Envisioning Domestic Labor on Instagram: Changing Parameters of Visibility under Neoliberal Digital Capitalism
by Nazlı Özkan
#invisiblehousework (#görünmeyenevişleri) first started as an Instagram hashtag and continued with an account of its own under the same name. The hashtag was created by Elif Doğan, or blogcuanne (mom blogger) with her Instagram and blogger handle. She has currently has around 111K followers and lives in Bodrum, a famous touristic town in Southwest Turkey. Elif first used this hashtag to accompany a picture of her hand holding a pile of towels and napkins, folded into tiny squares (Fig. 1).
The caption underneath reads: “We have just completed the first stage of #nohelpyesdivisionoflabor (#yardımdeğilişbölümü) so everyone living here is now capable of putting their clothes into their wardrobes. Now it is time to teach them how to take care of the stuff that does not belong to anyone specifically because it is a household item such as a tablecloth, kitchen napkin, etc.”
Elif Doğan is married with three kids and is very vocal on Instagram about how housework done by women always remains invisible. She recently published a book titled “Turns out I am a Feminist (Meğer Ben Feministmişim)” that tells her journey as a woman who quit her job after her first child was born and how in the process, after having two more children, and starting blogging about her struggles as a mother, she discovered and embraced feminism. Elif sees domestic sphere as a major arena of struggle—among many others—and frequently shares on Instagram her revelations about the domestic tasks she carries out just because of the unjust distribution of gender roles within the patriarchal society. She started sharing these posts with the hashtag #nohelpyesdivisionoflabor.
Common narratives that encourage or applauded husbands or others who ‘help’ around the house, implicitly affirm that it is in fact primarily women’s duty to manage such matters. Prioritizing the notion of division of labor, however, dismantles this duty attributed to women and suggests that it is up to everyone living in the house, including her three sons and husband to complete basic domestic chores such as placing the tablecloth. Although the hashtag’s very first posts are by Elif, in time other Instagram users started to use it to render visible housework that remains for the most part invisible.[i]
Elif and other women’s feelings of invisibility while doing housework is nothing new given the history of domestic labor and care work in capitalist societies. As Marxist Feminists have consistently shown, since its outset, capitalist accumulation has distinguished the process of producing goods in the factories and producing social life that include health and well-being.[ii] The latter mostly took place in the sphere of reproduction that was more often associated with the home as opposed to the sphere of production associated with the workplace. Unlike factory work, housework was done for free, in a way that elided its key contribution in the production of the surplus value. Although practices carried out at home—such as cooking, laundry, childcare or other affect-intensive care work—is key for the laborer to prepare for the next workday and to keep up with the work schedule, the boundary between unpaid homemaking and paid work renders invisible this crucial contribution of reproductive activities in the production of the profit.
With the shift to neoliberal, digital capitalism this boundary between unpaid housework and paid work has become more amorphous since neoliberalization accelerated the commodification of the certain aspects of social life, such as “cooperative social relationships, interpersonal communication, affective intensities” mainly associated with the reproductive sphere.[iii] Practices such as healthy eating or remaining fit that were included in the unpaid reproductive realm began to be more directly monetized under neoliberal digital economy, making it harder to distinguish strictly where home begins and work ends.
Marxist feminists such as Kyle Jarrett, however, refuse to define neoliberalism as commodification of life outside the market that makes the home-work boundary blurry. By focusing on the capitalist history of gendered labor, Jarrett argues that “there has never been a space outside of capitalism that has only recently been absorbed” since the historical exclusion of “women’s work from economic calculation … shows the incorporation of life into capitalist commerce at its outset.”[iv] Such exclusion continues under neoliberal, digital capitalism even when practices associated with the reproductive realm began to be more directly monetized.
As feminists argue, direct monetization is not the only way for integrating life into the logic of the market economy. The very exclusion of certain practices from economic calculation is also a result of such integration. In this sense, the boundary between home and work, and paid and unpaid labor are still useful devices for excluding certain practices from economic calculation under neoliberalism in ways that classify what gets to be visible as a proper, wage-deserving mode of labor.
