This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.
When I first learned of the four-part LuLaRoe documentary coming to Amazon, I knew exactly who I wanted to talk to about it. For the uninitiated: LuLaRoe is an MLM, or multi-level-marketing scheme, that exploded over the course of the 2010s. It sold, and continues to sell, leggings. Things went wrong. Moldy leggings wrong, but also “tens of thousands of women losing tens of thousands of dollars” wrong, and “Washington state files suit against you for operating as a pyramid scheme” wrong.
If the documentary producers had done a little more homework, they would’ve figured out that they should’ve talked to her, too. Meg Conley is doing some of the smartest and most challenging writing on intersection of women, home, money, and care. She is an exquisite writer, constantly surprising me with the turns and clarity of her prose. She also grew up in the Mormon church — and, even more specific to LuLaRoe, grew up in the same circles as its founders. (Did Meg own one of the dresses Deanne sold in her early days? What did Deanne smell like? SCROLL TO FIND OUT!)
When I first started asking Meg questions, she apologized for the length of her replies. But I told her there’s no real need to apologize. Together, we’ve slightly edited and compressed, but the truth is that if you’re interested in this stuff, you’re going to be even more interested in the context Meg has for you. There’s so much the documentary refuses or neglects or doesn’t even realize it should explore: the history of Mormonism, the intersection of that history with the prosperity gospel, the way Americans are taught to conceive of and compensate the work of the so-called domestic sphere…..not to mention race, what was going on with manufacturing, body image, and how Facebook and Facebook Live in particular facilitated the expansion. Truly, there is so much here — and so much more we could talk about (and conversations I hope we’ll continue in the comments and on Discord).
And if you find all of this as interested as I do — I hope you’ll consider subscribing to Meg’s newsletter, Homeculture. If you’re a regular reader of Culture Study, you’ve probably clicked on a link to one of Meg’s pieces: on kitchen design, or the beanie baby boom, on the story of a refinished table and miscarriage in the home. Watching LuLaRich felt like realizing I had a mosquito bite but being unable to scratch it. Reading Meg feels like a really satisfying itch, but the sort that keeps you inflamed for days. I can’t wait for you to join me in this puffy state of fury.
AHP: I think I first saw LuLaRoe show up in my Facebook feed around 2014 or 2015, from someone in my hometown in North Idaho. Growing up, MLMs were just around, even though we certainly never knew to call them that. Most of my friends’ moms had Mary Kay or Avon. I loved happening upon the pink Mary Kay Cadillac in the parking lot of the mall. When I graduated from college, a friend had one of those trunk jewelry parties, and someone else hosted one for skincare, and it all just felt like a slightly classed up version of what had gone on in my hometown, like the snacks and wine were more expensive but the theme was still the same. It wasn’t until I started working at BuzzFeed as a culture reporter that I really started thinking about the women selling stuff in my FB feed as part of a larger system that really exploits the cracks in the American Dream.
MC: So I grew up in a Southern California suburb, Chino Hills. I’d say half of my friend’s moms worked full-time outside of the house and half of them worked in the home as stay-at-home moms.
“Stay-at-home mom” is a term that I just loathe. What does that mean? I’ve been a mom who works outside the home and a mom who works primarily in the home. That work is active and contributes to both the home and greater community. When I spend my primary daytime hours working outside of the home, it’s not like I am not also working in the home. I still do dishes, laundry, and caretake alongside my partner. The separate spheres are a myth!
Growing up, I didn’t hear anything about unpaid labor, or the Wages for Housework movement, or have any idea that moms working outside of the home were judged for not working inside the home. I just knew some moms were in the house right when their kids got home from school and some moms were in the house by dinner time. If I’d been paying more attention, I’d have realized there was another difference. The stay-at-home moms were more likely to have Tupperware, Pampered Chef, or Longaberger parties. But they weren’t the only ones. Work outside the home moms with lower paying jobs (as cashiers, teachers, dental hygienists, etc) were more likely to have those parties too. Life in Chino Hills was not inexpensive, and two-wage households struggled if those wages weren’t high enough.
