The Washing Society and Jeanne Dielman: Making the Invisible Visible

The Washing Society and Jeanne Dielman: Making the Invisible Visible
December 13, 2021
By Patricia K.

One of the most underappreciated roles in our society is the labor behind housework and caregiving. There are lots to do to maintain the upkeep of our households — laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, etc — but these menial tasks keep the household together and, most importantly, keep us alive and put food on the table.

Filmmakers often focus on what’s exciting and entertaining instead of the mundane, which keeps these tasks invisible in pop culture; even filmmakers interested in the charm of daily life would ignore this type of labor. However, housework and caregiving have been explored, particularly, among women filmmakers, who know the internal lives of this hidden labor. 

Chantal Akerman’s three-hour Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles and Lynne Sachs’ & Lizzie Olesker’s short film The Washing Society, albeit portraying two different kinds of housework, both share a common thread: these films are making the invisible visible.

The Washing Society tells a story about laundromat workers in New York City through vignettes of fiction, nonfiction, and performance art; the film is guided by the 1881 Atlanta washerwomen strike, where hundreds of washerwomen — mostly of African-American descent — went on strike after being underpaid by their bosses. The Washing Society continues this legacy by interviewing two laundry workers and a former laundry worker who went on strike in the 1960s. The film also tells its story through three characters — two women who represent the mostly immigrant, mostly Chinese or Spanish-speaking laundry workers in New York City, and one woman representing the ghosts of the 1881 strike. When we drop off our laundry at the laundromat, we come back with a fresh load of clothing without thinking all the work that is put behind them. Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker focuses the camera on these narrow storefronts, rows and rows of washing machines, and the Sisyphean task of folding and washing clothes to bring forth that invisible labor that people don’t often think of.

My screening of The Washing Society was followed by a Q&A with feminist Marxist theorist Silvia Federici. Sachs has mentioned about how her work has been based on Federici’s work on Wages Against Housework. In her seminal essay, Federici argued that domestic labor is a form of production used to sustain other forms of work in a capitalist society. However, it is very convenient to make this form of labor invisible. A tenet of its invisibility is to mask this labor into a “labor of love” — that things such as washing clothes are marked as a care, therefore taking out the value of the work performed and expecting that careworkers are doing it based on willingness and kindness. Whereas, the reality is that these workers are indeedworkers and should be valued as such. Federici’s shaping of The Washing Society reminded me of another film, and is a helpful framework to understand it in a Marxist perspective: Jeanne Dielman.

Directed by Chantal Akerman (who has an interest of portraying domestic work on film), Jeanne Dielman is a story about a housewife who has lost her husband, therefore resorting to sex work to support herself and her teenage son. The film focuses on the minutiae of Jeanne Dielman’s day-to-day tasks; running errands is no longer a generally glossed-over issue in this film as we watch Jeanne cook meals, wash the dishes, grocery shop, and do the things we would consider as menial. While The Washing Society raises awareness to this invisible labor by employing narrative and performance art techniques, Akerman forces the audience to watch this invisible labor. The music is very sparse, the camera movement static, the pace moves slowly, making its audience truly see and listen to the details of Jeanne Dielman’s actions. The invisible, then, becomes hypervisible.

Through this hypervisibility there is a visual code that guides Jeanne Dielman’s actions. Once we focus on these mundane everyday scenes, we realize how repetitive it all gets. Folding clothes, chopping vegetables, boiling water. It’s almost like Sisyphus, rolling his boulder to the top of the mountain only to find it down on the ground again. Once the housework is done for the day, there will always be new loads to wash, more mouths to feed. Some would argue that this repetition is a type of performance art — as housework becomes hypervisible, we are exposed to the rhythm of this repetition and we are seeing it as a form of art in this context, rather than a task. The Washing Society continues this by actually transforming laundry work as performance art. In a few scenes, we see the two fictional laundromat workers rhythmically tapping on laundry machines and dancing on top of them. It is a form of ownership of their own labor — in a world where their customers and bosses do not see the value of their work, they make themselves visible.

What sets Jeanne Dielman apart from the women in The Washing Society is the solitary nature of her labor. Where laundromat workers work in groups and can form unions and negotiate against their bosses, Jeanne Dielman navigates through housework on her own. She is rarely seen communicating with people other than her son — we only see her communicate with her friends through mail, or through more laborious requests by her neighbor. She has no space to talk about these things, as the labor she performs at home is timed to a T.

