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Stephen Marche’s new book The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century is an acerbic survey of modern gender relations
Stephen Marche’s new book The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century is an acerbic survey of modern gender relations

Is squalor the solution to domestic gender politics? Add to ...

Fatherhood is now a status symbol for men, better than driving a Mustang. Mansplaining is women’s fault because they pushed men to talk about their feelings more. Feminism is capitalist, not political or intellectual. Hardcore online porn is instructive, at least as far as blowjobs go.

That’s a small helping of the incendiary observations in Stephen Marche’s new book The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century, an acerbic survey of modern gender relations. But of all the inflammatory material in the book (which includes sobering footnotes from the author’s wife, Toronto Life editor Sarah Fulford), it is Marche’s take on housework that’s gotten him the most hell: not fragile masculinity, not gender politics, but the tedium of splitting the chores.

Domestic drudgery is where the gender wars rage on. Marche admits he sees mess in the house but doesn’t care, this even as his busy, working wife renders it clean and cozy with “a thousand tender putterings.” Like sociologist Arlie Hochschild (and most women), Marche recognizes that the feminist revolution stalled at housework. While men proudly strap on BabyBjorns and cook family meals with gusto, they remain uninterested in scrubbing the toilet. When it comes to working women and the “house-beast,” as Marche calls it, it’s been “less an overturning of gender roles than their doubling.” He’s right: Working Canadian mothers reported spending 28.4 hours a week on domestic labour, more than double the 11.5 hours that employed dads put in, according to 2010 data from Statistics Canada.

It’s a raw deal, one that women have actually negotiated themselves, Marche argues. He describes working women (including his wife) who refuse to relinquish the myth of domestic perfection, silently judging other working women by their state of their homes.

The solution, Marche believes, is squalor. He strongly urges women to give up control in the home: do less and care less about whether the bathroom tiles gleam or not. A dirty house is an equal house, while “a clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly,” Marche writes.

The author spoke with The Globe from his (clean) Toronto home, which he shares with his wife and two children.

Your chapter on housework is the one your wife interjects in to the most, with the most lengthy footnotes.

It’s easily the most controversial part of the book. Pornography? Whatever. Housework: That’s where the real fighting is.

It’s where men and women actually fight about gender power in their relationships. What they don’t say is, “I feel subsumed in my role as a woman in this household. The gender norms that create this are destroying me.” What they do say is, “Why can’t you do the dishes?” The guy doesn’t reply, “I feel emasculated and emptied.” He says, “I’ll do the dishes when I want to do them.”

It becomes a framework for fighting about things that you can’t actually fight about. These are tensions over intimate things.

Fatherhood and cooking are now mantles of masculinity. Windexing? Not so much. Are you any closer to figuring out why modern men have resisted this domestic role?

No. I genuinely think it’s one of the great mysteries. In almost every developed Western country, men’s participation in housework has not increased since about 1980. Everything else has changed. Male involvement in their child rearing has tripled in that time. Anecdotally, men cook a lot more than they ever did. But they’re just not cleaning up. Housework is absolutely frozen in time.

Your wife finds housecleaning satisfying and a clean and ordered house relaxing. Do you ever feel that way?

Never. Maybe I’m spoiled. I live in a very clean house.

She envies the way you can just bang out a book on your laptop or tune out watching baseball as “domestic chaos” piles up around you.

Chaos is a strong word. Chaos in what sense? Is the house falling down around me? Hardly.

If your wife or a cleaner didn’t keep the house in shape, do you think you’d be as productive professionally when you’re writing from home?

My office, where I work, is pretty messy. The key thing to remember about housework is that it achieves no ultimate goal. It just maintains. So as Simone de Beauvoir says, “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. …The battle against dust and dirt is never won.”

Yet Sarah describes judging a highly successful female friend for her dirty home. How does that sound like to you, from the outside looking in as a man?

It sounds ridiculous. Though we all make these little judgments about people. I do remember visiting a bachelor friend and his house was just disgusting. It felt ugly and it smelled. The ceiling was covered in grease stains. That was my line. I was like, “How can you live this way?”

You write, “Housework is the macho bullshit of women.” Do modern women really still beat their chests about how pristine their homes are?

I think that line in the book was pretty upsetting to people. Almost all of this book is, “Here are all the problems with men.” This is the one thing where I think women should maybe reconsider.