I got to go to these MLM parties when I spent the night at a friends’ house whose mom threw them. We’d sneak the snacks and go watch TGIF in the other room. I also got to go when my mom went to one hosted by a friend or a woman from church. It was kind of this very fun grown up feeling, you know? Ten years old, sitting with women you see at church or school drop off. I loved getting to leaf through the catalogues the hostess handed out. Even when it was Tupperware! The retailer would give her pitch using her samples.Which I also thought was very fancy. Like she got to have stuff to sell stuff! My mom always bought enough to be polite, ordering the very smallest thing from the catalogue, which meant I grew up with random odds and ends from the big MLMs of the ‘90s.
My parents were always very, very skeptical of MLMs. They usually referred to them as pyramid schemes. Usually, MLMs came up whenever my mom got yet another invitation to a party. This was before there were FB groups, FB Live, or FB at all. (Which is another interesting shift in MLMs. Women bidding on unicorn leggings over FB Live were isolated. I wonder how much of a frenzy there would have been if legging sell-offs happened in person instead of over the internet?) All the invitations were painstakingly put together and mailed out. Kind of like a wedding invitation! Which, as Mormons, we got a lot of wedding invites. But those all tended to come in the summer. Every season was MLM season. When she’d get an invitation to an MLM party, my mom always sighed. Which blew my mind, because I always wanted to get invitations in the mail.
My mom said that if a product was good enough to be sold, it would be sold traditionally in a store. If it needed the “opportunity to sell” to be sold, it wasn’t a good product. And now she was going to have to go listen to an hour long pitch about a bad product and buy something to support a friend. There wasn’t a ton of economic or social analysis. My childhood takeaway was that MLMs were scams. But they were scams where you had to be polite to the scammer because they didn’t know they were being scammed.
The only time I remember my mom really ignoring her own advice was with the Longaberger baskets MLM. The story was compelling to her, she liked that each basket was signed by its maker, and she loved that the company advertised having a daycare site on its manufacturing premises for employee’s kids.That felt pretty groundbreaking in the ‘90s. And, frankly, she liked how the baskets looked. This was the mid-90s and like...there were a lot of chickens in home decor. It was like roostercore?
She had at least one Longaberger party. I remember sitting there while she gave her pitch and feeling nervous. What if everyone just ordered the very smallest thing like she always did? I don’t know how the party went. I do know she ended up just collecting the baskets instead of selling them. Around that time we were back east and drove past the big Longaberger building that looks like a basket. And I thought that was just...the best thing anyone could ever build. I didn’t think about the fact that my mom didn’t sell the baskets anymore. I had no idea the business model that built the building wasn’t building anything else.
Around this same time, my mom got into the Beanie Baby bubble. I wrote an essay about how collecting beanies seemed like a way for her to make money without falling prey to an MLM. It’s amazing how many people have reached out to me to tell me their own moms jumped into the Beanie Bubble for the same reasons. Mormon and not, raised by moms who “stayed home” and moms who did not, all of them have memories of their moms trying to bridge financial gaps with stuffie speculation.
AHP: Can we do a close read of the first ten minutes of the doc, when we get Mark and Deanne’s story? What is being said and very much left unsaid here? And I know you went to a Deanne dress party, so clearly I would love to hear everything about this.
MC: You hear DeAnne talking off camera before you see her. And after hearing her voice, I could smell her. Which sounds bonkers but some things are just so visceral. DeAnne was in my LDS congregation in Chino Hills when I was little. We were in the same local LDS community for the rest of my childhood. She had that smell that so many of the women at church in the ‘90s had - hairspray, makeup and perfume. You know, they’d lead youth groups or teach primary classes and you could always just smell them? And each woman depending on the brands of hairspray, makeup and perfume had a different smell. And it was kind of a comforting smell from some of the women and kind of a nervous making smell from others.
DeAnne’s smell and voice and energy made me nervous. She probably made me nervous because I could tell she made my mom nervous. She was always selling something - her convictions, her perceptions, her dresses. In the documentary, she says she got the first little girl dresses she sold at parties at a swap meet. She’s probably talking about the Orange County Swap Meet. The entrance fee was a couple of dollars, I thought the experience was priceless. It was this huge open air market full of hundreds and hundreds of vendors, and you could find dresses like DeAnne sold there! They weren’t the exact same brands being sold at Nordstrom and Saks 5th Avenue like DeAnne said, though. They were just dresses at a swap meet, next to tennis shoes at a swap meet, next to jeans at a swap meet, next to toys, next to car parts. It wasn’t some, like, secret she’d discovered.
