Tuesday, 1 March 2011


Vegetable patch of oppression. Spiky white border tiles are relics of previous owners' bathroom renovation. Seedlings disarrayed by cat who mistook freshly turned earth for nice loamy loo.

Peggy Orenstein's essay, "The Femivore's Dilemma", has been unnerving me for almost a year now, and I am going to tell you why. If you don't want to know why, but you 'd like to see further illustrations of the bathroom tiles we here at Lalor have used as garden bed edging, skip ahead and leave a penny in the honesty box at the back gate.

Right. So. Reasons for my unnerving. Firstly, there were the visions of indecisive cannibals suggested by that title. Femivore's Dilemma: "Shall I have the char-grilled lady, or – perhaps just a salad?" ("Femivore", let's clarify this from the get-go, is a lousy neologism. It's supposed to denote something to do with feminist eating practices, rather than, as its cognate terms, "omnivore", "carnivore", "herbivore", suggest, the eating of feminists. I'm being curmudeonly here, but that's because I'm all for curmudgeonliness in these matters, taking my lead from finickety fin-de-siècle sexologist, Havelock Ellis, who objected to the word "homosexual" on the grounds that it conjoined words of Greek and Latin origin.)

While the visions of cannibals have faded, "The Femivore's Dilemma" has kept on troubling me, on account of its actual (gosh) content. Orenstein's thesis, for those of you who can't come at reading the whole article, is this: the discourse of radicalism that has attached to concepts like "eating local", "growing your own", "dishing up homespun spelt spaghetti with a side serve of freshly fermented tempeh from your own cellar", has permitted women who seek to identify as progressive to forsake paid employment in exchange for unpaid weeding, hoeing, zucchini-tending, and the recycling of baby poo, all without compromising their progressive credentials. I.e., there is a new (old) form of domestic labour, and those who practise it can see themselves as revolutionaries, rather than dish-washers to the patriarchy, because not only are they washing dishes, but they are Saving the Planet, which activity is endorsed by the Kyoto Protocol and Al Gore. Or in Orenstein's own words: "these gals — these chicks with chicks — are stay-at-home moms, highly educated women who left the work force to care for kith and kin. I don’t think that’s a coincidence: the omnivore’s dilemma has provided an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper."

Omnivores requesting free-range dilemma with raspberry coulis

The "chicks with chicks" line might suggest to you (as it does to me) a certain lack of sympathy for this alleged movement of chicken-nurturing American PhD-Program-alumnae-cum-homemakers. Or, as it turns out, a gleeful (?certainly jauntily articulated) conviction that Women With Gardens are DOOMED. "[I]f a woman is not careful," runs the final sentence, "chicken wire can coop her up as surely as any gilded cage." As in, you thought you would achieve apotheosis through bee-keeping, but in fact you're just lugging hives around on the back of a ute. Well, sure - but if that's what I want?

Enter Orenstein's disconcerting deployment of the "Women think they want X, but their preference for X has been engineered by the patriarchy/media/capitalist complex and is in fact against their truest interests" manoeuvre. It's a familiar line (B claims that she truly, freely, for her own sake, wants her forehead botoxed, but in fact she "wants" it because her society has created a whole buncha malevolent stories about what an acceptable body looks like, and she - probably rightly - believes that if she doesn't measure up then she has no status). It's a line that appeals immediately to someone like me who believes both that many (most? all?) of our desires are socially constructed and that there are at least some individuals who try to shape others' desires for their own ends. So, I'm all ready to accept that the desire to grow turnips in the backyard is socially constructed. I'm ready to accept that part of how it's constructed is through stories about the role of local turnip production in alleviating world hunger, and the notion that a person who participates in such a project believes she thereby gets to be identified as a provider, nurturer, food radical, eco-warrior, blah blah. Just as, you might say, B hopes to be ranked amongst women not-to-be-spurned when she has Botulinum toxin syringed into her face. But is an implicit parallel between the intelligent adult with alternatives who takes up backyard vegetable gardening and the person who forks out half her week's wage on wrinkle-be-gone warranted?

