Julie’s Julia: The Ideal Housewife

by Chandeen Santos

Blogger Julie Powell states: “Julia Child began learning to cook because she loved her husband, and she loved food, and she didn’t know what else to do with herself, and in the process she found joy.”[i] The movie Julie and Julia follows the lives of Julie Powell and Julia Child as they learn to cook.  Julia Child learned to cook in Paris at the famous Cordon Bleu, and Julie Powell from the book Julia Child published, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  As Julie cooks her way through Mastering the Art, she develops an infatuation with Julia Child.  Near the end of the film, Julie realizes that “her” imagining of Julia a not real representation, but a product of her own imagining.  Her husband reminds her, “The Julia Child in your head is perfect.  The Julia Child in your head is the one that matters.”[ii] What is shocking is that for a woman from the twenty-first century with all the benefits of the women’s movement given to her, Julie Powell idolizes—in Julia Child—all that is most traditional, everything in Julia that makes her a quintessential “1950s housewife.”  It is important to note that neither Julie nor Julia were solely housewives.  Both women became successful in their own right; however, it is the traditional gender role of a housewife that is idolized by Julie and Julia.  Are modern women being drawn back to the ideals of the 1950s housewife?  Have women forgotten all that was fought for in the second wave feminist movement?

Julie and Julia celebrates the traditional values of the stereotypical housewife.  Such images seem to undermine or diminish the work of women who fought for more opportunities and greater self-determination.  The movie illustrates how Julie Powell, daughter of Second Wave feminism, could not achieve the movement’s expectations.  Julie complains in the beginning of the movie that she did not finish a book she meant to write.  She felt like a failure.  The tone of the movie is set when Julie goes to lunch with her friends, who are all successful businesswomen.  These women are characterized as driven, but they are unkind; they do not seem to care about each other or have any real relationships.  Julie’s friends brag about their victories.  One woman is buying a “bundle” for over a hundred million dollars, another got a promotion and can borrow half a million dollars at a low interest rate.  But, Julie is soon left with no one to talk to because they all get on their cell phones to conduct their business.  When Julie is asked about her work, they do not listen to her, but simply repeat expected “supportive” responses.[iii] Their comments fall flat and appear insincere.  These “friend” characters are truly two-dimensional women who “have it all” but are fundamentally unhappy.  Julie hates them.  The movie rejects feminism- or at least the idea of women working—in favor of more conservative domestic ideals.

In a moment of crisis, with her thirtieth birthday looming, Julie turns to Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Not only does Julie cook every recipe in the book, but she also begins her long relationship with an imagined Julia Child.  Julia “was like some great big good fairy” that made everything all right.[iv] Aside from one sentence about the effects of Julia Child’s book, Julie focuses her admiration on Julia’s more traditional skills.  Julie does not idolize Julia Child for the trailblazing work she did as a master chief, but instead fixates on the parts of Julia that represent the perfect housewife.  For Julie, Julia is great because she can cook, has a successful marriage, and throws great parties.

Repeatedly, Julie reminds her husband and friends that Julia is perfect.  Julia would not drop the duck.  Julia is not afraid to kill a lobster.  Julie reads Julia’s biography and discovers that Julia had a wonderful marriage.  At the end of the film, Julie quotes Julia’s husband saying to her own “You are the butter to my bread, the breadth to my life.”[v] Julia’s marriage is something to which Julie Powell aspires.  She wants to reach the same level of comfort and support of Julie and her husband.  Julie even obsesses over Julia’s pearl necklace, a symbol of affluence in the nineteen-fifties.  She is overjoyed when she receives a pearl necklace from her husband as a birthday gift.  Julie Powell created an image of Julia Child that embodied all the success of a great housewife.  In response, Julie Powell begins to emulate Julia Child.  She cooks her recipes, throws parties like her and—on her thirtieth birthday—is given a pearl necklace.

While the movie glorifies the housewife stereotype, it also accounts for the difficulties modern women may face in trying to achieve this ideal.  Julie has a lot of trouble cooking the recipes in Mastering the Art.  She has to juggle shopping for the food, cooking and cleaning.  The cleaning falls to the wayside.  It is implied that Julie’s husband does most of the cleaning.  Julie’s work, cooking, shopping and blogging even takes priority over her relationship with her husband.  Julie’s relationship with Eric, her husband, becomes increasingly strained.  They stop having sex.  She is exhausted.  Julie takes her husband for granted and does not appreciate how he has been a constant support.  Eric often complains that Julie is being self-involved and only concerned with her blog.  The climax of the film occurs when Julie and Eric have a huge fight that ends with Eric storming out of the house.  Finally, Julie realizes that she must put her husband before trying to become the perfect housewife.  The movie is again supporting traditional gender identities and the traditional concept of making one’s husband the priority.