I went to one of DeAnne’s early dress parties with my mom when I was little. DeAnne moved between the racks, laughing and selling. My mom says she was never willing to buy from Deanne. She just didn’t think she was honest. Or maybe it was more than that — she didn’t think she was safe. They were close to the same age, and maybe that helped her see things others couldn’t. She said the younger women at church were always buying whatever Deanne happened to be selling.
Mostly what Deanne was selling then is what she is selling now. A feminine soft power backed by masculine hard power. In a clip from a video she sent out to retailers, she talks about not believing she is what she is: a boss. She pushes back against her own authority while also telling women to become the “boss of your business, boss of your destiny.” When she talks about her own business, it’s always totally passive. She uses phrases like “what this business became” and “a blessing,” as if it all just unfolded on its own.
When Mark talks about meeting Deanne for the first time, he said “before I said a word to her, there was something powerful.” He never describes her as a businesswoman. Every decision that moves her forward in her business is suggested or made by someone else: the man at the swap meet asking her to sell dresses for him, her daughter asking her to make a maxi skirt after which she says, “I found myself cutting out patterns on my kitchen counter.” (I “found myself!” That passive voice!) When she decided to start selling with an MLM model, it’s because she called Mark, bewildered by all the people who wanted to sell her clothes. She asks and he answers.
Deanne stumbles into magical dress stalls everyone else passes by, is bad at numbers but knows $40k made from selling dresses is a lot of money, and is the head of a billion dollar company — but only because destiny stretched greatness across her. She justifies her success in the market sphere by always framing it like it came to her — spontaneously, blessedly — in the home sphere.
We see this with women who are embedded in traditional communities but have professional ambition. And today, social media allows these women to stay in the home sphere while entering the market sphere — isn’t that what influencing is? I want to pause here and say that I think this is all very complicated. I’ve got no judgment for the women who figure out how to climb across this arbitrary divide like, in principle. But the way that DeAnne did it reinforces the myth of those two separate spheres while also further disempowering the women in the home sphere. You know who’s worse off than an unpaid caretaker who can’t afford to buy the expensive cereal? An unpaid caretaker who is in $10,000 worth of debt because of some leggings.
When DeAnne shares the story of her mom coming home from a catering job and showering her kids with $3000 from the stop of a staircase, she says “this is my vision, what I remember.” I have no idea how much of the story is true. But the story doesn’t need to be true for it to matter. Her mom’s work outside the home is justified by the way it blesses her family. It’s super important to DeAnne’s ideology that when her mom made money, it was literally showered on the family. In the prosperity gospel, people believe that if you are very good, financial blessings will rain down from heaven. Those dollar bills being tossed over the banister might as well have fallen from heaven as her mom yelled, “Mom did for you! We’re going to go shopping!”
Deanne’s family is LDS, but this wasn’t just an LDS moment. The United States has been trying to consume its way to dominating deliverance since the Cold War. Truly! As I wrote about last week, our kitchen design was deployed to prove that capitalism was superior to communism.
When a home’s blessedness is measured in new appliances or new clothes, it can feel like a real shame to not have those things. When Deanne had her own kids and couldn’t afford to throw money down on their heads, she remembers thinking “I wanted to be the kind of person who could say: I’ve earned it. I am going to buy that.” In this worldview, being able to buy things isn’t just proof you have money, it’s proof you’ve been good enough, worked hard enough. That you’ve earned your place on top and a dress from Nordstrom.
Deanne’s winking subservience, her feminine power subversively dictating her husband’s moves is like...pretty damn familiar to me. It’s kind of the ‘90s LDS water in which I was baptized. Mormon women do not have institutional power in the church, so they create change with persuasion. Often with Socratic persuasion, which I like! And sometimes by stamping their feet and shaking their curls, which I like...much less. But when people are oppressed it’s a lot to expect them to be perfect victims. And frankly, I had to unlearn curl shaking myself. I’ve got lots of room for my Mormon sisters. Up to a point. When that curl shaking is done in the service of racism and other forms of oppression, I’ve got no room. I have a very difficult time finding room for DeAnne.
