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April 2023 Issue [Readings]

The Feminine Mistake


From “The Agoraphobic Fantasy of Tradlife,” which was published in the Winter 2023 issue of Dissent.

Love is the ultimate value, and love is under threat: That is the rumor that we good, secular citizens are hearing, at a time when capitalism’s drag on human affections—through modern promiscuity, social alienation, and the ever-growing number of hours we spend at work—has become harder than ever to ignore. If only there was a way to save love! Well, respond the reactionaries: the way lies in tradition—more specifically in “tradlife,” the handy neologism for a recent set of attitudes and lifestyles devoted to glorifying the nuclear family and its jolly trappings.

Like all lore, tradlife has a central hero: the tradwife, a woman who deliberately abandons the workforce and retreats indoors to care for her husband, posting photos and videos designed to convey her safety and leisure. What unites tradwives in all their cultural iterations—from the Mormons who forswear premarital sex to the supposedly leftist women living in big cities and earning advanced degrees—is their rejection of feminism, represented by the gloomy figure of the working woman.

This is the twist that makes tradlife a phenomenon of our times: it includes earnest critique of life under capitalism. Many tradlifers are young women who hate work and celebrate arrangements which rescue them from the early-morning commute. “When my friend’s mom first started dating her husband,” one viral tweet reads, “he said ‘Stay with me, marry me, and you’ll never have to work again.’ ” Like a trapdoor, the idea swings open to reveal a fantasy too fragile and nostalgic to be taken in the open air. In their videos tradwives drift slowly through minimalist rooms and sedately narrate their days: “I fill up Luke and I’s water bottles to make sure we’re hydrated,” e.g. Their schedules seem always to be viciously regimented. Unpredictability and genuine surprise are rare, as are appearances by other people. At its extreme, the lifestyle is agoraphobic.

One starts to wonder whether the trend suggests an underlying anxiety: whether these women, in professing to love men, actually fear them. The tradwife has no male co-workers; if she sees men socially, they are the harmless husbands of friends or her own family members. For the most part, she encounters just one male figure, her husband, and only during the few hours before and after he goes to work. Ironically, the tradwife has proven herself similar to the lesbian separatists of the feminist second wave she claims to detest. In disavowing feminism she actualizes one of its most infantile desires: reducing contact with men and the sexual threat (or promise) they pose to a blessed minimum.

It therefore seems likely that tradlife’s purchase was also strengthened by the #MeToo movement, which, while recognizing the real destruction that misogynistic violence has wrought, also encouraged women to see life beyond the home as an unmanaged territory where other people lurk maliciously. The movement’s revelations were shocking not necessarily in their particulars but in their resonance and iterability. Overnight, every man became suspect. The rot was structural. In an era of heteropessimism, a woman may now feel that to compete with men professionally or to date them casually is an ill-fated venture, affording few opportunities for progress or respect. Why not stay home?

Tradlife purports to offer a risk-averse solution to these challenges: it guards women from most men and from public life. But if, by describing the misery of work, tradlife ennobles itself, its ethos also maintains a willful stupidity about capitalism’s historic dependence on the family. Tradwives forsake life in society for the lonely, constrictive refuge of bourgeois home ownership, and in doing so acquiesce to our collective neglect of the public sphere. In response to discontent, tradlife withdraws from the world it wishes were different and looks backward to formulaic relationships we have long known to be impoverished. The phenomenon conceals from its purveyors the prospect of a different kind of society altogether.

In contrast, feminism at its best has maintained that we do not know the full range of love’s possibilities; that without the pain and insecurity of a world where dignity is never fully shared, or without the imperative of property, love could one day be different. Feminism can countenance what is anathema to most political philosophies: humility regarding change’s slow progress. Love is universal, maybe, but it is not immutable.

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April 2023

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