Cooking for women is often seen as the ultimate act of domesticity. It means we’re mature and capable of nurturing—maybe even wifey material. But if you’re a woman who would rather spend her time watching Netflix, writing, reading or gambling than slaving away in the kitchen, there’s a good chance you’ll be condescended. What’s wrong with girls who like eating cold cereal, heating up already-prepared meals or ordering take-out whilst sitting braless in the living room? What if our schedules are too busy to accommodate endless grocery store trips and hours of food prep?
A close-minded xoJane columnist asserted that mothers who don’t teach their daughters to cook have “fucked up,” as she personally feels more “feminine” and like a “real woman” post-roasting something—seemingly oblivious to the number of women who find this validation from other activities. A Daily Mail writer argued that feminism was directly responsible for the spread of fast food chains and childhood obesity, as women began to associate cooking with “drudgery” starting in the ’60s. He also wrote that women possess a greater nurturing instinct than men, even though plenty of us don’t want to have children, and don’t really feel like nurturing anything at all.
A Jezebel rebuttal fired back at the Daily Mail, suggesting long work weeks and the increasing necessity for dual incomes were the true primary factors in the popularity of fast-food chains and the decrease in home-cooked meals; plus, healthier food that has to be prepared is more expensive in America, and many families can’t afford it. A Salon piece agreed feminism didn’t kill cooking, dissecting media misinterpretations of comments made by female chef Nigella Lawson, who said women of her generation rightly didn’t want to be tied to the stove, but the ramifications of this was growing a sense of culinary dread. Nigella has even published a joke-y cookbook called “How to be a Domestic Goddess,” and her exact words were: “feeling comfortable in the kitchen is essential for everyone, male or female.” Several media stories twisted the statement so as to insinuate Nigella blamed feminism for the lack of woman cooks.
Emily Matchar, author of Homeward Bound: The New Cult of Domesticity, explained in The Atlantic why the obesity epidemic was certainly not caused by feminism—but rather by the invention of the microwave, excessive TV use, and economic inequality. Emily Matchar reasonably reminds foodies like Michael Pollan (or Nigella Lawson!) that while they might have a hard time seeing cooking as anything but pleasurable, for many of us non-chefs, it’s an arduous and avoidable chore. In doing research for her book, Matchar interviewed dozens of young people who felt the pressure of domesticity even in their progressive, intellectual circles; “the noble thing is to cook from stuff you’ve grown yourself, not to cook your food from Trader Joe’s so you can work on another article,” one 32-year-old writer and mother complained.
Domestic TV goddesses have assisted only too well in promoting the stereotype of kitchen-inclined moms. June Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver, Donna of the Donna Reed Show and Brady Bunch matriarch Carol Brady all cooked vigorously on their respective sitcoms. June and Donna epitomized the feminine wholesomeness of the ’50s and ’60s; June dressed in immaculate dresses and pearls to do housework, while Donna cheerfully scrubbed dishes in what seemed like an impossibly safe and cozy household. In the ’60s and ’70s, Carol Brady and her groovy, flippy hairstyle still brimmed with maternal wisdom and patience—but she wisely hired maid Alice to make most of their meals. Sitcom children helped with chores (mostly trash-emptying or lawn-mowing), but they had outside interests like baseball or dating, whereas their mothers existed to serve the household from inside, while their fathers worked to preserve it from the outside.
Luckily, there also exist pop culture ladies who either cannot, do not, or purposefully refuse to cook. In the classic teen flick Clueless, iconic ditz Cher tries to bake something to impress a boy, but fails miserably (and he doesn’t care, because he’s gay and likes Cher for her taste in clothing). In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, socialite Holly GoLightly tries her hand at supper to please a lover, but the dish explodes and he takes her to a restaurant. Bridget Jones hosts the world’s worst dinner party in Bridget Jones’s Diary, complete with bad food and suspiciously blue soup, but Mark Darcy is charmed by her all the same.
If a woman learns to cook of her own volition and loves it, I’m for it. In a personal essay, Suzanne Cope explores why her mother and grandmother failed to give her cooking lessons growing up (they encouraged her career trajectory, instead). Her first attempt at cooking was to impress a boyfriend, but now she is married and cooks for her husband, not because he can’t do it himself, but as an act of nurturing and connection—a vastly acceptable arrangement, if not a universal one.
Here are seven women on television who don’t cook, and why you should admire them for it.
HBO’s Sex and the City ended more than ten years ago—if you pretend the horrible, lavish, ghoulish pair of SatC movies never happened (I always do)—but this pioneering show, starring a difficult and sometimes anti-heroic heroine named Carrie Bradshaw, still looms large in my heart. Carrie was a writer who loved men and fashion and getting freaky between the sheets, but never cooking. She wasn’t lazy, exactly—running around New York City in high heels is no easy feat—but she had other interests. Carrie joked about storing shoes in her oven (shopping was her first love) and went out to eat every single night, though sometimes an ambitious boyfriend would romance her with a home-cooked dinner, a favor she could never return. Ultimately, Carrie ended up with Mr. Big, a smooth-talking mogul who wasn’t the domestic type himself; though her other boyfriends never held Carrie’s lack of breakfast-in-bed overtures against her, either. Once Carrie tried to bake a pie in Aiden’s quaint country home, but she got startled by a squirrel and knocked the pie off the table, burning her leg. Some men use their partner as a stand-in mother figure, hoping to be cared for in the style of Peter Pan and Wendy—but the good ones will value whatever positive traits you happen to boast, even if the only successful thing you’ve ever made in the kitchen is a mess. And several little fires.
