I don’t think Philip May meant to raise the tired and outmoded sexual stereotype of the inadequately domesticated male when he brought up the bins. I think he meant to raise the tired and outmoded sexual stereotype of the hen-pecked husband.
“I get to decide when I take the bins out,” the prime minister’s other half said, as he sat with his wife on the pastel cushions of The One Show, “not if I take the bins out.” I am, in other words, Phil appeared to be saying, a little plaintively, my own boss in only the narrowest sense, a man of limited self-determination — caught between a rock and a wheelie bin.
Then his wife interjected: “There’s boy and girl jobs, you see.” And suddenly this light conversation, conducted merely to warm the electorate’s heart, was chin-deep in sexual politics. “I definitely do the taking the bins out,” Phil confirmed, digging deeper. “I do the traditional boy job by and large.” At which point, a nation winced as the years unwound and the noise was heard of a reconditioned glass ceiling being winched carefully back into place. “Boy jobs” and “girl jobs”? Brexit hadn’t even happened yet and it was already 1953 again round at the Mays’.
What a depressingly retrograde moment for people who have grown up in the era of female emancipation and have arrived at a more enlightened position with regard to the sharing of the domestic burden. People like me, for instance, whose unswerving instinct when confronted with anything that looks even vaguely like it might fall into the category of a “traditional boy job” is to get a man in.
This would necessarily include not just putting up shelves (which I bet Phil is a whizz at, going by the hands) but also the entry-level DIY task of putting up pictures, which I tried once and won’t be doing again. After an unfortunate mathematical miscalculation during the project’s lengthy planning stages, the string and the hook ended up being visible above the picture. When it comes to jobs, there are distinctions relating to gender and then there is the matter of basic competence, which is prior to and overrides those distinctions.
Still, who among us hasn’t paused for a moment’s reflection since the Mays gave that interview? Because here’s a confession: I, too, take the bins out, but my wife, like Theresa May, never takes the bins out. As for my children, are you kidding? My children don’t even know where the bins are. Yet I’m out there every week — lifting them around the car, indeed — in frank defiance of years of patient deconstruction for traditional patriarchal roles. I’m like Phil. On Thursday nights I am bin man: hear me roar.
So how much of the rest of my domestic life is organised along outdated, politically suspect gender lines? The cooking? Well, that’s a “boy job”, I’m relieved to say. Of course it is. And I don’t just mean barbecues and occasional signature curries and self-important roasts made in novelty aprons, and all that other shouty, masculine stuff for which one somehow blames Gordon Ramsay. I mean routine family-meal provision. This is 2017, for heaven’s sake, and if you’re the kind of man who thinks he has a divine right to find his supper on the table at six o’clock — well, even Phil felt able to have a pop at those old-schoolers during his chat with The One Show.
Brexit hadn’t even happened yet and it was already 1953 again round at the Mays’
However, a confession: when I say cooking in my house is a “boy job”, it’s also a “girl job”. And, if I’m being honest, it’s also a “girl job” more often than it’s a “boy job”. Far more often. I mean, perhaps 20 or 30 times more often. But that’s only because the “girl” in question is, as I often mention, “so much better at it” and also “so much quicker at it”. The relation between being better and quicker at it and doing it more often would probably merit further examination than it tends to get. But let’s just characterise this as an example of what Phil sensitively summarised this week as “the give and take in every marriage”.
Thank-you letters and birthday presents, though? Girl job, round here, every time. Why should that be? Getting wrapping paper, however, and wrapping up those presents: boy job. Which possibly suggests that some of these habitual task allotments may be nothing to do with sex, but simply the product of a division of labour that you have arbitrarily made, somewhere down the line, and stuck with.
Perhaps that also explains why seeing off Jehovah’s Witnesses is a boy job. Does that fall to you, too, Phil? It seems to fall to me. Ditto the blokes with plastic crates of household items. Mowing the lawn? Definitely a boy job in this household. But tending the flowerbeds? Girl job. Odd. Similarly, online grocery shopping? Girl job for us. But actual supermarket shopping (involving trolleys, car parks, long till receipts, ergo more macho): boy job. The broadband? Boy job, obviously. The car? Boy, of course. Dishwasher maintenance? Boy. Getting rid of not-quite-dead stuff the cats bring in? Me. Anything connected with insurance or pensions or the water rates: mine somehow, just as they were my father’s before me. Whereas, the laundry . . .
Hell’s bells. What year are we living in?
Best to try and stay positive, though, and concentrate on how we shape the future generation. For this, surely, is how behaviour and expectations evolve. Accordingly, in our case, we have been very careful to apportion to our children, irrespective of sex, carefully non-gender-specific “boy and girl jobs”, which, avoiding controversy, we simply refer to as “jobs”, and which include cooking for themselves (if their mother’s not about), clearing the table after supper (or at any rate leaving the dishes on top of the dishwasher, from where they will simply melt inside by a process of osmosis) and taking their piles of laundered clothes on that always difficult final stage of the journey back to their bedrooms (or, as it tends to be, leaving that pile on the stairs and using it through the week as a kind of pop-up wardrobe).
By these means we are hopeful that we are raising children who will never grow up to be a prime minister or a prime minister’s consort and go on The One Showand refer to “girl jobs and boy jobs”, thereby forcing everybody to conclude they must have had their eyes and ears closed for the past five decades.
Meanwhile, there are bins to be put out and someone has got to do it, and, in the absence of any other volunteers, it looks like it’s going to be me and Phil. Mind you, did you catch what he had to say about clothes? “I quite like ties. I like jackets, stuff like that.” Ties? Jackets? Come on, Phil — at least try to get with the times.
