#DirectedByWomen In Search of Unruly Objects: Objects and Domesticity in Jeanne Dielman and Semiotics of the Kitchen

Taking as its starting point Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (both made in 1975) this co-authored article exists as a conversation between two writers whose friendship informs their collaborative feminist projects. Small provocations or vignettes will spark off one another in a form that mirrors an exploratory conversation – a ‘searching’ – rather than an authoritative argument. It goes in search of objects in these two films which usually reside in the jump-cuts of patriarchal cinema – the domestic objects and women’s bodies which sustain the home but rarely grace the silver screen.


Domestic Object as Weapon

LH: Did you feel envious of Martha Rosler, using those objects in that way?

PS: It highlighted how something that is used for the subjugation of women could also be used as a weapon.

LH: Yeah! I’m interested in this idea. Audre Lorde wrote ‘The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle The Master’s House’. And I think that’s interesting – should we co-opt what we’re given for resistance? I err on the side of ‘yeah we definitely should’ but something doesn’t sit quite right…

PS: I agree with you. Why not just fuck off all of that and come up with something completely detached from the patriarchy?

LH: I’m just thinking: if our argument is that social life is lived through objects, and that objects are therefore a form of social control, and that is predicated on the patriarchy in relation to domestic objects… if we co-opt them, we’re still channelling our bodies through objects that are a form of male control. So we’re not free. Our resistance still takes a certain, physical form.

PS: That’s true. But in the short term is any form of resistance the priority right now? A form of resistance using those objects, and then we rethink how we ‘de-patricise’? My favourite item from the Rosler was the ladle because some of the other things, you can see how they can very easily be weaponised; I mean the ice pick, the juicer, the grater, the nutcracker, rolling pin, but a ladle?! That was great! She manged to make that a violent object as well.

LH: I really liked the rolling pin because I assumed she was gonna use it to hit someone but she didn’t. She held it with both hands and sort of pushed it forward and bought it back in a really bizarre way and I was just surprised that that was how she chose to use the rolling pin.

PS: Also, it was like everyone was waiting for it when she got the knife, it’s like she knew because the way she said it was quite like-

LH: ‘Knife.’

PS: Yeah! She knew you knew that this was the ultimate weapon.

LH: What do you think of the last tiny second of the film where she just shrugs? She like folds her arms over her body at the end of the action and then she just goes like *shrugs shoulders*.

PS: To me, that felt like ‘I’ve explained myself.  All these things are what they are, or what I’ve said they are’. It was kind of like she was acting tough and even at the end, she’s still tough. To me, she was just tough from beginning to end. Like unwavering in her belief of what these objects were and that shrug at the end was like ‘yeah what you gonna do?’


PS: When I saw Jeanne Dielman massaging the meat – because you never saw her having sex with the two men that come into the apartment – you think ‘is that what’s happening in the bedroom? Is she massaging the men?’ On the third day you see the sex scene, and it isn’t that at all.

LH: It’s a very loaded thing. She was almost taking some kind of pleasure in the slow, methodical massaging of this meat, which is bound up with a very fleshly or bloody reality. So then I was like – OK, is this like a fetishisation of violence and gore?

PS: There’s a bit where she’s babysitting and I assume it’s the mother comes to pick up the baby, and you don’t ever see what she looks like but she gives the baby back and one of the conversations the two women have is about meat and going to the butchers. And how this women on the other side of the door is saying that she got really stressed out going, and she didn’t know what to ask for because every single women in the queue was asking for a different thing and she was like ‘I don’t know what to ask for’ and in the end just asked for whatever the women in front of her had, which was veal. So she spent like 300 francs on veal and none of the kids like veal and people say it doesn’t taste of anything. She was talking about her stresses of having to buy meat and then they kind of end the conversation and she goes. That’s a conversation about meat as well.

