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The Tradwife phenomenon: homesick for subservience

If you’ve been on TikTok at all recently (or Instagram Reels, if you’re that way inclined), you will have noticed a vast array of videos featuring picture-perfect American wives competing in beauty pageants weeks after giving birth, churning their own butter, donning 1950s house dresses, and advocating marital subservience. The Tradwife phenomenon began trending in 2020, but this year has seen an increased interest in the subculture, sparking much online discourse and controversy.

I first came across model and Tradwife influencer Nara Smith when other creators indirectly mocked her children’s unorthodox names (Rumble Honey and Slim Easy). But it’s thanks to her elaborate methods of preparing food for her husband and children (she makes everything from scratch, even butter, pop tarts and marshmallows) that the TikTok star has amassed 7 million followers. Although Smith’s videos are evocative of the restrictive obligations faced by 1950s housewives, there is surely nothing problematic about a soft-spoken woman choosing to stay at home and cook for her family, right?

Naomi Wolf once famously declared, “a woman wins by giving herself and other women permission”. Steadfastly against shaming other women for choice of lifestyle or profession, this rationale can apply to the Tradwife phenomenon: why prevent wives and mothers from staying at home full-time if they so wish? Numerous Tradwives are striving to reclaim this lifestyle. Just as it should of course be acceptable for women to act as the breadwinner, so too should they feel free to stay at home and churn butter. In a world where notions of gender are in flux, a strong definition of gender roles may feel comforting for some.

But it’s not always that simple. Issues begin to arise when Tradwife influencers directly bash progressive values and the ambitions of other women. English Tradwife and author Alena Kate Pettitt, who is “passionate about family values, keeping traditions alive, and good old fashioned manners” (from her Darlington Academy website) has written extensively on the importance of having a man to “take care” of her. Pettitt once tweeted, “husbands must always come first if you want a happy marriage”. This prescriptive approach is a signifier of the darker side of the Tradwife trend: it feels disturbingly as though a man is preaching through his wife, demanding that all women return to gender roles so many have fought to escape.

Influencers such as Pettitt express an explicit contempt for modernity and feminism, and, even more concerningly, a desire to return to a mythical, racially idealised past. Journalist Anne Kelly discusses how the Tradwife phenomenon coincides with White supremacist discourse: Tradwives share theories about what has gone wrong in the West, and express a desire for the “natural order”. They are therefore highly sceptical of how their children are educated, instead choosing to instil in them ‘traditional’ values. Certain Tradwives have even challenged their followers to have as many children as them, hence the alarming existence of a “White Baby Challenge”. A reaction against an era of falling birthrates and increasing multiculturalism, this challenge overlaps with the far-right ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy, a racist ideology asserting that White Americans and Europeans are being purposefully ‘replaced’ by non-white immigrants, a false belief heeded by a majority of Trump voters and Fox News viewers (according to a 2022 YouGov poll). This fear has also directly led to mass shootings, such that of Buffalo, New York in 2022, and Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019. One really does not have to dig too deep to uncover the very real and very violent dangers of racist scaremongering. When such discourse intersects so strongly with the narratives underlying a TikTok trend, there is real cause for concern.

Another Tradwife, Gwen the Milkmaid warns that the government is trying to disrupt the sanctity of the white hetero nuclear family, posting in one video that “the elites have been trying for decades to destroy femininity, masculinity, and families”, hence why viewers are apparently “threatened” by the trend. Posting such strong ideological stances alongside sugary sweet, aestheticised videos in which we see Gwen smile robotically as she lattices pies and sows seeds in the garden, in fact undermines the severity of what she is promoting. It is as though her assertions are obvious, her way of living a simple, pretty solution. But a solution to what? Increasing acceptance of blended families, of gender fluidity and of more open attitudes to race, to what constitutes ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’? How does this harm her wish to stay at home? 

To Gwen, the enemy is progressivism: advocacy for social reform, in particular concerning women’s rights and the fight against outdated attitudes to sex and gender. But many have theorised that the Tradwife lifestyle is in fact a reaction against the many unresolved issues women face: a lack of reliable health and child care, and a gender wage gap, to name but two. The reality is that women still perform many more hours of housework and unpaid care at home than men do, and are paid less in jobs for which they work just as hard, so veering completely off the career path and choosing to dedicate oneself to a husband and children seems like an easy remedy for the anxieties they face. When modern life feels like an uphill battle, looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses is undeniably appealing.

