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A Trad Deal
Tradwife life encourages women to leave the public sphere for domestic fantasies. It is also, a series of recent articles suggests, a total financial scam.
One of my favorite internet characters is a forty-something guy called Liver King. Liver King is grotesquely muscled, very red, and apparently always sweaty. Please google this so you know I’m not exaggerating. He is a very damp and red man. Liver King claims that all men can have a physique like his if they adhere to a rigid (“primal”) diet of raw meat, preferably obscure cuts like bull testicles.
This, of course, is a lie. Liver King’s real name is Brian Johnson and his physique is the product of steroid use—$11,000 per month of steroid use, according to leaked emails. Johnson’s schtick is something like a Ponzi scheme for gender, promising clients incredible returns on masculinity if only they invest more effort and money into an ever-elusive vision of manhood.
But it’s a compelling lie. And not one from which mothers are immune.
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As raw-meat masculinity influencers become right-wing internet microcelebrities, anti-feminist “tradwife” influencers have sought their own parallel popularity among women. Like hucksters of bogus “primal” diets, the reactionary tradwife scene also appeals to an ahistorical gender “tradition,” claiming women naturally belong in the home, subservient to men, and removed from paid work. (Motherhood is not really optional in the culture’s vision, although many of its main proponents are, as of yet, childless.) The movement’s Stepford Wives vibes have already been thoroughly detailed, but several recent articles take aim at an under-examined element of tradwife life: its bottom line.
It’s as unsustainable as a 100% bulls’ balls diet.
In Elle, writer Anne Helen Peterson agrees to live the trad lifestyle for a week, soon realizing that the effort would cost her money unless she continues her paid work writing and podcasting. In USA Today, a conservative Catholic stay-at-home mom (a lifestyle that self-proclaimed trads might valorize) pans the movement as troubling and unrealistic, noting that traditionally, women have always helped families earn incomes. The New York Post published a piece of tradwife apologia that nevertheless notes that families might need more than one breadwinner and that trad influencers’ TikToks of domestic bliss fail to capture the exhaustion and restlessness of stay-at-home motherhood (lady, do I have a 1963 Betty Friedan book to sell you).
And the Baffler has a great feature revealing the “lies of omission” that allow the trad movement to launder a right-wing agenda through pastoral Instagrams while hiding the project’s complete financial unviability.
Trad influencers do not buy their own bullshit, these articles suggest. They literally cannot afford to.
Central to the Baffler article is Ballerina Farm, a Utah ranch whose owners have gained millions of followers by posting the platonic ideal of a trad life on Instagram and TikTok. Though the devout family of nine does not describe itself in overt trad terms, “Ballerina Farm has become the lodestar for those still aspiring to establish an aesthetically pleasing—and, ideally, monetized—pastoral existence,” the Baffler writes.
Wife and mother Hannah Neeleman does this to extraordinary effect, making a beautiful home with a legibly trad aesthetic that could inspire even the most hardboiled city-dweller to go browsing Utah real estate on Zillow. Lost in the gardening advice and the this-could-be-your-life footage of mornings on the ranch is the economic impossibility of Ballerina Farm for virtually everyone.
Farming is expensive, with small farmers feeling a particular squeeze as giant agribusiness gobbles up their margins. It’s not a career (or lifestyle, or real estate) move to be made lightly. But the Neelemans are airline heirs. Hannah’s husband is the son of the JetBlue founder, and still held a corporate job in 2018 when the farm was picking up steam on its non-agricultural business front: social media.
This, I swear, is where the tasteful neutrals of trad life remind me of the red and sweating Liver King.
After revelations of Liver King’s steroid use last year, a disgruntled customer filed a lawsuit accusing Johnson of deceptive business practices. Johnson, the customer claimed, had misled fans into believing that they could have muscles like his if they followed his “Ancestral Tenets” program. That was misleading, the customer alleged, in part because Johnson secretly used steroids and in part because the Ancestral Tenets diet “required consumers to eat, among other things, ‘ground organs including liver, spleen, pancreas, heart, and kidney’ and ‘raw bull testicles, raw sweet bread, or raw heart.’”
The lawsuit alleged that Johnson knew “full well that customer adherence to the Ancestral Tenets was unsustainable” and that “once consumers realized they were unable to sustain the Eat Tenet,” they were redirected to buy Johnson’s brand of “Ancestral Supplements” instead. Those proprietary supplements, with names like “Grass Fed Beef Prostate” and “Male Optimization Formula with Grass Fed Beef Organs,” would supposedly make up for any bloody organs the customers couldn’t stomach in raw form.
The plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the case this spring without arguing it in court—a real anticlimax for followers of Liver King drama.
Johnson’s acolytes want to buy their way into a caricature of masculinity: the muscles, the sweat, the literal bloodlust. What corresponding caricature, then, exists for femininity? You probably couldn’t get much closer than the slim, pretty mother of many quietly performing domestic work in a beautiful setting optimized not for her comfort but for the onlooker’s eye (be it a husband or a TikTok follower).
While you probably can’t buy the steroids and the time it takes Liver King to build his body, you can buy his “Male Optimization Formula with Grass Fed Beef Organs.” And while you probably can’t buy a picturesque, 328-acre cattle ranch like the Neelemans, you can buy products that sell the lifestyle.
Here, the Baffler notes, they are happy to provide: “Ballerina Farm fans can buy a baggie of dehydrated sourdough starter named Willa ($18), a white oak cutting board ($87), a bench scraper ($15), a wooden farm whisk ($16) or spatula ($17), a Ballerina Farm-branded cast-iron skillet ($39).”
