Friday, November 20, 2009

Rethinking Domesticity in Girls' Lives and Play Cultures

This week I've been thinking a lot about the changing (and not so changing) role of "domesticity" (traditional notions of femininity, home/private sphere, keeping house, proper etiquette, gender roles, aesthetics, etc.) in the lives of girls and women, particularly within the realm of leisure. This is in large part due to the fact that my lecture this week was on "technologies of empowerment," looking at how women are using traditional and new technologies -- often in combination -- to challenge status quo, gender politics, and gender role well as to construct new ways of engaging with social institutions (such as markets) and techno-politics. A key theme was how technologies (& technological practices) that have traditionally been designated as "feminine" and/or associated with women (such as looms and knitting needles) share many of the same formal characteristics as key digital technologies, including computer software and networks. While I feel optimistic and very enthusiastic about these developments, at the same time I can't help but be reminded of the very different ways many of these same traditionally feminine technologies have historically appeared within girls' play culture as modes of domestication and containment. Now I'm left wondering how these two areas might be reconciled -- on the one hand to add some perspective to the optimism that surrounds handmade/DIY feminist culture, and on the other hand to produce a more progressive approach to a tendency within girls' play culture that can otherwise seem quite regressive.

I think the best way to start this discussion is to first provide a better explanation of the contents of the above-mentioned lecture. As I may have mentioned here before (and as indicated in the sidebar), I'm currently teaching a fourth-year seminar course called "Women and New Information Technologies" at the School of Communication, SFU. This week, I presented some of the themes raised in Sadie Plant's "Future Looms: Weaving women and cybernetics" (here's a link to a GoogleBooks excerpt), by examining both the parallels between traditional women's craftwork (such as weaving, embroidery, knitting, etc.) and computing technologies, as well as the ways in which these traditional practices are currently being reclaimed and reinvented by young women as part of a variety of cultural practices, business ventures, and forms of feminist community-building and activism. Here are a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean by this:

Handmade Nation
A key example (in my lecture at least) is the Handmade/Arts and Crafts movement, which links with contemporary feminism in a variety of ways, not least of which is the potential the movement contains for alternative economic models. One of the sources we "looked at" (although I couldn't get a hold of a full licensed copy in time for a screening - it just came out 2 weeks ago!), was a new documentary by Faythe Levine called Handmade Nation, which chronicles the resurgence of traditional craft-making across North America. Levine also co-authored a companion piece with Cortney Heimerl last year entitled Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, and Design, published with the Princeton Architectural Press. The film and book focus on interviews Levine conducted with crafters and artists across the US, the vast majority of whom are women who have combined traditional practices (albeit oftentimes with a very contemporary spin, e.g. skull and cross bone doilies) and new info technologies to establish both a new crafting community and burgeoning neo-artisan economy. As described on the publisher website:
Participants in this community share ideas and encouragement through websites, blogs, boutiques, galleries, and craft fairs. Together they have forged a new economy and lifestyle based on creativity, determination, and networking.

Open Source Embroidery
Another example I looked at in this lecture is a project/art collective called Open Source Embroidery. Founded in 2005 by postdoctoral researcher Ele Carpenter, the project was created to explore and support artists engaged in investigating the relationships between embroidery and programming. As the website describes, Open Source Embroidery is "based on the common characteristics of needlework crafts and open source computer programming: gendered obsessive attention to detail; shared social process of development; and a transparency of process and product." Very interesting. Here's an excerpt from an article in Wired about the project:
The movement brings together knitters, embroiderers and quilters who see parallels between the way they create their crafts and how open source software creators share their ideas. At the BildMuseet at UmeĆ„ University in Sweden, an exhibition — also called Open Source Embroidery — showcases artworks that use embroidery and code as a tool for participatory production and distribution.

“The idea of collaboration has been made cool by open source software,” says Carpenter, the curator of the exhibition. “But artists have been working like this for a long time.”

Even the differences between needlework crafts and open source software are alike, she says. Embroidery is largely dominated by women, while software is created mostly by men, she says. In embroidery, tiny stitches come together to create a pattern visible on the front of the fabric, while its system is revealed on the back. It’s similar to how software is created.

