Long Reads

What We Miss When We Call Women "Domestic Goddesses"

July  6, 2016

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.

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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.

We can’t ask what the current state of the Domestic Goddess is without bringing into question or context its former one.

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.”

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.

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.

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Betty July 13, 2016
I was startled to find the name of Lauri Colwin mentioned in this article, even if only tangentially. I would consider her the antithesis of the Domestic Goddess! I have to confess that her book "Home Cooking" is one of my favorites to read, although I don't think I have ever cooked anything from it.
Katherine July 10, 2016
As a person who spent years building her castles and aspiring and generally knocking myself out (literally), always yearning, somehow, to be the perfect woman I read this with a little sadness. I was one of the first boomers out. I was supposed to be a mom after little sojourns (maybe none) into teaching, nursing, or office work. My dad refused to pay for a college education so I could pursue my dream of being a psychologist because of just that. (Though my wonderful bro, who became truck driver cause he didn't care so much for the rat race, completed university.) So I became a nurse, had a child, followed my husband around to oil refineries, went to culinary school, and kept dabbling in education til I finally got my Psy.D. at age 51. I think that goddess thing was hanging over all our heads even during the women's movement -- but not the goddess of the hammock and slaves, but the "I can prove myself and have it all" goddess. So, I am sure I shortened my life working that one out! I am sorry to hear that's still an issue. But I want to say, now that I am retired (70 in October) I'm reverting to my cooking, writing poetry, and adult coloring book stage. And finding myself much less inclined to beautify myself these days -- no more nails, much less make-up, no more hair color, etc. And I am so content. If I can share any wisdom looking back, may I suggest that building castles is a necessary part of our lives. But we can't do it all at one time. Each stage was a fabulous opportunity for growth and exploration, and if I was asked what to cut out it would have to be none of it. So, women, work, struggle, grow, and enjoy fascinating lives. Forget the media images, unless that what interests you.
Karin B. July 10, 2016
My Mother (1906 -2002) was a Domestic Goddess. She had no videos to guide her, no stylist to polish her or the food she put out. She had glowing skin and perfect muscle tone from hard work in a large garden. She had a feminine shape because she actually ate the food she created and she did it while two world wars were raging around her in Germany. I was raised on homemade goat cheese on beds of the earliest fresh herbs out of her hotbeds, on Gooseberry fool and apple pancake, etc. all ingredients except sugar produced by her.
She makes your Domestic Goddesses look like paper dolls.
Carol July 10, 2016
I think that these "goddesses" work hard, But so do the many many people creating the image. Nigella, Martha, etc would be nobody without their assistants organizing, cleaning, setting up, putting on their makeup, fixing their hair and clothes, etc. This is why they can "multi-task", servants doing the scut work, something we don't have at home. And people who watch those videos and read those books forget this at their peril: the rich may work hard, but their servants work harder to make the rich look good and clever and capable. Servants are the secret sauce.
Kt4 July 10, 2016
Completely true! Why do so many keep forgetting the 'village' that actually keeps things running? (Rhetorical question ;))
Annabel July 10, 2016
