Last month, the New York Times published an in-depth interview with men’s rights activist Jordan Peterson. He’s the kind of person who, not unlike Commander Fred and his cronies from The Handmaid’s Tale, thinks society would be better off if women were to put this whole feminism thing to bed and go back to focusing solely on child-rearing and homemaking. He is also the kind of person who says things like “I am a very serious person” and “the masculine spirit is under assault” without a hint of self-awareness or irony. But what surprises us most about the article — aside from the fact that the most well-regarded paper in the world published it, thereby arguably handing a microphone to a fringe thinker with discriminatory ideas about gender and sexual orientation — is that apparently, Peterson is also a big believer in the life-changing magic of tidying up.
In a roundabout way, he’s sort of become the Marie Kondo of the so-called “red pill” universe. In numerous videos and interviews, Peterson implores his base to understand the importance of keeping their homes, desks, and other personal spaces clean. “Clean up your room,” he says matter-of-factly in a video produced last year. “Organize your local landscape. Schedule your time. Start taking control of yourself.” His book 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which has already sold a staggering (and worrisome) 1.1 million copies since its publication earlier this year, has an entire chapter devoted to the matter.
Fascinatingly, this seems to be motivating a certain kind of young man — the same kind who, prior to Peterson’s tutelage, might have sneered at the idea of cleaning as “women’s work” — to make his bed, vacuum his carpet, and do his laundry.
“My mom’s been nagging me for years, but I’ve never done it until Dr. Peterson,” a 22-year-old named Lion Arar told the Times. “You organize one shelf, you do that, just incremental challenges … That makes you realize, ‘O.K., this is how I grow up.’”
As you’ve probably already gathered, I have a big problem with most of what Peterson has to say. This quote, from an interview earlier this year with Channel 4 News, pretty much sums up the myriad things we disagree upon: “Women get paid less than man, and it’s good that that’s the case. This is because men are inferior to women, and therefore we should make more money based on our superior intellect. In fact, I don’t think women should even work at all. They should stay home and make babies.”
I don’t want to stay home, I don’t necessarily want to make babies, and I sure as shit don’t wanna get paid less than some guy for doing the exact same job. But, believe it or not, there is one place where Peterson and I are in cahoots. It’s in his assertion that dudes should clean up. From “cleaning ladies” for hire to mothers and wives, washing, scrubbing, tidying, and organizing are duties that have long fallen on women. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, 50 percent of women reported doing housework on a regular basis, compared with just 21 percent of men.
It’s no secret that in a majority of heterosexual partnerships, women do most of the cleaning. And the cooking. And the child-rearing. And even when men are, so they say, perfectly willing to pitch in, often it’s still on the woman to ask him to do so. The term “mental load”, which was coined in 2017 by the French illustrator Emma, perfectly describes the very real burden of having to keep track of everything that needs to be done and delegate these responsibilities.
“When we ask women to take on this task of organization, and at the same time to execute a large portion, in the end it represents 75% of the world,” writes Emma.
Women have been attempting to shift this paradigm in a variety of ways since at least the late 1800s. In the essay “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's History”, published in the Journal of American History in 2010, feminist historian Linda K. Kerber writes: “New studies of the history of domesticity have understood domesticity to be an ideology whose objective correlative is the physical space of the household. The "material feminist" reformers … who flourished between 1870 and 1930, sought to reappropriate the space and to redesign it to socialize domestic work ... Such inventions were squelched.”
Which explains why, when many of us were growing up, we watched our mothers, grandmothers, caretakers, and even (or perhaps especially) women on TV doing the cleaning, care-taking, and mental load not just for their children, but also for the perfectly capable adult men in the house. For centuries, housework has been weaponized by men like Peterson as a way of keeping women busy, in their homes, and out of trouble.
So, yeah, if Peterson wants to encourage his disciples to pitch in around the house a little more, I think it’s safe to say nobody would mind. The thing is, most of the men Peterson is trying to motivate aren’t married. They don’t have kids. They’re college students and single guys in their 20s and 30s who have likely spurned requests by their mothers to pick up after themselves for years, only to immediately hop to when an older guy they think is cool tells them the exact same thing.
But the real question is: why is someone so obsessed with cultivating such an intense brand of traditional masculinity also a major proponent of cleaning and cleanliness? According to the Times, to hear Peterson tell it, order is masculine, while chaos is feminine. Hence the name of his book, in which he writes: “Order and chaos are the yang and yin of the famous Taoist symbol: two serpents, head to tail. Order is the white, masculine serpent; Chaos, its black, feminine counterpart.”
Aside from being offensive on about three different levels, this quote reveals that, apparently, no one has ever bothered to ask Peterson why it is that, if femininity is so disorderly, women have been the chief keepers of order within the home for centuries. I imagine, however, that this point might fall on deaf ears. Because it’s pretty obvious that Peterson’s cleaning obsession has nothing to do with men pulling their weight in the domestic sphere, where he’s made it abundantly clear he thinks women belong. What it really represents is yet another means for men to get what they believe the world owes them. Notice how, whenever Peterson talks about the importance of young men cleaning, he talks about it in terms of self-improvement — of being a better man that has more self-confidence, in order to get a better job and attract a more desirable partner. The assumption is that, as soon as these men find a wife, the importance of cleaning goes out the window, as they now have a woman to do it for them. Which is unfortunate, because cleaning is one of those things that can be done regardless of one's sex organs or gender identity.
So here’s my offering to Peterson and his posse: While you’re still in pre-marital deep-cleaning mode, why not come on down to my notoriously dirty apartment and get to work?! Because as the kind of outspoken, career-driven feminist you look down upon, I simply don’t have the time or the energy to do it. Why? Well, because I’m regularly exerting said time and energy on dismantling the same patriarchy that you’re trying so damn hard to uphold. (Plus, you know, doing normal fun stuff like binge-watching Netflix and spending 20 minutes applying glittery eyeshadow.) The more men like Peterson tell me I don’t deserve equal pay or equal treatment, the more I have to bust my ass to achieve it. And all that ass-busting tends to come at the expense of my apartment’s cleanliness!
Plus? Cleaning sucks! I know that, you know that, and Jordan Peterson definitely knows that. But women have been doing most of it for a minute, and personally, I'm not all that interested in upholding the legacy. In my aforementioned messy house, we split the chores, largely based on who hates them less. But if I'm being honest with myself, my live-in boyfriend is way more motivated in that department than me, and I sometimes take advantage of that fact. Much like, you know, a dude might.
Speaking of which, perhaps some of these Peterson acolytes can all go over to their mom’s homes and do a serious scrub-down. After all, before there was Jordan Peterson telling these boys to pick up after themselves, she had the very same suggestion — albeit for very different reasons.