Sunday, December 13, 2009

Is It Good To Clean Your Own House?

Scene from the movie "The Headless Woman."

I've never paid someone to clean my house, but I'm not against it in principle.

I know there's an argument that says that it's verging exploitation or treating someone like a servant to pay them to clean your house, but I've never found that argument all that convincing -- at least, I never found it all that convincing for people who live in places with labor laws ensuring somewhat reasonable pay and working conditions and so on. Sure, it's unpleasant work, but it's not that unpleasant. I have a friend who worked as a house-cleaner. David Sedaris worked as a house-cleaner. How bad could it be?

There's no real reason I've never paid someone to clean my house except the obvious: I wanted to spend the money on other things.

I've been considering it on and off a lot lately, though, because I've been awfully busy with my job, and working a demanding job and taking care of the house-work -- it just feels like a lot. Sometimes when I'm mopping the kitchen floor I feel kind of sorry for myself, like boo-hoo, why do I have to work all day then come home and clean? It's so unfair! I have to remind myself that that actually makes no sense: what law says you if you work you don't have to clean? None. Lots of people do both.

Then a few weeks ago I saw a movie that actually changed the way I think about this. The movie is The Headless Woman, and it's Argentinian, and it takes place in Argentina. It is excellent in lots of ways that I won't tell you about here because I hate spoilers. But one constant presence in the movie concerns the relationship between the more wealthy "light skinned-bourgoisie" (as the Times review puts it) who live in nice houses and drive nice cars and the "darker skinned workers" who live on the outskirts of the towns.

What's interesting about that relationship, beyond the obvious, is the way that the wealthier class depends on the worker class to do everything they don't want to do: the workers clean the house, of course, but they also wash the cars, carry things around, and do all kinds of other crappy work, all anonymously and interchangeably. Often they're paid just with some clothes or food.

As you can imagine, the effect is creepy. The movie really conveys the sense not only that it is awful in itself to have this incredible class divide and income disparity, but also that the effect is made more powerful by the utter removal of crappiness in the lives of the wealthy. Every upper class woman in the movie has beautiful nails and hair, is immaculate, and has a comfortable assumption of never having to ever scrub a sink or even move a small piece of furniture if she doesn't want to. There's a scene in which the main character has brought home some plants, and I'm thinking, well, she'll have to take off that beautiful dress before she gets all dirty taking them out of the car. But of course that's wrong: there's a kid hanging around happy to do it for a few clean T-shirts. She really is separate from the entire world of annoying physical labor.

It reminded me that part the effect of doing your own housework isn't just that you're not making someone else do it, but that you are doing it yourself, and so at least in some minimal sense you can't become that character.

So now when I'm feeling all sorry for myself because I have to clean the kitchen and my hands have all kinds of dry skin and my nails look terrible and I'm tired and It's so unfair! I try to remember that in the teensiest of ways it's a bit of social equality. Not because of its effect on someone else, but because of its effect on me.

So I guess for now I'm thinking, Yes, maybe it is good to clean your own house. This is not to disparage anyone who doesn't of course -- the question is complex and there may be other reasons not to do it. It's just to say there is some reason.

And if you're looking for a good movie you should see The Headless Woman, which is excellent.