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Is the drudgery of women’s labour in the kitchen being glorified on social media?

Are a majority of us still comfortable with defined gender roles, in which a woman is defined by her labour in the kitchen? Nowhere is it more evident than on social media these days

A still from The Great Indian Kitchen
A still from The Great Indian Kitchen (YouTube)

In a reel I saw this week, a woman in her 20s was making lunch on Valentine’s day. The spread included avial, mango fish curry, beetroot thoran, sambar, rice and fish fry (“My husband just won’t eat without two types of fish,” she said dotingly). She went on to wash all the dishes, wipe the kitchen counter and set the table for a romantic meal. The reel showed the husband make an appearance, eat and leave. The video ended with her noting that there was no change in her husband’s facial expression to indicate appreciation. But she seemed unfazed and promised to return with another cooking reel the next day.

The social media algorithm throws up an endless number of such reels for users to scroll through every day. And it is nearly always a woman cooking at top speed, preparing meals, packing lunch boxes and multitasking like there is no tomorrow. The men are either nowhere to be seen or they pipe in just to say something patronising or sarcastic. It’s nothing we don’t see in our homes every single day, or in movies like The Great Indian Kitchen.

Also read: The unseen work taking a toll on women of all ages

Most people don’t seem to have a problem with this. A vast majority of us are comfortable with gender roles as defined by convention. The man supposedly ‘provides’ and the woman takes care of the home, doing whatever that entails. This is the cultural norm reflected in the surprisingly still popular #tradwives aesthetic of the West.

Cooking is an essential life skill. Everyone must learn to feed themselves at least reasonably healthy food every day. And contrary to their lifelong conditioning not to do so, men do learn to cook either out of necessity or interest. But they don’t have to learn to do it at gunpoint the way women do. They seldom have to experience the drudgery of cooking. Nor are they ever imprisoned in the kitchen the way women are.

The social media trend reflects the cultural realities of our times. Women of my generation were supposed to have been liberated from the kitchen. We were supposed to have it better than our mothers who had to prove their worth by cooking and serving their families endlessly. We went to college, got high paying jobs at par with—often even surpassing—our male peers. However, even as some of us were told to shoot for the stars, men our age grew up believing that a perfect girl would show up in their lives one day and just take over for their mothers.

When Sreesha Divakaran was set to marry her boyfriend at the age of 23, one of the ‘conditions’ he laid out to her mother was his fiance be taught how to cook a list of his favourite dishes. Sreesha’s mother, traditional at heart, obliged gladly. In the course of the marriage, Sreesha cooked nearly every meal at home besides holding a full-time job, which she was constantly pressured to quit. “Cooking felt like a chore, but it also felt like a talent show. I was always told to ‘serve my father-in-law first’. And if they liked what I’d made, they would smile at me patronisingly. I hated it!,” she says.

One video posted on social media shows a woman making a scrumptious-looking meal for her partner, and after licking the plate clean, he says, “It’s alright, but not as good as my mom makes.” The camera pans to the woman and we see her sighing in defeat, while a laughter track goes off in the background. The question this raises is, in all the years the man enjoyed his mother’s cooking, why did he never learn to cook as well as her? By providing them woman after woman (mother, girlfriend, wife) to cater to their needs, the culture keeps its grown men stuck in a child-like state.

Often, just as soon as the woman learns to meet an expectation, the expectation shifts to something different, making sure she never gets off the hamster’s wheel. Another social media video shows a woman, sitting at the dining table making dosas for her family on an induction stove. The husband, who is filming her, starts being sarcastic about her choosing to do this comfortably as opposed to standing in the kitchen. He seems to think she’s cheating her way out of cooking “properly”. The woman, who appears tired and harassed, retorts feebly that her feet hurt from walking around for hours at a book fair, and that this is the best that she can do.

Imagine the audacity it must take to needle the poor woman who is overriding her own exhaustion to make sure her family doesn’t go to bed hungry. For most women, however, humiliation is part of the package. They brush off ignorant, insensitive comments as ‘jokes’ and get on with their day.

Such compulsion is what puts a lot of young women off cooking, even if they might have actually enjoyed it otherwise. Priya S Kumar, a Bengaluru-based counselling psychologist, says, “I grew up with a resentment towards cooking because I was always told I needed to learn to cook. Why? Not because I will need to feed myself as an adult, but because I would be expected to cook for my husband.”

She adds that this culture, further reinforced by social media, completely sidelines folks who have hidden disabilities, such as severe pain due to conditions like endometriosis, and even neurodivergence. For instance, someone with ADHD (Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder) might find simple everyday tasks to be such a challenge.

But of course, multi-tasking is the order of the day for the common woman: it is something she is expected to do all day, every day. “At my workplace, I see that the women are hyper-organised. They manage their time efficiently at work and at home and they are still made to feel inadequate, while the men get to take it easy on both fronts” says Hariharen SG, a senior software engineer and a social commentator with over 32.5K followers on Instagram.

He identifies as an Ambedkarite and a feminist ally, and makes educational reels about social inequalities. “My friends complain that their wives are perpetually unhappy with them even though they ‘help out’ around the house. I try to explain that participating in household work is something they are supposed to do, and it is not a favour they are doing for their partners,” he elaborates.

Lasting social change will only come if the society recognises marriage as an equal partnership. Every International Women’s Day, we see an onslaught of social media content glorifying women for being superheroes and goddesses. Here’s hoping at least some of us have the self-awareness to call this out and realise that women in our lives deserve better.

Also read: Opinion: The future of women's work

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