“Everything Melts”: Anti-Normative Appliances in Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s The Freezer Door
The following is the transcript of a talk I had the privilege of giving to the members of the Contextual Studies Department at the University of St Gallen in March 2021, and which I subsequently developed into the final section of the final chapter of my new book, "All-Electric" Narratives: Time-Saving Appliances in American Literature, 1945–2020, which is out with Bloomsbury in October 2021 (I am very very very excited about this, among other things because it is the pinkest book ever).
In this book, I show how U.S. writers of different political persuasions and working in different literary genres have engaged with the shifting meanings attributed to domestic electrification and time-saving household devices by manufacturers, advertisers, politicians, and the U.S. government. In doing so, I recover the racialised history of domestic electrification, which advertising historians have all but ignored, and I demonstrate how U.S writers have challenged, subverted, or normalised the rhetoric of “time-saving” and “all-electric” living. The approach I take is fundamentally interdisciplinary. I bring together five areas: literary studies, domestic space studies, the history of labour relations, design and technology studies, and media studies. In particular, I build on the work of literary studies scholars associated with the so-called “thingly turn”—those interested in what Bill Brown calls the “object matter” of literature. But I also build on the work of social historians of housework, advertising, product design, electrification, and corporate science and display, since I’m interested in the relationship between literary depictions of gadgets and the material conditions and political landscape that produced them. And I utilise critical race, queer, and feminist theory to think through the hidden meanings of both the literary objects in the texts I examine, and their real-life counterparts. Here's a visualisation:
And this infographic attempts to capture the variety of these meanings: emblems of “whiteness,” replacement slaves, emancipatory, emasculating, modern, magic, futuristic, dystopian, dehumanising, dangerous, emblems of corporate benevolence, symbols of capitalist exploitation, upholders of the status quo, nostalgic. I could go on!
But there’s a lot I wasn’t able to include in this book, which already runs over 130,000 words! In particular, there are several postmillennial texts that I didn’t have space to discuss. Here are some of them:
In this piece, I'll be focussing on one of these: the memoir The Freezer Door, by the gender-queer author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. While this book has been reviewed in the mainstream press, mine is, I believe, the first scholarly engagement with it.
And what I want to think about is (a) how the concept of the freezer door functions to challenge a series of myths that the U.S. has long loved to tell itself and (b) how the memoir engages with actual appliances, and the idea of access to a safe home with functioning central heating and an oven that doesn’t blow up when you use it.
I want to explore how Sycamore’s text puts two positions in dialogue. On the one hand, the history of appliances is entangled with the history of U.S. imperialism and white supremacy. Amy Kaplan argues that the concept of “domesticity” developed contemporaneously with the nineteenth-century concept of Manifest Destiny—that the U.S. was destined to spread democracy and capitalism globally. In the U.S. imagination, “domesticity” links the concepts of household and nation, reinforcing the idea that the interior of both exists “in opposition to […] an external world perceived as alien and threatening.” In my book, I argue that appliances were promoted precisely along those lines. On top of which, appliance ownership was historically used to distinguish white people from minorities, the middle- and upper classes from the working classes, and Americans from the rest of the world. On the other hand, the historical dispossession of queer people, like other minorities, and lack of access of radical queer communities to affordable housing, endows appliance ownership with emancipatory power. Can one both reject assimilation into hetero-capitalism and still enjoy machine laundered clothes and electrically chilled food? I'm going to argue that the freezer door at the centre of this memoir—like an ice cube that upon contact with room temperate air begins to melt—is the liminal space between outright celebration of capitalism, and outright rejection of electrical modernity and its attendant comforts in the name of anti-capitalist and anti-heteronormative anarchism.
Sycamore’s text follows the tradition of the countercultural memoir from André Breton through to Jack Kerouac, David Wojnarowicz, and Sarah Schulman, in which memories and dreams are blended with critiques of capitalism.
