It's the holidays: time for women to be endlessly instructed in the fine art of entertaining. But, like witches, hostesses come in the categories of "good" and "bad." Lady Macbeth is a bad hostess. She and her husband plot to kill Duncan while he is staying with them. It's bad enough to murder a man while he sleeps, but while he sleeps in your castle? That's very poor form indeed.
Then there are hostesses who meet our approval, like Auntie Mame, who glides about her apartment in a boozy and stylish haze. Like Clarissa Dalloway, she has servants to help (and eventually, her young nephew Patrick to mix martinis), but her skill seems to come naturally. You don't get the sense that Auntie Mame would read lifestyle blogs. She just knows how it's done. For her, throwing parties is a genuine source of pleasure. She is most comfortable and at ease when there are people in her home.
Enter Real Simple magazine, the anti-Auntie Mame. Entertaining according to Real Simple is neither real nor simple, particularly around the holidays. Its glossy pages seem to promise a world of pleasures, but what awaits the hostess for the months of November and December is escalating drudgery, anxiety, and almost certain failure. The November issue, "The Ultimate Holiday Planner," outlines how to plan your parties in excruciating detail. Real Simple likes terms like "strategize" and "organize" that suggest that entertaining, like life, is impossibly difficult to navigate.
Hospitality, of course, is important. We hold together our tenuous society when we invite people into our homes, provide food and drink, and offer our guests a place to sit. Good hospitality is a sign that we have left the cave, that we have enough to share, that all is well.
But, though entertaining inherently requires labor, Real Simple entertaining involves the kind of labor associated with manning a NASA space center. Hosting is not only about taking care of your guests while they're actually in your house; you also need to undertake extensive and time-consuming preparations, a huge amount of work before a party designed to minimize your work at a party. The magazine promises to simplify entertaining by presenting you with endless suggestions and advice, usually in the form of lists. Do-it-yourself centerpieces! Sanity-saving checklists! Make-ahead recipes! Easy, speedy cleaning! A feature on brining your turkey promises "Simplifying strategies, techniques, and tips."
Although Real Simple tends to assume that all women are married with children, husbands and children are nowhere to be found in the holiday issues. At least not when it comes to work. The ideal hostess is utterly alone, anticipating and answering the desires of others. November's main holiday feature is accompanied by an illustration of a frantic woman dashing forward with a turkey in her arms, dollops of sweat flying off her face, and a rowdy table of guests behind her. If you want to avoid this terrifying scene, you must be prepared for the work that is asked of you.
And the readiness is all. The headline "Ready, Set, Host!" suggests that hosting is an exhausting athletic endeavor: "From setting up the bar to breaking down the leftovers, here are all the tips you need to remain unflappable (get it?) through your own personal Thanksgiving." Not only are you incapable of getting a bad pun, you are completely on your own. It is your own personal Thanksgiving. And after the party, the planning continues: you need to "plan" how to store the leftovers "so you don't lose track of scraps and extras." Because you wouldn't want to lose track of these scraps and extras, which are by definition completely insignificant.
The November issue presents only one scenario in which the labor of hosting is shared: "the Friendsgiving." A feature depicting nine twenty-something friends (and one child) seated around a golden turkey proclaims, "Sometimes home is where the turkey is. This group of Brooklynites all pitched in to celebrate with one another–and to show you how to do it, too. It takes a little planning (hint: send invitations) and a table big enough for a crowd, but you'll have more than enough hands to mix cocktails and make sides." All the hostess has to do is invite people, which of course the magazine assumes she will forget to do. Guests bring an array of dishes, serve themselves at the bar, and help to clean up (no suggestions here about how to store your leftovers!). They're even allowed to forego cooking for "store-bought nibbles" if they're insecure (store-bought is "an easy thing for not-so-confident cooks"). It's impossible to tell who the hostess is in this feature. We have come face to face with a vision of contented bourgeois equality.
So why are these friends allowed to divide holiday labor while our marathoner dashes about? Nine does not appear to be a larger crowd than the table of starving guests awaiting our personal-Thanksgiving athlete, but the message is clear: these people are not your family. The hostess serves her family. The Friendsgiving may be another kind of "home," but it is quirky, urban, and appropriate only as a substitute event. "Many hands make light work," says Real Simple's Modern Manners columnist Catherine Newman of the gathering. But only to a point. Once you are married, you need to do all the damn work yourself.
Real Simple urges the hostess that thorough preparations are her best protection against failure. Holiday disasters are anticipated and controlled. We're told reassuringly that, "If a couple things go wrong while you're prepping your feast, take comfort in the fact that even the highly synchronized Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade has had its 'oops' moments." Your party has become a large-scale corporate parade, something impossible to manage. There are bound to be "oops" moments that are really no one's fault, but the magazine makes sure you know they are are sort of your fault, and that this knowledge will lead to stress. "You don't know what your guests will choose to drink, and it's super-stressful to worry that you might run out." Well, if you say so.
At the same time, the hostess is assured of a "foolproof feast: the easiest holiday yet." Not surprisingly, this easiness depends in part on consumption. A good hostess needs to buy certain things, and "Little Helpers: Ingenious Products to Make Thanksgiving Easier" lets her know what those things are. Actual living and breathing people may not help you, but stuff is the only barrier between you and the near-assurance that, as a Real Simple holiday hostess, you will fail.
Failure is built into the very fabric of the magazine. You are flawed, and you can and must improve yourself. Even the holiday beauty tips–"How To Look Bright-Eyed Fast"–assume that your face is ravaged by a "pallor" and "puffiness" unbecoming a good hostess. For god's sake, put on some concealer and highlighting powder.
At every opportunity, Real Simple reduces entertaining to a series of lists to control anxiety: "7 Things To Do Before the Starting Bell Rings," "6 Tools to Ease Cooking Stress," "A Holiday-Stain Survival Kit." Just try to survive entertaining; that's all you can hope for. In the smugly titled "First Aid for First-World Problems," the reader is presented with five things she has forgotten to do and advice about how to remedy the disasters that will arise from her neglect. She's also told "What to do when dishes are coming out of the oven and off the stovetop fast and furious."
And you have tasks totally separate from the kitchen: There is a handy list of photographs our hostess should be sure to take, including "Pie meets mouth" and "Babies with sweet-potato smiles." We can assume she is hopelessly anxious about performing simple tasks without guidance: after all, "choosing the right [wine] varietal can be intimidating."
In 1959, Betty Crocker published her Guide to Easy Entertaining, a book "about hospitality and how it can be easy and fun for the hostess as well as the guest." But what does it mean for entertaining to be "easy"? For her, ease was all about performance. She recounts a particularly successful party she attended: "There was lots of laughter, good talk, good food, and our hostess seemed so charming and calm as the separate courses were brought to her without flurry from the kitchen." Seemed is a big word for Betty Crocker. Here, servants create this calm, but the hostess gets to take credit for it. Crocker then tells a story of the same woman throwing a buffet-style dinner party without the help of servants. But here, too, the party is perfectly orchestrated to assure calm and grace. Food and drink just seem to appear. (It has all been set up ahead of time.) What planning, what anticipation! With or without servants, this woman is a marvel because both of her parties produce the same effect: she does not seem to do anything at all.
The planning and anticipation so central to Real Simple also defines Crocker's guide. She recounts the story of a young man who can't fathom that his aunt goes through "any trouble getting ready for a party, or giving one," and this is the ultimate sign of the aunt's success. Crocker assures us that, "The best [parties] are those that seem to be 'no trouble.'" They are the flawless result of hours of shopping, getting your house in order, cooking, and then cleaning up afterwards. In fact, the hostess' anticipation of the parties she will plan begins in childhood: "The lives of all of us have changed vastly since we watched our parents preparing for the first big party we can remember." It's a primal scene without the trauma: the female child watches, and in watching this tableau of anticipation, she anticipates her own future.
Real Simple hopes its readers will confuse "easy" with "simple": process with result. A result may look simple, but this does not mean it was easy to produce. But as with Betty Crocker, it is only the result that matters. The hostess' (not easy) labor should be invisible in its flawlessly simple results, and she will be credited for rendering it invisible, but not for the labor itself.
This admiration is her only consolation prize. Betty Crocker's hostess does not have a tremendous amount of fun at her parties. She is no Auntie Mame. Does the ideal Real Simple hostess have fun? Probably not. The cover of the December issue is emblazoned with the promise of a "Holiday Spectacular: Your Happiest Season Ever Starts Here." Yes! you think. It's going to be my happiest season ever! How great. But this is not necessarily the case. "Your happiest season ever" does not mean that you will be happy. It means that you will make others happy, and the season will be happy. All things will be happy, but not you.
Real Simple's December issue highlights the escalating stress of the hostess. The cover of the November issue presents an orderly flower arrangement, but by the December, we face a jumble of tangled Christmas lights. The Christmas season is frantic, chaotic, busy, a hassle, filled with worry, and–worst of all–potentially disorganized. All those presents, decorations, Christmas cards, and guests: what a mess.
But the stoic hostess continues to labor alone through the Christmas holidays, doing her best with her limited skills. She must take stock of her cookie ability: "Bar Cookies" are "the easiest ones of all," and "Drop Cookies" are "the beginner cookie," but "Roll + Cut Cookies" may throw her for a loop as they "require a bit more time and skill." If she fails to make acceptable holiday cookies, she can try a recipe for buttermilk pancakes that is a "Better Breakfast" (than the one she's presumably serving her family at present). Other holiday-related features also remind the hostess of her shortcomings: "Build a better fire." (Yours are merely good.) "Is your home winter-ready?" (The answer is clearly no.)
