The Paradoxical Freedom of Tradwife TikTok

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A willowy blonde labors in a rustic bedroom. Her hair is gathered in a single braid that drapes over one shoulder, long enough that the end of it grazes, paintbrush-like, over the swell of her distended belly. She paces to the rhythm of her contractions, hips swaying, hands pressed to her lower back. This isn’t her first time giving birth—her other six children dance in and out of frame, blonde like their mother, their feet as bare as the wooden floor—and maybe this is why she’s so calm, so smiling, even as her forehead creases with effort and sweat starts to bead on her brow. After 15 seconds, the video cuts: she’s squatting in an old-fashioned bathtub now, naked from the waist down, and even with the lights turned low you can see that the water around her is already beginning to turn pink.

“The head’s out,” says a voice from off camera, and the blonde woman shudders with the effort of her final push. Blood blooms from between her legs, and a wail fills the room: the sound of a newborn infant releasing its first breath.

The blonde lies back, triumphant and exhausted. When a hand reaches out to touch her face, she clasps and kisses it, and that’s when you notice that there’s a man here, too, crouched in the shadows behind her like a background extra. He doesn’t speak, but that’s no surprise: the husbands rarely do.

This is a video by Hannah Neeleman, a Mormon housewife who runs the social media account known as “Ballerina Farm.” It’s buried about 18 months back on her Instagram feed, but there will probably be another one like it soon; as of this writing, Neeleman is pregnant with her eighth child, whose birth will no doubt be documented just like everything else in her life. Indeed, what’s most striking about the bathtub video—once you get past the shock of witnessing such an intimate, vulnerable moment in an Instagram reel—is how expected it feels, how perfectly on brand. Although Neeleman is, herself, an unusual character—a Juilliard-trained dancer who abandoned her ballet career in favor of marriage, motherhood, and the occasional trip to Vegas to participate in the Mrs. America Pageant for married beauty queens—the thing that keeps Ballerina Farm’s millions of followers glued to their screens is the predictability, the safety, the soothing sense of routine. The appearance of a new baby every two years or so is just one more familiar leitmotif over the daily drumbeat of Neeleman’s domestic life: milking cows, mucking stalls, baking bread, and making content from it all. 

Ballerina Farm is part of a loose ecosystem of influencers known as tradwives, a portmanteau of “traditional” plus “wife” that describes married heterosexual women who live by ultra-traditional gender norms. With 7.9 million followers on Instagram and another 6.7 million on TikTok, Neeleman is probably the most famous of these posters, although she doesn’t actually call herself a tradwife; a hallmark of the term is that it is as likely to be assigned by the audience (or a contemptuous critic) as by the creator herself. But even among women who explicitly identify as tradwives, there’s enormous diversity. For some—the ones who quote scripture in their captions and film themselves doing Bible study—the lifestyle is rooted in religious belief. For others, tradwifery seems mostly aesthetic: playing domestic goddess in a 1950s pinup hairstyle, or prancing through a field of wildflowers in a prairie dress. They can be political or not—some are self-identified feminists, while others decry the movement as selling lies that fuel widespread female dissatisfaction—and many are basically indistinguishable from your typical lifestyle influencer in style if not in substance; instead of beauty products or sports bras, they offer a line of natural fiber linens or rustic wooden kitchen utensils. And while the archetypal tradwife sees motherhood as her highest calling, some of the internet’s most famous tradwives are not mothers—or even wives, necessarily, as in the case of the peculiar TikTok figure known as the “stay-at-home girlfriend.” 

All told, the one thing the internet’s tradwives have in common isn’t how they live but what they represent, culturally and politically: a conspicuous (and sometimes explicit) rebuttal to the feminist ideals of education, career, and financial independence. That doing this is a choice—as tradwives are inclined to point out when they’re accused of undermining the entire women’s liberation movement one muffin tutorial at a time—makes it all the more galling to those inclined to be galled.