The memoir comprises a hundred or so vignettes of Sycamore’s work as an activist and sex worker in 1990s San Francisco and a writer in postmillennial Seattle. The text juxtaposes accounts of sex in public toilets and parks with mini-manifestoes against the assimilation of gay people into mainstream culture, the commodification of gay pride, gentrification, the shrinking of the welfare state, and militarization. In amongst these narratives are wedged four dialogues between an ice cube who “longs to be fluid” and an ice tray. I’m going to show you a few examples of these:
1. Explain gentrification to me, says the ice cube. Crushed ice, says the ice cube tray”(31).
2. The only open relationship is the open door, says the ice cube tray.
Are you trying to scare me with a metaphor, asks the ice cube (33).
3. What do you do when you’re not in the freezer, asks the ice cube. You don’t want to know, says the ice cube tray (39).
4. Explain violence to me, says the ice cube. Someone turns off the electricity, says the ice cube tray.
What is the meaning of life, asks the ice cube. There’s no future for us, says the ice cube tray. But sometimes I like living in denial.
Explain nihilism to me, says the ice cube. Everything melts, says the ice cube tray.
What is it like to gamble, asks the ice cube. Open the freezer door, says the ice cube tray (TFD, 40).
Sycamore personifies the ice cube as both idealistic and fearful, and the ice tray as a pragmatist. The ice cube is a non-binary thinker—it longs to experience melting—while the ice tray sees the world in categories. What the ice cube sees as “fluidity,” and as indeterminacy with the potential to result in death or rebirth, the ice cube tray sees as nihilism. Now these dialogues are of course funny just by dint of involving household objects philosophising. But they are also tinged with tragedy. The ice tray’s claim “there’s no future for us” echoes Syamore’s descriptions elsewhere about the agony of coming of age as a genderqueer person at the height of the AIDS crisis. The equating of an open relationship to the open freezer door that will result in the ice cube’s decimation echoes her detailed descriptions of both homophobic violence and the legacy of the AIDS crisis, when to be polyamorous was, indeed, to risk death. It’s significant that Sycamore articulates these ideas via two objects that are imbricated in the very systems of oppression that her memoir challenges. This is intentional—she re-appropriates a series of objects and motifs, and imbues them with new, subversive meaning. This becomes clear when we locate the ice cube, ice tray, and freezer in her text within the history of these objects.
While ice can exist anywhere that is cold enough for water to freeze, and while the creation, storage, and trading of ice dates back to at least the Early Modern era, the electric freezer and ice tray are distinctly modern phenomena whose popularisation and advertising in the U.S. has been associated, since their invention, with American ingenuity. The first upright freezers, and the first two-door refrigerator-freezers, didn’t come onto the market until 1947, thirty years after the first refrigerator. Their launch coincided with the start of the Cold War and followed a decade of futuristic advertising that equated appliance ownership with patriotism, often using military rhetoric.
General Electric’s Monitor Top refrigerator, for example, was named after the Civil War gunship that its exposed compressor resembled. Appliance ads throughout the 1930s, as I've discussed in a previous blog post, equated appliance ownership with the emancipation from slavery: one General Electric ad even called electricity the “modern Lincoln” and General Electric the “modern emancipator.”
During the Second World War, appliance ads positioned manufacturers’ shift to weapons production as a patriotic act, and sought to ensure post-war demand for their goods by equating appliance ownership with victory. Hence ads like these, where a tarot reading reveals a future full of appliances (and look at the scrap in the disembodied white woman's hands! I've been reading Sarah Wasserman's The Death of Things: Ephemera and the American Novel, and the wish list that finds its resolution in the tarot cards seems to exemplify Wasserman's understanding of the pivotal role that ephemera, and scrap paper in particular, play in staging the conjuring and fulfilment and legacy of desire).
Meanwhile early post-war ads posited a bulging refrigerator and a freezer full of frozen delights as the hard-won rewards for years of rationing:
The ice tray in turn became a means for manufacturers to differentiate themselves from each other in an increasingly crowded marketplace, and to turn the once messy, onerous, task of chipping ice from an ice block, into a more civilised, tidy, and feminine one. In ‘55, Frigidaire launched the Flip-Quick Ice Ejector—an aluminium ice tray installed upside down, whose cubes a lever would push into a bucket below. The Ice Ejector came in a range of pastel colours including aqua and pink, reinforcing its function as a facilitator of graceful, feminine drink-making.
