Sexualization of Cleaning

While reading Anne McClintock’s excerpts in Imperial Leather which focus on Munby’s relationship with Cullwick and the sexualization of housework, I began thinking about the ways in which cleaning is portrayed in advertisements today.  Sarah Haskins hits the nail on the head with her video on cleaning, linked here: Although Munby’s extreme fetishes with working women’s hands and dirt seem at first laughable and strange, Haskins shows that advertisements today fetishize cleaning in a similar way.

Immediately, I was struck by the advertisement that featured a sexy man’s voiceover overlaid on images of attractive young women in a domestic setting.  The voice seductively asks, “You know what part of a woman I admire most? Her hands.”  The close-ups of these women and the Latin-sounding soundtrack make it clear that the hands doing labor are meant to be viewed as sexual objects.

Later on in the book, McClintock points out that in the Victorian era, most women were not actually wealthy enough to hire servants to do all the labor, so they were forced to contribute themselves.  The catch was that they could not make it look like they had done anything: they would do the work while no one was around to see.  The wife would labor “while rendering her labor invisible” (162). In a similar, but more subtle way, this is presented in contemporary cleaning commercials.  Men and children are never around to watch: cleaning is a solitary activity.  However, in the advertisements Haskins picks out, there is very often a romantic male role that is being filled.  With the invisible male gaze (as is shown in the commercial that sexualizes hands) or with the cleaning tools being presented as romantic figures (as in the Swiffer advertisement), a male figure is often present in the cleaning dialouge.  Haskins comments that “cleaning doesn’t have to be a chore, it’s a romance!”  Clearly, the Swiffer marketers want women (their target audience, because men never clean) to believe that cleaning is so much more than just something to be gotten out of the way, it can be romantic and sexually stimulating!

Alison Hunt


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