Grime and Passion

Americans itch to get down and dirty.

For the Boston Globe.

boston-globe-logo1There are lots of ways to tidy up your computer keyboard: a spurt or two of Windex, a blast from one of those high-tech cans of compressed air, or the old-fashioned flip-and-shake. But none of these are nearly as satisfying as excavating the crevices with a folded-up Post-It note. Depending on how long you hold off between cleanings, the results can be gloriously stomach-turning: wads of fuzz, mysterious multicolored flecks, petrified crumbs, disturbing white flakes.

If this pastime strikes you as uncouth, there’s worse to come. A fundamental change is taking place in America’s homes. In the bottoms of trash cans, the thick nap of wall-to-wall carpets, and the deepest recesses of the collective psyche, grime is making a comeback. To judge from a slew of popular TV shows, we’re itching to get down and dirty again.

It used to be that household crud was something to keep at arm’s length. In recent years, an avalanche of new disposable products allowed us to banish dirt without actually coming into contact with it. Soap scum was deactivated before it could even begin to coalesce. Even spotless surfaces suddenly demanded once-overs with antibacterial wipes, just in case something nasty was lurking at the subatomic level.

Margaret Horsfield captured the mentality of the times in her 1998 book Biting the Dust. Subtitling her book “The Joys of Housework,” she couched it as a lonely attempt to reclaim an unfairly debased pastime. “Cleaning has absolutely no cachet, unlike other domestic pursuits like cooking, gardening . . . or child-rearing,” she wrote. “It is loftily disregarded. Such disregard is unjust.”

In fact, when Horsfield tried to get some real-world data on the experience of housecleaning, she couldn’t find anyone who would admit they did it. “No one wants to talk about it,” a friend charged with getting together a discussion group told her. “We’re up against some real denial here. They’re all saying they never clean. What’s going on here?”

Today, Horsfield’s friends might change their tune. In a recent survey by the Soap and Detergent Association, only eight percent of respondents said they disliked housecleaning. Shows like HGTV’s “Mission: Organization” and the Learning Channel’s “Clean Sweep” have turned it into a spectator sport. Even ads for that trailblazer of the touch-no-dirt crusade, Procter & Gamble’s Swiffer, have begun touting the pleasures of scrutinizing what you’ve just swept up. In one of the spots, a man who’s been Swiffering interrupts his wife — in the shower, no less — to exhibit all the gunk he’s collected.

The queens of the mud-pie mentality are Kim Woodburn and Aggie MacKenzie, hostesses of the British import “How Clean Is Your House?,” currently airing on Lifetime. Decked out in pearls and marabou-trimmed work gloves, the two delve into the filthiest corners of viewers’ homes with unholy relish. While they do eventually get down to some actual scrubbing, the show is really about the sublimity of muck. Woodburn and MacKenzie’s specialty is the sniff test: Holding up a piece of refuse like nuclear scientists handling raw uranium, they’ll lean in, inhale, then recoil with a kind of gleeful horror. The companion book, already a bestseller in Britain, features luscious photos that treat congealed Brillo pads the way Mapplethorpe treated flowers.

But some say there’s a darker side to Woodburn and MacKenzie’s filthophilia. Louise Rafkin, author of Other People’s Dirt: A Housecleaner’s Curious Adventures (1998), is turned off by the show’s cruelty. “I don’t think it’s really about cleaning. I think it’s about humiliation — a sort of voyeuristic thing,” she says.

Rafkin’s concern is echoed by performance artist Karen Finley, whose new show, George and Martha, focuses on the global mess-making president and the infamously tidy style maven. She says “How Clean?” reflects women’s deep-seated disgust with their own bodies.

“Really, what it’s saying is, `How Dirty Are You?”‘ Finley says. “Women are telling other women they’re dirty. It’s sad.”

But perhaps it’s a little silly to weigh the sociopolitical factors behind our passion for grime. When we mess with our mess, our motives aren’t intellectual ones. It’s just kind of fun.

-Etelka Lehoczky, 2004