Refrigerator and freezer design was in turn shaped by what manufacturers thought women, understood to be their main users, wanted. The Monitor Top in this period was replaced with far larger models that allowed for the storage of several weeks of groceries:
And more elegant designs with soft curves and customisable doors contributed to the positioning of the kitchen as the centre of the home.
Of course, rhetoric around the refrigerator and freezer reinforced traditional gender roles:
Meanwhile appliance ownership was being overtly linked to the superiority of the so-called American way of life over communism. Hence promotions such as Westinghouse’s “Freedom Fair” starring popular American celebrities including then-movie star and future president Ronald Reagan (about whom more later).
And hence the centrality of appliances in the debate between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khruschev at the American Exhibition in Moscow in ‘59, which took place in a model General Electric kitchen in yellow. Nixon’s claim, that the electric kitchens developed by U.S. manufactures “make easier the life of our housewives,” reinforced the idea that American women enjoyed a better quality of life than their Soviet counterparts. Nixon’s claims were in line with the broader policy of containment that shaped the conservativism of this period.
As Alan Nadel has argued, “military deployment and industrial technology, televised hearings and filmed teleplays, the cult of domesticity and the fetishizing of domestic security, the arms race and atoms for peace” were all products of the perceived need to contain the communist threat. This story is about gas refrigerators guaranteed to withstand a nuclear blast:
In these ads, the housewife is an astronaut of the home, helping fight for the American way of life on earth and beyond:
The beautiful housewives and cherub-like children ubiquitous to post-war appliance ads reinforced the connection between appliances, femininity, and heteronormativity. We might be forgiven for assuming, from these ads, that Westinghouse and Frigidaire help American families raise healthy, heterosexual children.
We might be forgiven for assuming that they preserve not just food, but the housewife’s beauty, for longer:
And we might be forgiven for forgetting that these same companies received large contracts from the U.S. government throughout the Cold War to develop military technologies—or that the suburban ideal promoted in these ads was based on a Cold War defense strategy, the suburbs themselves having emerged as a way to avoid mass casualties in the event of a nuclear attack (the image below is actually a collage made in 2020 in response to Covid-19, as attested by the little viruses out of the window, but I love the way it plays on nuclear anxieties to skewer the nostalgic thrust of media narratives about lockdown over the last year!).
Sycamore’s choice of metaphor thus skewers a whole host of values, associations, and ideals central to the American project—a project that she has, throughout her writing and activism, challenged. This is a writer, after all, who disagreed with opposition to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the policy introduced under Bill Clinton to prevent military applicants from being asked about their sexual orientation. She argued that gay people should be campaigning not to be allowed into the military, but for its disbanding. This is also a writer who has opposed gay marriage on the basis that marriage itself should be abolished. And she has written candidly, both in this memoir and her other texts, about the sexual abuse she suffered, throughout her childhood, at the hands of her psychiatrist father. When I interviewed her for this talk, Sycamore noted that for her, the suburbs will always be linked to the trauma of incest, and the violence of communities such as the wealthy suburbs of Washington D.C. where she grew up, in which the horrific acts that occur behind closed doors are sanctioned by the perpetrators’ wealth.The freezer door at the centre of this text is thus a provocation. It threatens to disclose the contents of the symbol of post-war plenitude and an American mythos premised on a capitalist heteronormativity that obscures abuse. This symbolic charge becomes even more apparent when one considers the queer memoir tradition in which Sycamore self-consciously places her text, and, in particular, the work of David Wojnarowicz, to whom it is dedicated.
