Every generation gets the housekeeping doyen it needs.
The Victorians had Mrs. Beeton. Boomers have Martha Stewart, the queen of clean loved for her aspirational perfectionism. Along the way, we’ve seen books on green cleaning marketed to eco-conscious consumers and books on how to clean like a man, which tracks with the rise of stay-at-home dads.
Now comes Gen Y’s guide to keeping house – and it includes tips on how to clean their sex toys. Mrs. Beeton may be rolling in her grave.
In her new book, Jolie Kerr, the “Ask A Clean Person” columnist for the websites Jezebel and Deadspin (and at 37, a Gen-Xer), tells people in their early 20s how to keep their wood floors shiny and rid carpets of the smell of spilled bong water. My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag ... And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha plays to a generation that has neither the means or the interest in living the Martha lifestyle but still needs to know cleaning basics. “I am definitely not a traditional cleaning columnist,” says Kerr.
Cleaning house hasn’t changed that drastically in the last half-century. Mopping a floor is still mopping a floor. Yes, we have Swiffers, but dusting is still essentially dusting. But the way cleaning advice is packaged and sold not only varies immensely, it speaks volumes about generational culture.
Geared to millennials, Kerr’s book, along with Kelly Williams Brown’s Adulting: How To Become A Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps, take a start-from-scratch approach. Both assume that progressive thinking about gender equality means Gen Y was never taught the basics (such starting from the top and working your way down when cleaning a room, or the importance of soaking dirty dishes). The tone of that instruction is overwhelmingly positive, with a squeeze of lemon-scented hipsterism to help make cleaning relevant.
“The usual way that cleaning advice or wisdom is handed down is very much with a finger wag and a scolding tone. I have no interest in doing that,” Kerr says.
What’s most striking about the millennial-focused books is how little knowledge they assume that readership possesses.
Williams Brown writes that everyone should own a broom and dustpan, a mop and a bucket, among other cleaning supplies. (She also advises Saturday mornings are perfect for weekly cleaning, “if you are not liable to be hungover.”)
In the introduction to My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag, Kerr writes some readers may have picked up the book because “you’ve decided it’s high time to learn how to keep your bedroom looking like it belongs to an adult.”
It may be easy to scoff condescendingly and ask: “How could kids these days not know this stuff?” Kerr’s take is that in the rush to make the sexes equal, not only did no one teach their daughters to keep house, no one taught their sons either.
Kerr, a “card-carrying feminist” and the daughter of two lawyers, “was certainly not raised to be a homemaker.”
“I think that a lot of parents, particularly parents of girls, and educators, did make that decision … to downplay the home-keeping education,” she says. “Instead of saying, ‘We’re going to emphasize this for boys as well as for girls,’ they just said, ‘We’re going to not emphasize this at all.’”
Cheryl Mendelson first noted this phenomenon in her magisterial book Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, first published in 1999. If the trend was beginning then, it has now reached a critical mass and Kerr and Williams Brown’s start-with-the-absolute-basics approach is necessary.
If there’s one generational stereotype in Kerr’s book, it’s the unrelenting exuberance and can-do cheerleading of its tone. There are a lot of exclamation marks, a lot of all-caps cheeriness.
This is a generation, we are told over and over, that needs a steady supply of positive reinforcement.
“A HUGE rule of cleaning is to always work top to bottom,” she advises in the book. And as for the brave who tackle the top of their kitchen cabinets, “Prepare to be so, so, so, so, so grossed out!”
While cleaning may be a drag, thinking of it as drudgery doesn’t help get the job done, Kerr says.
“If you can go into it with the attitude that cleaning your floors is not going to be the worst thing in the world, and remember that at the end of it you’re going to have clean floors, which is presumably something you want, there’s a reward in it for you. And if you need another reward, go get a beer,” she says.
Readers respond to her column, Kerr says, because unlike Martha Stewart she has an attitude and voice that is recognizably “authentic” to people in their early 20s. They are the ones who want to know how to get the sex stains out of their sheets and La-Z-Boys, questions Martha Stewart would likely blanch at.
Then again, Martha would likely have much the same solution as to how to clean that vomit-stained handbag – treat with soapy water and a spray to address the smell. Some things never change.