Preserving Domesticity: Reading Tupperware in Women's Changing Domestic, Social and Economic Roles
Vincent, Susan, The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology
TUPPERWARE HAS A WAY OF BRINGING WOMEN TOGETHER, not always for the expected reason. When a friend invited me to her Tupperware party some years ago, I felt uncomfortable and decided to investigate the reasons for my distaste. In search of a minor diversion from my main research project, I decided to explore Tupperware's image of gendered domesticity. I did not take into account Tupperware's powerful snowballing effect. As other women learned that I was thinking about Tupperware, they approached me and I became a willing listener of their vituperative comments. Fieldwork had never been this easy--here were informants seeking me out to tell me their stories! I had extensive discussions with five women, and obtained other information through discussions at presentations I gave.' This alternative "Tupperware party," or group of women allied in our discomfort, shared certain characteristics. We were university-educated, Euro-Canadian professionals, some in the academy, one outside. I noted that the most pointed c riticisms of the company came from a couple of older women who had spent their early adult years as housewives, although they later joined the ranks of academe.
When I moved to another part of Canada and started talking about Tupperware to younger Euro-Canadian university women, their reactions were quite different. The younger women were also very willing to engage in, although they did not initiate, discussions about Tupperware, but their conversation was markedly less negative and personal. These women tended to find Tupperware an object of amusement, quaint and kitschy, rather than a personal affront. The very different reactions of my two generations of friends stemmed, I suspected, from their experiences in entering the work force. The older women had been expected to be, and had in some cases been, housewives. They had had to challenge these expectations to create their professional lives. By contrast, the younger women had expected and been expected to pursue careers. My conversations with all of these women, some dozen or more, raised more questions than they could possibly answer--about women's changing work and domestic roles, about why Tupperware's image seemed so stubbornly static, about whether opinions in general were changing about Tupperware. After all, their shared characteristic--highly educated professional women--has been neither ideologically nor actually involved with the realm of Tupperware. The one exception is a distributor in Saskatchewan, who provided me with important information about how Tupperware is sold there.
In order to answer my questions, this paper involves a reading of literature by and about Tupperware against political and economic realities of women over roughly the past half century. In this I follow the lead of Martin (1994), who reads medical and popular American understandings of immunity against U.S. social, political and economic history. For her sources, Martin relays between published material and interviews both with scientists and with non-scientist members of the public. The interviews provide her with a way of discovering cultural understandings of the ideas projected by the scientific media. Here I present macrosociological information about women's economic roles over the last fifty years. This provides the context within which I then analyse company material for the image it embodies and the solutions it presents to women. Popular and academic writings about Tupperware, and to a smaller extent my conversations with women, provide a gauge of cultural perceptions of this image (2) that are the n compared to changes in the "success stories" publicized by the company. Written sources, like ethnographic studies, constitute the views of only some people, but I have searched widely through electronic and paper indexes to find a representative sample of opinion. (3) I have taken a broadly North American focus here, relying on both Canadian and American literature. …