed.  (From Common Place/Lugar Común at the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, DC)
The exhibit emphasizes the uniqueness of each woman, making her no longer "the maid" or "the boss".  It also creates commonality among the women: Whether maid or employer, we are all women.  It is an intriguing vision.

But we don't live in the world of these photographs.  We live in a world in which we are all marked with social status cues of dress, demeanor, and speech, and a world in which social class can profoundly influence our daily lives and our opportunities.  It is within that world that I must consider the consequences of my behavior; it is within that world that I must ask whether hiring a maid is exploitative.  I may firmly believe that house cleaning is no more demeaning than any other work, but given the complex social meanings surrounding cleaning, maids may well feel demeaned as they scrub and polish.  Does a respectful, professional relationship counteract the social context of devaluation and invisibility that surrounds domestic labor, or will the experience be inevitably toxic?  My conscience struggles with these issues, and no clear answers are forthcoming.

I, too, might be changed by hiring a maid.  We can lose touch with the specifics of daily tasks when they are no longer within our purview.  When others clean for us, it is all too easy to become careless of the consequences of our actions -- someone else will clean up the mess.  (Indeed, one could argue that this is one cause of the reckless consumer cycle of our culture: We have become so removed from the work of creating goods through industrialization and globalization that we have lost a real sense of the labor and resources entailed in their creation.  Would we so casually use up goods if we were more aware of what went into the making of them?)  Perhaps doing my own cleaning makes me mindful of the mess I am making, grounded in a real understanding of the necessities of domestic labor.  Maybe it keeps me honest and humble, knowing I am not too good to do the dirty work of cleaning up after myself. 

Or is this just an illusion?  Perhaps I'm using cleaning as a way of denying my class privilege (hey, I clean my own toilets -- I'm not bourgeois!), even as I reap the benefits of my economic status.  It seems that I, too, have imbued house cleaning with overweening symbolic power.  Apparently, it is only through cleaning that I can be moral and hard-working; paying others to clean would usher me into a life of idle affluence, with all of its attendant corruption.  Does it really make sense to have this one aspect of the service sector represent all that is problematic in our system of gender and social class?  (And I haven't even begun to explore the issues of ethnicity and race that are often enmeshed with both the image and realities of domestic laborers -- a topic worthy of an essay on its own.)

In the end, I do not claim superior status for doing my own cleaning, nor do I disparage those who pay for cleaning services.  I can only say that we must recognize the value of all labor, including the work that is often invisible and devalued, such as what has traditionally been seen as "women's work."  When we can treat all workers with the respect they deserve and see the both their uniqueness and shared humanity, we will have achieved the vision of the Lugar Común exhibit, and the world will be that much better for all of us.  In order to achieve that vision, I think we need to wrestle more explicitly with difficult questions regarding our attitudes and practices regarding work, including the role of gender, class, and social status.  That is just what you will find me doing . . . as I'm scrubbing my kitchen floor.

From Women's glibber: State-of-the-art women's humor edited by Roz Warren
(Of course, I'm just as likely to be avoiding housework as scrubbing floors . . .)

No comments:

Post a Comment