Elif’s feeling of invisibility while doing housework resonates with these Marxist feminist critiques. Her sense of invisibility is in part a result of a boundary between home and work, paid and unpaid labor that is redrawn and maintained by neoliberalization, while simultaneously becoming amorphous. The boundary between home and work has become amorphous for Elif because she is not the wife of a typical factory worker in early capitalism. Apart from caring for her family, Elif can be considered a digital laborer working from home, who created an income source for herself by opening a space to discuss issues about motherhood and domestic work from a feminist perspective.
Elif’s blog “Blogcu Anne (Blogger Mom)” was her starting point which in time culminated in her first book named “Motherhood is not Always Rosy” (Annelik Her Zaman Toz Pembe Değildir). As the name implies, Elif here challenges the perfect motherhood myth and details how she has come to terms with it as a young mother and a woman. With the rise of Instagram, her digital presence continued on Instagram with an account under the same name. Her critical look at motherhood led to her socialization into feminism and thus inspired her second book project. For a while, Elif was the co-conductor of a workshop about digital content creation, which they first named “Homemade Content Creation Workshop (Ev Yapımı İçerik Atölyesi)” and then renamed as “A Content Creation Workshop of One’s Own (Kendine Ait Bir İçerik Atölyesi)”—resonating with Virginia Wolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”—in a way that reflects Elif’s feminist awakening. In these workshops, that I also attended, she, with her partner Perihan Çıragöz, taught mostly female participants how to use digital platforms to gain a significant followership and turn them into an income source.
Elif’s capacity to create an income is in part a product of current neoliberal, digital capitalism, which accelerated the commodification of affective care work—that can be more directly associated with the reproductive realm in the classic Marxist Feminist reading. However, commodification of such affect-intensive work and penetration of paid labor into home does not necessarily guarantee that home-work boundary becomes completely blurry. This boundary simultaneously remains intact—while being redrawn—for Elif because her digital visibility does not necessarily guarantee that she also becomes visible as a homemaker.
Elif continues feeling unseen as an unpaid homemaker even if she creates an income by sharing her struggle as a mother and a woman living under patriarchy—issues that are conventionally classified as reproductive practices. Other reproductive practices she continues to perform without monetary return, or left out of economic calculation, do not receive the same acknowledgement that her digital presence does. The hashtag #invisiblehousework aims to transgress this boundary between paid and unpaid labor Elif feels as a woman who is at the intersection of the nascent and existing modes of labor in the current economy—as a digital laborer and a homemaker.
While the penetration of digital technologies into the most intimate spheres help accelerate the commodification of life, they also offer new ways to contest the boundaries between home and work by rendering tangible what had hitherto remained invisible. In order to challenge the unseen nature of domestic work, Elif uses the same means she employed to create an income source for herself, namely digital technologies.
Under #invisiblehousework not only Elif but many other women share their struggle with the domestic tasks that they complete every day without any acknowledgement from household members or the wider society. As Elif’s apartment has turned into a hybrid space where she carried out both paid and unpaid activities, it allowed her to embrace a feminist critique of the gendered division of labor within her family and to recognize the invisibility of the domestic tasks she used to complete automatically.
Some of the posts under #invisiblehousework aim to complicate the home-work boundary by quantifying domestic tasks. The quantification aims to highlight the resonances of domestic work with paid organized labor at workplaces. For example, a post from Zeynep (Fig. 2) is entitled “My Laundry Routine (Çamaşır Rutinim)” and describes the stages of doing laundry as “washing: 45 minutes; drying: 30 minutes; placing: 3 to 10 work days.” The post has a sarcastic tone, which resonates with many who keep the clean clothes hanging on the rack for days as the folding and placing them takes the most time.
Another post from Gözde (Fig. 3) shows a picture of her smartwatch displaying the amount she walked that day. In the caption she states: “I walked 6 km in the morning and spent the rest of the day at home by doing mostly housework. I walked 4.5 km in an apartment that is only 120 square meters. What did I do all day? Nothing.”