When Mark introduces himself, he starts by saying he and DeAnne are LDS. Obviously, their religion is important to this story, but why does Mark feel that way? Well, declaring their faith in an interview sure to be critical of them is a shield in some ways. They can blame criticism on religious persecution. But it’s also a claim of authority - Mark feels he knows how the universe works fairly, certainly he can explain how his company works fairly. Mark says that Latter-day Saints believe these are the last days. And that’s true, although there’s no timeline. The last days could be months or millenia. (With climate change boiling and burning everything, the last days talk may not be so far off.) But what last days means also varies Mormon to Mormon and time to time.
For a long time in Mormonism, being in the last days just meant getting the world ready to host Christ when He returned. It was about creating a heaven on earth worthy of Him and the work He’d need to do. That could be a very building belief. And sometimes it was. In the mid-twentieth century, the last days came to mean something much more apocalyptic. Which last days reading resonates with the Stidhams? Kinda seems like the latter. They do seem to believe in a world about to fall apart. Kind of like their leggings! The fact that DeAnne and Mark decided to spend the “last days” starting a predatory MLM legging company is a little bewildering to me. But if you really believe financial success is proof God approves of you, you might spend the last days hustling too.
But this prosperity gospel only makes sense nested in a gospel of self-reliance. Mark meets Deanne’s general mien of soft surprise with hard line declarations. He says that LDS people believe “in self-reliance and that the universe is ultimately fair,” and how hospital delivery rooms should have signs that read, “Welcome, your results may vary.” He really believes everyone landed in the same place, with the same opportunities and the same potential to thrive. And he is willing to inflict that ideology on people even when thinking of them as infants. So of course he had no sympathy for the grown women who couldn’t create an empire from a box of moldy leggings.
That might be what Mark believes, and it might be what many Mormons believe. But it isn’t really LDS doctrine. Instead of “fair,” it’s more accurate to say Mormon theology says the universe is “just.” But it wasn’t created that way: it was made that way by the merciful atonement of Christ. So the universe isn’t fair, it’s just. And it’s only just because every single person relies on the atonement of Christ, which is ummmm the opposite of self-reliance. Mormons are supposed to build a world on earth that looks like that just universe. I think that’s a compelling story. But the call to action isn’t really profitable, so some Mormons choose another story more in line with their personal brand.
Mormonism hasn’t always been this way. Mormons haven’t always been this way. The religion started out as this kind of utopia project: communal living, consecration of all goods and finances to the community, even eternal salvation was communal. But real utopia projects often end up being founded on some real oppression. Charlotte Perkins Gilman proposed securing domestic liberation for white women by re-introducing slavery to America, as just one horrifying example. And there was real oppression at the beginning of Mormonism: women were subjugated, white supremacy was entrenched in culture and doctrine, insularity and paranoia led to violence like the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Mormons crossed into the west following their own version of Manifest Destiny. They would colonize the west, “redeem” the Indigenous Peoples they helped oppress and make a desert heaven. In case it’s not clear, in this story it’s not the Indigenous People in need of a redemption story. It’s the Mormons.
The subjugation of women looked like restricted access to priesthood authority, the “privilege” of domestic labor and a heavy emphasis on childbearing. And the early Mormon women who practiced polygamy gave it very, very mixed reviews. But the people who say Mormons created white middle class housewifery are wrong. Early Mormon women were not supposed to “stay home”. They were not Victorian Angels in the House. They were supposed to kind of roll up their sleeves and get to work, in all kinds of ways, including seeking and attaining professional training that would help them build God’s kingdom. This wasn’t some liberated society, but it also was not an embryonic version of the 1950s nuclear family.
Mormon women became American housewives as the LDS church sought to assimilate into America. Mormons didn’t create the nuclear family, with a wife in the kitchen and a man in the office. They were converted to it. That assimilation efforts began in earnest in the ‘20s and continues today. No more polygamy; it was tossed for the nuclear family. The aspirations of communal living were bulldozed to make space for suburban tract homes. Those single family homes had enough room for the rhetoric of self-reliance. And many of the suburbs came with racial covenants that kept the neighborhoods white, which resonated with a people who had racial covenants of their own. LDS women lost what little hard power they had in the institutional church as they were moved more firmly into the private sphere. The white supremacy and insularity remained. And so a religion that once demanded consecration of all worldly goods became firmly rooted in the toxic soil of Prosperity Gospel.
