Against a backdrop of increasing repression and gender-based violence, “femininity influencers” offer what could be seen as comfort in a destabilizing time.
If you’re online, then you may have noticed that women are being encouraged to “embrace their femininity.” “Tradwives” promote the idea that working outside the home is a masculine trait. “Divine femininity” influencers encourage women to be submissive in order to wed rich men and increase their social positioning.
While there’s nothing new about women across ethnicities, races, and religions embracing traditional gender roles, the rise of digital content promoting this style of thinking is a newer phenomenon.
Growing economic inequity is drawing more women to this movement. Both white tradwives and femininity influencers of color peddle the idea that attracting and partnering with a man will give women financial stability. Plus: Why claw your way to the top of a male-dominated and misogynistic workplace when a man can take care of you instead? While the COVID-19 pandemic is causing economic upheaval, neoliberalism is flourishing, conservative legislatures are eroding access to abortion, and patriarchal violence is escalating, the tradwife movement is promoting heterosexual marriage as the solution.
“These conversations are not brand new,” says Cat Shanu, a lifestyle coach with more than 120,000 followers on TikTok. “They’re just being transmitted in a different form, and that form is social media.” Shanu coaches on femininity and dating, but not in the conservative sense. She has helped hundreds of “overworked and overstimulated” women tap into “softer aspects of feminine energy,” which she describes as “being nurturing, being compassionate, [having] a sensitivity to emotion, [and having] a desire to connect or build communities.”
For Black women, in particular, femininity content can be appealing, perhaps because of its unintentional portrayal of the “cult of true womanhood,” a 19th-century idea that women should be pious, pure, domestic, and submissive. Black women were historically shut out of this ideal, partly because they were already in the workforce. A town in South Carolina even made it illegal for Black women to be stay-at-home mothers in 1918 so they could care for white families.
As Shanu explains, “It was an act of rebellion for, in particular, the Caucasian woman to not be a housewife and to leave the home and get a job and earn as much as a man. However, for Black women at that time, that was not a life that they were accustomed to—Black women were already in the workplace.” When considering the context of dark skin being seen as masculine and femininity being devalued in society, it makes sense that some Black women are eager to reclaim their femininity.
It’s important to note that a lot of femininity content has been correctly critiqued as transphobic. Gender essentialism, the belief that there’s a single, inherent way to be a man or a woman, is oppressive to both cisgender and transgender women. While performing femininity can be empowering for some, being forced to fit into a strict mold can be suffocating and, given the number of transgender women being killed each year, dangerous.
And yet, as Soraya Chemaly, a leading expert in feminism and media, notes, capitalism requires traditional gender roles. “We have a system in which being masculine depends on women’s vulnerability,” she says. “How are you supposed to provide [for] and protect a woman if she’s not vulnerable? If a woman says, ‘I’m going to provide for myself, and I don’t need or want your protection,’ where does that leave masculinity? The entire premise of American masculinity is the vulnerability of women.”
As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels note in The Communist Manifesto, patriarchy and capitalism work together to squeeze the maximum amount of labor possible from male workers while allowing women, who are caring for the home and the children, to be lorded over by those men. As women began working outside the home, as well as making gains in secondary education, household chores still primarily fell to them. “And our society doesn’t value care work,” says Chemaly.
The growing embrace of the tradwife life could be seen as a rebuke of “girlboss” feminism, as well as the “second shift.” If you’re going to have to juggle a career with all of the housework, why not just lean into the latter? Reverting to conventional gender norms, which Black women and other women of color never had access to, can be, as Chemaly says, “a comfortable place in a very destabilizing time.” This specific thirst for economic stability comes with the promise that being a patriarchy princess—a woman who upholds patriarchal standards to appeal to men—will keep you safe. Rising gender-based violence proves that to be untrue.
Instead of prioritizing marriage, what if we improved material conditions for women? What if we established free universal childcare centers? What if housing were more affordable? What if we invested in elder care, communal kitchens, bodily autonomy for all, and universal health care? Would content promoting traditional gender roles still be as appealing as it has become?
It’s jarring to see so many promote anti-feminist ideals while our rights are actively deteriorating. Relying on patriarchal ideas makes a hollow movement, but perhaps none of these influencers and their followers are trying to lead a movement to liberate women. Instead, maybe they’re just trying to survive.