Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound articulates many of the thoughts that run through my head whenever I read a New York Times trend piece on urban chickens—a topic that reappears with surprising frequency. I get the romance of waking up at dawn to play farmer, but I grew up in a Midwest town lousy with farmers. So I’ve seen chickens. Now, some breeds of chicken might be beautiful, and some breeds might be especially tasty, but all breeds of chicken are two things: noisy and likely to shit everywhere. So if you’re in a NYC-sized space and you’re able to keep chickens without violating every imaginable health code, you must be spending thousands of dollars or thousands of hours cleaning up after your winged friends. Raising chickens isn’t so much a hobby then: it’s a career.
Which brings me back to Matchar. She may be a devotee of DIY lifestyle blogs, but she also acknowledges that many of the women running these blogs—who often pose as reformed professionals who’ve given up high-stress positions for more fulfilling lives in from-scratch homes—aren’t “regular” women at all. They’re talented professionals and brilliant marketers with valuable skills who’ve discovered that sometimes you can advance in the new freelance information economy by pretending you aren’t working at all.
Reformed-career-woman blogger Ree Drummond (a.k.a. “the pioneer wife”) is just such a lady. I could certainly do without Drummond’s gender essentialist babble about women reclaiming authenticity by ditching their 401(k)s for taciturn, spur-clad husbands. But her beautifully set image of homemade applesauce made me want to hightail it to the nearest farmer’s market—and I don’t even know how to peel an apple. So the lady may lack feminist bona fides, but she’s certainly doing something right. Or, at the very least, she certainly has a knack with the food porn.
Drummond is, in actuality, a talented cook as well as an impressive photographer whose writing voice is strong enough to attract thousands of readers and garner her multiple book deals. She’s created a lifestyle empire rivaling Gwyneth Paltrow’s quinoa kingdom, and she started with little more than a WordPress site and a spatula. This should make her a respected female entrepreneur à la Diane Keaton’s baby food impresario in Baby Boom. But Drummond has built her empire by pretending that she’s just a country amateur who’s never met a lawyer she liked let alone a publicist. She’s not an expert. She’s just like you—if you are a wealthy, well-connected author whose life will soon be a film starring Julia Roberts.
Now, I certainly don’t begrudge Drummond her success. She’s earned it. But I do take issue with this faux amateur guise. It’s not unlike the Sarah Palin or Michele Bachman pose wherein Republican female candidates all repeat the same story about how they’re just “normal moms” who felt a need to protect their children … so they ran for this school board … and, golly gee, wouldn’t you know it, but now they’re running for president. Obviously, this is legit caca. There’s no such thing as an accidental governor or a whoopsie-daisy presidential candidate. These women are power-hungry politicians just like their male counterparts. But they continue repeating this narrative because it’s the only way for them to assume power. Otherwise they’d be too emasculating, too intimidating. In other words, they’d be too Hillary.
Bloggers like Drummond might seem to have far less at stake than Republican governors—and they obviously do—but many exhibit a similar discomfort with female ambition and female expertise. Women like Drummond are often able to gain readers precisely because they play the role of the accidentally successful everywoman. They’re approachable and attractive because they don’t appear too ambitious or too talented. They’re good businesswomen because they pretend not to know a thing about business. So they’re not Martha; they’re a friend. But, just as Palin and Bachman are never taken seriously precisely because they undermine their own professional credibility, the more conservative DIY bloggers reinforce the old-fashioned notion that women’s work isn’t real work but just a glorified hobby or part of living a naturally female life.
But by pretending traditional woman’s work is simply a natural extension of being female—as though knitting were just menstruation with yarn—Drummond and her ilk are actually devaluing this work. So other writers in the field are taught that their work isn’t serious. It isn’t challenging. They shouldn’t expect to be paid for it. As Matchar repeatedly reminds us, few women actually succeed in the online DIY field because it’s incredibly demanding, competitive work that requires creators be skilled in making, writing, and—increasingly—media relations. Yet readers assume anyone with a little extra time could construct one of these blogs.
And because the bloggers are viewed as “authentic” women, readers are often horrified to discover that these lady makers are marketing sponsored products or discussing advertising rates with Amazon. It never occurs to them that the women producing this “free” content might actually need to earn a livelihood. The content they’re creating might actually take hours to complete. They might actually be professionals.
I can’t help but think of one of my closest friends who runs a popular craft blog but makes no pretense of being an amateur. We have dinner every Wednesday, and no sooner are we done with our lentil soup then she is picking up a half-finished quilt or unfurling a ball of yarn. By the time I’m finished complaining about a recent date, that ball of yarn will have become a cat toy in the shape of Saturn. But she isn’t doing this because empty hands make her anxious. She isn’t doing this because her “hobbies” are just too much fun. She’s doing this because she’s on the clock as long as the Internet continues to be made up of zeros and ones. She’s successful because she’s incredibly talented—seriously, she made her own Emmy gown—but also because she’s willing to work hours that would make most investment bankers drowsy. She’s no hobbyist. She’s an entrepreneur. But unlike many of the other women in her industry, she sees no need to cloak her ambition and talents. She sees no need to pretend to be unskilled just because she’s a lady on the Internet who happens to work with cloth.