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 Decoding the Tradwife Phenomena with Dr. Melody Devries

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Frigidaire refrigerator advertisement from The Ladies' Home Journal (Wikimedia)

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Expert Analysis on the Tradwife Trend: Economic Drivers, Feminist Debates, and Political Overlaps 
May 2024

Today's Totalitarianism invited Dr. Melody Devries to share her insights on Monica Hesse's article in The Washington Post, "Tradwives, Stay-at-Home Girlfriends, and the Dream of Feminine Leisure." The following is an excerpt from our interview:

TT - The desire for an easy, stress-free life seems to motivate some women toward a “tradwife” role. How do you see current economic developments encouraging them?

MD - The United States and Canada are experiencing a drastic housing crisis; wages are nowhere close to keeping up with the cost of living, and there is a certain existential dread that characterizes Millenial and Gen Z life, as corporations accelerate the death drive towards climate catastrophe. We scroll past humanitarian disasters, genocides, political instability, and a general dissatisfaction with current conditions. Now imagine that suddenly amid your scrolling through politics, debates, and deaths, you encounter a whimsical video of a young woman in a billowing dress, smiling peacefully, frolicing amid grass and gardens, perhaps with chickens. Through cryptic captions, she explains how she has found peace in succumbing to her femininity and submitting to her husband. Despite the messaging, the images speak loudly, filled with sunlight and ASMR-like commentary about pursuing a 'slow life'. It is tempting to imagine your own life in such a setting; maybe you think about how you could start baking bread or growing tomatoes. We shouldn't be terribly surprised that young people -- even young women, exhausted by a fight against patriarchal capitalism -- are drawn to such content. At the same time, it's worth mentioning that while many trad-wife accounts seem to be all about aesthetics and whimsical lifestyles, these women likely make an income from their digital content, either via the platform or brand sponsorships. In other words, we should be unsurprised that trad-wife aesthetics become appealing not only because it promises escape from a capitalist hellscape, but also because it  generates its own economic incentive in a growing gig economy.

TT - If women actively embrace the tradwife role, then why can’t we conclude that it is their own “free choice” and poses no problems for anyone else?

MD - An important question. The short answer is that no set of practices -- especially public social media practices -- exist in a vacuum. Devin Proctor (2022) explains this well in their article about the #tradwife persona and white domesticity. According to Proctor, this perspective constitutes 'choice feminism', wherein any choice made by a woman is necessarily feminist. Here, women's freedom is equal to a woman's ability to make choices, but not much else. However, not all women have the same access to such choices, and also some women may make choices that are detrimental to the flourishing of other women in society. If feminism is about achieving an egalitarian existence for all genders, it must entail an intersectional commitment to correcting already existing racial, class, and other conditions that affect different women in different ways. We should be concerned with trad-wife content not because "women are making choices we don't like", but because those choices and the narratives they perpetuate have the capacity to negatively affect the lives of other women.

While some women may enjoy these trad-lifestyles, trad-wife content can (even unintentionally) harm other women in its perpetuation of the naturalness of feminine submission and homesteading. If performative practices are what compose our understanding of ourselves, as Judith Butler (1988) suggested, trad-wife practices launder femininity as naturally occuring, part of our 'woman DNA'. Alarmingly, it is this essentialization of femininity that can subsequently produce feelings of entitlement within men to enact patriarchal domination, whether in the form of emotional, physical, or financial abuse.

TT - The article argues that the tradwife trend reacts to capitalism’s intense work culture more than feminism. What are your thoughts on that point?

MD - I think this is certainly a valid point. However, I'd add that this doesn't mean that we can take how feminism is discursively positioned by trad-wives less seriously. Contemporary economic conditions may motivate trad-wife aesthetics, but feminism is still constructed as a 'main-villain'. At the same time (and perhaps in some contradiction), capitalism is often celebrated via trad-wife content. For example, smaller creators I've encountered romanticize the trad-wife lifestyle as a means of escaping the sour life of a minimum-wage paycheck, yet this deliverance is found in her husband's commitment to wage labor. One account based in Alberta frames the trad-wife lifestyle as providing her freedom from the burdens of "boss babe feminism". Rather than selling her labor, she used her account to show the freedom, leisure, and love that now supposedly filled her life as she baked cookies and waited for her husband to come home from working on an oil rig. While she rejects the idea of selling-out, as encapsulated by the boss-babe, she celebrates a hetero-patriarchal structure sutured to capitalism.

Two narratives seem to be at work here. The first is a romanticization of not having to bend to neoliberal boss-babe culture, one that demands women reject their femininity in order to move up the corporate ladder. The second evokes the memory of the heroic domestic work of women who tended the homestead while their husbands were away at war. Arguably, this trad-wife instrumentalized her status as 'wife of an oil worker' to link her work as a traditional wife with the duty of a woman to support the national efforts of her country. In this case, nationalist sacrifice and subsequent pride comes from being a subservient wife of the Albertan oil industry. Here, it is not capitalism that is rejected per se, but a kind of pink-washed capitalism that promises redemption in the abandonment of life outside of work. Trad-wives are complex and varied characters - I think this rejection of boss-babe feminism makes sense. These young women see its hollowness and how it leaves many problems generated by capitalism unquestioned. The issue is that instead of looking forward, the answer that these users sell is a return to the past, specifically to a mythical past with strict gendered hierarchies that inevitably contribute to rates of gendered violence, trans-exclusionary feminism, and other harmful policies.

TT - Is there a link between the tradwife trend and the growing resurgence of right-wing politics in the US and around the world?

MD - It's hard to deny this. While the alt-right no longer dominates newspaper headlines, in the United States we are encountering perhaps a more insidious set of far-right politics, namely via harsh, wide-spread abortion bans and anti-Trans bills. In other words, while the particular meme-culture, ethno-nationalism of the Alt-Right is no longer obvious, far-right politics have capitalized on heteronormative power structures to create a more culturally acceptable (less explicitly ethno-nationalist) anti-democratic authoritarianism in the form of abortion and transition bans, alongside a continued racial caste system (Alexander 2010) and contemporary colonialism. Trad-wife content (especially stay-at-home-girl-friend, modest-homestead-girl, seemingly depoliticized content) thrives alongside the hyper-traditionalist gender-narratives that make their way across both social media and the nation's capitals. I have no doubt that all of these things mutually construct each other.

 

  

 

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Melody Devries is an Assistant Professor of Communications at Allegheny College. Devries approaches study of the far-right by investigating how everyday practices materialize into political ideology. Devries has recently worked as a special-issue editor for Big Data & Society, and has recently published with the University of Minnesota Press.

Cite this article as: Devries, Melody. May 2024. 'Decoding the Tradwife Phenomenon with Melody Devries.' Today's Totalitarianism.  https://todaystotalitarianism.com/tradwife-phenomena

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