GENDER AUGUST 4, 2013
When I was in elementary school, dioramas were the scourge of my existence. I had very little artistic talent, and so when I was in fourth grade, my re-creation of an Iroquois village looked like it had already been attacked by marauding pilgrims: a pile of hastily glued together sticks, some crooked construction paper, and some rocks I found in the backyard. My parents always tried to help, but they were as inept as I was. The whole situation called to mind “The Simpsons” episode in which Homer tries to help Lisa make a costume in the shape of Florida, resulting in a floppy, decrepit mattresses roped onto little Lisa’s body. She gets a special award (as I would have, had it existed in real life) for “those students who obviously had no help at all from their parents.”
I remember, even then, thinking that one of the great things about being a grown-up was that I would never have to make anything out of an old shoebox anymore. But that was before I saw the lifestyle website Brit + Co instructing ostensible adults how to make wall art from used shoeboxes, fabric, and Mod Podge. Brit Morin, the founder of Brit + Co, which sells Do-It-Yourself kits and just got over $6 million in venture capital funding, is part of a gaggle of nouveau homemakers who are spending their adulthood teaching other women how to make an old clutch into a fanny pack, how to make their own ombre tights, and “100 clever ways to repurpose mason jars.”
There are thousands of Mini-Brits on Pinterest, the wildly popular image-sharing social network which has tens of millions of users and was valued earlier this year at $2.5 billion. Pinterest has its own DIY and crafts section, which has hundreds of other ways to repurpose Mason jars. (I did not know what a Mason jar was until my educated, Millennial peers started making them into candle holders.) This Mason jar plague isn’t just distracting women from potentially more important endeavors, it’s demeaning the very idea of expertise.
As Emily Matchar points out in her new book Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, there are many respectable reasons to go the DIY way. One is if you’re truly skilled and talented and enjoy making beautiful, artisanal objects (I have a friend who makes exceptional baby sweaters); another is if you have very little money, and DIY is a way of making ends meet or having a second business; yet another is if you have ethical objections to buying from corporations.
But that’s not what Morin, an ex-Apple and ex-Google employee is selling. In the “About” section on her site, she sheepishly admits that she is not especially domestic or crafty. Her first foray into crafting occurred when she made a purse out of empty Capri Sun cartons as a teenager. As a busy, working adult, Morin thought most crafts were too complicated and took too much time. Her DIY projects, on the other hand, are “hacks,” meant to make DIY easier. (The term’s a play on the “lifehacker” phenomenon, which promises ingenious solutions to problems you never knew you had.) But if you’re so busy, and admittedly uncrafty, and seemingly quite wealthy, why wouldn’t you just go to Target and buy a jewelry rack for $15, instead of spending the equivalent and additional sweat equity make one out of an old Jenga and some paint?
There are several cultural trends that have inspired the rise of these nouveau homemakers. One is a rejection of convenience. For example, mothers who eschew Pampers for cloth diapers, citing environmental concerns. Or, the really extreme moms, who don’t use diapers at all, favoring a method called “elimination communication” where you start potty training your kid basically from birth. Never mind the fact that they can’t hold their own heads up, much less figure out how a toilet works. You are more bonded with your baby and you’re doing your part to save the world.
The French polemicist Elisabeth Badinter argued in The Conflict that this rejection of convenience is anti-woman and anti-feminist. That’s part of it, but I also see an economic anxiety behind it. I belong to a generation that may be less upwardly mobile than my parents’. My fellow Millennials worry that the opportunities will constrict even further for our children, and we want to do whatever it takes to put them on the right track. This anxiety has manifested itself in choosing to do the difficult rather than the easy thing. If it’s more time-consuming, it must be better for our kids, the demented logic goes.
But the homemaking “hack” only goes half way—it’s less time-consuming than real artistry, but still far less convenient than ordering the damn thing on Amazon. The other cultural shift behind the rise of DIY, is the decline of the value of expertise. To become a great, say, knitter, it would take hundreds of hours of practice. But in the Wikipedia world, expertise is no longer valued in quite the same way. Why knit a beer coozie when you can make one out of an old sock?
There is no better example of the death of expertise than Jenny McCarthy. A television personality and ex-Playboy centerfold with zero medical training who nonetheless has become an autism expert, after her son was diagnosed with the malady. McCarthy—who was recently hired by ABC to co-host their daytime talk show “The View”—claims that vaccines trigger autism. Despite the fact that the central study promoting this view has been thoroughly discredited and the author stripped of his medical license, McCarthy has doubled down on her anti-vaccination claims and remains the celebrity ambassador to the vaccine-questioning autism organization Generation Rescue. According to a University of Michigan study, almost one-quarter of American parents put “some trust” in the medical advice given by celebrities like her.
Certainly there’s no danger in wasting your time making your own sidewalk chalk, as the nouveau homemakers instruct, but there’s something distressing about the fact that extremely bouncy hair, a great smile, and miles of connections makes you into the Martha Stewart of Silicon Valley, despite having no discernible training in crafting.
It’s an insult to Stewart to put Morin in the same league as our lady of the elaborate table setting. There are many things to say about Martha Stewart, but she is certainly an expert in the domestic arts. Martha never made it look easy, and ease isn’t what she’s selling. In 2000, in an essay about Martha in The New Yorker, Joan Didion described a poinsettia wreath made entirely of ribbons as “absurdly labor-intensive and at times prohibitively expensive,” but also besides the point: “What she offers, and what more strictly professional shelter and food magazines and shows do not, is the promise of transferred manna, transferred luck,” Didion explains. “She projects a level of taste that transforms the often pointlessly ornamented details of what she is actually doing.”
But Martha is of an earlier time, and this is not what the nouveau homemakers are about. They are not twinkling above us with their poinsettia wreaths; their appeal, in the parlance of Us Weekly, is to be “just like us.” In Homeward Bound, Matchar reminds us that Gen Y has been “encouraged in our creative pursuits since preschool.” So it follows that we would then be taken by someone who, like us, does not have much actual talent at crafting, and yet, has somehow made a lucrative career out of it. The thousands of sellers of Mason jar chandeliers on the craft-sale site Etsy only wish that they could have the success that Morin has achieved.
I am grateful to my parents for going against that Boomer trend of telling me I was good at everything. Even when I was a nine-year-old, we all agreed that my dioramas looked like old garbage. My parents assured me that by high school, my grades would no longer depend on arts and crafts projects, and I wouldn’t have to redo a correctly labeled hand-drawn map of Europe just because it was so hideous. Thank goodness for their sensible discouragement. Otherwise I might be spending my precious little free time making a wine rack from old coffee cans. Or worse, trying to sell other people on the idea of making a wine rack from old coffee cans.
Jessica Grose is a writer and editor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad.