In 2013, a New York Magazine article made the rounds among cultural and social commentators, and throughout a number of online forums. The text in question was titled “The Retro Wife.” In it, Lisa Miller followed a housewife who, having graduated cum laude in Social Work, decided at one point to stop working so she could take care of her daughters and her home. In the feature, she expressed just how happy she was cooking her husband’s favorite recipes and working with her daughters on their homework, and how sure she was of the choice she had made. Of the personal fulfillment she felt. But she was a housewife who also defined herself as a feminist.
The reactions to the article were, as expected, mixed. However, the piece served to draw attention to an incipient phenomenon, the so-called “new domesticity”: more and more women and men with higher education who were demanding a “return to the home,” which represented a tangible change in the way issues related to feminism, work and domestic tasks were approached. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, in 2012 29% of American mothers decided to stay at home, six percentage points more than in 1999, which was the modern-era low. According to an article around that time written by Emily Matchar for The Atlantic, this increase demonstrated “the decline in career ambition and the growing importance of family among the young.”
“This phenomenon,” notes Matchar, “is about far more than privileged women choosing to stay at home with their children. It’s about the laid-off office worker who opens an Etsy boutique selling crocheted baby clothes rather than jumping back into the fray of recession-era job searching. It’s about the grown child of harried Baby Boomers who, having seen his parents work 60-hour weeks to climb the corporate ladder, decides to lead a slower, more home-focused life.”
In 2023, 10 years after the feature story on “retro wives” was published, domestic life has taken center stage once more, largely because of two new viral trends on social media: #tradwife and #stayathomegirlfriend. The first doesn’t have any trace of feminism. And in the second, there are no children in the picture.
A woman’s place is in the home
Let’s start with the #tradwives, or traditional wives. In #tradwives videos, popular on Instagram and TikTok, there’s usually a young woman, generally in her 20s, beautiful, and sporting an aesthetic similar to that of Betty Draper in “Mad Men,” dressed in a floral dress and wrapped in a ruffled apron, making a loaf of something or kneading a ball of dough for homemade cookies. With a look of absolute serenity on their faces, a smile that conveys fulfilment and almost heavenly background music, they affirm: a woman’s place is in the home.
The content isn’t from the ’50s or a period film. The #tradwives videos are real-life modern girls, mostly American and British, who repeat from their always immaculate kitchens – or at least that’s what their videos show – that the role and vocation of a traditional wife consists solely in staying at home and submitting to their husbands.
This digital subculture began to emerge at the end of 2019 in online forums, but it was in this last year that the presence of the phenomenon intensified to reach considerable online notoriety: the hashtag #tradwife has almost 300 million TikTok. views. As one of the best-known tradwives, Estée C. Williams, who looks more like a reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe than a 1950s housewife from an Arkansas suburb, explains in a video, they believe in a return to “the ultra-traditional gender roles of the middle of the last century,” to the man leaving the house to bring home the dough and the woman staying in the home to knead it.
#tradwives and #stayathomegirlfriends use the same justification: feminism is a matter of having freedom of choice and they choose to live this way
But not even this traditional subculture is free from the influences of modernity. The mix between returning to the home and rejecting marriage and having children, common today, has given birth to a new beast: girlfriends who choose to stay at home or #stayathomegirlfriends (SAHG). That is, being married or being a mother are no longer requisites for a man to take care of your finances. While the tradwives’ job is to take care of the home and their family, the stay-at-home girlfriend’s job is to take care of their boyfriend and, mainly, to take care of themselves, with multi-step facial routines and yoga classes in the middle of the day.
This is… feminism?
The differences between tradwives and stay-at-home-girlfriends are clear, but in the face of criticism that calls them anti-feminist, both put forward the same justification: as we understand it, feminism is a matter of having freedom of choice and we choose to live like this. Ultimately, it’s a choice in line with feminism, they argue.
However, writes Meagan Tyler, a researcher at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the arguments behind so-called “choice feminism” are fundamentally flawed, because they assume a level of absolute freedom that does not exist. “Yes, we make choices, but these are shaped and constrained by the unequal conditions in which we live.” Furthermore, she adds, “the idea that more choices automatically equate to more freedom is a falsehood. This is essentially just selling neo-liberalism with a feminist twist. Yes, women can now work or stay at home if they have children, for example, but this “choice” is fairly hollow when child-rearing continues to be constructed as “women’s work”, there is insufficient state support for childcare.”
A response to millennial disenchantment
But there’s another element that’s been at play within the last 10 years that has also influenced the comeback of this “new domesticity,” and, quite possibly, also explains its growing popularity– and deviation from – previous decades’ trends: the disenchantment of young people with the work and cultural environment that surrounds them, characterized by instability and fluidity.
First, the financial side of it. It’s no coincidence that tradwives and #SAHG are so young. These girls, mostly late millennials and zoomers, grew up with the (false) promise of financial security and with the (false) belief that, if they worked hard enough and studied enough and, ultimately, made enough of an effort, they would be successful, they would do well. They would be happy.
Reaffirming specific feminine or masculine roles can feel like a way to bring apparent order to modern chaos
Instead, what they found was enormous financial uncertainty, greater difficulty in finding work, with frenetic schedules, and unaffordable housing costs. Lots of risk, stress and volatility, and little happiness. But then they think back to what they know about the ‘50s, a time that probably not even their parents lived through, but which, due to the deceitfulness of nostalgia, offers them a safer, easier and happier world, and shows a road to solving their problems: for a woman, become a housewife; For a man, find a woman who wants to be one.
As for the cultural context, given just how fluid sexuality has become and how the idea of what a woman or man is constantly shifting and evolving, reaffirming a specific version of femininity and masculinity, with the consequent gender roles, can be a way to feel a sense of control over their lives, to put apparent order in the face of modern chaos.
Just another product by social media
Given how exhausting it can be to work as if you didn’t have children to get home to or taking care of children and the home as if you didn’t have a job, the longing for those times when women dedicated themselves exclusively to the home can be attractive. But not only for the women making the content, those who consume it are enticed by the idea, too. You’ll find a myriad of comments in the comments section along the lines of: “I’m 26 years old and I definitely want this lifestyle”; “that’s what I want to do; it sounds incredible” or “Well, in that case, I think I want to be a tradwife.” For anyone who watches them between college classes, work meetings, or while shopping late at night because they haven’t had time until then, the way of life that’s presented can be very seductive.
However, we can’t forget that these trends, although they seem like a counterresponse to modernity, neoliberal capitalism or feminism, actually feed off all of them. In an article written for Newsweek titled “I’m a stay-at-home girlfriend. And a feminist,” Kendal Kay, one of the best-known SAHGs on TikTok, explained that although her boyfriend pays for everything and she is fully devoted to the home and taking care of her skin, her monthly income is still around $2,000 from the content she creates and through advertising.
SAHGs and tradwives end up being figures made by and for social media, digital products that bear hardly any value when it comes to choosing to stay home and “real” domestic life: their appeal lies less in what they say and more of how they look while they’re saying it. Unlike the way of life proposed by the “new domesticity” of 2013, these two trends are more like a role-playing fantasy of domination and submission than a serious and lasting life approach, parodying the real housewives along the way.
Translated from Spanish by Lucia K. Maher