Discover more from a fête worse than death
Hi! My Washington Post piece last week was about babies; I had a riot calling them the most powerful lobby in America. You can read it here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2023/04/27/natality-jennifer-banks-without-children-peggy-odonnell-heffington/. My next one is out on Thursday. The one after that will be out two weeks later because it will be longer and I’ll do more reading for it. I’m really excited for that one; keep an eye out.
Now onto the order of the day: TRADWIVES.
As you may have surmised if you know me “in real life” and likely could have guessed if you know me on the internet (which is also real life, just a different kind), I am obsessed with tradwife influencers. If you don’t know what tradwives are, or where to find them, I envy your innocence. You should log off before it’s too late to save you. For my part, I’ve stooped to making a TikTok (with the admittedly excusable handle “MerlotPonty”) to stalk the tradwife influencer I find most spectacularly grotesque. Here she is, in all her glory, explaining the whole tradwife thing to the blissfully uninitiated:
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I’ve been looking for an essay on tradwives that explains me to myself. Why do I find them so perversely mesmerizing? What exactly is going on with them? Are they LARPing? Is being a tradwife but also an influencer a way of doing something while ostensibly doing nothing, working and earning good money for it while also conspicuously not working and getting credit for that, too? I don’t think I’ve hit on quite that essay yet, but some good things have been written about the tradwife phenomenon, and in particular, it’s occasioned two recent and interesting pieces, both of which I sort of agree with and sort of disagree with and want to think more about. (This is one of those rambles in which I’m trying to figure out what I think in public, probably an ill-advised practice but one that the exhibitionism of the current epoch enables and so one in which I’ll indulge.) The first piece is by Niloufar Haidari in Dazed and the second is by Sophie Lewis in Dilettante Army. In some ways—more on those ways soon—the pieces are similar, or at least convergent.
Despite using the term “momrades,” Lewis is right about a lot of things. For one thing, she’s right about the contradiction at the heart of the tradwife craze, which presents itself as both edgy and trad(itionalist), both futuristic and regressive. The tradwives (purport to) see themselves as part of a fringe movement, an oppressed minority in an era dominated by girl bosses. Maybe they really believe they are underdogs, despite the fact that their mode of life has long been heavily promoted by everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to state legislatures declaring it illegal for married women to work; maybe their posture of grievance is just a clever marketing tactic, deployed at a moment when everyone is clambering to reap the economic and cultural benefits of being an outcast and a victim. Many scholars of fascism have remarked that it displays similar contradictions; tradwives are reactionary modernists, in a way (at the very least, they’re peddling their lifestyle on TikTok). It could not be more perfect that the handle of the tradwife in Lewis’s piece is “The Postmodern Mom.” “In the mind of the Postmodern Mom,” Lewis writes, “postmodernity does not signify an infinitely deconstructible welter of unstable epistemes. On the contrary, ‘The Postmodern Family’ brand…is intended to express a refusal of modernity in the name of patriarchal Christendom.” The family is post-modern in the sense that it is hostile to modernity. It imagines a future that resembles not the present but the past.
Lewis is also right about the hypocrisy of the tradewife influencer, who is hustling every bit as hard to monetize her channel and pump out content as her husband is at the bank (or wherever). And finally, she’s right about how stupid and annoying it is that women (or anyone) defend tradwives by appealing to the sanctity of choice (although, being the pedant I am, I wouldn’t join her in designating the choice fetishists as “liberal feminists,” for all the reasons I’m constantly whining about on this Substack. Liberalism, as I understand it, isn’t a comprehensive worldview; it’s a narrowly political view about state neutrality. It’s perfectly consistent to be a Rawlsian liberal, and therefore to think tradwifery should be legal, and at the same time a moralist, who uses every civil resource available to evangelize against tradwives). The girl-boss BBC journalist Lewis is writing about “limits her initial ‘judgements’ on tradwifery to simple statements of taste: she wouldn’t enjoy this, personally; she’d suck at it; it’s not for her, etcetera. And her moral arc will bend inexorably towards acceptance: ‘I know for a fact that there will be women watching this that will be angry I’m not being more assertive about this,’ she will eventually conclude, wrapping up the episode. ‘But I’d say, you know: feminism? It’s about choice. They’re grown women, they’re of sound mind. So I can’t bowl into their lives and say, ‘you’ve got this wrong.’’” The tradwives themselves often echo this language, claiming that feminists should support them because they’ve chosen to be awful.
