“The Chore Wars”Posted: December 2, 2011
This is an exercise I did with my students early-ish in the semester: our first foray into visual rhetoric and reading images.
Take a few minutes to study the image below. Keep in mind that a photographer (perhaps in consultation with someone else) set up this photograph, arranged its elements in a certain way—and that at least one editor approved it for the cover. In short: it’s not accidental, but intentional. Think for a moment about what those intentions might be, about what’s going on in the photograph. Not to pose a leading question, but: what’s wrong with it?
Let’s start with the weapons, shall we? He’s holding a gun, she’s holding a spear—he’s a James-Bond type (it’s the retro-50s clothing that does it), she’s an Amazon, primitive and aggressive. The mop-spear is also a phallus—where is the base of it? in her crotch—and there are a variety of reasons she might be holding a phallus. We’ll come back to that. The difference in weaponry—a handgun, modern and Western, and a spear, primitive and savage—establishes a power differential: the male, with the more advanced weapon, is dominant.
Notice that he’s also taller than she is. If she stood up, she might be of more-or-less equal height—but she’s not standing up, she’s crouched down (with her legs apart, and her skirt open at the back in a subtly provocative way—but more on the clothes in a moment). Even the baby is taller than she is—and my impulse is to say that it’s a male baby, but the ruffles on the sleeves look a bit feminine. Hard to tell with babies, anyway.
About the baby: why is he holding it? We’re meant to assume, of course, that this is a family unit: father, mother, baby. Fathers hold babies, sure—though maybe less so in the 1950s, which the clothing is meant to evoke, especially the woman’s pleated skirt and “housework heels” and hairstyle—who mops dressed up like that, and with (muted) red lipstick?——at any rate, why is he holding the baby? There are two possibilities, I think: either to protect it from the Amazon Woman, or to hold it hostage. I find the latter more convincing—the baby-prison is on his side of the room, after all—but the baby’s neutral (indeed, resigned and somewhat disconcerting) facial expression makes it hard to decide.
Let’s come back to the phallus. By the way, I’m using “phallus” instead of “penis” because a phallus is a symbol, and a penis is an organ. They’re intricately related, of course, but she’s not holding an actual penis, just the symbol of one—a symbol of power and generative capacity and perhaps the capacity for violence (and, according to the psychoanalytic theorists, a symbol for the symbolic). Why is she holding it? Has she stolen it from the man, or—since, according to the logic of 1950s division of domestic labor, the mop is properly the woman’s—has she discovered that she also possesses a phallus with which to challenge the man’s phallus? And he’s not even holding a phallic gun, not a shotgun or an assault rifle or even a big fucking Dirty Harry .44 Magnum—he’s holding a tiny little Beretta .22 short-barreled pistol, and he looks nervous, like he’s never actually fired it before, and maybe it doesn’t even have live ammo in it, maybe it’s shooting blanks—does that kid really look like him, after all? (I didn’t go down this road in class—I asked my students why she was holding a phallus, and let them make suggestions, none of which involved the male’s tiny gun.)
Now for the mop as mop, and not spear or phallus. Where is the mop water? In the bucket? No, on the floor. Spilled, by the looks of it, and it’s also excessively clean—so she hasn’t actually been mopping yet—and who mops by dumping water on the floor, anyway? People who don’t know how to mop, that’s who. I’m trying to suggest that the image is suggesting that she’s not very good as a housekeeper, but that might be a stretch.
But there is water all over the floor. Where is it? Under the woman. What do women’s bodies do? They leak. (This gets a reaction from my students, even—especially?—the female ones.) What color is the bucket? Red. So: not water, menstrual blood. (Another reaction from the students, and maybe from you, too.) Why is there menstrual blood all over the floor? I don’t know. Nothing good, probably.
In class, one of my students pointed out the white suds on the bucket—but here, I’ll have to do it. White substance, vessel containing menstrual fluid… well, you can figure it out.