Domesticity has for a long time been for sale. In Desire and Domestic Fiction, Nancy Armstrong describes (western) 18th century conduct books selling female readers a middle class home-life when one had yet to exist. Needlecraft magazines at the start of the 20th century persuaded downtrodden widows to hole up in their dens and darn socks for local college girls in order to earn extra money and secure an independent living that did not require them to venture outside the home. Today, these micro-narratives are woven together by the prolific nature of digital authorship, all of our online and mass media contributions coming together to form a sturdy fabric selling home economics, revised edition.
Whereas home economics — and the originating conduct literature of earlier centuries — taught women to manage a household provided for by the male public-figure, the narratives today hold up the possibility that, in fact, women can escape the Man altogether. Women can claim not only an independence of gender roles within marriage, not just an independence of womanhood without marriage, but also the idea that the velvet handcuffs can be refashioned into a becoming sash, headband or iPod case.
Etsy is a pioneering example of this discourse and its generation. Etsy is an online marketplace for handmade goods with $180M in sales in 2009 and 250,000 shop owners (and millions of buyers). As of a March 2010 survey of its membership, 97% of the online community is women. Etsy's blog publishes a weekly series that profiles shop owners who have quit their day jobs and are either supplementing their income or are working toward goals of supporting themselves financially by selling their crafts on the site. A December 2009 article in the NY Times confirms that a micro-narrative is gaining credence among many women engaged in an online craft community: specifically, that it is possible to “quit your day job,” and for some, to be quite successful. In spite of the critics and nay-sayers, this story has been writ large for the close-knit community of online crafters looking to make enough money to support their work full time or to use their craft to sustain their lifestyle.
In online craft culture, frequently the character of "handmade" and the setting of "local" is part of the sale. The seller’s persona matters. More often than not, the most successful online craft-sellers self-fashion their projected lifestyles as much as they fashion fabric or metal. Self-presentation is part of the package, and story surrounds items and shops and artists. Part of Etsy’s mission in fact is to reconnect buyers and sellers. Artists and crafters in the online marketplace therefore need storyspace, and the blog is serving this (new? old? refashioned?) need. The micro-narrative of an independent living is traveling then by way of the marketplace system itself.
Buyers and sellers alike are the reading public of the design and lifestyle blogs that point to shops selling the very items that sellers are living among and with. Desire is constructed through a crafter’s blog that showcases the home or studio, and the blogger satisfies that desire through an online shop. (Sometimes it happens in that order, sometimes not.) Desire is being constructed locally, socially and by individuals, in an online space that is predominantly generated by women. This new online domestic space — a private space made public — is part of a long history of an economics that is gendered female and situated firmly in the tradition of showcased domesticity. What makes it new (upcycled) is the sheer multitude of loose threads that ultimately comprise the fabric of this online community, its economics and its discourse.
This is an interesting post. I hadn’t known about Etsy, and appreciate your reading of it, especially your use of the term “upcycled” in the Curator’s Note. Your thoughtful account of how micronarratives of independent living become part of the marketing system is intriguing.
I have to admit that I’m more interested in the project of selling vintage products, products that have to be at least 20 years old, than I am in the specific lifestyle choices of this couple. While I like the thought of a globe collection, I found myself taking some distance from, for example, the shelf of plastic reindeer above the bed. But that may be further evidence that I’m not part of the targeted demographic (as pointed out both in your Curator's Note, and in the Slate article to which you linked).
The Etsy Man
After reading your interesting commentary on the gendered public of Etsy sellers and consumers, I was surprised to see a woman AND a man in the video leading a tour of their shared living space. Their discussion of their shared collecting sensibilities successfully communicates the aesthetic priorities they in turn hope to share with Etsy shoppers, and their well-appointed loft (if you like globes and plastic reindeer) serves as a virtual gallery or catalog. The agendas of this blog/commercial, however, seem to operate in tension with the image of the independent woman whose artisanal and entrepreneurial labors are so central to Etsy’s appeal. How does the man in the video fit within the genealogy of home economics and needlecraft that you cite? Would his absence from the video transform it in significant ways?
Thank you for introducing me to these blogs. I’m looking forward to watching more.
Estied Spaces, Etsied Identities
Thank you very much for this post. Your insight that Etsy taps into and "upcycles" (I like the term, too) a familiar narrative helps me make sense of why the site has boomed and why provokes such strong reactions ("Etsy!") when it comes up in casual conversation. I'd value your thoughts about how Regretsy's repurposing and lampooning of Etsy's products inflects your sense of how the site functions.
I wonder if there's also a "backcycle" of sorts happening through the site: The way Shauna and Stephen have styled their place--each nook its own quirky display of identity--doesn't seem so very different from the way users of social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace, customize the components of their profiles and pages, such that my digital space becomes the method by which I make and showcase my material space.
Upcycle and Uplift
Thanks, Jennifer, for a very provocative post. As I was reading your historical reading of Etsy's business plan, I was struck by the strong fantasy of gendered empowerment that somebody is using to make money off of women's labor. So of course I wondered who. Following your links, I visited Etsy's about page and noticed a video featuring its founder, Robert Kalin, and his vision of making the market place into a global community (www.etsy.com/about.php). Its representation of gender (and race) in Etsy management, production, and consumption might be very useful for your argument if you keep going with this research.
I also wanted to ask you about the representation of global capital in this video. It features an artist-producer who suggests that Etsy offers a (capitalist) alternative to corporations that "are stifling everything America used to stand for." I wonder if you have any thoughts on Etsy's relationship to international microfinance, its nationalist impulses (as represented by its choice to use this clip), or its fantasy of a "global village."
What's hiding in here?
The moment in the short flm when Shauna says she loves plastic deer with missing antlers provides a great starting point for the issues of consumerism, style, and female identity that you're engaging here. Your post provocatively raises questions about the relationship between entrepreneurial women's labor and the purchasing power behind an aesthetic sensibility that values the traditionally undervalued: the handmade, the repurposed, and the female. Like the faux bois objects that Shauna and Stephen sell on their Etsy site, the plastic deer marked by time and use appear to evoke a playfully debased notion of history and value, which I find very appealing as an idea, and, admittedly, as a consumer. Nevertheless, I was at first reluctant to buy the underlying suggestion here that stylish art-school makeovers could really rewrite the cultural status of women's handwork. It's difficult for me to see the story of women leaving the (conventional) workforce to do piecework as progressive, however sassy that piecework may be. Does refashioning the velvet handcuffs really make them any less handcuffs?
I think the one potential answer can be found in the way you have joined your comments with Tara Young's short film. Young, who appears to have produced a number of short films for Etsy, is also an entreprenurial artist-producer whose work is supported by the Etsy economy. Her work reflects the DIY aesthetic while emphasizing the widening scope of female entrepreneurial productivity. I couldn't find any films or videos for sale on Etsy, but I would be very interested in seeing them expand the site to include these kinds of works as objects for sale. Though the site may be exhibiting these films in support of the micro-narratives about "quitting your day job" it is also employing that unusual commodity, the working female filmmaker, to sell the story. As those working in film and media studies know, we are in an entrepreneurial moment, and it seems to me crucially important that we acknowledge and support venues that employ and showcase the work of women artist-producers, whatever their role, in this upcycled discourse and marketplace.
a further thought, and a question
It would be really great if women started selling short videos on Etsy. Does anyone know of a place online where people can do this? I'm thinking of something more like an iTunes than a YouTube, but with the flavor and community of an Etsy.
Add new comment