Like many of us, I have been thinking about work a lot lately. Not just my actual job and the anxiety of going back to the office, the unattainable inbox zero and facing up to all the weird decisions I made with pandemic-brain, but also the concept of work in general. I don’t mean creative work or work which is fulfilling or care and health work (although they are not without their problems) but something similar to what David Graeber labelled “bullshit jobs” or the tedium of endless admin and office politics. I have been asking questions like: why has work has come to define our identities, how has capitalism turned our hobbies into labour and — most crucially — why do I have to do it in the first place and how can I stop?
A few things over the past weeks have been swirling around in my head: the Instagram @nohourworkweek, an article my friend sent me about how not being ambitious can be a positive, watching a Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over episode about a “Trad Wife” family, an article about TikTok influence anxiety, and my girlfriend’s current obsession with YouTube lifestlye vloggers who I absolutely cannot stand but have somehow watched several hours of because we share a login. I promise they do all cohere into one narrative. And one, I think I’ve come to understand, as an odd kind of envy.
It began with the Trad Wife episode with Stacey Dooley which opens like an exploitation shocker documentary: this woman hates feminism!! but ends up somewhere a little murkier. I in no way endorse a Trad Wife lifestyle, which encourages women to be subservient to a man as the head of the household — that is straight culture to the extreme and I want no part of it. Buuuuuut listening to this woman speak I could almost understand where she was coming from. Before becoming a Trad Wife she had a busy and successful career which she found stressful. Now she was a mother and wife and for her, this was a far more fulfilling role. It slowly dawned on me that this Trad Wife was not fleeing feminism, but trying to outrun the trappings of capitalism, the “have it all” version of femininity that slowly gained traction since the 1980s. Instead, she rushed to embrace a 1950s ideal of gender roles and the nuclear family, for her it was security and safety, it allowed her to embrace motherhood fully.
She’d swapped working “for the man” for working for a man. Yet she appeared happy, smug even, like she had cheated the system somehow. But she escaped nothing, certainly not the patriarchy and certainly not work. Now she was running a household and caring for her young children — a full-time job in itself and nothing wrong with that — after all feminism is about the freedom to choose how we spend our labour, or rethinking what labour might look like in a fair and equal society. In their set up her husband did the 9-5 and expected dinner on the table when he came home and for that home to be neat and tidy. The chores all completed. It’s difficult not to shudder watching it. But hadn’t I joked about the same thing in deepest darkest lockdown? When my girlfriend left for work each day and I stayed home to work, I also attempted to keep the flat tidy, our clothes clean, to cook dinner for her when she got home after a busy day actually helping people in the real world. Didn’t I joke that it would be so much easier if I could just be a housewife and look after her and the flat properly? There was enough work to do without adding in my own office job.
And then, almost by accident, my girlfriend started watching some “lifestyle” and “fashion” vloggers on YouTube. I use both terms loosely — none have a fashion sense or lifestyle to which I would aspire but their thousands of followers might say otherwise. It’s not really about these vloggers as individuals, which is why I’ve avoided using their faces in screenshots, but I want to take them as a case study for the kind of middle-class lifestyle influencer they represent. Imagine a merging of cottage-core, escape-to-the-country housewife, with a white feminist girlboss twist and a wardrobe where a pastel lavender peter-pan blouse is a radical item of clothing. Where brands like Dior, Loewe, Hermes, Celine and exclusive H&M collabs are everyday purchases. Their teeth shine bright white like the majority of their mid-range designer clothing and the skin colour of their friends (I have never seen a person of colour on any of their channels). They fake-tan just the “right” amount, subscribe to every kind of home cookery kit imaginable, refuse to call their oven anything other than “the aga”. They dabble in gardening and interiors using phrases like, “we just had all the hedges replaced” — where the “we” is a team of hired professionals. They are skinny (of course) and have home gyms in their back garden or else go for long runs in the surrounding countryside. They have escaped London for The South but visit frequently to shop at Liberty’s, Harrods and Sloane Square. Their London is Marlborough and Soho House and brunch in posh Italian restaurants down little side streets in Kensington. They love a garden centre and a stately home. They are not just homeowners but second-home owners. They are the influencer middle classes, middlebrow in taste and content. They are middle-aged ladies in waiting with matching pearls. They are homemakers and businesswomen, self-employed and “self-made”. They have boyfriends who are also influencers. They have dogs and cats but no children. In fact, it is their pets that got us into this mess in the first place — a vlog about getting a new dachshund puppy turned YouTube’s insatiable algorithmic gaze upon us and so more and more of their videos were offered up to us, like a poised chalice.
