'No thoughts, just vibes.' Credit: kendelkay/Instagram.

November 21, 2023   5 mins

On a summer’s day, TikTok influencer Gwen The Milkmaid can be found frying up all-American comfort food dressed in a floral prairie dress. “I don’t want to be a boss babe. I want to be a frolicking mama. I want to spend my days baking bread, cuddling chickens, and drinking raw milk straight from the udder,” she writes in her TikTok caption. In another video, she smiles beatifically at her nearly 50,000 followers, giving the camera a view of her ample breasts as she bakes a fresh sourdough loaf.

Gwen is a self-proclaimed “trad-wife”, one of a number of women across TikTok, Instagram, and Reddit forums extolling a return to ultra-traditional gender roles and financial dependence on a male partner. Like the swinging dicks of WallStreetBets and crypto bros, the online trad-wife is an expression of 21st-century financial nihilism. Disillusioned by the girl-boss feminist fantasy, these young women are turning to men to pay off their loans and fund their lifestyles. And, why not? The good life isn’t coming any other way.

Growing up, Millennials and Gen Zs were sold a false promise of economic security and self-entrepreneurship. They were raised to believe that if they only worked and studied hard enough, success was in their futures; failure was a personal blight. Born between the mid-Eighties and early 2000s, their identities were shaped by the vacuum of post-Communist politics (I was sent, aged five, to a fancy-dress party styled, not as a Disney princess, but as the Berlin Wall). There was no sense that the future would be anything but Game Boys and capitalism.

It turned out not to be so easy. The speculation and excess of the Dot-com era, followed by the 2008 financial crash, undermined faith in the economic system, while the public investments in health, education and housing that Boomers enjoyed have been switched out for volatility and risk. Somewhere along the way, the dream of the good job and the good house was replaced by an acceptance that the good life could not worked for, or bought, or built. What began in general rumblings about why we can’t have it all progressed to a sense that maybe nothing matters anymore.

If some men respond to this creeping nihilism by staying in with the curtains drawn, YOLOing their rent money on Tupperware stock, some women are choosing to retreat to a time when things felt more secure: the Fifties. Today, women are not only expected to parent like they don’t have jobs, but to work like they don’t have children. Often, they are expected to do both of these things without the public resources (affordable childcare, healthcare, and education) or social supports (neighbours, family) that previous generations enjoyed. So really, is it any wonder that we just want to watch a woman bake sourdough? Trad-wife influencers embrace the lives second-wave feminists fought to leave behind — the role of the housewife, her routine, her wardrobe, but also, if the bimbo ethos of “no thoughts, just vibes” is to be believed, her lobotomised outlook on current events. Betty Friedan’s sedated housewife in the suburbs is no longer a cautionary tale; suddenly she’s a manual for survival.

Of course, it’s no longer necessary to be an actual wife or mother to retreat to the home: nowadays, you can be stay-at-home girlfriend. While the trad-wife’s job, steeped in post-war nostalgia, is to keep her home and family, the girlfriend’s main project is to keep herself: thin, young, and desirable. She is her main project and her job is, as Jia Tolentino has written, to “always be optimising”.

Take Kendel Kay for example, whose boyfriend Luke Lintz is the CEO of Highkey Enterprises LLC. “This is my typical day as a stay-at-home girlfriend,” Kay intones in her flat little voice to her more than 500,000 followers on TikTok, sounding more like an Alexa than a real woman. Every day is more or less the same: beginning with a sun salutation in athleisure followed by various forms of superior hydration, iced waters, green smoothies, and matcha teas. There are small household tasks sprinkled throughout the routine, inconsequential things such as refilling ice trays, lighting candles, and watering the couples’ two lotus flowers. The work of content creation aside, Kay’s job is her own self-care, from workouts to complicated probiotics meals and 12-step skincare regimens.

Kay is one of a number of stay-at-home girlfriends now active on TikTok. There is also the content creator Aliyah Wears, whose videos are filled with sample sales and fat-melting treatments. In one video, she asks her boyfriend “how much do I owe you?” at the end of dinner, while showing the camera her empty purse. “It’s ok, it’s on the house,” her boyfriend says, sliding out his card to pay. Then there’s Shera Seven, who dispenses caustic dating advice such as “make sure the second date is a money date, which means shopping, some kind of gift or spending a lot of money. The faster you get him to spend money, the faster you get him to attach to you. Sprinkle Sprinkle.”

There are tangible differences between the stay-at-home girlfriend and her older sister, the trad wife. While the trad-wife’s invisible breadwinner tends to have an honest profession that would be at home in a country music song — farmer, electrician, carpenter — the girlfriend’s partner usually has a lucrative career in tech or finance. And where the OG housewife, like her carpenter husband, can be seen to do real labour, such as laundry, childcare and vacuuming, the stay-at-home-girlfriend’s work is mostly vapor. Contrary to the Victorian mother and Fifties housewife who was “the angel in the house”, devoting herself to the needs of others, baking cakes that were perfect every time, and raising tomorrow’s workforce, Tolentino’s optimised woman is a trickier breed: she’s #thatgirl on TikTok whipping up kale smoothies, she’s the girl-online, the influencer.

While some women find Kay’s existence perplexing, many do not. Watching these videos in between school drop offs, work meetings, and cleaning up Lego is strangely soothing. I understand that I am being sold a lie, but I don’t want to think. I want to vibe. When having it all means doing it all, there’s an allure to doing almost nothing. “People used to ask me what’s your dream job,” Kay writes in one video caption. “I don’t dream of labour. I dream of living a soft, feminine life as a hot housewife. It’s as simple as that.”

Many people criticise trad-wives and stay-at-home girlfriends for setting feminism back decades. Despite what Gwen the Milkmaid would suggest, the Fifties wasn’t a golden age for women — if Betty Friedan (who actually lived through it) is to be believed, many real housewives got by on silent desperation and a permissive approach to benzodiazepines. For decades, women had to make do with care work, staying home, and a weekly allowance. And women the world over still do, not by choice, but by necessity. For this reason, many feel trad-wives are romanticising financial dependence, and maybe even financial abuse.

Of course, there’s nothing new about the hustle of a woman getting a man to spend money on her. The economic anthropologist Viviana Zelizer devoted whole books to the complicated  economy of “treating” between working-class women and their dates, where drinks, gifts, rent and down payments on goods functioned as de facto payments for sexual favours. So why does it feel like an old trope has been given an overhaul? Maybe it’s that, unlike their grandmothers, women today can choose to stay at home because they feel it’s better than any “real” job. Or perhaps it’s that #Askingmyboyfriendformoney and #Girlmath trends are part of a broader response to deteriorating economic conditions: rather than working harder to climb the career ladder, young people all over the world are simply giving up, lying flat, manifesting wealth.

As much as these women preach an easier, calmer life away from the grind, the #Tradwife or #SAHG is just the latest niche in the long trail of “girl online” content. This work is its own hustle and produces its own income. Gwen the Milkmaid, for example, has recently cast off an online presence as an adult content creator on Only Fans. And surely few people could be fooled by Kendel Kay’s half-hearted TikTok screed against girl-bossing as she shills for a green juice brand? It’s as if the response to financial nihilism is yet more nihilism.

It might seem as though in staying at home, young women are refusing to work, retreating into something calmer in the face of economic uncertainty. But the home and the family and the body of the woman herself has never really been a place to escape to. We might be drawn to these women and their lives and their bodies because we hate what late capitalism has done to our own — but the solution we’re being sold is simply more meaningless self-care, in a retinoid or a sourdough starter. No thoughts, just vibes.