…yet again! Alternative title: The holidays – or how we return to patriarchal gender roles each year. E&M‘s Nicoletta and Friederike are back with all their female rage, this time: ‘Tis the season to return to patriarchal gender roles when coming home for the holidays.
Whilst movies, songs, and children’s books feature a happy, rosy-cheeks (overweight) Santa Claus (read: your average old white male) – the reality paints a different picture. Yes, it might be the man of the house who ventures out to pick the right Christmas tree (“Oh no no, it’s not an easy task! But I prevailed! I found THE ONE and SAVED Christmas”) or who takes care of final touch of the decorations because only he can get the ladder out of the garden shed because she wouldn’t know how to get there; overall, it is women who: write the family hoiday cards, plan the family Christmas dinner, invite all the core family members, make sure someone picks up grandma and granddad, is informed about all dietary restrictions, has preordered the goose or duck or turkey weeks – months! – in advance, has done all the food shopping, has cleaned the house, has put new linen on the bedding for the guests, has talked to sons and daughters and husbands and grandparents to not address certain topics or to ‘drop this and that’ or to ‘just be nice’ in an endless emotional struggle and who has also single handedly picked out and bought and wrapped all the presents. Potentially, actually, really all the presents.
Oh, how much I hate this meme. It’s not funny, it’s sad. What does it say, really? Dads don’t care enough? Dads don’t know what their children like (lol, wut?) Dads don’t have the time (but mums do? Again, lol.) Mums are just better at it? (Be careful with toxic compliments like that.)
The truth is: Mums will be responsible for a Christmas gone awry, no matter how much work, time and effort they have put in, no matter who’s fault it was. A dad that doesn’t have the presents sorted is a laugh at the pub. But come Christmas Day, anything that does not go according to plan will be the mum’s fault – because no one else was bothered, but everyone expected her to be.
Unpaid labour manifests itself in three categories of unpaid work (how fun!) which Irish journalist Carol Hunt identifies as:
- Menial labour (the boring chores, the ‘normal’ housework)
- Mental labour (planning, planning, planning and knowing in advance who’s diet is affecting what and what pharmacy is open at what time and who is sober enough to drive if xyz happens)
- Emotional labour – listening, solving, swallowing your own problems, getting on with it and making sure everyone else is happy.
All three ways of unpaid labour find their match – because the unofficial motto is make it or break it – at the end of each year, within the nuclear family Christmas traditions.
Of course: “she doesn’t need to do it if she doesn’t want to.” Whilst it is true that when we grow up we can say fuck it and form our own families and networks and constellations of how we want to spend the holidays (or not), saying “she doesn’t need to do it if she doesn’t want to” is utter bullshit in the face of centuries of social norms, pressures and expectations. There’s an ingrained feeling of failure for a womxn if she can’t bring the family together for a night of harmony.
Saying “she doesn’t need to do it if she doesn’t want to” is utter bullshit in the face of centuries of social norms, pressures and expectations.
Speaking from personal experience – with a brother living at the other end of the world and parents who are separated, as the daughter, I am beginning to stress in approximately September about ‘what to do about Christmas’. Where to spend it, how to do it so both my parents are happy, what to buy, how to soften the blow for the parent who picks the short straw. I have seldom stopped to think about how I want to spend Christmas. My brother, on the other hand? One Whatsapp on Christmas eve, a 10 minute Facetime on Christmas Day and he’s done with it. This may sound exaggerated, but it’s not his lack of love – it’s the burden of expected unpaid labour from womxn.
In the spirit of the new year: White overweight male Santa can fuck off, because all he does is shine with the help of an unimaginable amount of unpaid labour, with little to no thanks in return for the Christmas elves who bust their asses. ‘Tis the season.
I never want to hear this phrase again unless it’s either sung by Taylor Swift (and even she knows that ‘Tis is the damn season) – or it’s said lovingly by Nicoletta – as she has done so below.
Christmas is a time of expectations and existential dread about meeting them or not. Entrenched in us from a young age on whether we have been ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’ enough for Santa to bring us presents – Christmas has always been marketed as a time for us to evaluate how far we have met our own and others expectations.
Christmas, conveniently at the end of the year, happens at a time for everyone to reflect on the year that passed and the one to come. For those who celebrated and those who do not, this time is also, unfortunately, accompanied by high expectations both set by films and family alike. Christmas films, whilst addictive and wholesome, bring with them expectations of joyousness, family togetherness, and general ‘life togetherness’ not all of us feel. Here I wish to please emphasise that Jude Law’s character in The Holiday is unrealistic and it is physically impossible for Kate Winslet to afford that cottage and only have a 40 minute commute. Another important expectation set by films is the fact that everyone has a family to return to for this period, or a family they enjoy spending time with or that accepts them. This is especially common for queer people, whereby the concept of ‘chosen family’ is more common especially throughout the holiday . This refers to surrounding yourself with people who accept you and want to see you flourish, rather than spending time with family that put you down merely because you feel you must because it is the holidays. This also sheds light on the importance of more diverse festive films, showing how different the holidays can look for different people (not just queer holiday films, but films not only featuring white cis abled-bodied characters).
In addition to this, for the people who do go to see their relatives, the holiday season also means a reckoning with expectations from family. Especially for womxn this usually means being pummelled with questions about marriage, children (mostly for womxn as men seem to lose the capacity to have responsibility for either of these activities over the holidays), or about your job progression and how much you earn. I return home after Christmas each year with a list of serious things I must consider about my life that I swiftly proceed to ignore and be in denial of like the good millennial that I am. Additionally, over the festive period, I find myself on turbo mode cooking, cleaning, ensuring everyone has bought a Christmas present for everyone. A phrase from a relative of someone I know particularly stuck with me in reaction to Christmas lockdown “this means I did all of the work and do not get any of the fun”. This shows how, for many womxn, the holiday period has literally come as yet another unpaid labour expected of us.
It is OK to not be as happy as the movies and culture dictates we must be this time of year. It is OK to not be where you thought you’d be – and to be pretty bummed about it.
Wherever you are and however you celebrate, remind yourself that 2020 was a difficult year, especially for Black people who had to deal with constant traumatic media exposure to systemic racism and the very public reckoning of white people’s ignorance thereof, for people who had the coronavirus or lost close ones to it, for those who are lonely, isolated and scared. For those of you who were looking forward to cook for family, chosen or not, and had to abandn your plans due to last minute restrictions. It is OK to not be as happy as the movies and culture dictates we must be this time of year. It is OK to not be where you thought you’d be – and to be pretty bummed about it. Be kind to yourself, and stand together with those you are close to or seek help when you feel you need to. Tis the season to be mindful and look out for each other.