Maybe you heard the song Fergie dropped last week, or saw her music video. It’s called “M.I.L.F.$.” a.k.a. “MILF Money.” If you haven’t seen it—well, it’s something. (Psst: It also might be NSFW, depending on where you work.)
In it, Fergie and a heck of a girl gang—including Kim Kardashian West, Chrissy Teigen, and Ciara, all celebrity mothers—appear in tongue-in-cheek Stepford Wives drag; Chrissy breastfeeds her infant daughter; Fergie reinvents the acronym as “Moms I’d Like to Follow.” It is exciting to see these women—so widely regarded as sex symbols—being celebrated as both sex symbols and mothers and people to aspire to—people who are successful, people to “follow.” They're not just one thing; they're multitalented (they sing! they dance! they model! they're businesswomen! they write cookbooks! they parent!). Their beauty is front and center, but acts almost as a footnote to the rest of the scene—a this, too.
If you’re wondering why I’m writing about a Fergie video on a food website, here’s why: The video—in its mid-century housewife looks and its sex appeal and the overachieving nature of the women featured in it—thrums (even if ironically) of the Domestic Goddess.
You know the Domestic Goddess: She’s a beautiful, feminine woman; a woman with seemingly endless talents, especially domestic ones; a woman who is open and giving. She's confined almost exclusively to feminine spaces. Her life, and she herself, are aspirational. She's in food writing as often as she's in kitchens: Think of the rosy, wonderful words of Laurie Colwin; think of Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess. Think of social media and blogs—the Pioneer Woman, Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, many of the blogs we feature in our "Link Love" series. She's everywhere.
Kim (who has built an empire on the foundation of her personal life) and Chrissy (a former swimsuit model who just released her first cookbook, Cravings) embody slightly different Domestic Goddesses than those the 1950s and 1960s knew, when one’s status as a DG was determined by how closely you nestled into the cult of domesticity. The key factor in determining the Domestic Goddesses of today isn't necessarily any one of the historically mandated attributes listed above, nor a degree of celebrity. Rather, it's the illusion of doing and having it all. If old-school June Cleaver had her family and her home, new-school Chrissy has all that and a career and fame and sex appeal. And a book deal. “M.I.L.F.$.” is a sly nod at all of the above—the sex, the career, the family, the beauty. "Every era gets the domestic goddesses it deserves," writes Emily Gould in a recent piece on Chrissy Teigen, Gwyneth Paltrow, and their new cookbooks (Cravings and It's All Easy, respectively) for Eater, "The State of the Domestic Goddess." And Kim and Chrissy and Gwyneth are ours.
But why does every era have one—and why does it deserve one? And—because the DG can and has signified a restrictive feminine ideal (that is, one in which “women’s work,” a confining to the kitchen and to childcare, is a very real thing)—isn't it about time we cooled it with the cult of the Domestic Goddess? Isn’t it time we grew wary (and weary) of the "Domestic Goddess" title, a title that not only oversimplifies the women behind it but sets unrealistic expectations for everyone?
We can’t ask what the current state of the Domestic Goddess is without bringing into question or context its former one, which means thinking about the women we have and have not heralded as DGs in the past. "Being a domestic goddess is not the same as being a woman cookbook author, and it is definitely not the same as being a woman chef," writes Emily. She’s right: How we think of Domestic Goddesses has shifted, even as parts of the role have remained the same. Dorie Greenspan is not a DG because her profession is cookbook-writing, and she doesn't put her life on display in them. Martha Stewart, for so long the DG, does the latter, but has been surpassed by the sex appeal and the glamour that Gwyneth and Chrissy offer. They've beat Martha at Martha's own game.
Chrissy Teigen is not Martha Stewart—and while that might feel like progress in some ways, it also feels like a step back: We expect more from our Domestic Goddesses than ever. To wit: Cravings is just one of the many things Chrissy has going on, one of the many things she (ostensibly) succeeds at: She's a model, a businesswoman, a mother, a cookbook author, a very funny Twitter-er, and if she's burnt out from juggling all this, we'll be the last to know. And all these things together, each part being equally important, make her the Domestic Goddess we—this hyper-online, multitasking era—"deserve." It's why "lifestyle" blogs are so popular, why more than one of us has felt an embarrassing flicker of aggression towards Gwyneth and her beautiful kitchen and her ho shou wu and her sweaters. It's the It's All Easy-ness of her, and of all Domestic Goddesses, that makes them goddesses—that allows the fantasy.
Nigella wasn't the first Domestic Goddess by any means, but she did play a big role in popularizing the term with her 2000 cookbook How to Be a Domestic Goddess. To me, the title says it all so well: It's part aspirational, part winking, part completely genuine. How to Be a Domestic Goddess and Nigella herself, as the author of the book and purveyor of this particular dream, both exemplify the Domestic Goddess (here, she's positioning herself as a the teacher of it) and challenge it. Her description of the book on her site is so carefully (even tensely) written that you might be tempted to explicate every line of it. I'll spare you, but there's a lot going on:
I do think that many of us have become alienated from the domestic sphere, and that it can actually make us feel better to claim back some of that space...
The trouble with much modern cooking is not that the food it produces isn't good, but that the mood it induces in the cook is one of skin-of-the-teeth efficiency, all briskness and little pleasure. Sometimes that's the best we can manage, but at other times we don't want to feel like a post-modern, post-feminist, overstretched woman but, rather, a domestic goddess, trailing nutmeggy fumes of baking pie in our languorous wake.
So what I'm talking about is not being a domestic goddess exactly, but feeling like one.