No. Growing zucchinis and receiving injections of neurotoxins are on whole different planets of fun, utility, and healthfulness, and as a person herself not averse to a home-grown zucchini, I am strongly irked by Orenstein's suggestion that I might be in the malign thrall of a patriarchal delusion. (Or rather, I readily admit that I'm in the malign thrall of several patriarchal delusions – perhaps more on this when I'm feeling brave enough – but none of them pertain to zucchinis.) I'm not in a position, nor do I want, to throw in the dayjob I'm lucky enough to love and take up full-time brassica husbandry, but if I were in such a position, and it was what I wanted, then the last thing I would need, amidst the hubbub of "Don't go out at night - you'll get yourself raped", and "Don't stay inside - that would be capitulating to the people who tell you not to walk alone at night", and "Pluck your oxters", and "But don't!", etc, etc, is the spectre of oppression by vegetable patch. Because while many (most? all?) of our desires are socially constructed, sometimes we can stand back and inspect them from every available angle, and see that they're not so bad.

Which brings me to this portrait of a tomato

– green at the tippy end of Summer (thanks a bunch, La Nina) –

and the excellent sunflowers that grew from seed in no time flat (no, really, thank you, La Nina)

and this mess of sage, roses, thyme and chives which has been flavouring my dinner for a couple of weeks now

and the rooftiles assisting with Project Lawn-No-More

and this young person who has discovered new pleasures in hiding behind dwarf beans.

That is all. I'm off to work on some proper dilemmas now.


exford legs said...

'Or rather, I readily admit that I'm in the malign thrall of several patriarchal delusions – perhaps more on this when I'm feeling brave enough – but none of them pertain to zucchinis.'

Oh bravo

Kate said...

Oh man. I get really tired of the form of "feminism" that says that a woman doing something she wants to do is somehow wrong. Yikes! Sorry everyone can't always want the same things. And gardening, and eating well, of all things to be problematic? BAH. I myself am longing for the day when I can buy a house and have a lovely little garden just like yours.

Mitzi G Burger said...

I will send Orenstein a picture of my pet goat (when I have one) eating her/his essay. Then a video of the goat pooing it onto my veggie patch.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Oh thank you!, Exford Legs. Bravo to you too.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Thanks, dear Kate. While you squirrel away for your 10 acre ranch, do you have such a thing as a balcony? There are dwarf varieties of lots of fruit trees, which'll grow quite happily in large pots, and herbs of course. Having spent the last four years in apartments, I've lots of pent up horticulturalism to ... unpent.

As for this "feminism", Orenstein uses the word a lot, in sentences like this: "Conventional feminist wisdom held that two incomes were necessary to provide a family’s basic needs". That would be the feminism that doesn't acknowledge single parent families? If I were king, I would mandate a universal definition of feminism, something like "the critique and dismantling of those structures that perpetuate oppression". If vegetable gardening were one such structure, then I would call feminists/people to rise up against it. But it's clearly not, so let's get on with critiquing and dismantling the things that actually are.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

You'd be such a good goatsmith, Mitz. I should say, despite my belligerent synopsis of Peggy Orenstein's essay, that it's pretty interesting reading. The idea that one progressivist discourse could remediate another, putatively regressive, activity is kinda catchy. Although - too busy throughout my childhood watching The Good Life - I missed the historical moment when opting out of paid employment for vegetable gardening became regressive.

Also, Orenstein seems to have written some (possibly) good stuff about the gendering of children. So, go her.

JahTeh said...

I don't know where I am in this debate.

I like to eat well.
I hate to garden.
I would like to be rich enough to employ women to garden for me.

I have no desire to botox any part of me or the women I employ to garden for me.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Jahteh, I recently saw an ad offering "Free tuition in permaculture gardening!" On closer inspection, it turned out that what was being offered was the opportunity to do unpaid work in someone else's garden in exchange for explicit instructions about what work to do. Maybe you could figure out something similar? "Free tuition in weeding! Plus - learn how to wash dishes and scrub grouting!"

livebird said...

Too many big words. Head swimming. I just like growing stuff.

Speaking of which, I have lots of sweet pea seeds (must be planted on St Pat's Day! It's the RULE!) and broccoli seeds from my garden. You want some? Can post 'em.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Oh, thank you! What a nice offer. I have some little Waltham broccoli growing in a seedtray at the moment, and probably have enough broccoli seeds to keep me rolling in broccoli for the next two years, but the sweetpeas would be very very welcome, if you really can spare them. I'm alexis.h2arley@gmail.com (minus the 3).

Katrina Z said...

Beautifully put, Alexis. I hope you soon get brave enough to write about these several patriarchal delusions and their thrall. Enquiring readers want to know!

Tammois said...

Just discovered your blog via @dogpossum, thanks. I really like your thoughts on Orenstein's tired reductivism. In fact, I had the same reaction last year and wrote about it on my own blog! You can see it here: http://www.tammijonas.com/2010/03/22/feminists-dont-have-to-eat-fast-food/