Real Simple is real complicated

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Reverse marketing works sometimes. When Caesar Augustus made himself dictator of Rome, he claimed he was restoring the Roman Republic. Likewise, RealSimple is about the hassle of orchestrating complicated social relations and calculations of social status:

Then there are hostesses who meet our approval, like Auntie Mame, who glides about her apartment in a boozy and stylish haze. Like Clarissa Dalloway, she has servants to help (and eventually, her young nephew Patrick to mix martinis), but her skill seems to come naturally. You don’t get the sense that Auntie Mame would read lifestyle blogs. She just knows how it’s done. For her, throwing parties is a genuine source of pleasure. She is most comfortable and at ease when there are people in her home.

Enter Real Simple magazine, the anti-Auntie Mame. Entertaining according to Real Simple is neither real nor simple, particularly around the holidays. Its glossy pages seem to promise a world of pleasures, but what awaits the hostess for the months of November and December is escalating drudgery, anxiety, and almost certain failure. The November issue, “The Ultimate Holiday Planner,” outlines how to plan your parties in excruciating detail. Real Simple likes terms like “strategize” and “organize” that suggest that entertaining, like life, is impossibly difficult to navigate.

Hospitality, of course, is important. We hold together our tenuous society when we invite people into our homes, provide food and drink, and offer our guests a place to sit. Good hospitality is a sign that we have left the cave, that we have enough to share, that all is well.

But, though entertaining inherently requires labor, Real Simple entertaining involves the kind of labor associated with manning a NASA space center. Hosting is not only about taking care of your guests while they’re actually in your house; you also need to undertake extensive and time-consuming preparations, a huge amount of work before a party designed to minimize your work at a party. The magazine promises to simplify entertaining by presenting you with endless suggestions and advice, usually in the form of lists. Do-it-yourself centerpieces! Sanity-saving checklists! Make-ahead recipes! Easy, speedy cleaning! A feature on brining your turkey promises “Simplifying strategies, techniques, and tips.”

…In 1959, Betty Crocker published her Guide to Easy Entertaining, a book “about hospitality and how it can be easy and fun for the hostess as well as the guest.” But what does it mean for entertaining to be “easy”? For her, ease was all about performance. She recounts a particularly successful party she attended: “There was lots of laughter, good talk, good food, and our hostess seemed so charming and calm as the separate courses were brought to her without flurry from the kitchen.” Seemed is a big word for Betty Crocker. Here, servants create this calm, but the hostess gets to take credit for it. Crocker then tells a story of the same woman throwing a buffet-style dinner party without the help of servants. But here, too, the party is perfectly orchestrated to assure calm and grace. Food and drink just seem to appear. (It has all been set up ahead of time.) What planning, what anticipation! With or without servants, this woman is a marvel because both of her parties produce the same effect: she does not seem to do anything at all.

The planning and anticipation so central to Real Simple also defines Crocker’s guide. She recounts the story of a young man who can’t fathom that his aunt goes through “any trouble getting ready for a party, or giving one,” and this is the ultimate sign of the aunt’s success. Crocker assures us that, “The best [parties] are those that seem to be ‘no trouble.’” They are the flawless result of hours of shopping, getting your house in order, cooking, and then cleaning up afterwards. In fact, the hostess’ anticipation of the parties she will plan begins in childhood: “The lives of all of us have changed vastly since we watched our parents preparing for the first big party we can remember.” It’s a primal scene without the trauma: the female child watches, and in watching this tableau of anticipation, she anticipates her own future.

…Real Simple hopes its readers will confuse “easy” with “simple”: process with result. A result may look simple, but this does not mean it was easy to produce. But as with Betty Crocker, it is only the result that matters. The hostess’ (not easy) labor should be invisible in its flawlessly simple results, and she will be credited for rendering it invisible, but not for the labor itself.

This admiration is her only consolation prize. Betty Crocker’s hostess does not have a tremendous amount of fun at her parties. She is no Auntie Mame. Does the ideal Real Simple hostess have fun? Probably not. The cover of the December issue is emblazoned with the promise of a “Holiday Spectacular: Your Happiest Season Ever Starts Here.” Yes! you think. It’s going to be my happiest season ever! How great. But this is not necessarily the case. “Your happiest season ever” does not mean that you will be happy. It means that you will make others happy, and the season will be happy. All things will be happy, but not you.

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