Haidari rejects the choice model by claiming that no one is really “choosing.” “Listen,” she writes, “I do not give a flying fuck if these women want to spend the rest of their lives meeting the needs of their ‘high-value man’ while wearing hideous Little House On The Prairie knock-off dresses, but the problem with choice feminism is that private choices are not made inside of vacuums. The choices we make are informed by structural constraints that are shaped by social, cultural, economic, and political conditions.” Sure, but I think we can follow Lewis in saying something stronger: I do give a flying fuck if you want to spend your life being awful. I think you should not do that. The tradwife life is not the good life; the tradwife life is bad, and it wouldn’t matter if women were freely choosing it, because even then it would still be bad, the same way that, e.g., murder is bad even if someone does it because they really want to do it. (Tradwives are probably less bad than murder, though at least murder is actually edgy, but my point is just that there are some things that can’t be redeemed by choice.)
One thing that’s interesting about these articles is they are sort of leftist versions of an argument that I tend to associate with the right, and that incenses me when I see it in publications like Compact. The right-wing argument, which I ranted about here, runs as follows: tradwives are actually brave anti-capitalists, resisting the imperative to participate in an economy that runs on wage labor by courageously opting out. Both Lewis and Haidari sort of echo this claim, albeit in significantly more skeptical tones. Neither goes so far as to maintain that the tradwife is a revolutionary, but both suggest that the tradwife concept has gained popularity because of widespread anti-work sentiment. “Given the choice between spending your days luxuriously slow-cooking meals while never having to worry about rent versus commuting to a hideously-lit office where you stare at a screen for nine hours a day, just to come back home and then have to begin your second shift of domestic labour, it seems that only the most unhinged girlbosses among us would choose the latter,” Haidari writes. “There is, however, a powerful recognition of humanity’s desire to be liberated from capitalist work in both its waged and unwaged forms,” writes Lewis.
One objection that I have to this idea is similar to the one I raised against conservatives in my Point piece. The long and short of it is, I think work, by which I mean meaningful projects, is good. This is really a matter of emphasis, since I imagine that Lewis and Haidari would agree. Their issue, or so I strongly suspect, is with work under capitalism (Lewis writes “capitalist work”), and not the sort of work over which we exercise more agency and which will we presumably have the time and means to do when Utopia Is Achieved. (You know, when we can hunt in the morning and fish in the afternoon and all that.) But I think it bears emphasizing in a piece about tradwives and their economic grievances: right-wing proponents of the idea that tradwifery is anti-capitalist want to exclude women not just from waged or capitalist labor but from meaningful projects altogether, so it is important for us to insist that women have a right to take up—and a spiritual need to take up—meaningful projects. (The conservatives would surely respond: no, we don’t want to exclude women from meaningful projects, we just want them to do housework, which for treacly reasons is actually very meaningful. Folding socks all day is a good way to confront the fact of mortality and physicality, and the daily humiliation of simply having a body won’t suffice to stage this confrontation. There is a whole separate debate to be had over whether stuff like “doing laundry” is a meaningful project. I have the perhaps unpopular view that it isn’t, really, and should be automated as much as possible and fairly distributed when it can’t be. Some of the work traditionally relegated to women, such as childcare, which is much more wont to be meaningful than, e.g., cleaning the toilet. But no, we don’t need to fetishize scrubbing the floor or doing dishes. We can simply admit that it sucks. In any event, even if cleaning the house is actually very meaningful, women should also be allowed to pursue other meaningful projects, obviously.) Anyway, I don’t think the aim of leftism should be to abolish work, but to afford more people access to meaningful work—and, when the work itself cannot be meaningful but must be accomplished by someone somewhere, to ensure that there is a mechanism for distributing unpleasant tasks equitably and allowing workers to exercise some democratic control over the distrubtion. I think it matters not only what people are doing, but whether people feel they have agency over what they’re doing; when they do, and are consequently unalienated from their labor, they can come to find meaning even in tasks that aren’t intrinsically fun, e.g., if you really care about the place where you live and you choose to clean it up, you may still not find picking up litter “fun,” but you may come to realize you don’t mind it.