If you are a Mormon American woman who believes women should be an angel in the house, and you’ve bought into the prosperity gospel and you live in a country that does not economically value your work in the home? You’ve got to find a way to make money under the cover of the home sphere in the market sphere. MLMs promise to help you do that. They get through the front door of the homes of desperate housewives by acknowledging the work they are already doing. This is something no one else outside of briefly pandering politicians seems willing to do. MLMs say, “We know you are doing important work, we want you to do that work AND be able to afford to take your kids to the zoo.” And that’s fucking compelling. Because at least LuLaRoe says that SAHM deserve to earn something while working in the home. No one else seems to be very interested in that message.
AHP: Let’s go to the overlap between religious proselytizing and brand proselytizing. Like, MLMs are a great way to expand your circle and eventually invite people into the world of the church, but also people who have a lot of experience with selling a message and a vision of a lifestyle…..might also be pretty good at selling leggings but, more importantly, the vision of a lifestyle (and eventual, I dunno, economic salvation?) that accompanies selling those leggings? I’m also thinking of the side-MLM/proselytizing that was going on with gastric surgeries. What are the stakes when one form of salvation is mistaken for the other?
MC: So remember how Mormons used to really be fussed about communal salvation? They believe that everyone must be linked in order for heaven to be, well...heaven. I like this part of Mormonism. Or at least parts of this part. There’s something kind of clarifying about community being necessary for salvation. This is still in Mormon doctrine, but most of the radical ideas it used to lead to — the good and the bad — have been put aside for decades. There are some cultural remnants of this commitment to building community. Mormons are raised to convert people to the faith. The youth are raised to go on missions in their late teens. Missionaries call home about baptisms, so happy about another person bound to heaven. Every person converted to the faith is one more link in that binding heavenly chain.
When the documentary showed the LuLaRoe exercise where reps were supposed to write down 50 names of people they could pitch to become part of their downline, I gasped. It sounded so much like the challenges I sometimes heard from the pulpit growing up. Every once in a while a Bishop would get up and challenge each family to come up with the names of ten people we knew who would like to hear about the gospel. We were then supposed to give those people a Book of Mormon and ask if they wanted to meet with some missionaries. [AHP sidenote: this explains a lot about the Book of Mormons that accumulated in my house]
And you know what, proselytizing for a religion and proselytizing for a brand are often pretty similar! That’s why influencers who are religious are able to move so seamlessly between preaching about their church and preaching about the latest Target sponsorship. Both posts are lifestyle content. Or, to put it differently, because Mormons are used to thinking of salvation as a group project, it’s not such a huge leap for them to think of salvation via consumerism as a group project. Just think of ten names! Get them in your downline! Build an economic heaven together! A lot of the Mormons doing this know exactly what they’re doing and how narrow the top of a pyramid truly is. But many do not. I guess that’s what happens when the religious confuse eternal salvation with consumer salvation. Eternity never ends. There’s always room for more people. Consumption is well, consuming. It’s a means that ends abruptly.
When I saw that DeAnne was also trying to convert people to thin womanhood by getting them to do the stomach sleeve procedure in Tijuana, my sleeveless stomach clenched. Growing up in Southern California, I came of age at the toxic intersection of Mormon beauty ideals and Orange County beauty ideals. Basically that meant pressure to be very thin, very blonde, with large breasts and modest necklines. Why was DeAnne so desperate for other women to join her in thinness? If you are self-hating and fatphobic and think your salvation depends on the community, you’re going to pressure the people in that community to get skinny.
There’s something else here. The cottage industry of Rah Rah You Go Girl that pops up around many MLMs. The narrow top of the pyramid of feminism of people like Rachel Hollis is held up by the same wide base as LuLaRoe. There are a lot of people outside of DeAnne and Mark Stidham depending on the continued predation of places like LuLaRoe. Who are all of those people going to give pep talks to if there aren’t rooms full of anxious girl bosses to pump up? Hey girl, wash your face and sell those hamburger vagina leggings!
