Precarious homes: gender, domestic space and film before and during the pandemic

By: Anna Viola Sborgi

In Phyllida Lloyd’s recent drama Herself (2020), domestic abuse survivor Sandra (Clare Dunne) devises her own way out of the Irish housing crisis: after watching some online tutorials on how to self-build an affordable home, she decides to build one to live in with her two little girls and to protect herself from her violent husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson). To her help comes Peggy (Harriet Walter), the wealthy, retired doctor Sandra works for as a cleaner, who offers her land to build the house in the back of her Dublin townhouse. A group of friends and colleagues, overseen by initially reluctant building contractor Aido (Conleth Hill), generously gather to help her in the enterprise.

A compelling portrayal of domestic abuse survival, supported by a moving performance by actress and co-screenwriter Clare Dunne, the film is also a hymn to community and solidarity, especially resonant in pandemic times. Though the overly optimistic house-building narrative sometimes lacks credibility, especially considering class dynamics, the film is tempered by numerous plot twists that make one thing abundantly clear: home is never at easy reach.

With the international film production on the housing crisis largely made up of documentaries, Lloyd’s film takes up the uneasy challenge of translating home precarity and its impact on women into fictional form. While this has been attempted before by independent features like the nuanced, bitingly realistic Rosie–directed by Paddy Breathnach and written by Roddy Doyle in 2018, also sharing with Herself one of the producers, Rory Gilmartin–and the short film No Place (Laura Kavanagh, 2020), Lloyd’s is also a more conventional feature addressing a wider audience.

All three films show the dramatic impact of the housing crisis on women. Sandra, Rosie and Angela (the single mother in No Place) live in hotel emergency accommodation with their children, an experience previously described by news reportage. Both Rosie and Sandra are portraits of unabating resilience, no matter the enormous amount of stress they take in. For Sandra the housing distress comes on top of her coping with the psychological and physical trauma of abuse. At the same time, Angela’s breakdown in No Place perceptively shows the toll on mental health housing precarity can have. The emphasis on individual resilience lays bare the inadequacy of housing provision and the welfare system. At one point in Herself, Sandra fruitlessly attempts to demonstrate to her assigned housing officer that if the council supported her in building the house, they would eventually save her benefits. While this surreal scene renders the opacity of the system, it also leaves the viewer with a sense of frustration at the lack of possible political, structural solutions to the housing crisis.   

Beyond chronicling housing precarity, the films above convey it by recurringly visualizing the interplay between safety and unsafety through home-shaped everyday objects. Sandra gives her house-shaped safety box with her name and address to her elder daughter to go and ask for help. At the same time, she encourages her younger daughter to find refuge in a miniature house in the garden, involuntary exposing her to a traumatic witnessing of Gary’s attack. The actual house she builds is first flooded and then burned down by the husband. In No Place, Angela’s breakdown is triggered as she goes back to their previous home to recover her daughter’s dollhouse which was left behind, only to find it outside in the rain–discarded by the new tenants. Neither materially, nor as a symbolic object can the home convey a sense of safety.

In recent years, representations of housing precarity, homelessness and temporary accommodation have increasingly taken the place of the vision of the home as a site of stability, where individual and collective identities can be constructed. The temporary nature of the space informs the precarious lives which are there negotiated. With the pandemic blurring distinctions between spaces of labour, leisure and personal life, the home can become increasingly unstable, unsafe and unequal, in particular for women. Care, domestic labour and other labour practices conflate to their detriment, potentially reinforcing conservative gender norms and behaviours and domestic abuse, further exacerbated when in-person interactions beyond the nuclear family are severely limited, as in the lockdown. UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned in April 2020 that “limited gains in gender equality and women’s rights made over the decades are in danger of being rolled back due to the COVID-19 pandemic”.

Moreover, as Elizabeth Patton has recently demonstrated in her work on the home office, the distribution of domestic workspace itself is very often gendered. As the home blurs with the workplace new inequalities overlap with pre-existing ones. This applies to the international film industry as well, which, as recent work has highlighted, is still characterized by widespread gender inequality. One of the urgent questions research on film and domestic space thus needs to address, is how strongly and specifically the pandemic is going to affect women within an already unequal production context. There needs to be a sustained attention to the way the pandemic and the lockdown transform the home itself into a place of creative labour, with all the criticalities this implies.

In their work on recessionary culture in relation to the 2007-08 crisis, film scholars Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker have sought to understand the connections between media texts and gender at moments where social inequalities come to surface. As we are now at onset of a new recession, where gender, race and class inequalities have already emerged, the current crisis will inevitably impact both representation and the industry itself and therefore needs to be addressed by scholars of film and media. As the increasing fragility of the home, vividly reflected in the films I discussed above, further intersects with the effects of the pandemic on gender inequality and labour patterns, a specific reconfiguration of the relationship between women, domestic space, film and media becomes extremely urgent.


Anna Viola Sborgi is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Genoa, where she is currently working on a project on post-2000 representations of high-rise and tower-block living in London. Her research investigates representations of the home and housing and gentrification. She has recently published book chapters on the housing crisis and documentary in Britain and on media representation of the Grenfell Tower Fire . Contact email: anna.sborgi@edu.unige.it

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