why am I thinking about feminism and standardized testing at the same time?

Because that’s what I do – I think about things at the same time.  And then I think about why.

So this one is inspired by Sandra Lee, the host of Semi-Homemade Cooking on the Food Network — the one whose outfits always match her kitchen.  No one who knows me would be particularly surprised that I can’t stand Sandra Lee’s show; from the food to the look I hate every single thing about it.

But in the last few days this generalized anti-Semi-Homemade revulsion has somehow grown into a need to know more about the person and the "semi-homemade" brand to try and understand why I hate it so much. 

It started when I accidentally saw the beginning of the episode called, "Family Dinner."  I was doing something boring so I needed something to watch at the same time and I was looking at the dish network guide thingy, so the show was still showing in that little box on the top corner of the screen.  Sandra said that she really wanted to make a special dinner for her niece, to celebrate her first big day of standardized testing at school.

To celebrate her first big day of standardized testing at school.

!

This was one of those moments where I realize that the gulf between me and someone or something else is more than just taste or preference.  That we’re really talking about an entirely different world view.  There’s that line in High Fidelity where Rob Gordon says that what we like is more important than what we are like.  And it seems like that is true a lot of the time.  Why else would people spend so much time working on their Facebook profiles? (Or why would I be so sure to tell you that I wasn’t watching Semi-Homemade Cooking on purpose?) 

But just like Laura tricks Rob into liking a couple who have a Tina Turner album, it’s not totally true. Taste by itself doesn’t matter.  Usually, we’re assuming that it’s not just taste by itself, but that shared taste indicates something more.  So long as I was considering the difference between Sandra Lee and me on the "cornbread mix vs. cornbread from scratch" level it didn’t matter.  But the thought that anyone could think of standardized testing day as some kind of new rite of passage to be celebrated, instead of as a symptom of everything that is wrong with public education … 

So for those who don’t know – here’s Sandra Lee’s publicist on Sandra Lee:

With her trademark 70/30 philosophy, which combines 70% ready-made
products with 30% fresh and creative touches – Sandra has become the
advocate for the over-extended homemaker. She creates the foundation
and supplies the information that allows anyone and everyone (from
students to parents to working professionals) to take 100% of the
credit for something that looks, feels or tastes as if it were made
completely from scratch.

What I’ve decided after talking with Shaun about this for two solid days is that, at its root, Sandra Lee’s Semi-Homemade philosophy suggests that we shouldn’t try to change anything, interrogate anything, or critically analyze anything. Instead, we should accept what is and if what is is bad – well, then we should focus on spending as little time and energy on it as possible.   Unless we can figure out a way to exploit it.

I’m going to try not to spend any time talking about how awful semi-homemade food is because that’s an easy target, and others have done it before me and better than I would.  And while it’s fun to talk about the gross, it don’t think by itself the fact that the food is nasty is all that important.  But what she’s saying about women is important.

When Sandra talks about semi-homemade this and semi-homemade that, she’s all about the women.  Women are too busy to cook like their grandmothers did, women need semi-homemade shortcuts so they can spend more time with their friends and family.  While she occasionally says "people" need shortcuts, the demographic she’s identified as hers is clearly made up of female homemakers, juggling lots of different responsibilities, who still feel that food, decor and special occasions are their responsibility.  It’s up to the women to create special foods, special environments and special occasions for their loved ones.

And I’m sure that saying you can do all that without a lot of time, money or effort sounds great to a lot of women who find themselves doing that on top of all of their other responsibilities. Especially if they don’t really like cooking, or setting tables.  But shouldn’t we be interrogating that underlying assumption instead of finding ways to make things marginally easier?  As the New York Times author in the article linked above says – since when do we have to cook alone?  To take that farther – what is the law that says that only women can do domestic chores, and that said women must do them in isolation?

It would be the same law that governs television advertising.  Essentially, the semi-homemade disciple accepts uncritically the picture of domesticity we see in ads.  Watch any major network for any period of time and count the number of examples of men doing indoor domestic work without irony.  It wouldn’t be a surprise if you counted exactly zero examples. 

