Monday, November 19, 2012

Good Housekeeping and WWII: a short analysis of an editorial

      In my continued research on U.S. domestic publications during World War II and the early post war period, I came across an interesting editorial in the February issue from 1942.  The editors wanted to explain their role within the war effort, to offer a legitimization of the publication within the context of the rationing and shortages in materials that would eventually define the domestic front during the war years.  Their explanations are worth a few remarks.             

                “Because it is the important home magazine in America, with the largest personnel and the most extensive mechanical and laboratory facilities for studying and analyzing the foods we eat and the things families live by, Good Housekeeping organized itself on Monday the eighth of last December in order to carry out the peculiar responsibilities which naturally fall to it.

                Every item of our apparatus and every operator there-of is now at our Government’s command.  Cheerfully we set aside our routine duties to undertake such emergency tasks as are assigned to us.

               There is another obligation that we will recognize: that of being anti-hysterical: of serving to the utmost of our means the daily requirements of the millions of women who will continue to seek from us the simple, intelligent ways of family existence.  We’ll take for granted that we are in for a long, hard war.  We expect temporary reverses.  We will know every second of the way what the outcome is to be.

               We will try to remember that entertainment and instruction and homely advice must continue as long as families are families, though they live through a war they did not seek, but which, being forced upon them by a staggeringly ruthless aggression, they will resolve in absolute victory.

                Toward that ultimate victory we pledge our every last resource.  We shall win—of that there is no remotest doubt.  And while we are fighting to win, we shall try to know that love will stay in our world: that little children will look each month for Mr. Disney’s cartoons; that mothers-to-be will seek each month the solid advice of Dr. Kenyon; that the poems Mr. Malone selects each month will satisfy an emotional longing; that life in American homes must go on and will go on; and that for the sake of the generations to come we must not lose sight of that—never, not for a single day, because it is that home life, and all it implies, that we are now defending.”  The Editors

      The short article immediately attempts to establish the publication as a technical and technocratic asset to the war effort.  Good Housekeeping can provide mechanical and laboratory facilities for the analysis of food and daily life.  It promises to take those resources and dedicate them to the war effort, presumably to come up with alternatives to materials that must be rationed, and to develop techniques that will come in handy for both the war front and the domestic front.  The rhetoric behind that shift of the work of the magazine from the private to the public sphere is curious.  It erases entirely the move to a consciously public identity through the naturalization of the tasks it plans to take on, "which naturally fall to it."  Rather than presenting this convergence of corporate and state interests as a shift to a wartime mode, it masks this shift within the private sphere, the magazine playing the role of domestic labor, of the sacrificial labor that normatively defines that sphere.

      The next paragraph is more interesting, continuing in the spirit of self-justification that defined the first paragraph, but moving from the technocratic space of abstract consumption and production to the intersubjective space of everyday life.  At the most immediate level, the publication offers itself as a solution to the hysteria  of women.  We shouldn't ignore the immediate sexism contained in that statement.  Its casual contempt and dismissal of the the emotional and intellectual capacities of women, but if we remain at that level, we miss out on the broader implications of the statement, which are just as troubling if more interesting.  Effectively, the publication is arguing that it plays a sort of regulatory and pedagogical role for the private sphere, teaching women how to handle any number of technical requirements of the household, and perhaps more significantly, how to negotiate the forms of affective labor that are necessary for the maintenance and reproduction of the household.  In effect, it acknowledges the necessity for the modes of unpaid labor in the household for the success of the war effort, the maintenance and reproduction of the economic system, while masking that importance in the language of simplicity and the naturalization of the family and sex/gender system.

      The double work of that recognition and obfuscation continues with the next paragraph.  Family life is placed in both sentimental and banal terms.  The publication provides structures of regulation for all aspects of daily life, from the raising of children, courtship and marriage, and the fulfillment of a variety of emotional needs.  Sentimentality becomes the primary pedagogical mode of the publication, producing a generically accessible mode of instruction, naturalizing its structures, and making those forms pleasurable (to take a page from Ellen McCracken's Decoding Women's Magazines.)  The editors, in effect, argue that the structure of the nation is founded in the family, which in turn is structured and regulated by the work of Good Housekeeping.  The hubris is a little breath taking, but perhaps we should take it seriously, if only as a metonym for the larger public and private structures structuring and regulating the ostensibly private realm of the household.  The sentimental stories of the melodramas contained in the publication within this context are not simply fluff.  They become a regulatory mechanism, training and naturalizing an entire set of hierarchical expectations contained in the nuclear family of the middle class.  The stories construct a set of normative expectations, constructing the preconditions for identification through its forms.  

        A story, "Powder Room Blues" from the pages becomes an interesting example of this.  The narrative contrasts two women, one who accepts the conventions of domesticity, the other look to Hollywood and the public sphere for satisfaction.  The narrative is from the perspective of the first woman, who observes the trajectory of the second woman, as she leaves her successful marriage to become a part of the Hollywood publicity machine. The description of the collapse of the relationship gives a good sense of the narrative.  “It wasn’t hard to understand what was happening to Fred. He saw the rest of us building our lives around our husbands, working for a common good, and he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t elicit the same sort of cooperation from Dee."  The expectations for the housewife to sacrifice her ambitions is naturalized under the name of cooperation, and breaking those expectations is coded as a form of selfishness.  The narrative then links that act of selfishness to loneliness, artificiality, and failure.  Dee abandons her husband, her child, and the safety of her suburban life, only to become a threat to other marriages as the other woman.  In contrast, the narrator successfully creates the conditions for her husband's immense success, playing the role of a genuine Hollywood mover and shaker in contrast to the forms of deception that Dee engages in.

       Any alternative to the feminine mystique becomes pathologized, and the cost of that pathology is spelled out in painful detail.  In a curious sense, the painful sense of restriction contained in this form has an analogy to the proscribed actions of the workers on an assembly line, and that harsh discipline plays the same productive role, to contribute to and expand the regime of the accumulation of wealth. 

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