Although the notion that women should eschew employment in favor of domestic pursuits has long been central to various religious orthodoxies, the emergence of the #tradwife is a more recent phenomenon, one that can be linked broadly to the existential malaise of life in the digital age, and specifically to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Searches for the word tradwife spiked in early 2020, as members of the laptop class—many of whom had never touched a piece of cookware in their lives—found themselves stuck at home with nowhere to go. The sudden popularity of tradwife content, with its supercuts of women happily scrubbing various kitchen surfaces, folding laundry, or preparing meals from scratch in sunny and spacious kitchens, no doubt has roots in this mass recalibration toward the domestic. Many women, involuntarily catapulted into a world of cooking, cleaning, and childcare, responded by seeking out content that mirrored their new lifestyles—even if they didn’t necessarily plan to make the change permanent, and even if they fundamentally disagreed with some of these influencers’ wackier assertions about a woman’s proper place being in the home and/or subservient to a man.

But the allure of tradwife life is also rooted in more than a passing pandemic fancy for sourdough starters; it speaks to something deeper, ruggedly individualistic and fundamentally American, that has sparked our passions and imagination since the country’s founding. It’s the fantasy of going west, or going back to the land; of living deliberately like Thoreau or with the resilience of a Steinbeck protagonist. It’s a homesteading, subsistence farming, Little-House-on-the-Prairie LARPing kind of life, and in our tech-driven age, there’s something subversively seductive about it. At a moment when millennial women are famously suffering from mass burnout or freezing their eggs in order to spend another few years climbing the corporate ladder, tradwives present their lives as a simpler, smaller, entirely self-sufficient alternative—and a fulfilling one, too, in a way that the corporate striver could only dream of.

“Raise your hand if you went to college for a career you thought you wanted only to realize your dream was to stay home and raise your babies, take care of animals, grow a garden and bake bread,” reads one representative TikTok caption, overlaid on a video of a woman in a white prairie dress tending a garden in the sunshine. Another, featuring golden-colored footage of a young mother picking apples, baking pies, and canoodling with her cherubic toddler, reads: “This IS my dream job. This is the greatest work I will EVER do.” Some of these accounts also boast a fiercely anti-establishment vibe, presenting the tradwife lifestyle as a rejoinder to every nanny-state authoritarian who wants to poke his nose into your kitchen, your bedroom, the nursery where your children sleep; one video declares, “Society wants women out of the house because when a woman doesn’t raise her children, the government and the internet does.”


also to pay double taxes ???? #tradwife #conservativewomen #homeschool #homeschoolmom #unschooling #homesteadlife #simplelife #traditionalvalues

♬ Way of the Triune God (Hallelujah Version)—Tyler Childers

All the things that make tradwife accounts popular also make a certain cohort of media commentators very nervous, spawning a glut of anti-tradwife think pieces: “Tradwife Influencers Represent an Authoritarian, Sexist Ideology,” screeches Teen Vogue. “‘Tradwives’: the new trend for submissive women has a dark heart and history,” warns The Guardian. And New York magazine’s The Cut asks: “Is Tradwife Content Dangerous, or Just Stupid?”

The consensus answer seems to be that it’s both. “#Tradwife content is not cute or inspirational or harmless; it’s the handmaiden of the Christian Nationalist agenda,” writes cultural critic Anne Helen Petersen, for whom anti-tradwife catastrophizing is a favorite occupation. It’s hard to say, though, just what sort of harm the tradwives are supposed to be inflicting, or on whom. There’s often a doth-protest-too-much quality to the backlash, which simultaneously lampoons the tradwives as too ridiculous for anyone to take seriously, while also denouncing them as dangerous, destructive, and surreptitiously ideological. (Sidenote: Although much of this criticism can seem overwrought, Ballerina Farm has been directly responsible for one documented death: a rooster who attacked Neeleman’s 1-year-old and was subsequently turned into soup.)

But the most devoted critics of tradwives, like Petersen, claim not to be concerned about their influence on women or society at large, but at the same time seem to find their very existence intolerable.

