Saturday, June 17, 2017


I started this hangout by recommending a book my husband and I had been reading, called Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times. Some of the amazing tidbits I mentioned from the book include how the servants had to remove all the ribbons from the children's clothing and iron them every time they did laundry, and how someone was in charge of making sure the yolks of fried eggs were centered. The book covers more than just what servants were asked to do, however; it also talks about how the World Wars changed things like the role of women, the availability of manpower, and the economics surrounding the hiring of servants.

The issues surrounding servants hired by the British in India were somewhat different. In India, only certain castes of people could be hired for a job that involved cleaning bathrooms. Different castes were assigned different duties. Also, a British woman was sued by one of her male servants when she hit him with a piece of toast. I urge you to go back to the book for the detailed original versions of these stories.

There are generally ranking systems within the population of servants - some have more power, and some have less.

Kat asked whether it makes sense to have servants in a world where magic or technology is being used for labor-saving. Brian suggested it would be odd but interesting if wizards or magic users were employed as servants because they could get work done.

I talked about some of the complex issues surrounding hiring someone to help in the household in this day and age. Why does it feel different to hire an electrician or a plumber than it does to hire someone to clean the house? Wages are a factor. So is the gendering of labor.

Domestic labor tends to be gendered. Is hiring also gendered? What are men expected to do? What are women expected to do? How are tasks assigned?

In the book Tom by Dave Freer, a cat turns into a human servant. This brings up a lot of interesting issues.

Black Adder took on some of the questions about servants. What are the issues surrounding robot servants?

Brian got a bit more detailed about how there is a class structure within the servant population. He told us that the cook ran the kitchen, and the butler ran the household, and they were the rulers of their domains.

Are the most disagreeable tasks paid well because nobody wants to do them? Or are there populations forced to take on these duties because no one else will hire them for better?

People who are doing hard labor sometimes make a lot of money. This has happened in science fiction with stories of asteroid miners, for example, but it tends to be very male-biased. Wendy told us about a book she wrote, Confessions of a Female Safety Engineer (Wendy Delmater).

Women's work is often devalued.

People can learn to ignore other people who are present in a room. Servants tend to be an ignored population.

Kat brought up some fascinating issues about our cultural expectations. When we walk into a store, who might we guess is a customer, and who an employee? There are many stories of people of color who are unjustifiably guessed to be employees of a store because of racial bias. Black men are sometimes assumed to be valets. These people are sometimes pushed past, or asked to do service.

Wendy mentioned that she was sometimes assumed to be a secretary on her construction sites, and so she started wearing a hard hat. This is a useful way to flag one's membership in a different group, but such flags are often missed or ignored when they are used by people of color, and assertiveness can be dangerous (even to life and limb). We talked about the roles of allies and what kind of consequences can present themselves if people try to be allies. It's interesting to take a character like Miles Vorkosigan and look at his class privilege, where his protections come from, where he rebels and what the consequences are, and how far he can push it without being stopped.

The social systems that divide people into subservient and non-subservient classes are self-sustaining, and reinforced through explicit punishments.

A lot of fantasy and science fiction still holds onto the idea that one's blood is where one's quality comes from. What are the features that define nobility? Are they white features? Can you be cast down into servitude and still be rescued because of your blood?

Service is skilled work, and not something easily learned by people who have been cast down.

Who "deserves" service? Do people take pride in their inability to do certain things in your world?

We talked briefly about the metaphors people use to talk about their pets. Are cat owners servants to their cats? Are they parents to their cats? What are the implications of these metaphors? The two are not compatible, however, unless we decide we are somehow servants to our children.

There is a power relationship here. It's always important to dig down to the power relationship and ask where it arises and what its consequences are.

Jane Austen's work dealt with the impoverished nobility, and put money and class into conflict in fascinating ways.

The position of nanny is fascinating and can be fraught. Do you really want to use your parenting skills as a nanny, to put yourself into a service position relative to someone else's children? Is a nanny considered a member of the family?

Where are the lines drawn between family, servant, skilled consultant, and laborer? These are vitally important questions in any secondary world.

We also spoke briefly about publicly funded respite care for the disabled, and Patsy shared the experience of her son. Her son's developmental assistant becomes like part of the family. In Canada, the government pays for these services. The United States has some public services like this, but they require a lot of management. Kat encouraged us to ask who in this relationship would be perceived to be of higher or lower socioeconomic standing. Is there a societal expectation of who is allowed to have care or not? Is race involved? Are other factors involved?

Thank you to everyone who attended for a fascinating and dynamic discussion. For those interested in the video, we had some audio balance issues; I apologize for those.


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