The girl in the TikTok video is wearing joggers, a lime green bra, and — for some reason — a pink ski mask. Her hair is blonde and stringy. She climbs atop the kitchen counter, attempting a yoga arm balance that turns into a sort of interpretive dance when she can’t quite hold it. The room behind her is dark, which makes it easy to read the light-coloured text that hovers over the video.
“I may not be the woman you marry,” it says, “but I’ll be the woman you think about when your boring wife lays starfish for the entire *2 minutes* before going to sleep facing the opposite direction.”
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This video is not the only one of its kind, although it is one of the weirder ones. For the past several weeks, TikTok has been replete with videos from young women proudly announcing themselves to be the opposite of wife material — and not-so-subtly labelling those who are as sexually non-adventurous. These ladies — the kitchen counter yogi, the one dancing in the driver’s seat of her car, the one wearing an oversized T-shirt and a decidedly sinister smile — are happy to declare that they will not be the one with whom you settle down. But oh, when you do, you’ll think about them.
It’s hard to trace the evolution of “wife” from an aspirational role to a reviled one, but it’s a fair bet that the broader contemporary distaste for female heterosexuality has something to do with it. In an age in which women are tying themselves into knots to identify as anything but straight, desiring men is bad enough; to marry one surely denotes you as terminally basic, possessed of the worst possible taste.
At the same time, the rise of the lifestyle influencer has breathed new life into the Madonna-Whore complex of yore, which now plays out in the form of an ongoing beef between the tradwives of the political Right and their convention-eschewing progressive counterparts. That many of said progressives are engaged in polyamorous relationships, which are often indistinguishable in all but name from an old-school harem, is a complicating factor, but also a very funny one — much like the conservative sexual mores that somehow become “queer” under the banner of demisexuality.
Perhaps it’s the classic lines of this conflict that brought the following cultural analogy to mind: what I thought of upon encountering these videos, immediately, was Iain Softley’s 1997 film adaptation of the Henry James novel, The Wings of the Dove. For the uninitiated, the story tells of a love triangle between an enamored but impoverished British couple, Kate Croy and Merton Densher, and a rich American orphan named Millie Theale who presents both complication and opportunity. Millie is dying; she’s also unmarried, and quite taken with Merton. Kate, observing this, persuades Merton to seduce Millie, so that he can inherit her fortune — and then, newly widowed and flush with cash, marry Kate.
Softley’s take on this story leans into its sexual elements, making explicit (and fully, frontally naked) what James’s novel only ever insinuates. Kate, in this imagining, is the quintessential femme fatale. Millie, pious and beautiful and doomed, is the starfish wife, albeit with an expiration date. Utterly assured of her own appeal, Kate never imagines that Millie could present a threat: when she sends Merton off to marry another woman, it’s in complete confidence that she (Kate) will be the one he thinks about. But — spoiler alert — when Millie does die, leaving Merton her fortune, he doesn’t want it. And worse, he doesn’t really want Kate, either. Not anymore. Not after everything.
Conservatives might be inclined to see this story as a cautionary tale about the dangers of being a trollop; to me, the more interesting lesson to be taken from both James’s classic and the TikTok #notvanilla hashtag is that sex will only take you so far. In both cases, the woman’s error is putting far much stock in the allure of her sexual availability, and in the power this will forever exert over the men she shtupped but didn’t settle down with. It is, in some ways, a fantasy of immortality: “I won’t be the girl you marry”, but of course in this imagined future, the girl won’t be a girl anymore. She is just hoping that somebody remembers her that way.
Maybe there are worse ways to stay forever young, but it strikes me that this is a scenario that grows less appealing the further one gets from one’s sexual salad days. The idea of your recent ex being tormented by memories of your relationship is titillating when you’re 20; at 40, the idea of a balding, paunchy, middle-aged dad thinking of your younger self while he’s in flagrante with his wife seems not just unappealing, but a little repulsive. (Far from being titillated by the idea, I rather desperately hope that none of my former boyfriends — all of whom are now at least 40 years old — are still thinking about me at all, let alone thinking about me like that.)
Certainly, it requires an interesting view of marriage to decide one would rather be the ghost that haunts someone else’s husband than be a wife herself. If anything, the contempt these young women hold for the imagined, eventual spouse of their ex-paramours exceeds that even for the man who married her; as with so many revenge fantasies, this one centres less on one’s own happiness or success, and more on the idea that someone who once hurt you will have a miserable life.
But where are these women, in this imagined future? If you’re the one who got away, where did you get away to, and with whom? It’s hard to say if these women also, separately, imagine themselves happily coupled with someone else in the future where their exes are eternally disgruntled and pining. But surely being remembered as some former hookup’s Best Blowjob Ever is cold comfort if the best thing you can say about your life is that you were hot once upon a time.
It’s an interesting sort of self-mythologising, an attempt to be the architect of your own legacy through the medium of somebody else’s memory, in which your own persistence is hardly guaranteed. Kate Croy learns too late that men have their own ideas about who constitutes “the one who got away”; in the end, it’s sweet vanilla Milly whose memory becomes a torment. Similarly, the self-proclaimed unmarriageable women of TikTok might want to consider that men do tend to love the person they choose to marry — and to be with her because they love her, the wild (or weird) sex they had with some other girl once upon a time notwithstanding. This is one area in which the Madonna-Whore dichotomy, classic though it is, no longer quite captures the reality of romantic entanglements. The gold standard for choosing a life partner in 2023 is not sexual purity, but sexual compatibility, which is to say that if a guy has a vanilla wife, it’s probably because he likes vanilla.
In 1959, James Thurber wrote a sprawling consideration in the New Yorker of James’s story and the various efforts (and, frequently, subsequent failures) to adapt it for stage and screen. (I am desperate to know what he would have made of Softley’s lascivious take on the material, but alas, he died in 1961.) Among the lines from this remarkable piece is a beautiful observation of how Kate and Merton end, miserably, in a miasma of survivor’s guilt and regret: “They are shadowed and separated forever by the wings of the dead dove, by the presence of a girl who is gone but everlastingly there.”
The anti-wives want to have it both ways. They want the cachet of the sexually adventurous temptress, and they also want to be the dead dove who ruined you for every woman who came after. But they will be disappointed: that ex-boyfriend, cocooned in the arms of his starfish wife, is probably not thinking of them at all.
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