AHP: In closing, I want to talk just generally about what’s been left out of this documentary — which means I want to talk about race (and the way the doc in particular largely frames LLR as a white lady problem) but I also want to talk about patriarchy.
I will never forget showing up in Short Creek, on the Utah/Arizona border, where dozens of former FLDS women had returned to try and remake their lives after leaving the sect. Many of them never finished high school and felt shame about the gaps in their education; most were single moms, either because their husband was still in the FLDS church or because leaving the church had been so traumatizing that it eventually led to divorce. They didn’t have credit histories and most were in some stage of the very slow process of reclaiming their former homes. They’re supporting their own families in an incredibly remote area with so few jobs — and so many of them ended up trying to sell MLMs, including LuLaRoe. You can imagine how well that was going. Is there a way for us to think through how patriarchal institutions (FLDS, sure, but also, I dunno, the United States! America! The tax code!) create such fertile ground for MLMs?
MC: It’s interesting that all this MLM coverage right now is almost exclusively about how white religious suburban moms get sucked into MLMs. And like, they do! They rely on other women in their communities to understand their work in the home, to help with their kids, to witness them. So it is not so far-fetched that they try to use that same network to find opportunity. But this isn’t an Evangelical problem or a Mormon problem. It’s an American problem.
Anyone whose labor is taken for granted by our culture, who must depend on day to day networking within their communities to survive, who is shut out of earning a living wage, all those people are vulnerable to MLMs. So is that mothers who wish to — or must, or feel they must — work primarily in the home? Yes! But it is also people in immigrant communities isolated by xenophobia, it’s people within the traditionally marginalized communities, people who cannot get jobs because of our increasing devotion to the doctrine of credentialism. I mean Herbalife and NuSkin are just two examples of MLMs that prey on communities that are not made up of white suburban moms.
I thought Lularich was a fascinating example of this omission. The cultural analysis came from experts who were exclusively white. Which was….really bonkers to me. Like the documentary spends all this time talking about how white Lularoe is and then doesn’t interview one expert who is not white? There is passing commentary about stay at home motherhood as an exclusively white ideal. And yes! Cosseted, “virtuous”, stay-at-home motherhood supported by consumer capitalism and underpaid labor is very, very white. But caretaking as an important economic and social labor deserving of recognition and wages is not totally white at all. I really recommend Margaret Prescod’s activism in this space.
Also, the focus of the story is on these suburban moms and these leggings but there is no discussion about who is really, really at the bottom of this pyramid scheme. The people working the line to manufacture the leggings. Why? I can think of a few reasons! Racism, classism, sure.
AHP Quick Interjection: They don’t even really acknowledge that the mode of production changed, or what happens when you overload the supply chain, or even EVER acknowledge who was actually making the products! It’s wild! I really do think that Amazon’s relation to this series also foreclosed some of this discussion — also the fact that the producers, who were also behind one of the Fyre Fest documentaries, are more invested in drama than some of these larger questions that refuse to maintain the carefully cultivated distance between viewers and someone who’d become involved with the company.
MC: YES. The labor that makes those leggings for this pyramid scheme is the same type of labor we’re all exploiting. We all exploit underpaid labor to get to the top of the pyramid that is the current version of the American Dream. Like, no amount of Girl Bossing in an MLM or in a corporate job is going to unring that bell. So … it just didn’t get rung. I wonder how many of the people manufacturing the leggings have turned to MLMs themselves to try to bridge the gap left by lower wages? To pay for their kid’s school supplies? Underpaid factory workers make leggings, sure. But they make girl boss blazers too.
It’s especially bewildering that the documentary doesn’t get into manufacturing at all because the LuLaRoe scheme isn’t initially undone by its pyramid shape! LuLaRoe starts falling apart because the leggings start falling apart. Why? Who was making the leggings when they were buttery soft and who was making them once they started falling apart? Did factory conditions deteriorate along with the quality of the leggings? What happened to the people who made the leggings that made LuLaRoe?
I think the focus on the white suburban moms exists for a couple reasons.
