Lockdown Humour and Domestic Work: Perpetuating Gender Roles

Sanchari Basu Chaudhuri (sancharibasu84@gmail.com) is a PhD scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
17 February 2021

The lockdown during COVID-19 resulted in the overburdening of work for Indian women. Memes were circulated on this and the unenthusiastic participation of men. By analysing humour, the article asserts that the memes reinforce the gendered divisions of domestic labour and the hierarchy within the family.

In India, the gender discrepancy in terms of paid and unpaid work is exceedingly large (OECD 2020). While men engage more in paid employment, the onus of unpaid, domestic work lies with the women of the household. As the nationwide lockdown confined all citizens within their homes, this translated to an overburdening of housework on women in most of the middle-class families. This was primarily because domestic workers were restricted from travelling during the lockdown due to a fear of transmission. Schools and colleges were also closed due to which children were tutored from homes. People resumed professional work from their homes since offices were also shut. Apart from domestic chores, women were also responsible for caregiving activities such as tending to the elderly as well as keeping the children occupied. Women participating in the workforce were not exempted as they were expected to manage both, the home and their professional commitments. Social media was replete with memes reflecting this onus on them.

Even under lockdown, women continued to shoulder additional responsibilities. The excess pressure on them coupled with the availability of men within the home opened up an effective discourse of male participation in household work. The study of various dimensions of domestic chores conducive to sustain the family and household or “social reproductive labour” has been considered as essential as the income generating research of formal labour markets (Coltrane 2004: 1210). Despite wives taking up employment outside home, their burden of domestic responsibilities has not been shared by their husbands. Wærness asserts that the dominant standpoint of constructing housework has shifted from couples’ personalities to embedding it in the wider sociocultural ambit (Knud and Wærness 2008). In the case of Indian households, this conspicuous dichotomy in the division of household responsibilities is indicative of the gendered inequalities and deep-seated misogyny in the society. Many reports during the lockdown reinforce the view, which constructs the performance of domestic chores as a negation of masculinity (Bhattacharya 2020). While many men cited their inability to help their spouses, wives felt guilty of asking them, even if they were employed themselves. 

The inability of Indian men to execute domestic chores has been rationalised in various ways. In a society that promotes patriarchy through the homemaking skills of a woman, men doing housework is considered to be appalling. Then, the constraints faced by wives to merely entreat their husbands for participating in domestic chores is dismissed by the thought of embittered relatives or anguished neighbours and friends. It is also important to note that many men have never performed these tasks prior to the lockdown as they were undertaken exclusively by females. Hence, women complained about the inefficiency of male members while doing a chore. In fact, their workload increased since they had to supervise and clean up after them. Their lack of involvement was the subject of memes circulated on WhatsApp and simultaneously published across other social media platforms. 

Humour has often been employed to express abomination through disparagement. This kind of humour is identifiable through satire on marginalised groups in the form of sexist, racist and homophobic humour or generalised disparagement which is applicable to all members identifying with the group (Barker 1994). In fact, humour enables the articulation of antagonism in a guarded manner (Freud 1928). Disparagement humour symbolises a contradiction. While it transmits a derogatory message, it is veiled by its essence of humour that renders it free from any prejudice and transforms it into a trivial matter (Hodson and MacInnis 2016). What makes this type of humour menacing is that it is innocuous and is not aimed at anyone in particular but is identifiable to all as it is deeply entrenched in the society. A general presumption would be that it is only men who exclusively participate and consume such humour. Carroll (1989) observed that women also enjoy and indulge in disparaging humour targeting women.

Memes are an extension of our everyday life and culture. They propagate and sustain gendered identities through humour. In this article, I examine lockdown memes around domestic work. Two dominant themes pervade these memes. First, it portrays the efficiency of the wife amidst frustration of being overworked and the emotional capacity to shoulder household responsibilities alone. The other reflects the embodiment of masculinity to resist, negotiate or subvert men’s participation. Such masculine performances were conveyed as humorous. I received these memes over WhatsApp as parts of different groups during the lockdown. They were shared by both men and women. 

This theme also dominated the news reports. Their reporting pointed towards instances of men “helping” with domestic chores circulating in the media, which might induce ruptures along gendered lines (Parekh 2020). Most of them were sceptical about men’s participation. While many denied their involvement (Bhattacharya 2020), others expressed concern on their participation as temporary (Magan 2020). My own experiences and accounts shared by friends, neighbours and relatives revolved around these three narratives. How do these memes, then, contribute towards an understanding of gendered division of labour? By analysing them, I argue that they reflect the attitudes that are skewed towards an acceptance of the traditional gender norms.