The sets and lighting of the film sends the same message.  Julia Child’s life is better than Julie’s.  The scenes in the film that depict Julia’s life are bright with uplifting French music.  Julia is truly happy.  Her home is amazing.  “It’s like Versailles,” she exclaims when she sees it.[vi] The rooms of her new home overlook the Eiffel Tower.  They are elaborately furnished with gilded artwork and thick draperies.  Many scenes show a cozy little sunroom that is always filled with tropical plants and sunlight.  The only problem is that the bed is too short.  Yet even this is depicted for comic effect.  Julia loves Paris.  Many of the scenes are outside in the daylight and are full of happy people.  She has a wonderful relationship with the men at the market.  She is shown smiling and buying fish, learning to taste the fruit, and enjoying every moment.  Julia has big parties and attends her sister’s idyllic outdoor wedding.  The wedding is beautiful and fun, with people dancing to a full band on the sun-filled dance floor.[vii] Even when it becomes clear that Julia struggles with her inability to have children, her times of doubt are short and unresolved.  In fact, there are not even any lines about her difficulty; it is only shown through actions.  Even her kitchen is a showplace.  It is bright and clean and full of joy.  Finally, her relationship with her husband, Paul, is idyllic.  Their love never fails; through even the most difficult times they always supporting each other.

The scenes that frame Julie Powell’s life are riddled with difficulty by comparison.  Most scenes featuring her are set in her small apartment and usually filmed at night; making the cramped space even more depressing. It is understood that Julia has to cook at night because she works during the day; however, the majority of the scenes give the overall impression of darkness.  Julie goes from one “meltdown” to another.  Her trouble trussing a chicken leaves her in tears on the floor.  She then goes through a phase of “having” to cook aspics, which also make her miserable.  Julie’s kitchen is small, gloomy and somewhat dingy. Dishes and cooking supplies pile up.  In one scene, she uses a food processor on a stool.   When they first move in, she even has trouble with the cabinets and drawers.  Julie’s life in the twenty-first century is not so great.  The production shows how women of her generation have become unsuccessful.  Unlike the perfect Julia Child of Julie’s imagination, Julie Powell does not succeed in her attempts to follow in her idol’s the footsteps.

As is true of so many Hollywood movies, this one has a happy ending.  Both Julie and Julia get their books published; both are happy.  Julie concludes with a revelation: “Julia Child never lost her temper because something boiled over or collapsed in the oven, or just plain fell through.  And she was never horrible to her husband I’m sure.  And she never behaved like, who has time to be married?  Which is how I behave sometimes I’m sorry to say.  I wish I was more like Julia Child.” [emphasis added].  The moral of the story: be like Julia, be a perfect example of femininity and domesticity.

The movie clearly holds up the stereotypical housewife as the ideal, but is it saying something more profound about modern women?  Did the moral of the joys of being a housewife ring true for the modern audience?  In her book, When Everything Changed, The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, Gail Collins argues that some well-educated women have chosen to opt out of the career track in favor of having a family and being a housewife.[viii] For many, the option is tempting, if they can afford it.

The movie has done just what these women in Collin’s study have done; it resurrected ideals of the housewife, but with a modern twist.  The movie’s message progresses from idolizing Julia’s life to bringing Julie’s life into the fold as well.  In the final scene of the film it is Julie’s life that is shown as perfect.  She has cooked the perfect meal and set up a perfect party on her roof.  It is a beautiful night with the rooftop decorated with candles, white fairy lights, and a large dining table.  Paul helps Julie bring the food to the outdoor table.  Julie’s life is not the same as a housewife’s.  Paul does more.  He helps out around the house.  He supports Julie emotionally.  The movie is saying that modern women can have it all.  You can be the perfect housewife and- like Julie- you can also hold a job, write a book, and have a great marriage.  What makes this movie such a great success is that it made it all right to want to be housewife, and it depicted being a housewife as attainable again. ▢

Chandeen Santos is both a teacher and a student.  She has taught history in high schools around the world and is currently a graduate student of Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College.

[i] Julie and Julia, produced and directed by Nora Ephron, 123 minutes, Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, 2009, DVD.

[ii] Julie and Julia, produced and directed by Nora Ephron.

[iii] Julie and Julia, produced and directed by Nora Ephron.

[iv] Julie and Julia, produced and directed by Nora Ephron.

[v] Julie and Julia, produced and directed by Nora Ephron.

[vi] Julie and Julia, produced and directed by Nora Ephron.

[vii] Julie and Julia, produced and directed by Nora Ephron.

[viii] Gail Collins, When Everything Changed, The Amazing Journey of American women from 1960 to the Present, (New York: Little, brown and Company, 2009), 363.

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