Housewifery in Julie and Julia: Doing Something

A few nights ago my husband and I watched Julie and Julia on DVD. It was a good movie; I enjoyed it. But there were a couple of points that were particularly interesting from the point of view of the HomeMistress.

First, Julia Child starts the movie as a woman with nothing to do. Her husband supports her in grand style, she feels she must “do something” and not be like all the other housewives who “do nothing.” She attends a hat decorating class, and is horribly bored and then tries a cooking class for housewives, but finds that class too simplistic. And so she fights her way into the men’s professional cooking classes and becomes obsessed with learning to cook. There another scene later in the film in which Julia is afraid her cookbook will never be published and the past 8 years of her life will have been in vain, just “something for me to do.” The implication is that unless something concrete like a book comes from her efforts at mastering French cooking, it was all pointless.

Let’s take the first point, the idea, whether it was genuinely one held by Julia Child or merely by the screenwriter, that all housewives “do nothing.” And the corollary that she must not be like other housewives, but must “do something.” This ties in with the derogatory usage of the word housewife that I mentioned in my last post. Housewives, in the collective imagination, “do nothing.” Obviously, this excludes the work of the home and the raising of children, which must fall into the category of nothing. I suppose the argument could be made that the film was referring to rich Parisian women who had servants to do everything for them. But it’s an attitude I’ve encountered too often even about women who obviously have lots of work to do in the home.

But let’s talk about the “doing something.” I would suggest that most housewives “do something” outside their mandatory daily tasks. We have hobbies, we make things, we go places, we do some sort of work, we find meaning where we can, right? It is easy for me to imagine that each housewife believes she “does something” while other housewives “do nothing.” It’s in line with the competition women so often feel with every other person of their gender and that is relentlessly encouraged by our society. We put all other members of our gender down in order to raise ourselves up, don’t we? I know I’m guilty of it at times.

Back to Julia, who seemed to feel that all she’d accomplished in eight years meant nothing if she couldn’t get her book published. This touches on thoughts that have been circling in my head for months as I’ve approached this experiment in not working. What gives us worth as people? From where do we get our feeling of self-worth. For too many of us, our jobs determine our worth. Our self-esteem is bound up with our job title, income, performance, etc. It’s something I’ve had to face in choosing to leave my work. I now have the task in front of me of finding worth somewhere else, in something without a neat label like a title or income. So, the question is, does there have to be a concrete profit to an endeavor in order for it to be worth it? Is spending eight years becoming a great cook reward enough?

Speaking of self-worth and jobs, let’s consider the other woman in the movie, Julie. I relate to her more than a little. She works in a dead-end but noble and heart-wrenching job. I recognize so much in the scene in which she has lunch with her “friends” who are all successful business women. When they turn to her and say “Oh, your job must be so sad,” I know that look from every conversation I ever had about working with the mentally ill. Julie hates her job and is miserable and so she starts a blog and cooks. Naturally, because this is 2002 and a movie at that, she ends up with a book deal and is able to proclaim that she has been “saved.” Once again, neither learning to cook or finding confidence in herself are enough reward for her year of effort, it’s the book deal that allows her to quit her job and do what she loves. Naturally, she couldn’t quit her job before getting famous, as that would make her a housewife, which, as we learned, would mean she did nothing.

So, what does that all mean for those of us who spend time writing blogs who don’t expect to be handed a book deal or those who teach ourselves to cook just so we can? Well, I suppose encouraging self-growth and self-worth for its own sake doesn’t do much for the economy. But I imagine we’ll all go on Doing our own Somethings anyway. Just don’t let anyone tell you it’s Nothing.

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6 thoughts on “Housewifery in Julie and Julia: Doing Something

  1. kathryn says:

    I actually do not assume that other housewives “do nothing” whether they have kids or not. I can’t explain why. I’ve always known that it takes a shitload of work to run a household…maybe because my parents had me doing housework from an early age? or because I watched my grandmothers doing housework and/or caring for their grandkids all day? I suppose if I grew up thinking this wasn’t what I myself wanted to do, that’s because it was drilled into me that it wasn’t a good idea to be “dependent” on a man, so that automatically meant I would need paid work.

    • Kim says:

      Well I suppose the full phrase would be “do nothing of importance.”

      And I think that our generation was taught not to rely on a man for support, but then some of us just ended up with a man who was able or willing to support us anyway. And for whatever reason, some of us decided to let them, often because we had no other choice.

      • kathryn says:

        Well, he supports me in the sense of “making all the money” but we also both look at ourselves as a collective, and he really means it when he says “it’s not my money, it’s our money.” Feminist husbands were not anticipated in all the “don’t let a man support you” propaganda. I’m the one having a hard time with this aspect of it.

        And let’s give ourselves some credit…we found ’em and we were wise enough to keep ’em 🙂 That didn’t just happen by accident.

        And I do have a choice. I could find myself a full-time job for pay. And then I’d be tired all the time, wouldn’t have time to exercise, and would make excuses to eat things that are bad for me. I could do that. But I’m sure as hell choosing NOT to!

        • Kim says:

          Exactly. Feminist men are almost a requirement for managing this.

          And the idea of having a choice is part of the reason I’m focusing on the housewife aspect of my new life as opposed to thinking of myself as disabled. I could have kept working, but it would have meant being in so much more pain and depressed and miserable. I’ve made the choice I did in an attempt to improve my quality of life.

  2. I deal with this dichotomy all the time. My mom worked. She was an RN throughout my childhood, 70’s, 80’s, into the 90’s when she took retirement. Dad worked for the Fed, so I grew up in the classic 2 job household. Daily I fight some kind of inner guilt for not holding down a full-time outside the home job.

    • Kim says:

      My mom was a nurse as well, plus she eventually went to school and got her Phd in nursing while she was working full-time. So, yeah, I feel that guilt as well. But I’ve always been non-conformist and it’s turned out that staying home has been the most non-conformist thing I’ve ever done.

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