“What is home economics?” this film from 1951 asks. The answer that is given: It’s partly about mastering “the equipment in a home.” It’s about physics being taught in a way “girls” would like: using kitchen appliances; indeed iIt’s about digging the fact that “Cooking is practically applied chemistry.” And so on.
Here, in other words, we have what looks like a straight-up sexist relic of a past best buried. And of course, that’s what it is — in part.
But first of all, the past is rarely best left buried. By that I don’t mean it should be returned to, but it ought to be known, and known as honestly as possible. These sponsored films may not seem like the ideal place for honesty, but usually, if you look closely, and think about what you’re seeing, things are a little more complicated than they appear.
The structure here is a narrative: A young woman goes off to college, makes friends with other young women, etc. While there are many references to marriage and home-making, the girl talk is largely about what jobs they want to get — at household-appliance companies, as a hospital dietician, a clothing designer, managing a restaurant. “Good jobs, interesting jobs, well-paying too,” the narrator promises.
Is the film enlightened? Well, no. The “most important job” still seems to be, Being Mrs Whoever. When the heroine writes home, learning in class is a “little” event, while prom is a “big” one. Pathetic, I agree.
On the other hand, we get the young woman convincing her parents that a college education is worth it. The most interesting part of her story is actually the moment when the folks drop her off at college, when she’s “on her own.” I’m not sure we think of the early 1950s as a moment that did much to shed positive light on the possibilities of a young woman “on her own.”
And you can laugh at the idea that cooking is “practically applied chemistry,” but in a lot of ways there’s a theme here of understanding of how things work, and how things are done, that’s both sweet and impressive to behold. Let’s face it, in our more enlightened time, “how things work” comes down to: I push this button, or I follow the steps Padma put in her book, and it works — or else I complain my ass off on my blog.
You could even argue that the learning going on here is in vaguely in keeping with the contemporary maker vogue; a glimpse at a class in “applied art” doesn’t look so different from the skill sets that contemporary DIYism revolves around — the skill sets that in the half-century between then and now were resisted, and in many ways lost. When the textiles major is said to be learning to, perhaps, show you how to make beautiful clothes of your own, it sounds both crazily out of date, and weirdly forward-looking at once
To me what the film is really about the transformation of knowledge, or rather the control of knowledge — the replacement of folk learning with organized and managed learning; the replacement of skill acquired at home from family and community, to skill acquired from authorized experts.
We’ve sort of come full circle on that issue, to a time when a) many of us miss learning those skills at all, and b) many of us greatly prefer the 21st century version of folk learning (read: Google, Wikipedia, etc.) to authorities and experts of any kind.
One last note in semi-defense of this silly little movie. In the end, the young ladies all get jobs, and the narrator says it’s the end of one chapter in their lives, “a chapter so fine” that they hated to see it end, and wouldn’t want to have missed. What does he mean? I say he means it was chapter of learning for learning’s sake, a chapter outside the forced narrative of growing up and going to work (or not).
That seems all right with me, and not a bad sentiment for some 1951 sponsored film to endorse.