Cleaning guru Jolie Kerr: "The legacy of housework being the domain of women continues"

The Internet's favorite "clean person" talks to Salon about Martha Stewart, gender and used bike shorts

By Daniel D'Addario

Published February 28, 2014 4:30PM (EST)

       (<a href=''>vitapix</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(vitapix via iStock)

Cleaning is one of the least fun parts of most every person's week (or month, or...).

Every person, that is, save for Jolie Kerr -- and she's here to help.

The prolific and widely read columnist, who began writing about housecleaning for website the Hairpin in 2011 and now writes dual columns for the sports-gossip site Deadspin and feminist site Jezebel, has a new book out whose title says it all about her insouciant attitude toward the practical arts. "My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag ... And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha" deals in a light, breezy, nonjudgmental way with the hard work one has to do to keep a decent-looking home, to get stains out and, yes, to scrub bodily fluids out of handbags.

Ms. Stewart this isn't -- not least because the aspirational diva presumes you've already mastered the basics and wants to walk you through advanced-placement homemaking. Kerr writes for readers who know little to nothing about laundry or mopping, getting across the notion that you'll have to work hard but trying, at least, to make it a little fun. We spoke to Jolie Kerr about whether the gender binary in housecleaning will ever be overcome, the DIY movement and what chores she hates.

Housework is traditionally gendered -- but as someone who writes for Gawker media sites directed at men and at women, and as someone who wants a wide audience for your book, do you think that's fading out?

I do think that there are changes -- and I think that’s a very good thing. I think it’d be Pollyanna-ish of me to tell you there isn’t a gender construct in cleaning. The legacy of housework being the domain of women continues. And it’s going to continue for a long time, probably well after my lifetime. I wish that wasn’t the case, but that’s reality. You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of years’ worth of socializing the perception of housework as women’s work. And women are more socialized, to this day, to think about cleaning and be aware of cleaning. They’re trained to clean. It’s less true now than it was 40 years ago.

And one thing I love hearing about is women who are in their 20s and 30s saying, “My mom never taught me to clean, and now I’m turning to a feminist website to teach me to clean.” That statement was made when I was working for the Hairpin. I’m hesitant to put words in the mouths of Jezebel readers, but I’m sure some Jezebel readers feel that way too. That personalization of women being the ones to clean has gone away to some extent. We like that, right? What isn’t so great is that the socialization of people to know how to clean has gone away. But cleaning is a human problem, not a male or female problem. I try always to act as if it is the case that cleaning is a human problem.

It seems like people, in general, know less. 

I’m not a social historian, but I think that’s pegged to a positive thing -- not emphasizing teaching just girls how to keep a home. But in deemphasizing it for girls, it deemphasizes it for everyone. Everybody’s lacking for basic knowledge. I take it as an opportunity to level the playing field. That’s one of the reasons I write for a men’s-interest site, as well as for a women’s-interest site. It’s even-Steven.

Also, for all that everything in the world is "gamified" now, there's no real way around, like, scrubbing your baseboards. 

I’m sure Silicon Valley is working on a way!

Is there anything, though, that's changed in recent years?

There are definitely innovations that are exciting -- it’s been exciting to see the evolution of the Roomba. When the Roomba first came out, it wasn’t very good at cleaning. And up until last year, a lot of the Roomba products were neat and fun, but weren’t fully cleaning things. There was a lot to be desired on function. Last year, they introduced a product that seemed to clear that hurdle. I’m not going to buy one but if you have $800 to throw at a Roomba, set it and forget it! It’ll clean your house.

It does seem as though there's a do-it-yourself ethos out there that this book could connect with.

Canning, DIY, return to homesteading -- yeah, I think it does. Well before I did this as a hobby, it was a very satisfying process. You start with something that’s a mess, and you finish it, and you can see the result. Being able in a short amount of time, to say, “I did that and I can see the result.” It was a particularly good feeling when I was working in a very corporate job where things can take years to complete. It was very satisfying on a Saturday to be able to say, “I completed something and I can see the result,” when my work life was such a slog to the end of a project. Cooking and baking are the same thing -- at the end, you have something to show for your work.

Talk to me about Martha Stewart.

She’s bananas on Twitter! Because she drinks and tweets. And I don’t mean that disrespectfully! But it’s awesome, because she’s crazy and perfect in her craziness -- it’s a joy. I love Martha. Love. I love everything about her. I love everything she does, I love how she’s judgmental, I love that she’s totally unafraid to say that she’s awesome -- her beauty regimen! My world fell apart when I read that. The ego is staggering. I admire her ego. I can’t in a million years ever imagine being able to be that confident and have that level of ego, which I especially admire in a woman.

But she is of a different time. The aspirational lifestyle is what she’s selling. I’m selling the total opposite. No one’s aspiring to be Jolie Kerr. I make fun of myself all the time: I live in a tiny little tenement, I do my wash at the laundromat, I don’t have an aspirational lifestyle.

Part of her selling her aspirational lifestyle is passing judgment on everyone’s lesser lifestyle. And I love that! But I am not like that -- that doesn’t work for me. It wouldn’t work for the people who read me, because it’s not what they’re looking for. They already feel bad enough! My job is to say, “Don’t feel bad.” Life is hard enough without feeling bad that you stained your favorite shirt. Know what I mean? It’s an accident. Let’s get perspective.

Is it hard to restrain judgment of the people who write in with crazier requests? 

Not as hard as you would think. One of the things I find so fulfilling about the job is being kind to people. So, when you look at it through that lens, it’s not hard to refrain from passing judgment. The one thing that forced me to make a decision about the approach and tone I was going to take, I got a question from a guy who got a pair of used bike shorts -- he wanted to know how to clean them before he wore them. Of course, I have to say, “Don’t buy used bike shorts.” Don’t.

But then I say that, and I ask myself, “Why?” Because I’m empathetic enough to understand that bike shorts are expensive. He’s talking about the ones with padding. Not everyone can afford them. I feel like a horrible person because I’ve judged you for doing something I think is maybe a little bit gross. Thinking about it for 10 seconds, I absolutely understand why someone would do it. That’s the range of emotions that went into that particular question. Am I going to say “You’re gross” or explain to him how he can clean these bike shorts? The way I want to be with my readers is to be kind and to help them.

Are there any chores you particularly deplore? 

The better I get at things the less I hate doing them. I used to hate vacuuming and I got a new vacuum cleaner, and now I love it!

Daniel D'Addario

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