LH: But also that’s a conversation about the skill involved in being a woman, and the knowledge base involved in being a woman and how alienating that can be, but also how undervalued it is. Knowing what meat to buy, what to say at the counter is a big deal. I once asked a man to go and buy a lettuce and he came back with a cabbage, and I said to him: ‘a woman would never do that’. I know that’s a total reduction of the situation, but there is skill and knowledge involved in being a woman that’s habitually undervalued. But that is also a relationship to objects. That goes to show how our relationship with objects, and in this case food, is gendered because when we are walking around a supermarket we’re having different experiences. Because of the way we’ve been socialised into the material world.

PS: Watching Akerman’s film – the repetitiveness of it – made me think of my Mum and my Nan who do a lot of those things and use those objects. There will be objects in the house that my Dad and my Grandad don’t know what it is, really. They’ve not used it.

LH: These are the things that we should be angry about though, coz it’s extra labour to have to explain how to do this – and I resent that so much. But then it’s like a total double bind because it’s like – OK so I either don’t tell you and then have to do it myself and correct the mistakes, or I do tell you and then I take on the labour of being the educator as well. And fuck that shit. The tyranny of objects is keeping us in our place!

PS: Definitely the tyranny of objects. I feel this idea of the object is very much tied in female labour but also the wider labour – it’s kind of become more intersectional because of like eco-politics, working class politics. In a rich persons house – I was a cleaner – and those objects aren’t used by the woman of the house. They’re used by the cleaner, or the nanny. They have that relationship with those objects.


PS: When she’s reading a letter out to her son that her sister’s written from Canada, her sister ends the letter by saying words to the effect of: ‘oh, I have to go, coz the table’s not set yet’. She’s reading that letter as her and her son are sat at the table and not long ago she’d set that table.

LH: So in a way these objects completely structure these women’s experiences. They’re like a clock that keeps feminine time. I found that scene where she lays the table really weird and ritualist. She also only sets half of the table and I remember being like: ‘what are you doing, babe? You haven’t set the other half of the table!’ But then what a weird thing that we have these little pieces of fabric that we fold and lay on our table. It made it seem very bizarre and like an altar, a sacrificial altar.

PS: And the way that she’d go back to the kitchen with the plates, and then put food on the plates and then bring the plates back. And then they’d get eaten and those plates would go back to the kitchen. So repetitive.


LH: The dress that arrives is like a kind of alien object. Is it like a fancy dress?

PS: Yeah it’s like pink and frilly. I was trying to work out… because she uses the scissors and then the scissors came back to play a really big part. So I kind of felt like these scissors… She initially tries to undo it herself, and she can’t, and then she goes to get the scissors. Which I thought was really interesting because through all of the tasks she’s so composed, and she just does them so effortless. But that was a weird stumbling block in a way – it was a bit, even though it’s such a small movement it said a lots that here’s she’s struggling, you don’t really see that. But then she opened it and it’s like all of a sudden she’s opening an object that like isn’t for anyone else, other than for her, for once this is something just for her. And she uses the scissors to open it, and then she uses those scissors to stab a client.

LH: Maybe I’m labouring the point, but it feels like there’s something about childbirth with the scissors and then using them to stab the other guy?


LH: There’s one scene where she goes into the bedroom after a client and removes a towel from the bed. And that got me. I dunno what it was about that but then she straightens out her bed, and makes in acceptable.

PS: Did it feel like to you that towel is like a barrier between her bed which represents her actual self and her real life, and she can quickly just pick that towel up, throw it in the wash and then traces of what had happened aren’t there anymore.

LH: That’s how I want to have seen it. But actually I was just kind of repulsed by this towel. It just seemed very visceral.

PS: What was gross about it?

LH: The men were gross! That’s one of the objects in the film that stood out the most. And the mitten on her hand in the bathtub. Those were just particularly evocative objects.

PS: To me they seem like the carriers of the sex that she didn’t want but had to have. That mitten – she’s not using her hands to clean away those men, she’s using this mitten. This towel carries the smells and sweat of these men.