Or perhaps money is tight and baking isn’t your speed. Ballerina Farm’s success allows it to serve as a model for many tradwife influencers, without the Neelemans expressing much in the way of explicit politics. Imitators around the tradwife influencer sphere serve up the clear-cut messages that Ballerina Farm won’t.
One such imitator, a tradwife named Gwen who mourns her lack of a farm, makes TikToks that “turn the subtext of Ballerina Farm’s videos into text, as if to compensate for the ranch she lacks: Gwen is proudly antigovernment, antivaccine, and anti-birth control,” the Baffler writes.
Other trad advocates have literally used pictures of Neeleman and Ballerina farm to argue that women would be happier in that life than “becoming a partner at a law firm.”
“Social networks are specifically designed to engage people in exactly this way: through the performance of political and social identity. Putting that together as a lifestyle that you show over the course of multiple videos? It’s perfect,” Read tells New York.
I think there’s a broader misogyny at play in the efforts to drive women out of waged work and the public sphere. (An expert quoted elsewhere in the piece attributes tradwifery’s upsurge to a backlash to the new valuation of care work during Covid-19.) But I do agree that inflammatory performances of identity overperform on platforms like TikTok, where a video can rocket into popularity regardless of whether people are hate-watching or sympathy-watching. (I watch Liver King stuff and I do not agree with him; outlandish performances win again!)
Without the lure of a beautiful farm, tradwife influencers are forced to find their own profitable internet niche, often in explicitly anti-feminist politics that higher-tier influencers don’t voice. Here they’re able to articulate the tension that drives tradwife recruitment.
Work can be divided into “productive labor” (that which is rewarded with money) and “reproductive labor” (the unpaid work of care, feeding, and domestic chores that are required to maintain the “productive” workforce). Productive labor is generally viewed as “real work” and therefore deserving of pay; reproductive labor, less so. (Check out the backlash to the Wages for Housework movement if you want to see how mad people get at the prospect of paying stay-at-home moms.)
Many people, including many women, do not entirely enjoy their paid, “productive” jobs. Trad influencers weaponize this malaise and the undervaluation of reproductive labor by casting trad life as an escape from “real work.” They romanticize domestic labor, dressing it up in Ballerina Farm aesthetics that look good for the duration of a 90-second Instagram Reel, or advertise that labor as the key to actual romance: to a future husband/provider who will support a domestic dream for a sufficiently subservient woman.
It’s the ideological distillation of vaporous tradwife imagery, the shiplap kitchens ground down into their unspoken conclusions like bull testes powderized and sold in Liver King pill capsules.
For trad-curious viewers, this ideology is cheaper to acquire than a farm, and more promising than a Ballerina Farm-brand cast-iron skillet.
At least initially. Because once you go trad, you’re in that economy of unpaid care work, facing the financial straits detailed in Elle and USA Today and the New York Post and the Baffler. I can only sincerely hope your household’s breadwinner is very nice and equitable with shared finances, although some tradwife influencers seem to derive (or at least perform) something like a masochistic enjoyment at experiencing financial control.
Elle describes a 25-year-old tradwife influence for whom being a tradwife “includes not going to the gym by herself (so as not to attract unwanted advances); not leaving the house alone after dark; avoiding opposite-sex friendships; making sure her husband ‘does not have to lift a finger’ while he’s home; cooking him ‘the food he wants to eat’; wearing the clothes he likes; styling her hair the way he enjoys; and asking her husband’s permission for expenses outside of those needed for day-to-day maintenance of the home.”
Okay, two things. One: sister, please have a safe word. Two: this influencer has 52,600 YouTube followers, 77,400 Instagram followers, and 127,200 TikTok followers.
She films tradwife content constantly. All of them do, including the most political who condemn working mothers.
But they are working. They’re making money, and not from domestic labor. They’re internet performers, selling a product online. Moms are the mark.
How’s everyone doing? Back-to-school going smoothly? I just finished reading Children of Men, a sci-fi novel about a dystopian future (or past? this 1992 novel is set in 2021) in which children have stopped being born. It’s really gorgeous writing at a thriller’s pace, and raises fascinating questions about family, imagination, and the way we shape our futures.
Here’s what else I’m reading:
-Poverty sharply rose in 2022, fueled by the end of pandemic aid for families. (Oh, like the pandemic aid for families that’s expiring next month, as outlined in last week’s free newsletter? Yes exactly!)
-The article is from June, but in light of new strikes from the auto workers’ unions (and ongoing strikes in other industries like screenwriting), I’m revisiting Kim Kelly’s great piece about “What Happens When Mom And Dad Go On Strike.” Kelly was embedded with the Warrior Met Coal strike and writes movingly about the union kids growing up on the picket line.
-In the Atlantic, Adam Serwer notes that the gag orders prohibiting educators from accurately teaching about America’s racist history are only half the story. Now schools in red states are filling the void with revisionist cartoons from “right-wing content mill” PragerU. Sample PragerU videos portray the Civil War and slavery as forgivable differences of opinion, including an animated (and historically backward) clip of Union general “Ulysses S. Grant praising [Confederate general] Robert E. Lee as a ‘good man’ and saying, ‘We were just caught on the opposite side of things.’”
-New York Magazine has a cover story on friendships between parents and nonparents. I disagreed with much of its underlying argument (I wrote about my objections in a post for paid subscribers on Wednesday) but the story is still an essential piece of the Discourse.
That’s the free MomLeft for this week! Thanks for reading! If you dug this edition, feel free to subscribe or recommend it to a friend!