So many storytellers frame their storytelling with whiteness. Still. There is a story to tell about MLMs. But I think we need to ask, why was this the story that got told? Why did these directors choose LuLaRoe instead of Herbalife or any of the other MLMs that prey on communities made up of immigrants or people of color? And when they chose LuLaRoe, perhaps to expose how necessary whiteness was to its business model, why didn’t they interview one Black cultural critic, lawyer or business expert? They interviewed Black and Latinx retailers who shared their experiences of being isolated in the whiteness of LuLaRoe. But the only cultural commentary framing the story was provided by white people. Which left the documentary in the odd space of telling the story of an MLM framed by whiteness in a documentary framed by exclusively white expertise .
There is a real disdain for people who do the work of the home. In Lularich, you hear again and again that the reason MLMs are thriving with stay at home moms is because they are highly educated and underemployed. The elitism in that analysis is pretty gross! What exactly do these people think goes into caretaking and household management that education isn’t used in the private sphere as well as the public? Are the only people fit to caretake the uneducated? And what exactly does “educated” even mean here? Are we talking degrees? So is a woman without a degree supposed to be happy with work in the home even if that’s not what she wants to do? And must a woman with a degree want to work outside of the home, even if she actually wants to work within it?
And, here we get kinda spicy! I am sick of white feminists saying this problem has to be solved by getting every single full-time caretaker into the workforce. Because you know what? That means someone else has to come in and care for those kids. And those white feminists have already told me that they think caretaking work is lesser, requires little education, and is oppressive. Why in the world would we want to submit any women to that work if that’s what we really think of it?
The documentary shies from covering what shifts had to occur in the home once the primary caretaker was selling full-time.“So you had a nanny, did you pay them a living wage while you made $125k a mo?" And what about the parents who work and cannot afford childcare and so must pay less for care than they would like to? Or the childcare workers who are paid legally but are still not making a living wage and so SELL MLMs ON THE WEEKEND?!
White feminism continues to operate in a capitalist construct. White feminists have bought into a pyramid scheme too! I’ve written about this before but America is a pyramid scheme. It relies on people buying into the American Dream and then working hard to get to the top. But of course - almost no one does. Beneath each successful person in America is a downline of unpaid and underpaid labor. As I wrote in this piece on American motherhood as an MLM, if we included the unpaid production that takes place in the home and the community to our yearly gross domestic product, researchers say it would grow by at least 23%, or more than $4 trillion.
Of course, the people overwhelmingly harmed in this pyramid are Black women and women of color. “They are hurt when they engage in professional work as underpaid caretakers who cannot afford childcare for their own children. They are hurt when their home-based care work builds our communities, and we consume their labor without pay. We must stop solely thinking about the best way to help mothers lean in and start diversifying the way we compensate them as community builders.” Why aren’t we talking about this more? Well. The people at the top are too busy telling moms they just need to get out and work harder to make their American Dream come true.
I am not overly educated in the formal sense, I have no degree. No traditional job will pay me enough to cover childcare. Which means to make minimum wage at a bookstore, I would have to go into debt to pay for childcare. This is not a hypothetical. I applied to several bookstores years ago but even working full-time, I was never going to make close to enough to pay for childcare. How is going to work outside of the home in those circumstances different from going into debt to buy legging inventory? I guess maybe if I bought leggings I could potentially sell them? And potentially make a profit? In theory! But there is no theory that makes the kind of job people will hire me to do profitable. I’d just always be in debt. I can’t figure out what is empowering about that situation. But instead of taking apart the pyramid one policy and culture shift at a time, white feminism insists that if I keep working hard enough, the fruits of my labor will be sweet. That’s a prosperity gospel too, you know?
I write professionally right now and my youngest child is in childcare. When I drop her off with her care providers, I feel such gratitude for their work. I know that child care requires the same degree of dedication as any other work. I know it is work whether it is paid or unpaid. You cannot say childcare workers are doing important, vital, professional work without acknowledging unpaid caretakers are too. You cannot say unpaid caretakers are doing important, vital, professional work without acknowledging childcare workers are too. I do not think care work is oppressive or lesser. I know what it is like to want to work but not be able to afford to because we could not afford childcare. And I’ve been in periods of my motherhood when I’ve felt called — not by my religion, or my partner, but by my own heart and mind — to work mostly in the home with my three kids.
