Thursday, May 10, 2012

The telos of Pinterest

My friend sent me this question the other day: What is the telos of Pinterest? When I stopped being offended at his obvious mocking tone, I admitted that I had been thinking about it. 

In his last lecture my professor asserted that if Memory is mother of the Muses - the Arts - then memory must be the basis of culture. In this case, I would argue that the domestic arts, too, must be based on memory. In the past (perhaps a glamorized past, admittedly) mothers would teach their daughters to quilt or knit or, more generally, keep a home; however, the shift from traditional mores and familial culture has fragmented families through individualism (I'm going to keep beating that drum) and the mass consumer culture has made housekeeping less of an art and more of a chore through devaluation of unpaid work and increasing dependence on modern appliances.

So, I come to the question: what is the telos of Pinterest?
Last week, I read The Feminine Mystique for my last paper of undergrad (how did that happen???) on American femininity and enjoyed it far more than expected. Friedan is a biting writer and quite adept at identifying the suburban conditions that turn women into, as she puts it, "sexual larvae." While I disagree with her general solution - women should seek more self-fulfillment - I agree with her diagnosis of what I see as pervasive idolatry in pursuit of the cultural "feminine mystique."

One passage struck me as germane to this Pinterest question. As those who have read the book know, much of what Friedan critiques is shaped by the glossy women's magazines that had become more and more focused on how to make the ideal Levittown split-level comfortably vacuumed and a haven for babies. She says this trend has created a public image that is actually unattainable for women and causing them to feel terrible about their inability to reach the apotheosis of femininity. A theme in her discussion is her generation's rejection of their mothers and she makes the connection between the lacking familial ties and the rise of this public image.
American women no longer know who they are. They are sorely in need of a new image to help them find their identity. As the motivational researchers keep telling the advertisers, American women are so unsure of who they should be that they look to this glossy public image to decide every detail of their lives. They look for the image they will no longer take from their mothers. (The Feminine Mystique, "The Crisis in Woman's Identity")
There are several factors in this assessment: the consumer culture that creates what is supposed to be desirable and the vacuum it fills when rejection of family ties causes women to be adrift in discovering what it means to be a woman. The public image "designed to sell washing machines, cake mixes, deodorants, detergents, rejuvenating face creams, hair tints" presented in McCall's and Ladies' Home Journal in the 1950s finds its equivalent, I would argue, in Pinterest.

I used Pinterest for a while. I like looking at pretty pictures just as much as the next procrastinating college student and I spent most of my time in the DIY section, dreaming about how great I would be at quilting once I graduated and bought a Singer and threw myself into a world of crock pots, advanced beyond knitting scarves to sweaters, and darning socks when I came home to my seven roommates in a row house in Hill East from my dream job: some non-profit I 70% agreed with who would pay me low wages to write stuff (you can't expect too much from DC). This domestic ideal sounds delightful, but I knew in my heart of hearts I would probably just disappoint myself and end up watching episodes of Law & Order:SVU that I've seen before on Netflix until I got tired.

Someone also needs to write a brief history of the Mason jar
But while I got many of my ideas of what kind of mother I would like to be from her, I did not necessarily get all of the crafty elements of that ideal from my mom, who did indeed sew me many a Halloween costume and attempt to teach me to do the same. I got it from the cottage industry of domestic blogs that has popped up to fill the void lacking in the broader feminine ideal. Barbara Welter wrote in 1966 about the 19th century "Cult of True Womanhood" that espoused piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness as the high feminine ideal. Her scathing tone reveals Friedan's success in removing not only the power of the "happy housewife" feminine mystique in post-World War II, but also how complete the destruction of any ideal of femininity - including the True Woman - became. Freedom from the framework of the New Woman or the True Woman or the Happy Housewife may have been fine in some of their arbitrary notions of what it means to be a woman, but it also meant women were free to...nothing, free to create their individual ideas of what it means to be a woman. This inherently Cartesian idea has disconnected us from the past and left us victim again to the cultural ideals provided by Pinterest or Joe Francis or the Kardashians. Others have written on the "new domesticity" trend, but I think the radical disconnect from the past needs to be examined in a more critical light.

In my favorite article that has ever appeared in The Atlantic simply for its ability to capture the feminine zeitgeist of the past few years, "All the Single Ladies," Kate Bolick wonders if her mother, a feminist of the Second Wave, who encouraged her to make her own choices "could have predicted what happens when you multiply that sense of agency by an entire generation." Radical choice has removed any meaning or sense of direction from women's lives, including their inheritance from their mothers. Eschewing tradition means a vacuum for any ideal to fill, including the never ending stream of photos of Mason jars.

1 comment:

  1. This is really good. I just have to think about it some more.

    I joined Pinterest not three days ago, not long after leaving Facebook, and I'm already conflicted.