A few months ago, I read the obituary of a prominent Lebanese Marxist in which one of the people who knew him commented that he was a Marxist because he “cared about day to day life.” This prompted me to think about what it means to live in a society in which the banal-seeming act of caring about “the everyday” is in fact radical. What kinds of things do we usually care about, if not “daily” things?
This line of questioning made me think also about other categories, besides that of “Marxist” that might mean one cares about “day to day life.” The first that came to mind was about gender; women are people who, because of how historical and social structures define their role and appropriate realm of activity, care about day-to-day life. Because we have to. The second thing that came to mind, a few weeks later, was “anthropologist”: an anthropologist should, ideally, take in interest in her informants’ day-to-day lives. We value ethnography because it usually shows us in some rich detail the daily lives of real people. You can of course take a critical view of who does the showing, and who the people being shown typically are, but the “everyday” quality of the anthropological perspective is what makes the discipline so unique.
The association of women with the everyday seems like an important insight for comprehending the beauty industry and women’s magazines, things I’d love to study in another academic life. What makes something a “women’s magazine” as opposed to just a magazine? It doesn’t talk about “big” things. A women’s magazine focuses on “women’s issues” but we all implicitly know, when we use this label, that that does not mean women’s human rights, global debates about feminism, abortion access, etc. “Women’s magazines” are about a very specific kind of everyday life – shopping, sex, makeup, bargains, tips for how to get ahead at your job. I do not consider these trivial concerns at all. Instead, I see them as part of what George Saunders has called “the endless cycle of meaningful activity” that characterizes contemporary capitalism.
Part of this association of the feminine with the “everyday” could be fruitfully studied, I think, through an ethnographic investigation of advice-giving. Someone who writes an advice column is called an “agony aunt” in British English – note the gender associations of this term. An “advisor” is a powerful person. But to give “advice,” one need not be powerful – exchanging advice is simply part of the everyday practice of a lot of people, many of whom happen to be women. Women’s magazines traffic in advice – from the absolutely ridiculous (I am thinking here of Cosmos’ sex tips) to the do-you-really-think-I-didn’t-already-know-that variety (“always pay off your credit card balance to avoid paying interest!”). I myself see the exchange of frank, down-to-earth practical advice as integral to my friendships with other women.
As the thing called a “woman’s magazine” has largely morphed from a glossy, printed-on-paper object to a digital platform, I have noticed a very interesting shift in the advice-giving practices they include. Refinery 29, a site I read fairly regularly, now seems to qualify its makeup and beauty advice with statements like “of course, we’re not saying you need to improve how you look at all, but if you want some ideas on how to X, then click here…” Some might construe this as a step forward for feminism, as it cannot be bad that these women’s blogs are paying greater attention to the wide variety of bodies and modes of appearance that were studiously excluded from their glossy-page older sisters. It has become cool to be a feminist, to talk of intersectionality, to use political hashtags, and to be passionate about social issues. The topics I alluded to above as not being appropriate for the women’s magazines of old – abortion, human rights, inequality – are slowly becoming more than acceptable things to discuss in the otherwise “apolitical” realm of digital platforms for women. I am ambivalent about this development because I have some problems with the direction this kind of feminism is taking, and what it ignores. (That would be the subject for a much longer essay that it would take more courage to write!)
This has all been a collection of rather loosely assembled thoughts and ideas, which have been swirling around my head for months. There is no grand point to be made, other than the fact that there would seem to be something important about a link between the feminine and the everyday, and it could be productive to think about how this maps onto other kinds of concerns with “the everyday,” such as those of Marxists and others who care about the welfare of the working classes. If those who care (are forced to care, or are expected to care) about “the everyday” are typically in some way marginal – what does this say about the powerful? What have they overlooked which might productively be reclaimed?