You hit the nail on the head. Yes, it is "all easy" when you have a staff to handle the time consuming, not-so-fun parts. I think at least part of the backlash against the Gwyneths and Marthas and others is because they gloss over this. It's a lie by omission that sells a false bill of goods.
Fredrik B. July 8, 2016
Honestly, I hate the whole domestic goddess thing, precisely because it is so closely tied with appearance. It's a kind of sickly new-dainty: The food is dainty and beautiful, the cooking is dainty and beautiful (and utterly lacks dishes), the woman herself is dainty and beautiful despite the dainty and beautiful baked goods. They're going the "extra mile" with something as innocuous as cooking, eating or even existing and it's exhausting to even think about. But it's probably just another facet of celebrity: nowadays we want to witness every boring aspect of their lives and expect it to be just as dazzlingly glamorously flawless as the rest. It renders the lives of people (whose bodies are already productions) into further productions.
maria July 7, 2016
Though I think this topic is fascinating and worthy, I find most of the examples here a little off track. Kim Kardashian and Chrissy Teigan? These are people selling things. Lifestyle brands (operative word) are highly orchestrated, staged, market researched, businesses. I think its best we view them just as we have learned to view advertising campaigns with models- we now know they are photoshopped and edited and not "real." The domestic goddess, however, is a real thing that I think is best understood as different people excelling at different skills. People who are put in this category just happen to be great at most things domestic. They truly do feel the most calm and composed in the kitchen and this can be a completely authentic feeling. When people are good at things and they love them, they often make it looks easy. It's no different than computer tech person fixing my computer in 5 minutes that I struggled to figure out for weeks, or a marksmen hitting a bullseye when I can't even figure out how to load the thing, etc. We all have our unique talents and we should appreciate them rather than assuming we should all be/look/do the same. I think the pressure that all women can or should want to be a "domestic goddess" is the problem.
Kt4 July 10, 2016
Here Here!! Especially your last line. With the addition that spouses/men look at these titled DG and expect the women in their lives to be able to achieve all that without the help of the rest of the household.
Zelda July 7, 2016
Err, Nigella meant it ironically, you know.
Alexandra V. July 6, 2016
I liked this article. In my opinion domestic goddess is a good term, but I agree that much of what is popular comes off as synthetic. I keep it real, and I hope that is where the trend is going....but I am ok if I never have mass appeal, if someone enjoys my content then I know I sincerely shared a part of myself with them. I don't have to worry about trying to be something that I am not...which isn't necessarily marketable to most. Vanilla has more general appeal, but if you like tutti frutti you really dig it. P.S. to all the comments judging the woman in the article....stop it....we don't need to agree with everything they do, but each one deserves admiration for their successes. Domestic goddess ≠ perfect to me....because perfection is unattainable.
Kristen M. July 7, 2016
"Vanilla has more general appeal, but if you like tutti frutti you really dig it." I really dig this.
Alexandra V. July 7, 2016
I considered going with "spumoni" but I think I made the right choice! LOL. Thanks!
Jef July 6, 2016
Kim Kardashian is a domestic goddess?????? If she fits this generations definition of domestic goddess there is no reason to wonder why we are where we are as a society.
Megan J. July 6, 2016
Women bear so many burdens. For me, right now, with a toddler and a baby, my greatest joy, contribution to the world and my family is being their full time (overtime!) caretaker. I could imagine no greater work for myself, in this season. Raising a new generation: it's empowering, mega-challenging, and fulfilling.
AntoniaJames July 6, 2016
There’s a lot going on in this piece . . .

