The internet's housewife obsession isn't anti-capitalist, it's anti-feminist
Somehow, reimagining our lives without the drudgery of work has led us towards a dangerous nostalgia for the submission of the nuclear family.
The Stepford Wives
Rose Davis is 26 years old and a self-described “stay at home gf/housewife”. On her TikTok, she’ll post videos documenting her typical day — watching Selling Sunset, getting her lashes done, cleaning the bathroom, baking — to her almost 30,000 followers. Rose is open about her financial dependency on her boyfriend, describing her main responsibilities as “self-care, cooking and making [their] home a beautiful, calm, safe and loving space”.
While seemingly mundane, Rose’s videos have amassed millions of views, with many of the comments on her video suggesting a yearning for housewife life. “HOW DOES IT FEEL TO LIVE MY DREAM!”, writes one user, “need this life”, writes another. Whether it’s these ‘day in the life’ videos, users extolling the virtues of financial dependence on a partner, or dating coaches promising to teach women how to marry rich, this wave of enthusiasm for housewife content has been sweeping TikTok.
What’s driving this sudden pining for a retreat to the home? It’s worth noting that the tradwife resurgence has occurred alongside a growing anti-feminist reactionary movement, as seen in the criminalisation of abortion, trans health care, the Depp v. Heard verdict, and going back a little further, to the rise of the alt-right. But even on the left, people are gravitating towards the figure of the tradwife as a rejection of hustle culture. As one TikTok user commenting on Rose’s videos wrote: “I work full time. I enjoy it […] But your life choices look perfect. Questioning my life choices”. And: “I’d rather do this than a job I don’t like for 40 hours a week […] you’d only get bored if you let yourself get bored!”. Another wrote: “I’d love someone to pay for me. Why would I want to work?”
This anti-work sentiment was particularly prevalent during the pandemic, which exposed the precarity, inequality and exploitation driving the labour market. For a generation chronically overworked, undervalued and underpaid, it’s unsurprising that so many young people have taken to declaring that they “do not dream of labour” or that the dream job is dead.
After quitting their jobs in droves during The Great Resignation, more people are turning their back on the idea that our entire identity and purpose can be found staring at a laptop screen all-day in a demoralising 9-to-5. Increasingly, people are choosing to challenge the dominance of liberal feminism, which sees escaping the drudgery of the household and entering the labour market as the key to women’s liberation.
It’s easy to empathise with this longing for an alternative, any alternative, to our broken world of work. But the notion that the housewife is antithetical to the girlboss, or a logical end to neoliberal feminism, is misguided. “This idea that the household stands outside of capitalist social relations is something that a feminist analysis would criticise,” Emma Dowling, a sociologist and author of The Care Crisis (Verso Books), tells me. “Of course, that is a whole world that is intimately connected to our capitalist production and where labour-power is reproduced.
“Also, this retreat to the home and the family is something that is private and privatised,” she adds. “So it’s not particularly liberatory or progressive if we want to think about how we live differently, rather than retreating to this bourgeois nuclear family which has historically been a bastion of women’s oppression.”
Just as proponents of housewife culture thrive on TikTok, so too do its critics. Aly Drummond — who runs a YouTube channel preaching a return to femininity and domesticity – was met with intense backlash when she appeared in a TikTok captioned “How to marry a high-value man and become a housewife”. In the clip, Aly explains how she “became a better human being”, as well as how she “became feminine” and “submissive,” and landed a husband.
Unsurprisingly, Aly was lambasted for advocating financial dependency. It’s a criticism which is often levelled at housewives on TikTok. In response, people will usually clap back by saying: But what about women’s right to decide for herself? Also known as ‘choice feminism’, some argue that a women’s decision to stay at home is equally as feminist as another woman’s decision to work because they are both exercising their right to choose. It’s a response, however, that often fails to think critically about the way these roles are ascribed and the fact that no choice is made in a vacuum.
This approach also fails to acknowledge the stark disparity in how much freedom of choice a woman can exercise. The videos that tend to go viral on TikTok — or are most likely to be heralded the dream life or ‘goals’ — centre around wealthier tradwives. These are women who’ve typically married rich and have time to go to the gym or binge boxsets during the day. By conflating this tradwife with all housewives, it distorts the reality faced by most women who labour tirelessly in the household and in caregiving roles.
Indeed, the fawning responses to these videos, which posit housewife life as an escape from capitalism and the world of work, overlook the fact that housework is work. In the 1970s, feminists fought for this fact to be recognised with the Wages for Housework’ (WfH) campaign – an anti-capitalist movement calling for payment for women’s essential domestic work. WfH sought to establish caring labour not as an expression of love, but real work. That housewife life is often seen as akin to unemployment on TikTok shows that this claim was — and still is — radical.
“This unpaid work that props up capitalism is being done all the time,” says Emma Dowling. “But also, in the traditional post-war setup, the bulk of income that came into the house was often controlled by male partners. Today, there are many ways that dependency and exploitation continue. In addition, a lot of the time households are struggling to bring in enough income, do all the housework and meet all the care needs they have. So, when people say they enjoy [being a housewife], could that be coming from a position of privilege?”
It’s easy to fall into nostalgia for the past when the present feels bleak. And, it makes sense that people are searching for meaning, or a way to reimagine their lives, outside of the drudgery of work. But if we want to overthrow the oppressive structures keeping us chained to our desks, this imagining must go beyond the constraints of the nuclear family.