Our hostess is granted a temporary and pointless form of authority even as she is constantly reminded that she does not deserve it and cannot handle it. Disasters are even more likely at Christmas than at Thanksgiving. A hysterical headline asks, "Now what?!?: Smart solutions for life's little disasters." Potential problems include the following: your cat is scratching your Christmas tree, pine needles are scattered around your home, and candle wax is embedded in your menorah. Like the illustration that accompanied our marathon Thanksgiving hostess, here, too, we have an image of a solitary woman navigating a world of chaos: the offending cat has multiplied into six cats, there are pine needles everywhere, and our fearless hostess is hunched over a menorah with a rag.
Panic! No! Don't panic. The main feature of the December holiday guide presents "100 Inspiring, Surprising, Time-Saving, Stress-Reducing, Jolly-Good Ideas to Make These Holidays the Happiest Ones Yet." This list of adjectives is so overwhelmingly reassuring that it spreads across two pages, requiring the reader to turn the magazine on its side to absorb all the positivity. The pages that follow are divided into Decorations, Entertaining, Traditions, and Gifts and Good Tidings, and all comprise short tidbits of advice from caterers, boutique owners, interior designers, and founders of lifestyle brands, as well as bloggers, readers, and the Real Simple editorial staff.
Virtually all information is presented in lists that are numbered like a child's list to Santa. The hostess wants nothing for herself: her Christmas list simply helps her to be the best hostess possible. There are thirty suggested Traditions for hostesses who lack sufficient rituals to legitimate their family and their existence on the planet. Personal memories and experiences are repackaged as mandates. My family does this, and we just love it, so you probably should, too. And then: a page depicting a pile of crumpled wrapping paper, the detritus from your expertly executed Christmas, waiting for you to clean it up.
The labor of Christmas goes above and beyond that of Thanksgiving: don't forget gift-giving, another skill of the hostess. You should make a spreadsheet to "track each present and include details like the price and whether it's wrapped." A reader's letter warns you that, "Finding the perfect present takes time…" Your season is characterized as "Endlessly searching store to store. Standing in line for hours. Bravely risking life and limb. All to bring the look of joy to a child's face." Your labor has extended beyond the kitchen. You must shop. You must bring all these beautiful things back into your home. Properly selected stocking stuffers will "delight your entire circle of family and friends." Your children become your guests: you must answer all their desires. And then they will become ungrateful, you are assured, and you should begin the labor of correcting this character flaw. Real Simple provides you with a list of tips for how to do this.
And though all of this, you are reminded not to go crazy because women tend towards insanity. The magazine outlines "the latest beauty products and tips that save time, money, and–best of all–your sanity." In case you're unsure how to paint your nails, the process is broken down into five handy steps. Suggestions for holiday clothing will "get you through the month," as if you can't even dress yourself. The ideal woman for Real Simple, like the ideal hostess, is barely keeping it together, frantic about what she has neglected or forgotten, and holding onto the edge of the abyss with her just-painted nails.
But her guests would never know. She not only hides her labor; she also hides herself. Thus the total lack of attention to whether she has a good time or to what she might actually be thinking: the anti-Auntie Mame again. The ideal Real Simple hostess gives pleasure through obliterating herself. Rose Henniker Heaton's entertaining guide The Perfect Hostess (1931) opens with a poem by Elizabeth Paget that defines the ideal hostess as so self-effacing that she's virtually absent:
She makes you feel when you arrive
How good it is to be alive.
She promptly orders fresh-made tea
However late the hour may be.
She leads you to a comfy room
With fire ablaze – and flowers abloom.
She shows you cupboards large and wide,
No hats or frocks of hers inside!
A writing-table meets your eye,
The newest novels on it lie.
The bed is just a nest of down,
Her maid puts out your dinner-gown.
The water's hot from morn till night,
Her dinners fill you with delight.
She never makes you stand for hours
Admiring children, dogs or flowers!
What better way to please her guests?
The perfect hostess lets you rest.
She is a phantom known only by her effect on others. She gives pleasure without ever seeming to do anything. She has no desires, no needs. She only knows what you need, and nothing more. She is simple, but she is not real.
Susan Harlan is an English professor at Wake Forest University, where she specializes in Shakespeare. Her essays have appeared in venues such as The Toast, Literary Mothers, The Awl, The Feminist Wire, The Morning News, Public Books, The Manifest-Station, and Skirt!,and she has a monthly column for Nowhere magazine entitled "The Nostalgic Traveler."
Illustration by Tara Jacoby