#TradWife Life as Self-Annihilation
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This week’s ADVICE TIME thread was unreal, like 2000+ comments unreal. It’s the sort of thing that scratches an itch you didn’t realize you had. Or maybe you just want to know about solutions to the chair-clothes-doom-loop? Or what to do when you hate the place you live and leaving is impossible? It’s all there, and much, MUCH more. Plus, yesterday’s “What are you watching (that’s not Suits, like me)” thread surfaced all sorts of brilliant ideas for non-Suits content.
Last Spring, an editor from Elle — who I’d previously worked with on a story about the Women of QAnon — reached out with an idea for a very magaziney sort of stunt. Live a week as a #Tradwife, modeling myself on the women who’d amassed massive followings on Instagram and TikTok by preaching or just filming their “traditional” lives….and then write about it.
I averred, I dithered, I eventually figured out a way to write the piece without losing money. You can read it here in all its fancy magazine design glory. I generally accept assignments like this one because there will always be something fun and special about seeing your work in print (and accompanied by the work of a skilled designer). It’s also a good exercise for someone with my writing tendencies to deal with a ~1200 word limit.
But also! I have so much more to say! So what is follows is a sort of #tradwife notebook dump, very loosely organized in a way that will hopefully spark even more conversation.
First off, several different genres of #tradwife get lumped under the larger hashtag….
The biggest “boxes” of tradwifes are:
1.) Evangelical Christians living out some understanding of “biblical womanhood”
These women are proudly submissive wives, do not work outside of the home, and focus on motherhood (often with as many children as possible, aka as many as “God plans”). They might not identify as fundamentalist Christians but many/maybe even most are. They’re modest, “pretty” but not focused on “beauty,” quote a whole lot of scripture and talk about God’s will…and almost certainly homeschool. Many of these women also talk about leaving behind “troubled” pasts (and several have children from a first relationship before they found their “real” husband and came to know God’s plan for them, etc. etc.)
A subset of these Biblical Womanhood influencers are into being slightly more cool and slightly less matronly. I’d put YouTuber Morgan Olliges (who was featured in the Shiny Happy People documentary on the Duggars — which she and her husband immediately disavowed) in this category.
[Interestingly, Morgan does most of her content with her husband (on whether Taylor Swift is a witch…but also about purity culture, their marriage, why they didn’t like Barbie, etc. etc.)]
2.) “God-loving” Mothers Who Are More Into the Aesthetics and/or Homesteading.
These women don’t talk about religious specifics but will mention God every so often. Sometimes they’re “Christian” in the very MAGA, identity-sorting way that has far less to do with any amount of actual churchgoing or theology and everything to do with being different than liberals. Estee Williams is definitely hanging out in this category.
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Other times they just do more showing, less telling (particularly when it comes to religion; I’d put BallerinaFarm in this box). They also might home-school, but they’re more likely to live on actual hobby farms or mini-homesteads instead of the suburbs. They are also….very tan.
I’d also put hippy anti-vax natural birth moms in this category, only substitute “spiritual” for “God-loving” and make the palette even more beige/photo-edited. And yes, their politics are ostensibly more progressive than the God-Loving #Tradwives, but there’s also a point where extremism on both ends becomes a bending line that eventually becomes a circle.
3.) Stay-at-Home-Girlfriends who are definitely not modeling Biblical Womanhood and would probably be embarrassed to be in the same article as #tradmoms (and vice-versa). Stay-at-home girlfriends are fancy, sleek, and thin —they’re women with a lot of capital (money, but also time) to spend on themselves and the disciplining of their bodies. Their content involves a lot of ASMR skincare routines, quasi-soothing footage of beautiful people making the bed, short bursts of yoga, and “fresh” snacks that are kinda gross and usually filled with chia seeds and five calories (see: ‘healthy egg salad sandwich’).
Kendal Kay’s “my day as a stay-at-home girlfriend” videos are classics of the genre.
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Now, do the people in these buckets have different motivations and politics and understandings of why they’re on the internet — and, for that matter, the “correct” place of women in society? For sure. I bet most of the women generating stay-at-home girlfriend content are on board with the argument that “feminism means the freedom for people to do what they want,” whereas the biblical femininity women see feminism as the unequivocal handiwork of the devil.
These differences do matter. The stay-at-home girlfriends don’t think everyone should be like them, they just think they have a really sweet set-up. It’s like how rich people don’t think everyone should be rich, because then who would make their rich lives possible. By contrast, the #tradwives are imbricated in a larger ideological and political project that understands their secular audience as fallen women whose desperate, sad lives can only be remedied through conversion to the #tradwife way of life. If you’re poor, it’s because your husband is failing to provide for your family. If you don’t have a husband, you haven’t been listening to God’s plan. If you’re queer, WELL, you should be miserable.
For women like BallerinaFarm, the account functions as a gentle hog-filled proselytizing tool. For the more strident evangelical Christian accounts, Instagram posts are their weapons in ongoing spiritual warfare. And on that point….
There’s a difference in what’s driving OUR interest (as non #trad-wives) and what’s driving the women behind these accounts.
One of my favorite parts about writing this story was following a TON of these accounts — and realizing who amongst my very non-trad-wife friends were already following them.