For a while I thought that I was being overly sensitive to this, given that I live in a house where my male partner does way more than half of the domestic work in any given week, but in "Working Hard or Hardly Working," too many authors to list here in-text worked together to find out that, in fact, men really aren’t pulling their weight in commercials.  Of the 477 commercials they analyzed in a given week, men only did domestic work at all in 1/3.  And when they did do some work – the men in the ads did it badly.  In 1/5 of the commercials, someone’s performance of domestic work was used to make a joke – those were the ads where men were much more likely to be the ones doing the work.*   

Sandra Lee says she’s empowering women with Bisquick and Cool Whip so they can whip through those domestic responsibilities, but she’s entirely accepting the patriarchal structures that say these things are women’s responsibility in the first place.  Those ads where the woman uses paper plates so she doesn’t have to wash up – giving her time to join her family on game night?  That’s the order of things that Sandra Lee is protecting. Semi-homemade cooking is a way to keep that picture viable even when mom is busy.  Dad and the kids can go crazy with the Battleship and the Connect Four every night – cooking, cleaning and washing up is never their concern.

To make things worse, she reacts to her critics by accusing them of attacking women themselves.  This became really clear in her Food Network Chefography (not my word), which we watched as part of a whole Chefography marathon on New Year’s Eve Eve.

(We didn’t go into this thinking we’d watch the Sandra Lee story – it
was just on, and then we wanted to know why the Barefoot Contessa is
called that when she is neither barefoot nor a contessa**.)

Anyway, on the show Sandra Lee exclaimed that she was offended by "food purists" who criticized her methods — because those fundamentalists were insulting every woman in America.  When you’re done blinking at the hyperbole, think about what she’s doing here.  If you think semi-homemade food is gross, then you are attacking every overburdened woman out there who is just trying to get by by mixing some herbs and spices into a jar of Ragu.  In that, Sandra Lee is not only refusing to interrogate her assumptions about domestic work and responsibility, but she’s saying others are wrong for trying to do so.  And for me, that means she’s leaping over the line between annoying and destructive.

And that’s where it comes back to standardized testing.  I’m not saying that Sandra Lee is all "standardized testing yay" because she’s thought about the issues concerned and decided she believes in the value of the practice.  I expect that she has never bothered interrogating the practice or standardized testing, and that she probably hasn’t considered what kind of impact these testing days are having on her niece’s education.  Maybe not, I’m extrapolating here on some pretty flimsy evidence. 

But when it comes to cooking, food and the domestic sphere, and what those things mean for our lives and our culture, her refusal to interrogate some problematic things can be documented easily.  There are real evils in the way food, especially processed food, is produced and consumed in this culture. I’m not going to make that argument, because it’s big and others have made it well, and recently.  The food purists who attack the semi-homemade way are sometimes simply saying the resulting food is nasty and they don’t want to eat it, but sometimes they are addressing this bigger picture.

I don’t have any idea what Sandra Lee thinks about processed, disposable food production because even though in her recipes and in her "philosophy" she clearly takes a side on the question – she never addresses it.  Instead, she deflects criticism by pretending that the rest of the women in America have to share it with her.  No thanks.

Because the difference in worldview that I am talking about here cuts deeper than Cool Whip vs. Whipped Cream.  It cuts deeper than processed food vs. locally grown and fresh.  It gets all the way down to a basic question of — do we look at the world around us with a critical eye?  Or do we accept what’s there as there and try to get by or exploit the structures we inherit?

So it’s not really the domestic shortcuts that bother me about the semi-homemade philosophy so much as the shortcuts Sandra Lee takes in her, for lack of a better phrase, critical thinking. And looking beyond her own issues, the fact remains that her entire reason for being is to give other people a set of excuses for why they don’t have to think hard about difficult questions either.  According to her, we’re all too busy to think about where our food comes from, or how we can equitably share responsibility for domestic work.  Which, at least, means now I understand why I despise this show so much — as a librarian I work hard to give people the tools they need to question their assumptions about the world, and to make that world better.  Her horrible food is making that work harder.

______________

*Erica Scharrer, D. Daniel Kim, Ke-Ming Lin, Zixu Liu (2006).
Working Hard or Hardly Working? Gender, Humor, and the Performance of
Domestic Chores in Television Commercials. Mass Communication & Society, 9(2), 215-238.

**It was the name of the specialty food shop she bought in the Hamptons when she got bored of advising the President on nuclear policy.  Really.