There is of course some argument about how "alternative" these practices really are, and some good feminist challenges to the purported empowerment and progressive politics (if any) that they ultimately bring about. But from what I've seen, they do indeed seem to represent an alternative to (rather than support of) the status quo, one that contrasts in important ways with the liberal feminist approach of making space for women within existing structures/institutions. By creating new spaces and new structures within which women and men can redefine workplace norms, opportunity, and expectations, and thereby challenge outdated (patriarchal) structures -- not from within, but rather on their own terms -- these practices do become political in ways that extend far beyond leisure or a nostalgia-laden aesthetic trend. As such, they could indeed represent a key facet of an emerging political movement.

And while Handmade Nation and sites like Etsy (and the surrounding debate about women and Etsy) and the like focus specifically on craft work, there are also a number of links between Arts&Crafts and various other forms of DIY and the hidden productive practices of women and girls -- from music and film production, to girl's bedroom culture, to open source and hacker cultures. There are also some very interesting overlaps between craft/DIY and women's lifestyle sports subcultures, particularly in sports that have traditionally been male-dominated, such as snowboarding (e.g. Holly Thorpe's article on female snowboarding "feminizing" their gear with hand-knitted toques and other customizations).

In giving some further consideration to these themes and ideas, however, I've become quite caught up in the paradox that emerges when the discourses of empowerment/feminism/community contained within much of the handmade/DIY movement are contrasted with feminist discussions of girls' play. Here, I'm thinking about all the research into girls' commercial culture and toy culture that reveals the enormous emphasis that has been placed on instrumental activities, domesticity and the development of traditionally feminine skills as the most "appropriate" use of girls' leisure time. Within girls' culture, the emphasis placed on tea parties, play kitchen sets, sewing and the like, all become examples of how girls play is shaped by an ethos of "domesticity", which operates both as a ideological justification for girls' confinement within the home (with indoor play & domestic themes portrayed as natural choices for girls' play), as well as the systematic instrumentalization of their play and leisure (play that is geared towards a purposive end (namely of training girls to be future mothers/wives) rather than "play for play's sake").

So my question has become - can these two areas be reconciled within a feminist theory of/approach to play, and if so how?

Starting Out Points
- Arts&Crafts is a key area of kids' toy/play culture, with girls' targeted with a plethora of sewing/stamping/beading/knitting games - ranging from plastic pretend kitchen sets and sewing machines, to semi-functional Easy-Bake ovens and very basic Singer sewing machines, to more-or-less fully functional embroidery sets and the like. While the marketing for these objects is often quite stereotypical, you do see quite a bit of them promoted as educational toys or "alternative" toys as well. Are there links between the current Arts&Crafts movement and the tradition of arts&crafts in kids' (and primarily girls') leisure? If so, where and how are these links promoted? How could girls' toys/leisure be more firmly incorporated into the discourses of empowerment enjoyed by the older girls and women who are engaged in this subculture?

- If purposive leisure is indeed a better conduit into the emerging structures of the "information society" - artisan markets, open source, immaterial labour, the blurring of traditional boundaries between play/work public/private - are we in fact seeing an expansion of traditions established within girls' play culture and women's "leisure" (always a contested category as women have historically enjoyed less leisure, engaged in more purposive leisure, and have more often multi-tasked chores and leisure) into the lives of boys and men?

- Read through the work done by Ludica - this group has done some fascinating work examining some of these themes, particularly in regards to girls' play, gendered relationships with space (domestic, public and digital) and digital games. For example, their article A Game of One's Own examines conceptions of play space from a female perspective.

All I have for now are some preliminary ideas - there are obvious overlaps and obvious starting points, as you can see from my rudimentary list above, but at a theoretical level the empowering dimensions of craft work do seem to trouble my emerging definition of "domesticization" as the form of social rationalization currently taking place within children's digital play (extending from girls' play traditions into boy's play as well through virtual worlds and transmedia intertexts that transform play into a form of consumption/affective labour). Perhaps it is within the vocational/non-alienated labour implications of women's craftwork that its potential emerges??? Perhaps it is the lack of alternatives within girls' commercial play culture (as it is constructed within commercial and social discourses only - I do not mean to ignore girls' and parents' very real ability to choose toys outside of the pink aisle) that makes the emphasis on purposive play so limiting??? More to come as I think these issues through a little more, and in the meantime I welcome any points of discussion or challenges in the comments section below that might be of use in making sense of these questions.

If this is of interest, you might also want to read a previous post I wrote on my "under construction" idea about domesticization as a parallel system of social rationality within modern society.

Here are some examples of the kinds of girl's toys I'm talking about:

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