I recently resaw The Stepford Wives. In the film, the way you can tell that a woman has stopped being a person and has become a robot is that she’s obsessed with housework. De Beauvoir said that housework was the number one way that women were kept down. It seemed to fix them in place, preventing them from going out into the world. Angela Davis had a straight Marxist analysis: when you do less housework, there’s more time to organize other things.

Everybody frothed at the mouth over a 2012 American Sociological Review study that found men who did traditionally feminine chores got laid less than men who only did manly stuff around the house – mowing the lawn, for example. A 2016 Cornell University study countered that, finding that splitting the chores scores everyone more sex. Research that correlates sex and housework really amps it up for couples. Why?

I get funny looks when I say this but I really think that housework is the dreariest form of foreplay. It’s the most direct way that couples perform gender in front of each other. Out in the world, we are on increasingly equal footing. We all want to be equal. When we come back home, we recreate these old gender distinctions. If you’re married, you’re living in a house where you take care of that house and have sex with each other. It’s natural that it would be imbued with sexual questions.

Feminism has been undecided on housework: Is it a prison for women or is it important, underappreciated work? Where are we at now?

After 1980, feminism decided to validate housework as meaningful. Before, it didn’t. What statistics show now is that since 1980, women consistently have actually done less housework. Even stay-at-home moms do less housework than people did in 1980. It’s not a blip. Slowly the housework gap between men and women is closing, not because men are getting any better but because women are deciding not to do this. I think that’s a very positive choice.

This disinvestment is not just you doing less housework. It’s other people not judging you for the housework that you do or don’t do. Nobody goes into a house anymore, looks at the blinds and wonders, “Are they vacuumed?” This has stopped being a marker of an appropriate relationship to the world. People have stopped caring. It’s a social phenomenon.

At the same time, we have glossy, luxury-home magazines and beautiful rooms lined up on Pinterest. There is the “artisanal” movement, celebrities and city couples gardening and pickling heirloom vegetables, raising backyard chickens. Are we disinvesting in housework or reinvesting in it?

As housework becomes less central to the actual business of everyday life, it becomes a little game that people enjoy fooling around with. With disinvestment has come the aestheticization of housework: you don’t do it much but you watch it on TV or you read Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. That’s just pure organizational pornography. You’re never going to get to the point that you have five books in your house and they’re all colour-coded. You wish. Who has the time to do that?

When Hillary Clinton watches TV, what she watches is Home & Garden Television. She was secretary of state sending drones to kill terrorists, making the biggest of the big decisions. To relax, she watches Love It or List It. It’s kind of perfect. To relax, you watch people decorating their bathroom lintel.

Today, your wife says she’s stopped fighting you on housework because it’s a really boring thing to argue about and because she recognizes that you do other things for the family. How did she get to this point?

Yeah. Hmm. How to be politic about this? We definitely fight less than we used to about it. But fighting about this stuff is perfectly natural. When you’re in a marriage there’s always stuff to be worked out.

The outsourcing of dirty work to a professional cleaner hasn’t hurt though, right? Your wife writes: “Our marriage works best when there are three of us.”

Anyone who can afford this and anyone who wants to stay married, this should be the first thing they do. For the middle class, this is not-getting-divorced money.

Is there any way to make housework rewarding for men? Or are we doomed to live in “egalitarian squalor”?

Men have changed a great deal on a number of fronts but on this one they haven’t changed at all. I don’t think they’re going to change. I just don’t see how. We are getting closer to squalor. Women’s disinvestment is pretty continuous. And I think it’s healthy.

Healthy for wives’ professional advancement and for their creative pursuits?

Just for living a life, going for a walk and thinking your thoughts. That’s better than vacuuming the drapes. It really is.

You’ve mentioned that only women have interviewed you. Do men not care about the “messy truth about men and women in the 21st century”?

There’s been a huge amount of attention for the book but almost all of it – no, wait, all of it – has come from women. I know I wrote in the book about masculine silence but this is ridiculous. And the thing is that there are actually some things in this book that men need to read. Like: keep your male friendships and treat them seriously because otherwise you die. Like: you’re going to have to work in traditionally women’s fields because traditionally men’s fields are disappearing. The silence around gender from men is amazing. I mean, no wonder the male suicide rate is spiking. They won’t talk about this shit.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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