Study suggests that housework has been rebranded as therapy for busy women

By Chris Lines (Senior Communications Officer), Published

New research shows how online influencers are refashioning housework as a form of therapy for women’s stressful lives.

The study focuses on ‘Mrs Hinch’; aka Sophie Hinchliffe from Essex, the ‘homegrown’ Instagram star with 4.1 million followers who shares daily images and stories of cleaning and family life.

Mrs Hinch and other ‘cleanfluencers’ (online influencers who supply household cleaning and organization tips and modes of lifestyle aspiration via social media) are causing domestic narratives to be rewritten, according to the study by Professor Jo Littler (City, University of London) and Dr Emma Casey (University of York), published in The Sociological Review.

The traditional role of a housewife has become outdated in modern times, but the academics argue that influencers are repackaging housework in an aspirational way, ensuring women’s willingness to participate in unpaid domestic labour.

Heavily gendered

Existing research indicates that housework, cleaning and domestic practices remain heavily gendered, a dynamic that has been exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Housework is often connected to a traditional idea that women should facilitate the health and wellbeing of the family.

Historically, cleaning has been perceived as apolitical, meaningless, mundane, unpaid and undervalued labour, with housewives freeing up men to do paid work and creating a variety of domestic consumer cultures.

Professor Littler and Dr Casey argue that ‘Hinching’ recasts housework as part of a therapeutic promise to ‘clean away’ the instabilities, anxieties and threats of contemporary culture.

As they put it: “Contemporary housework is being reframed and refashioned: presented as a route to a fun and glamorous everyday, as a means of entrepreneurial fulfilment, and as satisfying and soothing.

“What we might call the new ‘positive housework movement’ is in many ways a form of hyper-conformity – one which fits in and reinvigorates a conservative form of femininity, reinforces highly traditionally gendered roles and gives value to them.”

Unpaid work, profitable persona

The unpaid domestic labour Mrs Hinch conducts has been monetised and spectacularised through digital identity labour: the presentation and curation of her persona online for profit.

In 1990, the American feminist artist Barbara Kruger produced a black, white and red artwork featuring a woman holding a magnifying glass overlaid with words typed in huge font: ‘It’s a small world – but not if you have to clean it.’

Kruger’s striking artwork was an acerbic comment on how the feminised work of cleaning cultivates neither power nor a broad range of social connections or capital.

But, as a highly successful ‘cleanfluencer’, Mrs Hinch in effect flips this message, as Professor Littler explains:

“In contrast to the strapline ‘it’s a small world – but not if you have to clean it’, for Mrs Hinch, ‘it’s a big world’ because she has cleaned it on Instagram in front of her 4.1 million followers,” said Professor Littler.

“By performing domestic labour on social media, she has accrued wealth and social reach, offering her many opportunities.”

Therapeutic benefits?

Mrs Hinch, like other cleanfluencers, refashions housework as therapy and the researchers argue that these narratives of self-help are crucial to her popular appeal.

Cleaning has long been associated with order and routine and is frequently entwined with emotions of anxiety, unhappiness, dissatisfaction and a restrictive sense of self, as Dr Casey explains:

“This refashioning of cleaning as a therapeutic project – in line with wider recent trends towards self-help via personal aspiration and wellbeing – offers a tactic for soothing the soul.”

“Mrs Hinch conveys cleaning as a means of coping with different kinds of stress and trauma in an often-threatening world.

“‘Hinching’ is an attempt to invite women to try to ‘clean away’ some of the instabilities and anxious effects of modern culture, even while so many of its solutions are temporary, and continue to exacerbate the problems.”

Read the full paper: ‘Mrs Hinch, the rise of the cleanfluencer and the neoliberal refashioning of housework: Scouring away the crisis?’ in The Sociological Review.