Disparaging Humour and Exalted Femininities

The lockdown started with an abundance of memes underscoring the domestic lives of middle-class families. Initially, the memes focused on the inversion of power paradigms between the wife and the domestic worker. Owing to the absence of the latter, the women from middle-class households perceived themselves to be reduced to the status of domestic workers. Their predicament was compounded since some employers continued to pay them for a short duration, partly or wholly, either under moral obligation or for retention. Another major reason for continuing their salaries can be ascribed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech during the first phase of the lockdown urging all employers to refrain from terminating or reducing the wages of their employees (Dhingra 2020). The meme, in English, reflects this presumed power inversion from the perspective of a middle-class wife, which does not take into account the precarious existence of the domestic workers’ existence.

“Quarantine short story..
My maid came to the main gate to collect her salary..She was in a new outfit, hair gleaming, lipstick and new handbag swinging..I, on the other hand, went down in my chappals [flip-flops], hair unkempt, wearing crumpled clothes and atta [flour] on my face..
What has life come to??” [Words in brackets, my translation]1

Despite the presumed power inversion, this middle-class woman also becomes the subject of applause for undertaking all chores. In the traditional domestic roles, women’s worth is assessed by the standard and volume of work executed by them. As the number of COVID-19 cases surged, people preferred cooking food at home due to their apprehension of plausible transmission from eateries. YouTube provided the required knowledge for many recipes, ranging from gourmet to street food, which could be prepared with minimum resources marked as #LockdownRecipes. These recipes were then replicated by many women and posted regularly on their social media handles. The role of YouTube in learning new recipes frames the discourse of a highly capable and self-sufficient wife, who can cook, clean and even (potentially) concoct medicine, after watching the videos available on it. This is discussed in the following meme. 

“Jis hisaab se YouTube se recipe dekh-dekh hamare desh ki mahilayen chef ban rahi hai, mujhe shaq hai ki Corona ki dawai banne ke baad ye YouTube se iski vidhi seekh kar vaigyanik bhi ban sakti hai!”

The way our Indian women are transforming into professional chefs by following new recipes from YouTube, I suspect that they will also learn the method of making Corona medicines from it and become scientists as well! [My translation]

This additional workload resulting in weariness was also addressed by humour to establish its connection with their growing efficiency. The rationale for men’s participation in domestic labour was, thus, rendered irrelevant by emphasising the augmented productivity of the overburdened wives. 

“Ek shodh se pata chala hain ke gusse mein patni, pati par badbad toh karti hain lekin saath mein ghar ka kaam bhi fatafat niptati rehti hain!”

Research demonstrates that although an infuriated wife grumbles at her husband, it also results in finishing her work at a faster pace. [My translation]

Memes were also set against the backdrop of Modi’s speech on taali, thaali bajao2 (clapping and clanging steel plates) appreciating the facilities of essential service providers during the pandemic such as medical personnel and police. The following meme depicts a middle-class couple where the husband lazes on the couch watching the lockdown special on television, while the wife is cooking and speaking on the mobile.

“No, he is not helping at all. He just claps in recognition of my work for five minutes every day.” 

By stereotyping women as service providers, their work becomes indispensable and compulsory while demarcating their husbands as consumers. This deems men unnecessary to participate in household activities. The performance of masculinity was constructed in these memes through the reluctance towards household chores. 

Evading Domestic Chores, Performing Masculinity

Masculinity is a “precarious state” demanding constant corroborations through gender-conforming performances (Bosson and Vandello 2011). Thus, masculinity is arduous to gain but disappears easily (Bosson and Vandello 2011). By participating in the clearly demarcated feminine trope of domestic work violates gender norms and jeopardises the possibility to be respected as a “real” man. Memes reflected this ambiguity towards men participating in domestic labour while working from home. 

“Lockdown…working from home
Boss: Maine tumhe phone kiya tha, tumhari patni ne kaha tum khana bana rahe ho, tumne waapis phone kyun nahi kiya?
Employee: Sir kiya tha, aapki patni ne bataya aap bartan dho rahe ho!”

Boss: I called you, your wife said that you were cooking, why did you not call me back?
Employee (with a smirk): Sir, I had called you back. Your wife said that you were washing utensils. [My translation]

The meme discussed above demonstrates the limitations of professional authority, which becomes susceptible in the case of gender nonconformance. The function of disparagement humour is to restore such social identities in crisis (Ferguson and Ford 2008). This optional nature of men doing housework can be discerned through their role as primary wage earners. Women are, therefore, hesitant to ask them for involvement in domestic chores to account for their contribution in their homes. Additionally, it is the woman’s responsibility to also provide rest to the male earning member after his work concludes. This gendered division of household labour continues even when the female member takes up employment or the male member ceases to work outside home. 

The recent media discourse in India has questioned the absence of men in domestic work. A case in point is the campaign launched by Ariel, which urges men to #ShareTheLoad (BI India 2020), though it is not the norm yet for most middle-class families. Many men were not required to contribute to domestic chores as they were already working outside their homes. The lockdown has withdrawn this mitigating circumstance. This, coupled with women’s additional workload, has coerced them to engage or “help” their wives. The imposition on the man to share domestic chores is reproduced in the following meme, set against the image of a man reclining on a hammock.