With November’s four-episode Gilmore Girls resurgence on Netflix, I’m reminded of Lorelai Gilmore’s unique brand of femininity and attitude toward food. Lorelai is eerily similar to Carrie in some sense, though definitely less materialistic (and she has a kid!) These are women who don’t necessarily dream of marriage, who don’t want to play house, who worship style and makeup while remaining opinionated, saucy, and financially independent (for the most part). Lorelai hates housework and eats almost every meal at local joint Luke’s Diner (where she favors the burger and fries). She sometimes branches out for pizza delivery or Al’s Pancake World, and Sookie makes her fancier fare at the Inn. Lorelai never keeps food in the house (she and Rory buy cookies, but those never make it out of the car) and only uses her kitchen to store Pop-tarts and leftovers. At one point, Luke asks Lorelai to stir a dish he is cooking, and she feels both unequipped and panicky. “Once the Barefoot Contessa was making a soufflé and it fell, and she looked out the TV and said, ‘Gilmore, was that you?’” Lorelai alleges of her ability to ruin food. There’s even a Gilmore Girls episode called “That Damn Donna Reed,” in which the girls watch reruns and mock the show’s unrealistic cheeriness and the resignation with which Donna performed her never-ending domestic duties.
Married with Children debuted in 1987—a decade where female sexuality and audacity was becoming mainstream—and Peggy Bundy was not your typical housewife. With tacky big hair, tight stretch pants and a loud voice, Peggy didn’t care much for cleaning or cooking or even parenting her children. She loved nothing more than to nag her equally crabby husband, Al Bundy, who worked in a shoe store while she lazed at home. From a modern perspective, the show is frequently offensive and mean-spirited; Peggy was a comically “bad wife” because she wasn’t nurturing, and laid on the couch watching TV or smoking cigarettes. Her husband and kids made nasty jokes at her expense (they all derided each other, to be fair), and Al never wanted to have sex with her. The Bundys were rude, trashy, and undoubtedly more relatable than the most famous sitcom family of the ‘80s, the Cosbys (ha). This was a satire in direct response to the nice, perfect TV clans with doting mothers and noble fathers. Though incessantly fighting and making each other’s lives hell, the Bundys felt a grudging affection for one another, and allowed audiences to feel better about their own demented families.
Moving into the ’90s, Roseanne is another TV show about the beleaguered working class. On this sitcom, hard-edged Roseanne Conner was less-than-enthused about being a stay-at-home mom, completing domestic tasks with sarcasm and reluctance. Cooking-wise, she haphazardly slapped things together, and she occasionally worked at random menial jobs (telemarketer, fast-food cashier, bartender) but none lasted long or required domestic talent. Despite Roseanne’s feisty radicalism, she noticeably cared for her children. She also seemed genuinely happy with her husband—though they weren’t a classically attractive couple—and the two laughed and jested all the time. Roseanne’s open-minded approach to mothering was ideal for honest chats with her teen daughters about menstruation or sex, even if she didn’t especially relish the housekeeping side of the deal.
The zany, redheaded I Love Lucy lead was a fairly competent housewife on ’50s cable, but Lucy was also generally blundering and occasionally foolish in the kitchen. Once she baked bread at home with Ethel, and used far too much yeast. The bread burst forth from the oven in one gigantic, phallic loaf, pushing Lucy up against the cabinets. In the show’s most famous episode, “Job Switching,” Lucy and Ethel go to the candy factory where Ricky works, but can’t keep up with the conveyor belt and have to stuff chocolate in their mouths. Meanwhile, Ricky and Fred don aprons and try to do housework, not realizing how complicated cooking can be. Ricky estimates one pound of rice per person (naturally, the pot overflows), and he makes a royal mess of the chickens. Ricky appreciated the efforts of his wife’s womanly work after that.
We certainly never see this single, crime-fighting Marvel superhero labor over stoves during her Netflix reign. Tough New Yorker Jessica Jones mostly holes up in her empty apartment, binge drinks, and tails people in her role as private investigator. She both hates and fears the outside world, suffering from posttraumatic stress after being raped and mind-controlled by the villainous Kilgrave. Under his influence, Jessica was made to smile prettily and submit sexually; and though cooking and cleaning was likely low on the list of Kilgrave’s demands, she might as well have done those things, too. Now that Jessica is free, she no longer has to smile—but the trick lies in figuring out how to do it sincerely again.
Friends ended in 2004, but the reruns will haunt us on basic cable for years to come. There’s a memorable Thanksgiving episode wherein Rachel tries to make a pie, and it turns out badly; it’s half-trifle, half-shepherd’s, since two pages in her recipe book got stuck together. The layers consist of ladyfingers, jam, custard, raspberries, beef sautéed with peas and onions, bananas and whipped cream. (How anyone could be stupid enough to believe this as the correct recipe is beside the point.) All the “friends” try to avoid eating Rachel’s dessert, but most are made to take one ghastly bite, as Rachel urges them on—and nobody faults her for the culinary disappointment. Monica can cook, but this doesn’t make her more desirable or popular than Rachel, who has different strengths. She is sweet, naïve and formerly spoiled, but eventually wises up and changes the course of female coiffure forever.