Even so, the anti-tradwife backlash is still more ideologically coherent than the women who inspire it. In a 2022 video posted to her TikTok, Estee Williams, a tradwife who looks like a Marilyn Monroe cosplayer, seems perplexed by the notion that there’s anything political about what she’s doing: “It’s not really a movement,” she says. “Nobody is pushing it. People are just living it.”


What it means to be a Tradwife. #fyp #tradwife #homemaking #housewife #traditional #tradwifecontroversy #womenschoice

♬ Music Instrument—Gerhard Siagian

Notably, Williams revised that claim about a year later, apparently in response to seeing herself described one time too many as a trojan horse for patriarchy. But even accounting for the radicalizing effects of being made to feel like a persecuted minority, tradwives have not emerged as a significant political or even social coalition. It’s not just that running a household—or a hog farm—leaves little time for activist organizing; it’s that there’s really no clear sense of community, camaraderie, or shared ideology among these women. Tradwives aren’t here to make the personal political. They’re influencers building a personal brand—and in some cases, doing so for the second or third time. A remarkable number of tradwife content creators are converts from some other online sphere of influence: Estee Williams spent her early twenties as a fitness Instagrammer before she traded spandex and squats for aprons and pearls. Hannah Neeleman—whose husband, Daniel, is the son of multimillionaire former JetBlue CEO David Neeleman—was a jet-setting Mormon mommy blogger before she became Ballerina Farm. Gwen the Milkmaid, another TikTok tradwife, started out as an OnlyFans porn performer.

Even as their content seems rooted in old-school patriarchal values and a return to tradition, it’s hard not to notice that these women are masters of the modern-day attention economy in a way that’s ultimately far more Girlboss than Mad Men—and their content speaks less to fellow tradwives than to the anxieties of educated, career-driven young women who are staring down decades in the rat race and wondering: Is this all there is? In one viral video about the tradwife discourse, a TikToker named Jaz Melody wryly observes that the yearning to be cared for by a male breadwinner could be just as easily fulfilled by universal basic income: “Women are getting on this app and being like, ‘I’m so tired from all this endless labor and minimal reward, this high cost of living! I wish a man would just provide for me!'” she says. “There is a man that should be providing for you. He should be providing for all of us. His name is Joe Biden.”


The girls are tired (and under paid)

♬ original sound—Jaz Melody

Of course, many of the women who view tradwives with a mix of morbid curiosity and aspirational envy would likely find domestic life to be stifling, too, albeit in a different way— just as many of the sourdough-baking urbanites who fled to rural areas during the pandemic discovered that country living is a lot more boredom-inducing and bug-infested than they might have imagined. But when the feminist fantasy of having it all crashes up against the real-life exhaustion of trying to balance career, marriage, kids, and household—let alone exercise, hobbies, and friendships—the spectacle of a woman actively choosing to do less can be intriguing…or infuriating. This intractable problem, of gender parity in the domestic sphere, has been the subject of countless articles in recent years. Even when men do more housework and more childcare, the mental burden of household management—what writer Jessica Grose describes as “an endless list of organizational tasks that runs through your head like ticker tape”—still tends to fall disproportionately on women. Much of the backlash against tradwives seems to stem from the fact that they offer a solution to this problem; it’s just a solution that feminists hate.

The uncomfortable truth is that there is something appealing about the idea, not just of being provided for, but of being comfortably confined. There’s a paradoxical freedom in it, a different kind of work-life balance. Open one of these women’s Instagram or TikTok feeds and notice the small beautiful spaces, the small beautiful things. The camera stays focused: on the inside of a mixing bowl, on a single stretch of flour-dusted countertop, and of course, on the creator herself. Indeed, it’s a curious feature of tradwife content that the husbands who allegedly rule their lives are barely visible. When one appears, it’s at the woman’s direction: he stands where she tells him, he waves at the camera, he speaks only if she asks him to. Off-camera, he might be the head of the household; on it, he’s nothing but a vaguely handsome prop in a story by women, for women, about women. The tradwife is a queen in her castle, a master of her universe. Some might dismiss this as fake empowerment, given that the tradwife’s dominion ostensibly ends at her front door. But if this life is a cage, it’s a cozy one—and one she built herself.

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