Maxwell's House

Once upon a time, two queens reigned over the land of HomeEcistan: one the hooting, shambling, messy Queen of Light,
who demystified the art of French cooking for the home cook, and one the icy Queen of Darkness, who made the simplest of domestic tasks into an impossible, fetishistic, bonsai-pruning nightmare.

The two kept a sort of karmic balance, a domestic equilibrium of homey accessibility and unhomey exclusivity -- until early this year, that is, when we lost Julia Child to old age. (Dear God, please provide plenty of butter and nice, tall stoves
in heaven to accommodate that 6-foot-2-inch frame.) As for Martha Stewart, she was dethroned in an unsavory insider-trading stock scandal, and now faces time in the least cozy of environments: prison.

Who will be next to don the domestic tiara and restore order to the realm? If Brini Maxwell has her way, perhaps the little boy who spent hours in his mother's closets, trying on her pillbox hats and polka-dotted dresses.

Maxwell is a drag queen and the former hostess of a cable-access TV show in New York City. She now has a loopily entertaining home-economics series on the Style network, where she makes absurd little crafts, changes outfits up to nine times, interviews guests from Helen Gurley Brown to burly firefighters, shares beauty secrets, dabbles in retro cuisine, and saucily answers viewer mail.

But above all, she plays the role of Maxwell, mixing up June Cleaver, a dash of drag-queen cabaret, a helping of Donna Reed, some Barbie, a bit of a youngish Mrs. Doubtfire, a dollop of Stepford, and a soupçon of director Douglas Sirk's sensibility into a heady, vodka-spiked, fruit-in-the-ice-cubes pink drink of a persona. The anima-cum-alter-ego of one Ben Sandler, Maxwell has big, voluptuous hair, dresses in white tights and circle skirts and pastel scarves, and coos and twinkles her way through decorating and entertaining tips. For Maxwell, the intersection of femininity and home economics is a form of '50s-era revivalist performance art, a winking fairy tale where she is the court jester, the swooning princess, and the knowing queen all in one.

And why not this radical form of play? Maxwell draws richly on those who came before her. Child opened up the horizon of the domestic realm, laying bare the temperamental ways of pastry dough and the best ways to truss a turkey. She connected the haute and the everyday, brought accessible yet scientific rigor to cooking. There is a warm romanticism to her work; underlying her cookbooks is the notion that there are certain principles and universals in cooking that anyone can grasp.

Stewart plunged into this field of possibility and punted us into a sort of postmodern realm. She stripped the home from homey, demonstrating how domestic tasks could become a -- rather terrifying (for me, at least) -- exercise in artistic control, a perfectly manufactured product of her capitalist empire. She mastered the inauthentic authentic: “It's a good thing,” she would pronounce, using those one-syllable words to provide a faux-simplistic cover for an item that had taken hours to make. An insanely wrangled Easter basket no longer drew up associations of bunnies or Peeps or fake plastic grass -- it was an objet d'art, a signifier in free fall. Stewart was the deconstructionist as domestic.

She also ruptured those pesky gender categories, a brilliant woman who had improbably turned the “feminine” realm of home economics into a very successful venture in the male-dominated world of business. She was reputedly arrogant and cold, and some feminists have argued that the zealous prosecution of her stock-trading trial was payback for her gender transgressions.

While Stewart makes me cringe -- not for her so-called uppity ways but for her control-freakishness and scary rictus smile -- she did open the door to radical notions of home economics and food, freed as they are from the strictly domestic realm. We've since had the food porn of Nigella Lawson, the primordial gladiatorship of Iron Chef, the unexpectedly subversive social commentary of the consumer-pimp Queer Eye boys, the community- and nation-building work of Trading Spaces, the Freudian archaeology and Buddhist nonattachment practice of Clean Sweep. And now we have Brini Maxwell.

Maxwell is one foxy momma. She has developed an unusual formula of deadpan camp, batting her eyelashes dewily as she skewers obsessive Stewart ways. (“I could show you how to make throw pillows with padded mailing envelopes and pencil shavings, but we just don't have time.”) She makes herself out to be a prim and proper housefrau, but then oohs and ahs over a “sausage and nuts” arrangement, crooning, “What Brini Maxwell design scheme would be complete without ball fringe?” That June Cleaver sincerity undercut with sexual innuendo, the interplay of female performance and male biology, her lovely looks, that innocent-kitten purr, that Adam's apple -- Maxwell is utterly hypnotic.

That's a lucky thing, because she has truly atrocious taste in home decor, as demonstrated by her fondness for vile wall treatments in faux wood or pegboard. Her household hints are of extremely limited utility, though I did learn a little something about informal versus formal balance in the arrangement of lamps and tchotchkes. But her appeal isn't about arts and crafts or culinary mastery; it's about the way she makes the private home a public stage, toys with the deeply gendered domestic realm.

Appropriately for a drag queen, Maxwell always works it in at least two directions at the same time. Perhaps most interesting is the way she's taken on the frighteningly sincere and unironic '50s, shaken up its constricting gender roles, and added a healthy dose of humor (think an unfettered and funny version of director Todd Haynes' ode to Sirkian melodrama, Far From Heaven). Unlike some campy performers, Maxwell doesn't so much mock conventions as pay a sly and sincere form of homage to them. She seems to upend the constraints of the past even as she recognizes something appealing in the ritual dance of manners, urging her viewers to create an “informal formality” in their homes.

Then she gushes over fondue, pineapple- and maraschino-festooned ham, and a quivery blob of Jell-O.

“Ooh, Jell-O mold,” she says. “Any table without a Jell-O mold is just naked.”

Maxwell has the approachable warmth (if not the skills) of Child, bringing a neglected past into the modern home and exhorting her viewers to “add style to your life and life to your style.” She draws on Stewart-like freedoms, but, unlike Stewart, actually seems to relish them. For some, her show may be a bewildering patchwork; for others, a brilliant pastiche of wit, naughtiness, and comfort.

Yes, comfort. I found myself nodding, mouth agape, as Maxwell created a shockingly ugly cloth-cutout landscape and mused, “There's something so soothing about plotting out your world on a manageable scale.”

Maxwell would put cold compresses on your forehead, tell you racy things about boys, make you a smashing green-bean and Durkee French-fried onion casserole. She could be queen in my home any day.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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