LH: So in that way these objects are being asked to do a lot of symbolic work, in terms of it being a film, asking us to understand that she’s reclaiming her bedroom etc. But they’re also doing a lot of physical work like the flannel literally scrubbing her skin. So they’re good examples I guess of this hybridity material and symbolic.

PS: Akerman, through the extension of those scenes, the camera time she allows for those objects to be on screen allows them the symbolism that they then have, but also they physicality.


LH: I think objects are always more than symbolic and it’s always a mistake of researchers to read objects as if they were a text. As if they can be explained away.  It matters that these are real things, not just ideas floating around in the ether.

PS: So the object-ness of an object is the matter? And then – do you mean the matter in the most physical sense, the physicality of what it is?

LH: Yeah.

PS: I think I get that, but why is that important?

LH: Because that’s how these things relate to our bodies. Let’s take a mascara wand – it might have certain symbolic readings that someone could sit down and write and analyse… but that’s only part of what the mascara wand is. The exact materiality of it – the object-ness of it – dictates how my body and this mascara wand interact. And that’s very material and particular. I don’t think it can be captured in discourse.

PS: How do you think it can be captured? If it can be at all? Do you think it’s just that person using it, and then that’s what it is?

LH: Yeah – which is why I think film is a really good medium for it.

Domestic Skill

LH: Also, it made me think about skill and objects. So, when we look at a cellist or a piano player, they often describe their playing of the object as being a sort of melding of togetherness. Heidegger talks about being in the world and with an object, and that’s something to revere and I get that feeling when you melt away into this object and you’re both achieving this same goal together most when I’m cooking. Like when I know exactly when to pick up my spoon and how high to put the gas, I’m couldn’t tell someone how to make the exact same meal that I’m making, it’ll never taste the same, but I’m completely in the flow and I’m, well I hope, skilfully engaging with these objects. I was just trying to contrast that with domestic skill is usually treated differently – you don’t get a maestro of the hoover, or a virtuoso duster.

PS: They are not skills that are valued, despite them being integral to the health of the body as well. Things cannot be dirty or you would be ill all the time, things have to be clean, or should be clean. Those skills are trivial.

LH: When we talk about carpentry or woodwork, building, even gardening, these are a materially meshed skillset, bodily practiced and we talk of them in terms of skill – often male skill.

PS: I think a massive part of that is because they produce capital. The whole thing of domestic labour is like ‘well it has to be done but there’s not much skill involved, you don’t get paid to do it’. Despite it HAVING to be done.

LH: Yeah you’re totally right: carpentry or building are commodities where you end up producing another commodity. That’s not necessarily – but potentially – a capitalist instrument. The act of my domestic labour is not commodifiable –

PS: So it’s kind of worthless, or you’re not admired for doing it. It’s kinda like, ‘well you should just do it’. I mean who started those ‘wages for housework’ campaigns? [It was Silvia Federici, by the way].

LH: To us, it seems obvious that housework should be waged but the first time someone had that idea, it must’ve been a truly radical idea.

PS: Yeah definitely, coz that’s saying women, usually working-class, usually of colour as well, we are of value and what we do is valuable and nobody will ever tell us that but we have the confidence to tell ourselves that. And it’s still a thing: there still is no wage for domestic labour.


by Priya Sharma & Laura Harris

Priya Sharma is a PhD student at Goldsmiths, University of London focusing on digital cultural production within female and queer South Asian diasporas in the UK. She enjoys horror films, her favourites being Resolution, Raw and Lake Mungo. Also a fan of anything by Andrea Arnold. Twitter: @pshar1312

Laura Harris is an art writer and editor currently based in Liverpool, UK. She is also undertaking a PhD researching labour in the art world of work, using filmmaking and photography as a method. She is a huge fan of artist moving image works, her favourite being John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea. Twitter: @LauraMaHarris



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