Women are incorrectly taught who is to blame, so Tradwives end up aligning themselves with an audience that will fully embrace their lifestyle: the right. This phenomenon is not new, and it distracts us from the real enemy. As one TikTok aptly remarks: the man who should really be supporting these women is Joe Biden. If governments in general worked more effectively in support of women, they might not feel as strong a need to seek refuge in the home, away from the nightmares of the job market and difficult political realities. 

Whilst the Biden administration has for the first time implemented a U.S. National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality – which aims to promote women’s economic security; health and reproductive rights; education justice and human rights among other things –  and committed a landmark $2.6 billion to promoting gender equality abroad, problems around women’s safety and gender based violence, equal payment and the protection of reproductive rights persist all over the world. In the US, with the revocation of the constitutional right to an abortion, things can be seen to be getting worse. Women still earn on average 16% less than men (Forbes, 2024), and in 16 states abortion is illegal after conception (in only three of those states is an exception made for cases of rape or incest). It is perhaps the American system of government to adequately protect women that is to blame for the rise of the Tradwives, not progressivism.

Social media also fuels polarisation, and so women are increasingly pitted against one another: the ‘traditional’ wife is threatened by the ambitious, career driven woman, and the former’s legitimate desire to dedicate herself to a family sees an enemy in a liberal, progressive attitude towards female empowerment. Bashing other women for choosing to work was also prevalent in the US and Canada in the ‘80s, an era in which the “Mommy Wars” –  rampant disputes between mothers over parenting methods – played off anxiety about the increasing number of mothers joining the workforce. This war’s logic was that women who stay at home to raise their families are the natural enemies of women who choose to leave and work, and so mothers were pitted against one another: working mothers began to view stay-at-home mothers as lazy and self-indulgent, and the latter saw those who went off to work as selfish and neglectful. This false narrative persists to this day, and has resurfaced for some Tradwives.

Under Nara Smith’s videos, I have only ever read positive comments from other girls, in adoration and support of her recipes, aesthetic and style: women will clearly support women who choose this lifestyle, and who do not shame the choice to live as you so wish. Yet, for Gwen, her enemies are OnlyFans models – a group to which she used to belong, and now openly derides – feminism, which to her is “not freedom”, sexual freedom and choice (“abortion is not healthcare”). “Women were created to be in the home”, she informs us. The issue is perhaps most effectively encapsulated in her declaration, “I used to be a man-hating feminist… now I’m happily spending hours in the kitchen making my husband whatever he wants”. Who told her that feminism equals man-hating, and also that baking and feminism are mutually exclusive? Clearly, she was never a feminist to begin with. 

If your wife chooses to stay at home and cook for you, and this dynamic is functional, then fine. If embracing traditional gender roles is indeed a comforting and effective solution to the impossible challenges faced outside, this is surely harmless, but what is crucial is that women make that decision for themselves, and clear boundaries are drawn. It does however seem as though in cases such as Gwen’s, it is the man who profits from a woman’s ‘decision’ to stay at home. Her husband can ask for anything, and Gwen will get it for him. Furthermore, a lot of Tradwife content is sexualised, its comments full of men lusting after them, “I want one”, “you’re what men want”, and even, “you’re still ruined” (after the creator admitted she used to be an OnlyFans model). Are men spurring these women on? Is it the looming, voyeuristic male presence which we really ought to be worried about?

In the words of journalist and commentator Max Read, “to the extent that I would worry about anything in the future, instead of creating a mass of Tradwife women, it feels a lot like you’ll get one or two very famous ones, and a mass of simping male followers.” Studies have shown that a large proportion of those who view Tradwife content are right-leaning men. Ex-Tradwives have attested the abuse they endured, and spoken about how men who self-select into such communities are antisocial and very misogynistic. It seems that the real danger of Tradwife content is that it caters to men with a Donna Reid fetish, affirming the kind of insidious misogynistic biases that have become increasingly prominent with the rise of self-proclaimed misogynist influencers, such as Andrew Tate. 

So, should we fear this phenomenon? The TikToks in themselves, as Read writes, are unlikely to effectively serve as propaganda for women. Instead, one must unpack the ideology that lies beneath: women misdirect their anxieties, economic or otherwise, towards contempt for other women, feminism and progressivism, and land in the arms of men who end up abusing their misguided decisions, and thus the submissive wife power dynamic. With the internet, we should always be wary of anything that claims to be perfect, especially when a trend reproduces and romanticises an era of rampant sexism. The perfected, saccharine videos we see celebrating the Tradwife lifestyle are not so bright when the camera is turned off.

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