I write about this more in the Elle piece, but I understand the attraction to watching women ostensibly work one job (in the home) instead of three or four or five (in and outside the home). When you’re trying to decompress after a long day of working for pay topped off by a bunch of uncompensated labor back home, watching someone spend their afternoon making bread does seem soothing.
Maybe someone follows these accounts because the performance of compulsory domesticity is fascinating, or for approximately the same reason they follow a pimple popping account, or watch TikToks of ice cube making, or dogs performing feats of sheepherding. Or they follow for approximately the same reason they follow RushTok. These accounts are distilling norms of femininity and motherhood and that shit is fascinating to behold, even if it is periodically terrifying.
Like Kathryn Jezer-Morton, I’m not worried about these accounts convincing women that they, too, should become passive stay-at-home moms. That’d be like converting to Christianity because the music is “so good.” (That’s a joke, but you might only get it if you’ve listened to a lot of dcTalk). I think much of this content “succeeds” in the larger algorithm in part because of the ways it provokes people (or, through the share function, allows others who also hold those beliefs to use it as their own provocation — like, this is what I believe, does that offend you??? DOES IT?)
I don’t fear these women. I fear the larger apparatuses of which they are a part — apparatuses that wield disproportional power over the way everyone lives their lives. I’m not scared of GrowingGoodings, in other words, I’m scared of the fucking Federalist Society. #Tradwife content is not cute or inspirational or harmless; it’s the handmaiden of the Christian Nationalist agenda. It’s regressive, anti-choice politics in a housedress offering you quick and easy morning glory muffins. Tradwifes are against childcare, against protections for women in the workplace, against any sort of policy or reform that acknowledges the way the vast majority of Americans' lives are actually organized today instead of how they, themselves, have chosen to organize them. They are AGAINST COLLEGE FOR WOMEN. And maybe I need to bold this? They see women as utterly beholden to the will of men.
It’s easy to forget as much when you’re gently anesthetized by cute baby content or cleverly edited reels on “how I make meals for 9 kids.” But take away the aesthetics and things get real dark, real quick.
When I first asked my Instagram followers for accounts to follow, I got a lot of recommendations in the same slightly twee, magic light vein. And then there was The Transformed Wife — which was suggested to me with the caveat that it’s “super hardcore and maybe not what you’re looking for.”
Oh, but it was. The Transformed Wife is an account run by Lori Alexander, who came to the principles of biblical womanhood later in life and now wields them like a hammer. My favorite (‘favorite”) thing about her Instagram is that it’s almost exclusively screenshots of her tweets set against stock images of “home” or “women laughing” or kids. It’s like she understands that she doesn’t have the ability to produce the aesthetics of the other #tradwifes from her own life as a grandmother, but needs to have SOMETHING that isn’t just harsh screeds about how going to college ruins women.
Lori also believes that women should not have leadership roles in the church or preach in any way which is rather ironic given that her 48,000+ Instagram followers is far larger than any congregation. Her blog is filled with stories of fights and breaks with other women in the church; the comments section on all of her post is just pissed-off Christians.
You can get more of a sense here, but what I’ve learned from reading her posts for the last six months is actually pretty straightforward. She hates women. She probably even slightly hates herself — because she, like all of the other women she derides in these posts, will always be fallen, lacking, and at fault in some way. If women are the problem, the only way to solve it is to make them as passive and powerless as possible.
When I first posted about this article last week, my friend Ryanne — a brilliant sociologist — left a comment that’s stuck with me.
“What I think is most insidious about this content is not that most of us are gonna feel compelled to be “trad wives,” she said, “but that feeds that inkling that we should always be doing something more for someone else.”
And that’s where all of this content intersects, whether it’s coming from stay-at-home-girlfriends or #tradwives, whether it’s consumed by secular heathens or the already converted. To embody ideal femininity is to serve others at all times, of course — but it is also to aspire to self-annihilation. The absence of desire, the absence of needs, the absence of resistance as you hollow out the self and replace it with the desires and needs of others.
As in: gradually you realize that your dreams aren’t just mixing with someone else’s but wholly supplanted by them. Any time that is your own is shaded with guilt if you aren’t also with your children or cleaning your house. You become the person whose work, hobbies, and sleep is never, ever the priority - to the point that being prioritized feels unimaginable, ridiculous, like a bad punchline. You look at photos of perfect lunch box creations and instead of thinking “that’s some bullshit I want no part of” you understand that refusal as further proof of your “bad” parenting. You don’t know what clothes you like, just what clothes your spouse likes you in. The compass of who you are, what you value, what you understand as NOT you — it’s been demagnetized. Whatever that slow draining of the self looks like, it’s a process that’s a lot harder to recognize than going (or growing up) full #tradwife.
When I look at some of these #tradwife women, I see fatigue. In others, I see deep boredom. In a few, like The Transformed Wife, there’s real malice. The ones with the biggest followings are all white, which makes sense when it comes to anyone this invested in returning to 1950 norms. But there’s another through line, one that became bolder and bolder as I sifted through thousands of posts and reels and toks.
I know about their morning routine. I’m very intimate with their kitchens. I have a sense of what their husbands are like. I know a lot about their kids. In some cases, I know the basics of their testimony: the way they came to God and their husband. I know their prayers, at least their public ones. I know what their family likes to eat. What I don’t know is one single thing about them. ●
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