Martha Rosler’s 6-minute 1975 video Semiotics of the Kitchen, opens with a medium shot in which Rosler is mostly hidden behind a title chalkboard, her expressionless eyes visible just above the board. She blinks several times. The camera backs up until we see that she stands in a kitchen behind a small table, which is laden with various kitchen instruments. A stove and refrigerator are visible in the background. After what seems like ages, she puts down the board. From off to the right of the frame, she picks up an apron. Slowly and deliberately, she struggles into it (first one arm, then the other, moving her hair to button it behind her neck—only a contortionist could execute this button gracefully). Her movements demonstrate that this is a laborious process. Once buttoned, she returns her gaze to the camera. “Apron” she states. She reaches down and slowly picks up another item, which, with equally little emotion, she shows to the camera. “Bowl,” she intones. She mimes stirring. Rosler continues through the alphabet, naming a “chopper,” which she bangs several times against the bottom of the bowl, a “hamburger press,” which she opens and closes with a loud crack, a cast iron “pan,” which she thrusts toward the camera, then, with equal force, withdraws back toward herself, an “ice pick,” with which she forcefully stabs her work surface several times. Although one might expect the “ladle” and “spoon” to be fit for more peaceful purposes, Rosler demonstrates that they might, too, be put to violent use: after she uses them to gently scoop, stir and smooth the air, she abruptly flings their invisible contents out over her shoulder.
The violence and abruptness of her movements are almost always accompanied by an utterly affectless facial expression. Her expression momentarily changes when she demonstrates the can “opener”: she grimaces as she turns its handle, however, this is an expression conveying effort, not affect. She manages to match kitchen items to every letter of the alphabet until she gets to “T” for “tenderizer” (with which she hammers the table). For the letters U through V, Rosler takes a carving fork in her right hand, a carving knife in her left, and forms the shapes of U through Y with her arms. She puts down the fork and finally uses the knife to slashes a zigzag shape in the air. “Z.” Having gotten thus through the alphabet, Rosler again stands motionless, arms crossed loosely across her front. In a rare display of affect, she suddenly shrugs and raises her eyebrows, tossing her head slightly to the side. Her mouth remains impassive. Finally, she returns to her affectless pose.
The framing of this video references cooking shows, like Julia Child’s The French Chef (1962-1970), and other domestic advice shows, which tended to assume the naturalness of women’s role as competent domestic laborers. The setting of the kitchen and Rosler’s direct address to the camera suggest she might similarly be giving us domestic advice. Yet while Rosler remains within the private space of the kitchen, she departs discordantly from these other media forms. Here, Rosler takes these kitchen items out of their taken-for-granted context as tools for the maintenance of the heteronormative family. Instead of putting them to use in normative reproductive labor, Rosler imagines how things might be different by placing them instead in alphabetical order, gesturing with them wildly and unproductively. Although her “uses” of these items are absurd vis-à-vis normative expectations about “women’s work,” she also demonstrates the effort required if one is to put these items into practice. We watch her struggle with the apron, lift the cast iron pan, and crank the handle of the can opener with all her might.
In watching this video, I was especially struck by Rosler’s gaze and performance of affect. Rosler maintains a steady gaze and affectless visage, looking directly and impassively into the camera for much of the film. She breaks eye contact only when the task at hand requires her full attention. She always immediately looks back at the camera. Her direct gaze is especially striking when coupled with violent gesture. For example, when she demonstrates “fork,” she sharply stabs the air in several places, never once breaking her gaze with the camera, and never once altering her facial expression. The seeming contradictions within this performance make it both funny and alarming. She undermines the naturalness of women’s competence and grace in the kitchen through her effortful and awkward (decidedly ungraceful) gestures. She undermines the naturalness of the kinds of caring affect assumed to accompany women’s caring work (in the kitchen, for example). Yet these things are not undermined incidentally or accidentally. Rather, Rosler’s steely, emotionless eye contact conveys an active and deliberate refusal (through her command of the gaze), a refusal to be located by dominant, patriarchal assumptions and imperatives. If this is so, however, how do we make sense of her final “shrug”? Is this a gesture of resignation? Is it one of dismissal? Does it aim to emphasize meaninglessness? Or obviousness? Perhaps it is a gesture that indicates a kind of inside joke among those who are called upon to negotiate these objects, these technologies of normative femininity and labor.
Charlotte Brusdon has remarked that Rosler produced this video during an “era when one of the most important debates was over whether a woman could be the subject of her own story or whether she was always “spoken” in stories told by others” (Brunsdon 112). Rosler enters into this debate through her refusal to be determined by these objects, wrenching them from their normative context, and taking hold of her own representation. Yet I would be very interested to hear how this video speaks today in the context of the incredibly broad and prolific circulation of cooking shows and domestic advice media that offer themselves as the means to a kind of self-empowerment. I am very skeptical of these forms of so-called “empowerment,” but I also take seriously popularity of such media and the pleasure that individuals find in them. Have kitchen gadgets—gadgets that have long functioned as technologies for maintaining a particular division of household labor and a certain division between public and private space—come to be viewed as technologies for living a pleasurable life? Perhaps Rosler’s piece has something to offer present-day analyses of such phenomena.
Brunsdon, Charlotte. “Feminism, Postfeminism, Marth, Martha, and Nigella.” Cinema Journal 44.2 (2005): 110-116.