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The dark side of the tradwife trend that sees women return to ‘domestic bliss’

Social media fad of women glamorising a very retrograde ideal of domesticity is fantasy world with hidden dangers

'This trend is like getting women back to the sink.' Photograph: iStock

Having simmered away over the past three years or so, the #Tradwife trend is at boiling point. This lifestyle aesthetic, based on traditional gender roles and a return to old-fashioned “family values”, has made a home for itself on social media, primarily TikTok, where the hashtag has amassed about 600 million views across almost 60 million posts.

Proponents of the trend, who have been dubbed “the real housewives of the internet”, are mostly young women promoting the art of home-making, raising children, baking and keeping a tidy home, while the husband goes to work to provide for the family. So far, so innocent.

The issue, however, and the reason for its divisive popularity in 2024, goes beyond the image of women floating gaily about their homes with a feather duster and picking pretty flowers as a centrepiece for Sunday’s dinner table, and into rather murkier waters, including strictly enforced gender roles, female submissiveness and male domination and the movement’s role in the broader rise of right-wing fundamentalism.

A deep dive into the social media personalities typifying the trend, and using their platforms to promote the lifestyle, reveals a world where men rule and women follow. So entrenched is this view of women as second-class citizens that The Stepford Wives, a horror novel-turned-movie where men replace their wives with docile, smiling robot versions of themselves, is used to analogise the movement, and its growth from niche subculture to social media phenomenon.


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Take Estee Williams for example. The 26-year-old from Virginia is emerging as one of the trend’s most controversial figures. There is undoubtedly an allure to her content. With short blond curled hair, red lips and cinched waist, her appearance is likened to that of Marilyn Monroe. When she speaks, it is soft and considered. But in the wake of a television show appearance in which she defended her staunch traditional viewpoints, one talkshow host was led to ask if she was the most hated woman in the United States.

Recently she celebrated 1½ years since the TikTok post that would catapult her to fame. The post was a collage of illustrations and photographs from the 1950s showing a blond housewife in a world of domestic bliss. The video, titled “SAHW” – stay-at-home wife – it went viral and offended many.

Comments were conflicting. Some supported the idea of female homemakers and yearned for a romanticised idyll of bygone years where women coiffed their hair, fixed their make-up, applied some perfume and awaited the return of their hard-working husbands each day, greeting them with a smile, a stiff drink and a hearty home-cooked meal.

But many TikTokkers reminded Williams that those times were perhaps not as charming as she was making out – especially for people of colour, largely charged with housekeeping duties for white American families in the spotless kitchens and picket-fenced homes she was glamorising.

But even with 1.3 million likes on her posts and more than 191,000 followers, Williams trails TikTok tradwife star Nara Smith, a 24-year-old former model born in South Africa and raised in Germany who is married to model Lucky Blue Smith. Her content, which has almost 300 million likes and 7.2 million followers, invites viewers into her pristine kitchen as she cooks and bakes treats for her three children and husband, a picture of contented domestic bliss, all while speaking slowly and softly as light piano music tinkles in the background. She churns butter once a week, bakes fresh bread daily, and, when her children ask for cereal for breakfast, they get it made from scratch, causing many to not only question just how patient her toddlers are, but the feasibility of the lifestyle being portrayed.

'The lifestyle is presented as appealing, joyful, and showcasing a simpler, less pressurised way of living.' Photograph: Getty

And therein lies the frustration with the tradwife trend. Mothers wonder how these online influencers maintain such a tidy homestead – where are the piles of laundry and small, sticky handprints? Have they never known the pain of standing barefoot on Lego pieces scattered around the floor? How can these women look so fresh-faced after a sleepless night with a teething baby, or after a school run delayed by a missing shoe?

Niamh Delmer, a chartered counselling psychologist in Co Wicklow, says the tradwife movement is unrealistic in its expectations of women, courting fantasy over fact.

“The lifestyle is presented as appealing, joyful, and showcasing a simpler, less pressurised way of living,” she says. “It appeals to women under strain, overwhelmed by the demands of work environments, juggling and trying to handle it all. However, it is a glamorised version being sold to women. It can stir up resentments among women who do not have the choice to stay at home. This creates divisions among women rather than solidarity.

“It can also place unrealistic expectations on women to be wonderful homemakers, in top form, first-class bakers, Mother Earth types, and to look well at all times,” she adds. “It is not a realistic portrayal, as stay-at-home mothers often experience high levels of stress, a sense of isolation, burnout, and a loss of identity. Studies show mothers at home produce more cortisol, the stress hormone. There are many women who do not work outside the home, but don’t necessarily subscribe to tradwife ways. This can work well for a couple in a healthy relationship based on mutual respect, who have a system that benefits their family dynamic, and is a true choice.”