Most notably, it is tempting to read Sycamore’s freezer as a direct reference to the numerous refrigerators that punctuate Wojnarowicz’s memoir, Close to the Knives, which was published in 1991, the year he died of AIDS. In this memoir, Wojnarowicz forensically analysed the rhetoric of Reagan-era Republicans who called for increased military spending at the same time as denying funding for AIDS research. A description of the government’s investment in missiles “the size of refrigerators” identified the government’s efforts, throughout the Cold War, to domesticate warfare. A description of a “skinny bum with red bare feet—once somebody’s little baby—crawl[ing] into a box that once contained a refrigerator,” gestured to the hypocrisy of an administration that claimed commitment to so-called “family values.” But most notable of all was Wojnarowicz’s description of his rage as his lover and mentor, Peter Hujar, lay dying of an AIDS-related illness:
Wojnarowicz was invoking the famous climactic ending of Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult film, Zabriskie Point (1970), in which the protagonist imagined the explosion of the desert home owned by her boss, a real estate developer. The seven-minute sequence of household objects spiralling in the air illustrated the youth counterculture’s rejection of bourgeois values, war, and white supremacy, while the exploding refrigerator flinging its contents across the sky countered the televisual images of plenitude with which this generation had grown up. This is another still from the film: these are mannequins, and it’s exposing the “good life” to be a “good lie.” Wojnarowicz’s text incorporated Antonioni’s imagery into his indictment of what he described, elsewhere, as a genocide. The “entire contents of the family refrigerator lovingly spilling out toward the eye in rage” embodied the anger of a population left to die, and the violence underlying the images of home and family that Reagan propagated throughout his time as ambassador for G.E. in the 60s and his subsequent political career. The reference to the “preinvented world” linked the refrigerator to those policy makers whom, as Wojnarowicz put it elsewhere, “can read instruction manuals from front to back and then follow them to the letter,” and who see gay people as expendable but will fund the development of “laser[s to be] discharged from a device the size of a refrigerator” (CCTK, 147;38).
While the spectre of Wojnarowicz’s refrigerator haunts Sycamore’s text, she refashions this appliance into a more redemptive vision. Wojnarowicz’s image of the exploding refrigerator spilling its contents over the desert is an image of destruction—and let’s not forget that the desert in the post-1945 U.S. imagination is always linked to the military-industrial complex, to nuclear weaponry, and the like. Sycamore’s freezer door is more ambiguous. This is especially apparent when we consider its counterpoint: the “Seattle Freeze,” an expression used to describe the coldness of Seattleans, and which Sycamore invokes several times.
As she notes, the Seattle Freeze is “the gentrified gaze, the suburban imagination in the urban environment, the white picket fence in the eyes” (220). This description echoes Sarah Schulman’s description of yuppiedom in Gentrification of the Mind—a key influence for Sycamore. In this book about the displacement of radical queer communities in New York City during the AIDS crisis, Schulman describes the “industrial minimalism” of a yuppie restaurant on Avenue A as “a bit like the inside of a refrigerator” (32). Sycamore’s freezer door offers an escape from the cloistered, alienating chill of both the homogeneity of yuppiedom and the Seattle Freeze—a chance to melt, mingle, and confuse the borders between selves. It also provides a counter to the myriad images of refrigerators in U.S. literature published between the 40s and early 2000s, in which electrically powered cold storage served as a metaphor for artifice, alienation, neo-imperialism, the decimation of the environment, soulless hipsterism, and more. Sycamore, too, understands this appliance as an allegory for cold, calculating individualism, but she understands that state of coldness to be changeable. And this is really key: it’s what distinguishes her text from most of the appliance depictions I’ve studied.
The reader might be reminded of Marx and Engels’ famous articulation of capitalism’s incessant pursuit of greater efficiencies, which comes at the expense of human relations: “all that is solid melts into air.” The reader might also be reminded of Zygmunt Bauman’s description of neoliberalism as “liquid” capitalism—defined by financialisation, and the frictionless flow of capital. But to my mind, Sycamore’s concept of melting is not a comment on either neoliberalisation or its effects on social relations (even and despite her scathing commentaries on gentrification). To the contrary, she is re-appropriating liquidity, and the interstitial state between liquid and solid, as metaphors for queer liberation. The open freezer door is not a metaphor for the catalyst of a liquid capitalism freed of human elements but, rather, a radical queer embodiment that allows, as Ahmed describes it, the “extending [of] bodies into spaces that create new folds, or new contours of what we could call livable or inhabitable space” (11).