Basically, it’s not true that the only options are trad wife, righteous dissenter from work, and corporate peon. Some women do meaningful work, and meaningful work should be the goal. Can work under capitalism be meaningful? I’m sure many will respond with ire but: yes, I think it can, despite the odds. A small percentage of workers do exercise control over their working conditions, because they’re unionized, and a small percentage of workers do have jobs so meaningful that even current working conditions can’t ruin them entirely. Being a teacher is meaningful, even now, and no one is going to convince me it isn’t. (Grandiosely, I think being a writer is meaningful, too. Anyway, I don’t feel alienated, maybe partially because my new workplace is unionized! Yay!) Lewis has a point when she writes that, ultimately, the girl boss and the trad wife are similar: their “emotional labors in front of the camera—one of them doing video journalism, the other, political makeup tutorials—do not appear so very different.” But this suggests a false equivalence between all forms of work and the girl boss’s form of work. There are other forms of work (being a public defender, being a teacher, being a writer, being a doctor), and women would lose something if they were excluded from them, even now, and even if not many people get to do work of this kind.
But I think my biggest objection is that both Lewis and Haidar give tradwives too much credit. Should they really be read as avatars of “humanity’s desire to be liberated from capitalist work”? I’m skeptical. If the trad wife is really motivated by anti-work sentiment, then wouldn’t she be out organizing, trying to ensure that everyone is liberated from capitalist work? Wouldn’t she and her cronies at Compact be objecting every bit as strenuously to men working for wages as they are to women doing the same? Wouldn’t she take issue with the breadwinner/homemaker model, which assumes that one partner is a wage-earner and so assumes that waged labor exists, and with the nuclear family, which forces us to privatize tasks that we might otherwise distribute more fairly across a larger network? Lewis is clear that tradwifery isn’t the right response to the injustice of work for many of these very reasons, but I don’t think the tradwife is the wrong response to the injustice of work; I think the trad wife is just….not a response to the injustice of work. The work stuff is just a pretext for the regressive gender politics, which are primary and non-negotiable. What really matters to tradewives and their defenders is not that women remove themselves from corporate life but that they submit to men.
I know this in part because some of the more “intellectual” advocates of tradwifery say so explicitly. In The Case Against Sexual Revolution, the trad-wife adjacent reactionary Louise Perry actively argues against welfare, claiming that it permits men to shirk their bread-earning duties and allows the state to serve as a bad imitation of a husband; tradwife scholar (a contradiction in terms?) Erika Bachiochi makes the same point on Ezra Klein’s podcast. The problem isn’t just that tradwives have adopted the wrong strategy for dealing with the injustice of work as it currently operates, as Lewis and Haidari claim. The problem is they don’t really care about the injustice of work: the anti-capitalist stuff is an alibi adopted after the fact, and lazily at that.
The whole thing seems parallel to some of the recent discussions of Tucker Carlson. Some leftists claim that, while the man is a smug nativist, he has decent class politics. But, in my view, they’re missing the point if they can’t see that his class politics are merely a pretext for his racism. That doesn’t mean that his remarks about class are always incorrect, any more than the tradwives’ remarks about work are always wrong (although the tradwives I’ve watched don’t really make many remarks about work, except to repeat that it’s sexy when men do it), but it does mean that the remarks are secondary to his true aims and are made in the service of his broader agenda. If we fail to keep this in mind, we risk forging alliances with someone who’s willing to jettison the part we signed up for in order to preserve the other, darker part. I modestly suggest that such a person may not be the kind of ally we want.