However, what unites the two films are the internal space of the labor of housework. The internal spaces and thoughts of careworkers and houseworkers are often ignored, as people often impose that they’re thinking of care when they are approaching they work. The reality is definitely far from that — in a system where they work endless, repetitive tasks, they are constantly thinking. This thinking is then manifested in a form of action. The 1881 washerwomen of Atlanta forms a union and strikes for better wages. The fictional laundromat workers in The Washing Society expresses this stifled rage through performance. Jeanne Dielman, however, spends more time with her thoughts since her work is extremely solitary, and expresses them in a more pessimistic way.

What makes Jeanne Dielman’s labor more dire is that her labor isn’t valued in a tangible way. While laundromat workers are able to count their wages and identify wage theft, there is no way for Jeanne Dielman to price the value of her housework. In Capital, Marx took account the labor of housework, and including housework to be valued based on the family breadwinner’s labor-value (although this line of thought has been criticized by scholars like Silvia Federici, who argued to put a direct labor-value of housework itself). However, what happens when this breadwinner is taken out of the equation? Jeanne Dielman has to find a line of work that doesn’t interfere with her housework. In the film, she resorts to sex work, entertaining male guests in her home while her son is away at school. In the dialogue of both forms of labor that Jeanne Dielman performs, we can clearly see how both sex work and housework is tied to patriarchy — it is a form of work that is often invisible, and is dictated by the labor-value of the men who sustain the housewife/sex worker. It is not hard to see how these forms of labor are inherently exploitative to working women like Jeanne Dielman.

When we reflect on working women in patriarchy-dictated forms of labor, we have to also look at how it evolves in the future. Near the end of The Washing Society, Lynne Sachs narrates that most of the laundromats she filmed has closed, due to the rise of instant laundry apps that will pick up your laundry, wash them in an undisclosed location (where workers are completely hidden from their bosses and customers), and bring them back to you. Sachs and Olesker argues (in line with Silvia Federici) that technology has not liberated us. Instead of making work easier, work will eventually increase, and workers’ labor will be more and more alienated. If Jeanne Dielman lives in 2021, indeed, it will be easier for her to find jobs through remote work, but this work will fail to recognize how her housework will be much more laborious. COVID-19 has moved a significant amount of workforce online, and has led more bosses to assume that working from home allows workers more free time. The labor of housework was invisible from family breadwinners, and now is made invisible to bosses as well.

With the far-reaching consequences of technology to housework, we should also think about international solidarity. The rut of technologizing housework will fall to migrant workers and workers from colonized countries, as supply chain technology and transportation has eased the access of cheap labor from around the globe. This exploitation of colonized countries also lies in sex work: sex work has long become a justification for colonialism, and day after day men and women from colonized countries have been forced to enter this inherently exploitative line of work. Historian Gerda Lerner mentions how sex work is “the first form of trade, making them seen as less than human,” and that this is “the beginning of women’s subordination at the hands of men.” This exploitation still continues today through avenues like sex tourism and sex trafficking, which targets the poorest of working class women around the globe. This shows that patriarchy and capitalism definitely works hand in hand with colonialism, and that patriarchy and sexual exploitation are tools to further the empire of capitalism and imperialism.

Both Jeanne Dielman and The Washing Society brings forth these invisible strings in the lives of working women: hidden labor in housework and sex work and the exploitation that comes with it. Jeanne Dielman’s work may be solitary, but as I watched her do her menial tasks I am reminded of the hidden labor in the lives of the women I know. She experiences all of it alone, but her rage is universal, and makes me think about the power that working women around the world hold. These power materializes in labor unions, strikes, and revolutions. Working women around the world constantly continue to uphold the spirit of the women before them who also does this hidden labor, in worse circumstances of the progression of technology and the further alienation of their labor. It is up to us to fight for their rights and make the invisible visible.

The Washing Society and Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles are both available to watch through the Criterion Channel. Besides of watching both films, I also urge you to take action to support the working women in your community. Here are some current efforts in NYC (DM me if you want me to include more efforts):

  • Workers of the United Jewish Council (a home care agency), who are mostly Black/Latinx/immigrants/women of color, has been fighting to end the 24-hour work shifts imposed by the agency. They are holding a rally on Thursday, December 16 in front of the UJC office. More information on the AIW instagram: @aiwcampaign
  • After the Q&A, Sachs, Olesker, and Federici highlighted the work of NYC’s Laundry Workers Center. They are an organization aiming to support and protect workers in NYC laundromats. You can donate to their fund or check out their website for the campaigns they are running. More information can be found in their website: