“Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. The housewife wears herself out marking time: she makes nothing, simply perpetuates the present … Eating, sleeping, cleaning — the years no longer rise up towards heaven, they lie spread out ahead, grey and identical. The battle against dust and dirt is never won.”
– Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)
In the new India that is rising from a long slumber of potholes and hand-painted posters, to an era of digitisation and unparalleled consumerism, daily mundane objects especially household and kitchen products are increasingly being mass-manufactured in factories, and being given an aesthetic veneer. These innovative cleaning tools are largely used by women across the globe to perform mundane repetitive care tasks like cleaning, washing, and moping. They are being designed keeping in mind human abilities and limitations, growing interaction with plastic products, and principles of ergonomics.
One such object is the quintessential ‘pocha’ — a sober, sustainable, and dirty piece of cloth or its latest revamped version of the Magical Mop, as it is being popularly called. In India where cleaning has a cultural and religious connotation, the mop became a rage during the covid-19 induced lockdown. Introductory prices and EMI’s were offered on the product by all the dealers while they were being manufactured by subsidiaries in Panipat and Najafgarh, where most workers are contractual and hence outside the purview of welfare labour legislations. At the same time when more women were being pushed out of the workforce during the lockdown, this product had become synonymous with the lockdown purgatory, especially in middle-class homes where the domestic help was barred from entering. Another comparative version of it — the spin mob was endorsed by the actress Katrina Kaif as well. An economy bereft of equal participation is being usurped by the rising consumerist aesthetic manufacturing of objects that make the task efficient and easier yet gendered. The body of the object and the woman who holds them on a daily basis becomes one machine during usage. Earlier Indian cinematographic interventions ritually constructed the image of the ‘mopsqueezer’ as the household maid (domestic worker) whose cleavage became an object while she was at the act of moping. It was suggestive as the desire created from the body that was required to bend in order to perform the task, was being witnessed on the screen daily. The sexualisation of the act became common, where taking a peep in the blouse was not criminal but a natural instinct if the body of the mop ever interacted with the daily routine of the man. The back-breaking aspect of the labor of moping hence was completely erased from its raunchy portrayal. The conversation on the cyclical and morally neutral effects of domestic care tasks went missing in toto. A shining floor is as morally neutral as a not-so-shiny one. However, through the continuous association of the female gender with the task of moping, the self-worth of the woman was portrayed as attached to the achievement and repetition of the task. A sanction of gendered and invisible violence entered the Indian household through the pleasant-looking new avatar of the mop-despite it piggy riding on the back of a gender neutrality argument. Consumption of the miracle produced by the mop took place in the smallest unit of the economy wherein it wasn’t the labour of the women who incessantly moped the floor, staircase, balcony, and even the washrooms that were being consumed but the emotions that the new aesthetic mop produced. The sentiments ranged from a sense of self-importance, validation, and recognition since the task straightened the backs of millions of urban women and made them feel a part of the process of economic as well as cultural production, albeit in a minuscule manner. The fast changing nature of middle class homes is reflected well in the archetype of this mop. Such aesthetic designs of household items also revel in an atmosphere wherein newer grounds for gender and caste based oppression are created. The visibilization of the labour performed by the domestic worker is now viewed as ‘relatively easy’ and since she isn’t performing the strenuous task of moping and scrubbing the floor while squatting but rather with a straight back and a casual gait, she should make a lesser claim towards a fair remuneration. The mop thus can be infinitely consumed by the graded hierarchies it is producing since the main task of aestheticization here becomes to increase the buying and using of the new model which comes in different colours and sizes and remains clean even after its dirty performance. Thus, the gendered reality of the care economy is one geared towards compulsion and violence.
Corporates like Xiaomi seem to be entering into the mop production with newer versions that best remove germs from the household and work for all types of surfaces and have microfibres. Innovations started way back in 1837 and the mop was patented heavily. Conversely, common words like mopsy got associated with untidy-looking women. ‘Two Maids & A Mop’ a franchisee proudly says that it achieved significant growth in 2020 and also continued providing free cleans for families that couldn’t afford to continue service in Florida. ‘Married to the Mop’ is the name of another cleaning service, in the same city. Joy Mangano exudes genuine warmth as she sells the miracle mop. One of the reports on her is nastily titled, ‘How to turn a no into a yes, according to the inventor of the Miracle Mop’. It is to her that the credit of the origin of the product goes. Her entrepreneurial journey became a subject of a Hollywood flick titled ‘Joy’ starring Jennifer Lawrence. In one scene, Lawrence changes back from a dress into her blouse and pants, to present the mop in her everyday wear. The scene was largely described as ‘charming’ as by American media due to the sexual intrigue it offered coupled with the submission of the modern women to the thralls of domestic labour. Such dedication to domesticity portrayed on screen and its glamorisation tells that the realisation of the American dream is centred on the labour of the female. It isn’t much different in any other modern nation-state where people are encouraged through ads to hold in their hands what they care about and mostly it is only women who care! Mellisa Maker, known as ‘the cleaning expert’ has viral videos on the right way to mop and is continuously innovating the product to fit into the expanding horizon of real estate development and the consequent development of new floorings and ceilings through the import of various non-indigenous construction material from places like Kutch, in Gujarat. The thoughtfulness of the miracle shows an industrial commitment to the durability of an economy that turns the gendered body into a product itself on whose routine experiences of subjugation, experiments can be done to elongate subordination, alienation, and exploitation. As robotic mops enter the market, the design is becoming more femininely shaped and lightweight and driven by IoT remodelling, enhanced texture, and composition that doesn’t quite makes it look like a mop but instead like a spin disk ready to hide itself before a Zoom call takes place hence serving both aesthetic and functional purposes. Most of these models are now coming with in-built surveillance technology. However, the consumer is told Alexa and Google Assistant have been pre-installed ‘if barking orders at the maid is more your thing’! In Jodhpur though, the Arna Jharna Museum displays a collection of brooms, giving a glimpse into not only the labour and skills of the local communities but also the world of rituals and beliefs associated with these objects of daily life. The brooms are classified according to the different agrarian zones of Rajasthan and divided into the ‘female’ brooms used in the inner spaces and the ‘male’ brooms reserved for outer spaces. The ethical project unfortunately remains one of its kind.
In the art world, the genre of Mop painting is increasingly becoming famous yet on ethical and political, and gendered questions there is an absolute lack of critical engagement today. An exhibition titled ‘Mopping Up’ by Melissa Dorn in Algoma was held in 2018 with a tie-up with local mop manufacturers yet no talk came out of it that spoke of the mop’s body as a gendered site. It was just illustrated as a timesaving solution to everyday problems. In India, the mop remains a caste and gendered site of usage despite aesthetic improvisation. As covid-19 impoverishment penetrates into households deeper the need for an analysis of domestic labour through the framework of aesthetics becomes more relevant. As existing exploitative conditions aggravate along with a cruel rise in cases of domestic violence, the task of degendering the care economy becomes fundamental to feminist and anti-caste discourse because dignity should never be a commodity. Alike, the 1968 Miss America protest, protestors had symbolically thrown a number of feminine products into a ‘Freedom Trash Can’. One of the products was also the mop!
Feature Image credit: Amelia Bedelia.