Because the threat of the open freezer door is simultaneously the threat of dissolution, disclosure, and revelation. To open the freezer door is to allow the possibility of melting, yes, but it is also to disclose to the world the doubts housed inside it (personified in the ever-questioning ice cube, who relentlessly imagines different ways of being). And it is to disclose the different forms of control, coercion, and constraint on which the dream of America depends—personified in the tray that constrains the cubes in their boxes so reminiscent of suburban houses. Nor is it a coincidence that anytime the ice cube suggests the appeal of polyamory, of living between the states of solid and liquid, or of venturing outside the freezer, it is met with reminders of the dangers of such experimentation. The freezer is revealed to be a closeting space, where the desires of the non-conforming are put on ice. Meanwhile the freezer door is revealed to be a liminal space, a boundary between the inside of the cold storage unit and the exterior that if left ajar too long, negates the appliance’s controlling functions. By contrast, the freezer door is a space of potentiality. The possibility of opening the freezer door is the possibility of transformation—and whether to melt is to be destroyed or to be transfigured is revealed to be subjective.
But we should remember that Sycamore is not writing against the backdrop of Cold War America, however much her youth may have been shaped by it (she was born in ‘73). While Cold War suburbia looms as large over this text as the AIDS epidemic, the majority of the encounters Sycamore describes occur in postmillennial Seattle. This brings me to the second function of appliances in her memoir, which provocatively complicate the readings I have advanced thus far.
For in her enumerations of the effects of skyrocketing rents, rising homelessness, and a property market that discriminates against minorities, Sycamore complicates a binary reading of appliances as symbols of domesticated militarism or heteronormativity. Her accounts of living in buildings with shared, barely-functioning washing machines, and apartments equipped with outdated kitchen appliances, remind us that beyond their entanglement in semiotic systems, appliances are also objects that perform practical functions; that access to these objects is confined to those who can afford them; and that in the twenty-first century, a functioning stove and fridge are seen, by many, as basic necessities. By drawing the reader’s attention to the absence of these necessities in her, and her peers’, homes, Sycamore conveys the widening gap between the domestic idylls into which Seattle’s wealthy white gay men have escaped, and the conditions of those who resist such assimilation. Resistance, she reminds us, involves sacrifice. A life of activism is often a life on the breadline. And gay assimilation is not the same as queer liberation. In describing the landscaped gardens of gated communities inhabited by wealthy gay white man as militarised spaces and as the “new suburbs”, and the leaf blowers that keep these areas pristine as embodiments of the social cleansing that gentrification entails, Sycamore links the commodification of gay pride to a new kind of containment culture, and shows the speed with which the project of U.S. capitalism subsumes dissidence. (The image below is from an awareness-raising campaign the Coalition Against Homelessness launched in 1992, a year after the publication of Wojnarowicz's memoir and its scathing depiction of the bum-once-somebody's-baby living in a refrigerator box).
But again, I want to argue that Sycamore’s loving description of the appliances she eventually came to own provides a redemptive alternative to either disavowing home comforts or becoming a sell-out. Her nuanced depictions, like the image of the freezer door, allow us to linger in the space between ideological positions. The following passage is especially telling:
Sycamore extricates appliances from their connotations of middle classness. She reclaims sweetly scented laundry and gleaming kitchen surfaces from the jaws of an advertising landscape beholden to the military-industrial complex. The reference to the unspecified sickness that necessitates cooking from scratch challenges the longstanding equation of the “all-electric” kitchen with physical fitness, and healthy American bodies redolent of the fortitude of the state. And here I am thinking about Shannon Fitzpatrick’s work on the image of American athleticism promoted abroad in print magazines in the early twentieth century, Kristina Zarlengo’s analysis of the role of public service announcements in encouraging housewives to see themselves as warriors in training, and Rachel Moran’s work on the trajectory from early twentieth-century “scientific mothering” to post-war investment in promoting physical fitness to win the Cold War. I’m also thinking of then-actor Ronald Reagan, who as the spokesperson for General Electric in the early 60s embodied masculine fitness, free enterprise, family values, and “all-electric” living. Sycamore divests the “all-electric” kitchen of its associations with an American dream coded hetero, binary, and middle-class, and re-populates it with the dreams of a genderqueer person striving to overcome the infirmities of her body, and to imagine beyond the narrow confines of what America claims possible. The scene is all the more poignant in its homage to the tropes of mid-century appliance ads, which used dream imagery to portray appliance ownership as the stuff of fantasy come true. More to the point, it recovers their queer subtext, which I've discussed in an earlier blog post. I'm going to revisit, here, the same promotional film I discuss in that post, since it exemplifies the queer aesthetic sensibility that I argue characterised a lot of midcentury appliance advertising, and went more or less unacknowledged.