They are, God bless them, everything I dislike about influencer culture AND YET against my better instinct I find a creeping sort of envy setting in as I watch their lives unfold. Not of their slim toned bodies or clothes, not their endless amount of #gifted parcels, nor even of their beautiful kitchen gardens or their huge multi-bedroomed homes that mummy and daddy surely helped them to buy. No, I am jealous of all their seemingly free time in which they choose to vlog about their lives. Whenever I watch them, in between my shouts of outrage (my girlfriend loves me) I can’t help but wonder what I would do with all that free time. I would write more, I would spend it with my girlfriend, my dog, my friends, I would play a lot of video games. I do want their seemingly easy days of gardening and cooking and homemaking. I want the fantasy of an easy life that they sell, even while knowing that it is not without hidden effort on their part and the paid labour of others. Because I know, I truly know in my heart of hearts they are selling a lie about having a perfect life. A life I don’t even want if it looks anything as privileged and closed-off as that, and yet… a twinge of envy.
From the sunny side of my laptop screen, it appears they never work. It’s genius really, making your life content that pays for itself. Surely you’ll never have to work a day again in your life!? Their “work” is opening parcels, drinking smoothies after “working out”, cooking pasta on their aga (arrrgaaaa) and meeting up with friends at beautiful locations to create Instagram reels. I have no doubt that these women work hard off-camera, they describe themselves as self-employed; their vlogging as a business. One has launched a beauty range and employs an assistant, another makes frequent reference to days spend on emails working with clients and time spent editing videos. This is work, no doubt about it.
Yet having transformed their lives into something consumable they have escaped the drudgery of the 9-5 office but replaced it with perhaps something more terrible: never not-working and only having themselves to work on. In making their life their work they are hardly living in a Capitalist-free utopia. I see in them the endgame for the homo economicus: as Foucault declared them: “[the] entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings”. This is personhood re-made through a neoliberal mindset. Where the ultimate goal is to sell not only other people’s products but themselves. They sell us the fantasy that to have their easy bright white life we need only buy a girlboss vegan razor, a Dior handbag, a house in the Costwolds. They are marketing a lifestyle to people which for many is unattainable due to the wealth of privilege they grasp onto. I wonder if by this point they are even marketing their own lives back to themselves. Because now they cannot escape. I’m sure at times they want to quit, or feel under an immense amount of pressure. Some of these influencers have pages dedicated to them on an anonymous tattle website where the comments are often sexist, fatphobic and downright cruel. Are they happy I wonder? They seem happy. But only they know if they really are.
I haven’t fully figured out the rationale for my envy, if it is that. Why I find it so pleasurable to poke fun at them (see: all of the above). Why this need to feel superior to them? I don’t mean this to be an “influencer bad” story. I don’t think they are in themselves, but rather I wanted to observe what it was they all seemed to be striving for, what they are selling us and are we buying it? Why it is that watching them I feel a petty need to prove to myself I’m better than them with their clear skin and lavish homes filled with cookware I would like. I am not influenced to be like them (cookware aside), if anything I am influenced to the opposite.
They represent a kind of girlboss Trad Wife-lite, playing house to an audience of thousands while generating ad revenue and sponsorship deals. Maybe in doing so they have figured out how to have it all. But having it all (by their definition) is not viable for all of us, maybe none of us. Are they canny businesswomen empowering people to be their best selves and letting us live out a fantasy life that offers some solace or do they peddle a disturbing version of corporate white feminism™ and wealth accumulation with little thought for their impact? And knowing there is truth in both those things would I want their bland heterosexual middle-class existence just to not have to work in an office anymore? Somedays I think the answer is… maybe. But I know there are other ways to free ourselves of unproductive, unfulfilling, underpaid work than to be an already rich homeowner with abs — that’s the lie they want us to believe. I just haven’t found out what that other solution is yet.
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