Friday, 4 September 2009

Julie & Julia

With next week's UK release of Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia, Joanne Hollows reflects on the movie's roots and what the cookery writer and TV cook Julia Child might be able to offer feminism.

The first blog I ever read was The Julie/Julia Project. I can no longer remember how I found it – I may have read about it or I may have been idly googling Julia Child. But I spent hours messing around on a rather unforgiving website following Julie Powell’s epic quest to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year. A ‘government drone by day, renegade foodie by night’ in a ‘crappy outer borough kitchen’ with a fondness for Buffy and a nice line in digs at the Bush administration, Julie may not have pleased the purists but she made me a hell of a lot more interested in Julia Child and gave me a significant number of laughs along the way. And when I read about Child’s death, Julie’s site was my first port of call where (with a developing tear in my eye) I read Julie’s response to the news and her celebration of what Julia meant to her.
'Julia was so impressive, so instructive, so exhilarating, because she was a woman, not a goddess. Julia didn’t create armies of drones, mindlessly equating her name with taste and muttering ‘It’s a Good Thing’ under their minty breath. Instead she created feisty, buttery adventurous cooks, always diving into the next possible disaster because, goddammit, if Julia did it, so could we.'

If this was my introduction to blogging, then I now find myself blogging about next week’s release in the UK of the film (Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia) of the book (Julie and Julia) of the Julie/Julia Project. Not being the kind of blogger who gets invited to movie premieres I haven’t seen it – and I fear it because its a Meryl Streep star vehicle which might threaten to be more about the actress than Julie or Julia.

My own route out of the Julie/Julia Project was rather different. I’d been thinking about why second-wave feminism had refused domesticity rather than attempting to re-think what it might mean for feminism. One of the most obvious answers (although not the only one) lay in one of the foundational texts of second-wave feminism, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), published two years after Mastering and the same year Child first appeared on TV in The French Chef. Both Friedan and Child had clear, but very different, ideas about the role of domestic consumption but were unified in their dislike of the figure of the housewife. So (in a Carrie Bradshaw-esque way) I got to thinking about whether feminism could learn something about domesticity from Julia Child (and – at the risk of product placement - a rather more extensive comparison of the two women appears here).

Although Camille Paglia has called Julia Child ‘a great feminist’, my interest in her was how she imagined a form of domestic femininity that could inhabit the kitchen without being a housewife. Child’s opening gambit in Mastering is: ‘This is a book for the servantless cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, timetables, children’s meals, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat.’ (Beck et al: 13) In this way, Child disidentifies with the need to care for others and maintain an appropriately feminine body that characterized the work of the housewife.

Betty Friedan attacked the trend (closely associated with Child) for ‘elaborate recipes with the puréed chestnuts, water-cress and almonds take longer than broiling lamb chops’ (p. 231), arguing that it not only sapped the housewife’s energy but also tied her more closely into what she saw as the housewife’s key role, consuming. But while Friedan saw gourmet cookery as a means of masking the drudgery of housework, Child saw it as its antidote. Rather than a form of alienated labour, Child saw cooking as a labour of love of cooking itself rather than love for other people. Whereas Friedan saw people like Child as catering to the housewife, Child strongly disidentified with the role. When asked to reflect on her early audience, Child denied that she had been addressing what she called ‘the stupid housewife’, claiming that ‘my audience is not la ménagére, but anyone interested in cooking, no matter the sex or age or profession.’ (cited in Fitch: 293). Indeed, she also claimed on another occasion that ‘our programme is for people who really like to cook… plain old housewives get plenty of encouragement and recipes from the daily newspapers.’ (cited in Drake Mcfeeley, 122).

Nonetheless, Julia Child differs from second-wave feminist constructions of domesticity. While she presents a mode of femininity based on a refusal of the housewife, she does not refuse domestic femininity. Furthermore, through her conception of culinary practice, she blurs the distinction between public and private, and between labour and consumption, divorcing domestic practice from the singular gendered identity of the housewife. Betty Friedan was clearly an important figure in shaping assumptions about domestic consumption within second-wave feminism. However, if contemporary feminism is to find a means of thinking about domestic femininity and domestic consumption without continual recourse to the figure of the housewife, then we might have something to learn from Julia Child.
(Photo credit: mamichan. Permissions)

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