In the Bell Telephone Company’s industrial film, Once Upon a Honeymoon, released in ‘56, a board meeting of guardian angels looks down on earth, where a suburban couple of newlyweds have had to put off their honeymoon while the husband finishes writing a musical number called "The Wishing Song". The board sends down a camp angel to help:
We watch the housewife trail into the kitchen, where she looks with dismay upon her faulty appliances and begins singing a song about all of the gadgets she wishes she owned. The camp angel showers fairy dust down on the house. New appliances appear, the song is a hit with the producer, and the couple can go on their honeymoon and - it is implied, finally consummate their marriage.
The Bell Telephone Company connects newlyweds to their dreams and helps maintain the sparks that make for happy, hetero relationships.
And yet the community of male angels gestures to other modes of living, - be it the musical theatre community, or non-heteronormativity more broadly. The existence of this community is what renders the honeymoon necessary. Where these new appliances will free up the new wife's time and the song about appliances will ensure the husband is able to take time off for the honeymoon, the honeymoon will ensure he doesn't veer off with a fairy dust-wielding angel from Broadway. (You could complicate this, and see the board room of angels as embodying corporate masculinity, and the guardian angel as the queer rogue element that fits in neither the heavens of corporate America nor the drudgery of the home. The task of the honeymoon is to ensure that the suburban husband doesn't end up in this queer in-between space, either).
Sycamore’s summary of the pleasures of appliance ownership, “Have a kitchen with room to dream,” reminds us of all the other kinds of dreams that these objects might engender, and that pullulated below the surface of ads produced at the height of the Eisenhower era. In refusing to describe the middle-class dream she never wanted, and instead lingering on imaginative energies latent within objects linked to the American project, she reveals appliances themselves to have longstanding repressed queer associations.
So, to summarise. The ice cube tray in Sycamore’s text is akin to the constraining little boxes of suburbia, and to the gated communities which Sycamore describes as militarized landscapes premised on the same principles of exclusivity and racial segregation as the post-war suburbs.Leaving the freezer door open, or pulling the plug on the freezer, are metaphors throughout Sycamore’s text for both a politics of radical hope, and for queerness itself. To open the freezer door is to allow the ice inside to melt, and to become “fluid,” as Sycamore herself describes the ideal state of being—and to challenge what she calls the suburbanisation of the urban imagination.
BUT. Sycamore’s descriptions of her longstanding aspiration to own her own washing machine, and to have a kitchen with functioning appliances, complicates this binary. Firstly, they remind us of the material benefits of these objects. Secondly, they retrospectively queer the narratives, in mid-century appliance ads, of housewives longing for new appliances. They reveal the queer subtext that underlay these narratives all along.
What I have offered here barely scratches the surface of the complexities of Sycamore’s text. But I hope that I have at least persuaded you of the myriad ways in which it complicates binary understandings of appliances, and enriches what I call “appliance literature.” In particular, her text productively extends and challenges the image of electrical connectivity as a metaphor for collectivism that runs throughout countercultural U.S. literature from Walt Whitman through Jack Kerouac, second-wave feminist fiction, and queer fiction. Despite all the evidence, she suggests the enduring potential for selves to connect with other selves in the hyper-individualistic, gentrified twenty-first century American city.
I'd like to thank Dieter Thomä and Christa Biswanger for their provocative questions, which helped me extend my argument in new directions. Thank you to Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore for generously taking part in our interview.
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