Ironing is as male as beard trimming
By Helen Rumbelow
Sometimes I watch as my partner applies hot metal to the breasts of another woman. But not often. For him, ironing is a “men’s only” event, and it is for that reason, I can only imagine, that many years ago I bought for him a novelty ironing board cover that featured a full-length woman in a bikini. When the heat of the iron is applied, hard, to her bikini top, it magically fades to reveal her breasts. Quite why I thought introducing a reasonably kinky soft-porn element to domestic tasks was the right way to lighten the load, I can’t remember. Maybe this kind of excitement is what our prime minister was referring to as “boy’s jobs”.
“A woman doing the bins is like fighting in frontline combat for the first time: hero work”
I don’t think I have ever ironed — perhaps once, for a funeral. I either wear clothes that don’t need it or I look crinkly. But now men arrive at cohabitation already having established a Sunday-night ironing-in-pants routine, and so it went. The iron arrived in our house as male an item of apparatus as the beard trimmer and the espresso maker. It is exclusively for him and his shirts. I think the manufacturers know this. Irons these days are called things such as “the Performer” and “Elite”, with considerable read-across from condom brands.
Meanwhile the bins are all mine. A woman doing the bins is like fighting in frontline combat for the first time: hero work. Yet who wouldn’t want this job? Infrequent, satisfying and with the thrilling opportunity to be on the street in the dark in your nightwear. Part of the enjoyment of the bins, though, is to conceal its enjoyment. You must return to the house — which you left 30 seconds earlier — with the grim, battle-hardened air of someone returning from the dark side. As I sling down the recycling tub, I am signalling: “The family is safe now.”
Dishwashing, cooking and laundry we split fairly Swedishly: that he is a wiper and I am a sweeper was dumb luck but something that should be accounted for on dating profiles. Washing up, though, is pure chivalry. The sight of pans with caked-on food I find stomach-churning. It is like the digestive process extruded to a sink: a swirl of vomitous slime. That he deals with this unspeakable thing for the sake of me is one of the most romantic truths of my life.
Are you in a May marriage?
Take Ben Machell’s quiz
How Theresa and Philip are you at home? Take the test.
Which of your wife’s domestic responsibilities do you suspect she dislikes the most?
A) Having to retile the roof.
B) Feather-dusting your collection of Toby jugs.
C) Silently weaving huge tapestries by candlelight.
Uh oh! You’re a woman and it’s bin day! But your husband is away and he forgot to do the bins before he left! How do you deal with this?
A) You just . . . take the bins out?
B) You do the bins yourself, but inwardly curse him and resolve to not bring him his pipe and slippers tonight until he actually has to ask for them, at which point you obviously will.
C) You quickly race upstairs and disguise yourself as your husband using stage make-up, elaborate prosthetics and some of his clothes. Then you rush after the binmen and hand them your recycling with a gruff “Here you go, lads” before nodding at your confused neighbours.
The milk in the fridge may or may not have gone off and smelling it has so far proved inconclusive. To whom falls the solemn duty of taking a gulp and passing judgment?
A) Whoever’s most desperate for a cup of coffee.
B) The man, but with a heavy heart, as if he’s serving as food taster for history’s least popular Roman emperor.
C) The man. Only first he strips to the waist, flexes all his muscles, gives a war cry, then downs all the milk in one go. And even if what comes out of the bottles is effectively cheese, he will swill it round his mouth before shrugging and saying: “Tastes totally fine to me.”
You’re a man and you’re trying to lug an armchair or something similar upstairs. It is very difficult. Your wife, standing at the foot of the stairs, asks if you would like a hand. How do you respond?
A) By shouting: “Course I do, you dopey moo!”
B) By pretending not to hear her, but secretly hoping that she just comes and helps because you’re starting to get a bit scared.
C) By grunting, “It’s not heavy, it’s just awkward,” as your intervertebral discs start to explode, one by one.
Your cat has eviscerated a mouse and dumped it in the middle of the lounge. What, in your experience, happens next?
A) You and your spouse silently and tacitly agree not to enter that room until Svitlana, your cleaner, shows up in four days’ time. She’ll sort it.
B) The husband, after sitting alone with a bottle of scotch for three hours, will finally enter the lounge with some kitchen roll and a bottle of Mr Muscle spray. He will dispose of the body, then experience a month of sporadic night terrors.
C) The wife, believing that there are almost certainly more mice about, insists that her husband go forth and vanquish them. She arms him with a badminton racket and a pan lid to use as a shield, coldly informing him — like a Spartan woman — either to come back with it or upon it.
You arrive home early one day to find your husband in the kitchen, preparing some cheese on toast. How do you respond?
A) You snatch the cheese on toast out of his hands, take a big bite, then demand a foot massage, which he obediently delivers.
B) You peer over his shoulder to discover that he has forgotten to use cheese and also bread, so you hand him a copy of the Wickes catalogue and tell him to find some nice corrugated bitumen sheets while you strap on an apron and take over.
C) You drop your bags in shock and start screaming in the manner of someone who has discovered her husband dancing around their bedroom in dagger heels and fishnet tights while belting out Goldfinger. You spend three weeks at your mother’s before arranging joint counselling sessions because you just want to understand.
Finally, household chores, delineated by gender, are in your opinion what?
A) A demeaning and archaic throwback.
B) Just how things tend to shake out in the real world.
C) The very glue that binds your marriage.
If you answered mostly . . .
As: You are not remotely Theresa and Philip. You live in a strange, gender-neutral domestic hellscape that would confuse and frighten them. I hope you’re happy.
Bs: Getting there. You seem to understand that “boy jobs” and “girl jobs” exist and are important. You just need to take things to the next level and perhaps invest in some pink and blue his’n’hers scouring pads.
Cs: You are totally Theresa and Philip! You live in a world where men are men and women don’t know how bin bags work. Congratulations!