Mostly, I’ve found myself in a space where I wish I could have the flexibility to do both: more flexible work schedules and a hiring culture that didn’t only NOT punish resume gaps but didn’t see working within the home as a gap at all, just different experience.
Also, I still don’t always make enough money each month to cover childcare! My work is read very widely! I am relatively successful as far as that goes. And it pays very little very much of the time! I know that’s not like, lean in talk or whatever. But it’s true. We are able to pay for care because my husband now makes enough for us to pay for childcare without going into debt. He works in tech. He has a degree. He is considered economically valuable by his company, and America! If he didn’t make enough money, we couldn’t afford childcare. And if I was a single mom, I would not be able to write and I would not be qualified for jobs that paid enough to cover childcare and I would not be paid for my work in our home. So…. I’d probably end up trying an MLM. Because maybe, just maybe, this one time it would work out and everything would be okay.
I don’t think all moms, or parents, should “stay home.” I am much happier when I am working outside of the home and inside of the home. But we’ve got to shift our business model as a country. We need to get away from being a pyramid scheme, as Jordan Brady said over and over in Lularich. To do that, we’ve got to give everyone - not just caretakers, because it’s not just caretaking labor being exploited in America - what Dr. Almaz Zelleke calls a “guaranteed minimum of economic power”. Kids along with adults need that guaranteed minimum. Universal Basic Income is one way to do that.
We’ve also got to decide that care work is real work and value it economically - that would go a long way in untethering it from gender. We’ve got to assure our professional care workers have living wages. And we’ve got to make sure everyone can afford childcare. Universal daycare is one way to do this, but as we build that system we also need to pay attention to the work of people like Dr. Casey Stockstill. This problem extends so far outside of the home, it makes my head spin. Tech guys will mock women who get sucked into MLMs and then in the next breath tell you they are Employee Number Three at their startup. Like...so much is pyramid shaped.
Once we stop pretending the homesphere is subordinate to the marketsphere, people in both spheres — so, all of us — will be less likely to be exploited. And like...maybe we’ll figure out how to build a new shape.
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This was a great conversation.
I am afro - Latina, and I grew up in a household with an RN mom who had to do work in the home- and then go out- and depended on my siblings and after school programs to do childcare while Papa was often overworked and underpaid for his work, due to good old racism. But they supported little cottage businesses out of people's home, and they did buy Tupperware and Fashion Fair and Avon because the ladies at church did need the little bit of income that it provided. The products were inroduced as a 'little thing that I do" and so many people in 80s/90s Bed Stuy had a little thing that they did, so lipsticks and containers and Avon bath products got bought and shared to cousins aplenty. But if they did not want to buy anything from ladies at church, that was okay too, and they would put away the sample kits and still hang out with my parents. Tuppwerware and Fashion Fair was not lifechanging, it was just a supplement to SS, nothing, nothing less, and it ultimately had nothing to do with friendships in the Bed Stuy community.
So now- there are so many of the financial MLMs being sold to African American and Caribbean people. I am not talking about franchises, which are risky but can be profitable. I mean, these really potentially bankrupting businesses with shady insurance companies, investment and crypto schemes and all the rest, relying on the reality of anti Black/Brown racism in depressing earnings at companies to sell these services. It's angering and it makes me sick. Even trying to make new friendships with my fellow Black and Brown neighbors in Portland I am subjected to a fucking sell for a MLM- a 'business opportunity'. I have to be firm, almost insultingly blunt, and tell them that my career IS my business opportunity, and if I wanted a side hustle, I could bake pies. But if they want friendship, then lets hang out.
I don't get calls back from these people. And that's the real reason why I despise MLMs- this power to poison friendships, especially friendships in the African American and minority communities, to use friendships for a short term, dollars based profit.
I fucking hate it.
I left a career to do LLR, largely because of the pressures of child care and needing to take constant leave to be home with sick kids because my partner couldn't. This made me feel *seen* in a way I haven't been since the LuLaRich commentary started. Thanks. Particularly the part about how every successful person in America is at the top of their own pyramid. Going to be thinking about myself existing under my husband's pyramid for awhile.