“Newton’s law of isolation: A body at rest will continue to be at rest…until the wife notices and finds some work for him!”

The image of the relaxing man demonstrates the aversion of husbands to take charge of domestic chores. The meme states that a husband needs to be instructed and reminded of the errands he is expected to perform. The onus, clearly, is on his wife who is responsible for both, the work and prompting him. While this represents the woman as domineering, it does not portray the man in an oppressed state. Rather, it serves to relieve his obligations and exempts him from participating in household labour as an equal by emphasising his reluctance and reinforcing his participation as optional. The wife, in this meme, is constructed as non-normative who continuously disturbs and pesters him for work.

Men are mindful of the fact that their status is jeopardised through signs of femininity (Bosson et al 2005) such as taking up household work. The husband who is dominated by the wife is susceptible to criticism and ridicule for his inability to restrain her. This transgression of gender norms serves as a didactic measure to reflect the formidable anxiety of manhood. Thus, he must be cautious while yielding to his wife in order to not be emasculated. Humour supporting men’s aggressions assert the role of abuse in asserting their power over women.

The following meme portrays a husband mopping the floor while his wife, mobile phone in her hand, steps on the wet floor, to which the man responds in the following manner. The original text is in colloquial Hindi.

“Iss lockdown mein mera bahut purana khwaab poora hua! Main pochha laga raha thha aur patni ne pair rakh diya! Bas, phir kya tha, maine bahut khari-khoti sunai! Dab ke rehne walon mein se nahi hu main!”

An old dream of mine was fulfilled today. While I was mopping the floor, my wife stepped on it. Not being the one to cower, I berated her! [My translation]

Masculinity, which is rendered precarious by participating in domestic work, is restored through aggression towards the wife. It is required to perform masculinity, for oneself and for others, to diminish gender-based apprehension and restore the status (Kalish and Kimmel 2010).

Lockdown memes also distinguished the “normal” masculine self from “other” female members and feminine attributes (Freud 1937). This was achieved by validating the altercation of males while rejecting domestic work. 

The meme shows a husband and wife bickering. The former resents his friend who posted a selfie while doing domestic chores. It conveys the following message:
“Sabhi purush mitron se anurodh hai ki apne ghar mein kaam karne waale photo social media par mat daaliye! Isse doosron ke ghar mein dikkat ho rahi hai!”

All male friends are requested not to post their pictures while doing any household work. It creates problems for others! [My translation]

It follows from the above meme that solidarity of men is required to negate the demands of equal participation in housework. Even if some of them do take up chores, they must not exhibit it since other females would expect the same behaviour from their husbands.

These types of memes are a world-wide phenomena. Humorous memes reinforcing gender heteronormativity by mocking inappropriate gender roles of the candidates was a feature of the US presidential campaign in 2016 (Smirnova 2018). Memes also emphasise or contest hegemonic masculinity by highlighting gender differences through jibes, apparent in Correct Bae and Correct Bro memes in Nigeria (Gbadegesin 2020).

The memes mentioned in the article make constant references to gender stereotypes and resolve men’s crisis of appearing effete through masculine performances. To this effect, it also employs tools of disparaging humour against men and women who do not conform to normative gender behaviour.

Employing Humour as a “Backlash” 

Digital spaces consolidate solidarity across gender, race and nationality evident in #LaughingWhileBlack where black feminist and queer performances evoke humour by derision (Monk-Payton 2017). A more complex and varied expression of feminist contention occurs in Halal memes where American Muslim women navigate the conflicting ideologies of liberal citizenship and pious Muslim femininity simultaneously through humour (Ali 2020).

Although the medium of communicating humour has changed, disparagement humour reinforcing patriarchal ideologies are fashioned in a similar format. It communicates through the shared notions of gender identities, stereotypes and performances as well as the meanings associated with gender nonconformity. Its ubiquitous nature reveals its role in social control by maintaining cultural prejudice against negative stereotypes, which is positioned as a loss of cultural propriety. At the centre of these jokes are men and women who challenge traditional gender norms, which coerce people to perform gender in a normative manner. It also subverts the feminist discourse (Faludi 1991) of men’s participation in household chores by sanctioning the accompanying masculine responses as humorous. The focus is not towards equality but by maintaining difference even in times where equality is anticipated. This misogyny in humour provides the case for symbolic violence contributing towards women’s subjugation (Bemiller and Schneider 2010).

Disparaging humour validates dominant groups to perpetuate their entitlement. By marking it as trivial and fun, it conveys tacit endorsement of prevalent gendered prejudices. The response to its critique is also met with consternation. One might be dismissed as a person who lacks a sense of humour or by being a fault-finder. One of the key shifts amidst the global pandemic is the appeal for empathy. This discourse has mediated domestic spaces in the form of “helping” with housework. Clearly, in order for an equal participation, the discourse needs to go beyond empathy and endorse domestic work as shared by the couple. 

Sanchari Basu Chaudhuri (sancharibasu84@gmail.com) is a PhD scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
17 February 2021