I’m highly educated and I’m lucky that I can work part-time and have the opportunity to be at home, and that is our choice. But I’m not here to serve my husband

—  Sarah Jane O’Brien (44) from Tralee

Sarah Jane O’Brien (44), from Tralee, Co Kerry, and a mother of two girls, aged 10 and 12, agrees. When her daughters were young, she made a decision to work part-time and take on the more traditional roles in the home, such as cooking and cleaning.

“I would have come from a very traditional family where my dad worked two jobs so my mum could stay at home,” she says. “Because we have two girls, I wouldn’t want them to think that they have to take on that role. I’m always saying to them that I cook for dad because he works long hours and in time the roles might reverse. I’m highly educated and I’m lucky that I can work part-time and have the opportunity to be at home, and that is our choice. But I’m not here to serve my husband.

“It just happens that because I’m home before him I cook the dinner, but if he was home first, he would do that. If the tradwife trend continues and it’s focusing on the wrong parts, like ‘you’re subservient’, that’s definitely not the view I want for my girls. I’m not subservient. My husband and I are equal partners.”

Hannah Neeleman with her family during the Mrs World beauty pageant in Las Vegas in January. Photograph: Bridget Bennett/The New York Times

The social-media wives show no signs of slowing down.

Hannah Neeleman is a 33-year-old mother of eight who lives on a farm in Utah, with Daniel Neeleman, the son of an airline tycoon. She is a hit across Instagram, where she has more than nine million followers, and TikTok, where her @ballerinafarm channel has 7.2 million followers, and more than 117 million likes. With an aesthetic that brings to mind Laura Ingalls Wilder in wholesome 1970s western drama Little House on the Prairie, Neeleman mills her own flour, milks her own cows, bakes bread from scratch, films her children making healthy drinks from dandelions and rhubarb growing on their land, shares videos of date nights with her husband and even has the time and energy to appear in beauty pageants.

Last year, she was crowned Mrs United States, where her answer to a judge’s question about when she felt the most empowered, went viral. “I have felt this feeling seven times now as I bring these sacred souls to the earth,” she responded, her voice trembling with emotion. “After I hold that newborn baby in my arms, the feeling of motherhood and bringing them to the earth is the most empowering feeling I have ever felt.” Two weeks before competing in the Mrs World pageant held in Las Vegas in January, she gave birth to her eighth child.

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I’ve always liked to swoon Daniel with good cooking. And since this week is our 12 year anniversary I’ve been hip-deep in pans and dishes. 😎His favorite meal is chicken parmigiana, not a small ask. This year I upped the ante by rolling out homemade pasta, which made all the difference. Happy anniversary, @hogfathering 😘

♬ Che La Luna - Louis Prima

While content creators such as Neeleman gain popularity in their portrayal of a simple, wholesome life, whether cradling a bowl full of sourdough mixture, or picking berries from hedgerows, others are suspected of less well-meaning motives, often tied in with extreme right-wing views.

Gwen Swinarton, a Canadian former Only Fans star who was “saved by God”, wears cute flower-print dresses, and goes by the name “Gwen the Milkmaid” as she tends to her flower garden and buys baby clothes for her future children.

She takes pride in reminding followers that “once upon a time, I was a man-hating feminist, now I’m happily spending hours in the kitchen making my husband whatever he wants for dinner”. As her popularity continues to grow – she has more than 66,000 followers and 1.5 million likes on TikTok and 89,000 followers on Instagram – so too does the extremism of her views.

Captioned posts range from “the feminine urge to take care of your husband and make him delicious food all of the time” to “women only want one thing and it’s to be kissed on the forehead by a handsome unvaxxed conspiracy theorist”. Her posts are littered with criticism of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, and warnings about “the elites” – a term often used in conspiracy theories to describe a powerful, shadowy cabal taking over the world.

In the US, where a serial abuser can run for president and the repeal of abortion rights threatens women’s body autonomy, the idea of women bowing down to men was always going to gain traction, particularly in the Red states.

Often pushing conservative Christian values, labelling feminism a dirty word, and quoting Bible passages to defend their thinking that men are there to provide and lead while women bear children and tend to their husbands’ needs, it is fast becoming a hotbed of white supremacist propaganda, conspiracy theories and far-right political agendas.

Following Donald Trump’s conviction over hush-money payments last month, Williams posted a picture of herself and her husband with an American flag in the background and the following caption: “Proud to be an American, proud to be a wife, proud to have a blue collared husband, proud to be a homemaker, proud to be a Christian, proud to have left college behind, proud to stand by Donald Trump, God bless United States”. Her actions led to an outpouring of criticism, unfollows, and suspicions around her motives, but generated even more publicity and curiosity around the tradwife lifestyle.