Without putting too fine a point on it, I find “lifestyle” blogs and business empires and personal brands whose “re-narrativization requires active reinforcement in the public eye” to be in such poor taste.

As an antidote to the trends discussed in this piece, and to see the world in a different, more hopeful light, I heartily recommend David Brooks’s “The Road to Character.” ;o)
snuffcurry July 6, 2016
I find trying to re-direct a conversation about women towards a very inane and superficial man to be in poor taste.
AntoniaJames July 7, 2016
M July 6, 2016
There is a lot of food for thought here, and we SHOULD explore this world of the "domestic goddess." But there's a glaring oversight here: Though their professional output might look pristinely perfect, many of the these women ARE showing the wrinkles to their seemingly perfect lifestyles. They are routinely overcoming tabloid drama, public ridicule, personal struggles made bare for the media, and finding a way to overcome and live the life they want to lead.

In Teigen's case, she HAS expressed frustration and being burnt out -- especially since her choices about pregnancy and motherhood. As a model, she might look pristine and not seem frazzled, but she is quite open about the help she gets -- the woman who helped her plan her book, her mother who lives with her and helps her, her husband's help. Much of her image is based on how candid she is about her opinions and life.

And what makes Deb Perelman a domestic goddess? That she manages to cook and create a lot of great things while being a mom in a tiny kitchen? She's openly talked about how she isn't -- how she struggles to plan meals for her hungry children, how she fails to purge junk/food because she's too busy, or has great plans she fails to follow through with. In fact, her blog is based on close-up food pictures that feature minimal styling and lifestyle shots, unlike many of her contemporaries.

If she, or any of these women, are included because someone called them a domestic goddess, then we should investigate our responses and habits, not their triumphs.
Megan J. July 6, 2016
Deb Perelman is the only woman mentioned in the article who I admire. She is contrary to the others, who rather than flaunting an unrealistic beauty/sexuality, is learning, along with us, at fostering beauty in this place of parenting/mothering!
Caroline L. July 6, 2016
Hi M! Thanks so much for your comments—I really appreciate the points you raise, and I especially agree with your last one: that it's we who should be thoughtful about how we respond and think about women we're tempted to name "goddesses" rather than find fault with the "goddesses" themselves. And while it's true that the people mentioned in this article do indeed face a lot of public drama, I'd say that's the result of their celebrity (rather than their DG status—though they're tied to each other here). But I think their expression of frustration/showing of wrinkles and realness is hugely valuable, and emphasizes why the idealism that "Domestic Goddess" invokes is unrealistic.

As for Deb Perelman, whom I admire and whose blog I love, there's a case to be made for her goddessdom! Her candor is one of the things I like most about her writing, and one of the things that differentiates her from many bloggers, but she's still an aspirational figure—Smitten Kitchen is a food blog that launched a thousand food blogs. And she makes it look easy! (Even while she's open about that not necessarily being the case.)
M July 6, 2016
Cl - thanks for responding!

The fact that we are splitting hairs over what constitutes applicable drama in the world of Domestic Goddesses speaks to how easily this conversation devolves from questioning the act of forming "perfection" lifestyle brands, and into a discussion of rigid barriers the audience applies. Drama is drama, whether it is the result of celebrity or other life struggles. What amount and kind of drama/struggle must these women experience and share to be real and not perpetuating false perfection?

Your case for Perelman being a Domestic Goddess is even though she is open about difficulties, she is an aspirational and influential woman who "makes it look easy." If Perelman's non-stylized approach and honest candor does not differentiate her, what woman in the food and lifestyle world can win?

This is a dangerous rationale, because it uses a woman's skill and influence against her.

J H. July 10, 2016
I don’t have a daughter, but if I did, I would NOT wish for her to be part of the Media Circus that requires girls and women to buy into the need to be super sexy in order to “sell” what ever product or personal brand they aspire to promote. Lucky me, my brains were enough to provide a grand life and exceptional financial rewards.

Yes, I agree that all of us, at any age, should be proud of being a woman, and hopefully feel really good about our bodies, enjoying dressing as we desire for any event that we attend, or aspire to attend. Some of us, even at my age (almost 70) will want a short hem line, tight fitted bodice, and if we can still wear them, highest heels.

But if the “sexy stuff” must always come before or with, the “brainy stuff,” then our market must be assumed to be motivated first and mostly by “sex.” I get that is how a great portion of the Media works. To me, it continues to feel very exploitive. Do we really want to say to our daughters and grand daughters, you must first be beautiful, and then exploit your beauty by being very sexual, and then, if you are lucky, someone might notice that you are really well educated, accomplished, worth their attention?

Of course beautiful women will always be able to exploit their beauty, make their beauty into a brand, a business. That fact does not compel me to suggest to my very young women friends that they should either devalue themselves because they lack the appropriate “beauty”, or more importantly, fail to acknowledge and exploit their own “brainy” brand. Money is not the only gauge of success. Do you remember Temple Grandin? No “beauty” (as defined in this article) there, only lots of brains, and a great contribution to our world.

I guess every generation gets to decide who the DG’s in their era will be. I know I have always aspired to be one, along with aspiring to be the best Executive I could be. The latter paid the bills. The former got me applause at my dinner table. I am so happy for the money, and the “praise at the table” keeps me inspired to continue to strive to DG status, even at my age. However, I am on the page of Deb, who I love, not Kardashian.