Here's the thing: I know—and I bet you do, too—that Nigella's right. Many of us do want the nutmeggy fumes, the comfort that cooking and feeding and nourishing ourselves and others brings, the slower pace she suggests. And the joy she takes in herself. ("I'm not a cook-to-impress kind of girl," she says in the book, wary of "Little Lady drag.") I want that joy. I aspire to it.
But I still "bristle," (as the Amazon blurb warned I might), at the title, its assumptions of the (female) reader, and the suggestion that a return to the kitchen might be exactly what the modern woman needs to soothe the overworked soul. Though Nigella does claim, in the same description of the book quoted above, that she neither wants "to confine you to kitchen quarters nor even suggest that it might be desirable," it's tricky territory, considering just how deeply entrenched the cult of domesticity—and ideas of "women's work"—still are. (For many, not having to cook feels like an escape from a history of women stuck in the kitchen.) Does the fantasy of the Domestic Goddess simply uphold long-held beliefs and systemic customs about how we regard femininity?
Maybe, maybe not—but the DGs of today can't get by on talent alone: Her looks are not only important but vital to her goddess status. Take this, for example, from the Eater piece: "Glamour, also, is required—sorry, Rachael Ray—so a side gig as a model or movie star is ideal, but supra-civilian-level beauty will also do." And the piece's leading image, which features a euphoric-faced, practically glittering Chrissy—"a model who loves to eat"—mastering the food-porny cheese pull. And this, from the Amazon blurb of How to Be a Domestic Goddess: "...Lawson, who looks more Elizabeth Hurley than Martha Stewart, is the perfect guide to the wondrous world of baking." (Martha Stewart, for her part, was a model.) And then there's the entirety of the Fergie song and video; the song is called "M.I.L.F." for a reason, and if you think it's only because it sounds like "milk," I'd implore you to watch the video again. The visual might be more important now than it's ever been before.
How to Be a Domestic Goddess not only illustrates what so many of us feel—a desire to be calm, composed, a better-than-average baker, and an admiration of those who seem to have achieved it—but also something else: that in 2000, at least for Nigella, the "post-modern, post-feminist, overstretched woman" and the "domestic goddess" were in opposition; that one challenged the other. But the state of the Domestic Goddess now is that she's both: post-feminist, overstretched, and goddess-like in her failure to show her exhaustion. It's true of Nigella and her book—and it's true of Gwyneth, and it's true of Chrissy, and it's true of so many cookbook authors and "lifestyle" bloggers. Why are they so aspirational? Because they appear to be the rare woman who has it all.
We forget that Domestic Goddesses aren't goddesses because they never forget to wash their faces before bed and never burn whatever's in the oven—they're goddesses because they work really fucking hard; they're smart businesswomen on top of everything else. Think of Kim Kardashian West, a DG in her own way: She does not have a cookbook (yet), but her many-pronged career is largely oriented around her domestic sphere. We so often see her at home, hanging out with her family, mothering her children. She is beautiful, hyper-feminine (you might have read her GQ interview this month and seen the accompanying photos or, of course, in the Fergie video). But she is also a businesswoman. As Caity Weaver writes in that GQ piece, “last year she landed the No. 33 spot on Forbes's list of highest-paid celebrities, while [her husband, Kanye West] failed to crack the top 100. Kanye might be the artistic genius in the family, but Kim is the CEO.”
I want to believe that the title of "Domestic Goddess" could be empowering, and I do believe it's largely given endearingly to women whose lives we find so beautiful we want to emulate them. I would even venture that it's empowering in the context of "M.I.L.F.$." in that the women in the video are self-identifying—and aware of the itchy, gendered tension of it all. "M.I.L.F.$." works because it not only maintains but also amplifies the complexity of the women who perform in it.
Still, I can't help but hear bite in the title, a bite that comes from whatever mastery of the domestic sphere (and everything else) these "goddesses"—a word that implies that they not only exceed at it, but take pleasure in it—supposedly have, while the rest of us are, as Emily writes in the Eater piece, stuck in "the reality of being a Domestic Drudge" and frankly just trying to remember to buy dog food and get dinner on the table at a reasonable hour. We perceive the Domestic Goddess as free of the drudge. And though I can't speak for Gwyneth or Kim or Chrissy, I'm certain they're not.
And because the goddess' beauty is considered just as essential to her title as her skill set—and because her skill set is largely domestic—we often forget that there's a business in this: Emotional labor has long been discounted as work, and when lifestyle is your work—well, work is your lifestyle. That's a lot of work. The rise to fame (and Kim's, in the specific), writes Nathan Heller in a New Yorker piece titled "The Multitasking Celebrity Takes Center Stage," is characterized by workaholism. So that while "Female celebrity, for years, was rooted in a luxury and beauty culture"—and, I'd say, still is—it's "slowly [...] moving toward a work and achievement culture, and such re-narrativization requires active reinforcement in the public eye." No wonder all of the aforementioned are hyphenates in their careers: actress-model-TV host-cookbook author-mother-entrepreneur.
Domestic goddesses of our era are savvy to what they're doing, to their business. To the public eye, they're (mostly) steering their own lifestyle-brand ships (U.S.S. Goop); they're (mostly) in control of the lenses through which they want to be seen, not captive to a century of femininity standards any more than the rest of us. (Remember: 1. It's their profession of choice, and 2. they're making money off of it.) But we should still be thoughtful about the ways we consume their businesses, and be cautious of when and to whom we assign the "Domestic Goddess" title, mindful of what we're gesturing at when we do. What if, instead, we focused our admiration on the business and the ambition and the effort—so that we could be inspired by the fantasies they create without letting them depress us about our own (real, good, busy) lives? And so that we could give the constantly working women behind them their due?
Does "Domestic Goddess" make you bristle, too? Or is it no big deal? Share your thoughts and theories in the comments below.