Donald Trump arrives to deliver remarks at Trump Tower in New York after his conviction in a Manhattan courtroom. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times

“The tradwife movement appals me,” says Kelly Fincham, programme director for the BA in global media at University of Galway. “On one level it promotes an idealised vision of traditional wives who submit to male authority, focus on homemaking and raising children, and reject modern feminist values. While portrayed as a personal lifestyle choice, the tradwife aesthetic matches the rise of the far right across Europe and the US. The highly curated tradwife content on Instagram and TikTok glorifies this regressive version of womanhood, while obscuring the very real risks of financial dependence and potential abuse that come with totally surrendering autonomy to a husband.”

Fincham argues that although the trend’s philosophy is a fringe view, the subculture is still powerful enough to play a dangerous role in normalising antifeminist and discriminatory attitudes, especially among younger audiences. Indeed, an offspring of the movement under the hashtag “stay-at-home girlfriends” relays stories from young woman who have shunned education and financial independence, in favour of minding the men in their lives. For many Irish mothers who stay at home or work part-time, these notions are infuriating.

And while a kind of morbid curiosity might have many of us scrolling posts to find out more about these hashtags, watchdog ethics outlets in the US warn that in doing so, social media algorithms may cause users to fall down the rabbit hole of far-right propaganda and conspiracy theories.

We interacted with seven tradwife influencers, and it was alarming to see the speed at which our algorithm radicalised and the quantity of far-right conspiracy videos

—  Researcher Olivia Little

At the fore is Media Matters for United States, a non-profit left-leaning journalism organisation founded by political activist David Brock, who was once a right-wing journalist with a penchant for needling Bill and Hillary Clinton, but is now a darling of the Democrats.

Last month, the media watchdog set its sights on tradwife content in the context of TikTok’s “For You” pages, where its algorithm analyses thousands of signals – likes, comments, follows, and length of time spent watching any one video – by a user to determine what kind of content might engage them the most.

Media Matters coded and analysed 327 recommended videos after engaging with content from seven different tradwife influencers, and then liking and watching each account’s 10 most recent videos. Soon after, their feed was flooded with right-wing conspiracy theory content.

“We had our own criteria for what a tradwife is, because I think there is an important distinction between people that are influencers subscribing to and promoting the tradwife movement, and just a stay-at-home mum or housewife on TikTok,” says Olivia Little, author of the research.

“We interacted with seven tradwife influencers and then just scrolled and watched what happened with our algorithm and it was alarming to see the speed at which our algorithm radicalised and the quantity of far-right conspiracy videos. By the end of the study, our feed was almost entirely saturated with far-right conspiracy theories. It was everything from videos featuring Infowars host Alex Jones, to claims of “elites” drinking the blood of babies, and it’s really alarming because a lot of what tradwives do is post aesthetically pleasing content that looks innocuous, but if a TikTok user interacts with that, they could quickly end up with a feed full of this stuff.”

Recent studies reveal that more women want to stay at home with their children during the early years, or work part-time. But they don’t have to be tradwives to do this

Little says other material included posts around medical misinformation, antigovernment content, and fearmongering about the need to prepare for an impending “civil war”. On the tradwife content itself, she believes there is a need to understand that the beautiful, pristine videos portrayed by many influencers don’t portray a realistic lifestyle.

“The offering is an unobtainable and unrealistic version of life,” she says. “They are glamorising something that is only obtainable if you have a lot of money. Having this perfect tradwife fantasy where you have beautiful dresses, expensive equipment, a giant house and huge plot of land, takes a lot of money that is not realistic for the majority of people, but it’s never acknowledged how inaccessible that lifestyle actually is. They may encourage women to do things like not go to college and promise that they can have this type of lifestyle, but it’s not true. You’re putting women in increasingly vulnerable situations where they don’t have financial security. Being a stay-at-home mum is difficult and it’s a lot of unpaid labour and unvalued labour – it is not easy or cheap to stay at home.”

Delmer warns the trend could become “a breeding ground of abusive and controlling” behaviours.

“There are references to tradwives being submissive to their partners supporting patriarchal views,” she says. “Depending fully on their partners affects women’s agency and they could end up feeling trapped. Women attending therapy with me are experiencing more and more mental health challenges, whether they are at home or juggling work, and stress, anxiety and depression feature. There can be guilt from not being with their children, or a lack of fulfilment at being at home full-time. Recent studies reveal that more women want to stay at home with their children during the early years, or work part-time. But they don’t have to be tradwives to do this. It needs to be a true choice for women.”

O’Brien agrees: “I definitely think women are being torn in all sorts of directions, and it is about choice. Education and choices are what I would want to see more of on TikTok for my girls. And for boys as well, because you wouldn’t want that idea that they are aspiring to one partner being submissive to the other. We don’t want to control men, we want to be equal partners, and this trend is like getting women back to the sink. It’s crazy to think that in 2024 that that’s what’s being encouraged over everything else.”