Here, Gözde, through her smartwatch, calculated the amount of labor required to do domestic work, which counted toward “nothing” in the end, and rendered it visible through Instagram. Knowing the amount of distance she walked in the morning surprised her that she simply walked an additional 4.5 km in her small apartment.
These posts express the amount of effort it takes to complete domestic tasks in numerical terms, which resonate with the quantification of labor in workplaces. Zeynep’s post lists all the steps of doing laundry one under the other as if it is a schedule announced on the wall of a workplace. Rather than the ideal time, each task is specified with the real time they take for Zeynep to complete each of the steps. Implicit in these ‘realistic’ portrayals is the temporality of housework since the absence of division of labor at home makes it harder for one person to keep up with an ‘ideal’ time frame to complete these tasks. Gözde’s use of smartwatch data in terms of kilometers renders visible the amount of physical effort required to do housework—4.5 kilometers in a small apartment. “Nothing” is a sarcastic descriptor of an effort that cannot and should not remain invisible given how much physical energy it takes. In our interview, Gözde stated that she aimed to show the affinities between paid and unpaid modes of labor with this post. She is highly critical of domestic tasks remaining unseen although they are as time and energy consuming as paid labor engaged in workplaces.
Publicly sharing a list of the laundry steps in a way that resonates with a typical work schedule or measuring the effort spent doing housework in terms of kilometers or step counts are striking ways to materialize a set of activities that usually count toward ‘nothing.’ As the capitalist division of labor—either under neoliberal or previous modes of accumulation—maintains a home-work boundary, women such as Elif, Gözde, and Zeynep find new ways to contest such gendered allocation of tasks between home and workplaces.
While helping to expand the reach of neoliberal, digital capitalism technologies such as smartwatch or Instagram introduce new ways of expression that renders homemaking practices more publicly legible. It is due to this legibility that women turn to their engagement with new technologies in order to contest an unchanging perception of an activity that takes up a significant amount of their time and energy.
[i] I thank the participants of my study who shared their narratives with me and who let me use their Instagram posts in this piece. This research has been funded by Horizon 2020 Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Widening Fellowship.
[ii] Federici, S. (2012). Revolution at point zero: Housework, reproduction and feminist struggle. Oakland, California: PM Press; Fortunati, L. (1995). The arcane of reproduction: housework, prostitution, labor and capital. Brooklyn: Autonomedia.
[iii] Kyle Jarrett (2016) quoted in her Feminism, labour and digital media: the digital housewife. New York: Routledge. See also Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Marazzi, C. (2011). Capital and affects: The politics of the language economy. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
[iv] Jarrett, K. (2016). Feminism, labour and digital media: the digital housewife. New York: Routledge, p. 64.
Nazlı Özkan is an Assistant Professor and a Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellow in the Department of Media and Visual Arts at Koç University, İstanbul. She received her PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Northwestern University. Özkan’s publications on journalism, minority/alternative media, digital media, gender, and the state appeared in journals such as PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, Visual Anthropology Review, and Gender Forum.
Further articles in the TRAFO series Envisioning Work: The Visual Cultures of Labor:
Hala Auji and Nurçin İleri, Envisioning Work: The Visual Cultures of Labor – Call for Contributions, 05 April 2022
Rick Halpern, The Rational Factory, Labour, and the Fordist Visual Imaginary, 14 June 2022
Zehra Betül Atasoy, Ever-Present Tobacco Dust: Women’s Labor Conditions at the Cibali Tobacco Factory, 19 July 2022
Nurçin İleri, Picturing the Labor Landscape: The Silahtarağa Power Plant and Istanbul’s Electrical Infrastructure, 26 October 2022
Citation: Nazlı Özkan, Envisioning Domestic Labor on Instagram: Changing Parameters of Visibility under Neoliberal Digital Capitalism, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 08.12.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/43545