Book Reviews

Kathleen Anne McHugh, American Domesticity: From How-to Manual to Hollywood Melodrama

Kathleen Anne McHugh, American Domesticity: From How-to Manual to Hollywood Melodrama (New York: Oxford UP, 1999). Pp. x+235. ISBN 0-19-512261-5.

American Domesticity is a smart, rich book, if at times a problematic one. McHugh, whose primary field is Film Studies, starts her investigation by highlighting the conspicuous absence of women's housework in the classic Hollywood melodramas of the 1930s' and 40s' in spite of their domestic setting.

The first section of her book traces the genealogy of this invisibility, whose origin she locates in the popular housekeeping manuals of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Constantly advising their readers on how to reduce the strain of domestic labor on their bodies, domestic experts dictated that the housewife's body must appear as if she did not work and thereby codified women's unlabored, pleasing appearance as a moral imperative. Thus, Hollywood inherited and perpetuated an image of leisured femininity whose roots predate the birth of the culture industry.

This interdisciplinary and diachronic approach to the representation of women in film is one of the strengths of the McHugh's book. Another one is her perceptive analysis of the cultural work performed by the invisibility of women's domestic labor. The central argument in American Domesticity is that the cult of domesticity reorganized class and race inequalities under the rubric of gender differences. Specifically, the idealization of an allegedly universal delicate, unlabored womanhood which could be achieved only by white, middle-class women reestablished in the private sphere the distinctions that could not structure the public sphere in a democracy.

Domestic femininity preserved and mystified both class and race identities in the fantasy of an undifferentiated female body, a fantasy which McHugh believes has been inherited by modern feminism and has led to a privileging of gender as the primary social difference.

It is at this point that American Domesticity becomes problematic. Though McHugh's assertion that feminism as a method obscures social identities other than gender is undoubtedly true of feminist criticism in the 1960s, that is no longer the case, as the title of one among many similar studies, Ruth Frankenberg's White Women, Race Matters (1993), clearly suggests. In other words, the author's claim that in analyzing the intersection of gender with race and class in the domestic woman she is treading completely new terrain seems to me excessive.

In particular, the publication in 1998 of a special issue of American Literature entitled "No More Separate Spheres" invalidates her assertion that scholars have understood the importance of domesticity as limited to the private sphere. While the AL issue may have become available when her book was already in print, other studies, for instance the collection of essays edited by Shirley Samuels, The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America(1992), had long been published.

Ultimately, although the author's readings, whether it be of Lydia Child's manual The American Frugal Housewife (1829) or of Dorothy Arzner's movie Craig's Wife (1936), are often enlightening, they build upon a body of similar investigations rather than being the first of their kind.

On a different topic, I find McHugh's privileging of recent feminist movies of limited circulation over the tradition of what she calls "commercially primed Hollywood domesticity" symptomatic of a certain intellectual elitism.

American Domesticity aligns Hollywood movies with patriarchy, racism and classism and the feminist cinematic avant-garde with a challenge thereto. There are obvious problems with this view, starting with the fact that it presupposes a totally passive, accepting female viewer, whereas recent analyses of actual consumers of popular culture - Susan Harris's and Janice Radway's especially - suggest that women focus on the subversive elements of otherwise conservative narratives rather than on their more traditional components.

More importantly, the distinction between transgressive high and conservative popular culture adopted by McHugh itself functions to legitimize social differences by elevating the academic viewer of the avant-garde feminist movie above the alleged dupe of the Hollywood melodrama. Not unlike the notion of unlabored domestic femininity, differences in taste here functions to subsume differences in education and/or class, thereby signaling McHugh's participation in the same kind of mystifications she set out to expose.

Paola Gemme
University of Genoa