Girlboss vs Tradwife

There are no winners under capitalism.

Not too long ago, my Tiktok feed was flooded with a certain subgenre of self-help content. Women everywhere were assuring me that I had a well of untapped potential, some kind of superpower that would make me desirable and charismatic and able to attract all the good things I deserved. It was called ‘divine feminine energy’, and they were going to teach me how to cultivate it.

None of these women could tell me exactly what it was, but after extensive research (watching lots of Tiktoks) I’ve managed to piece together a definition. Divine feminine energy seems to be a spiritual energy that all women possess, a source of strength and power fed by certain behaviours and depleted by others.

Great, I thought. I’m a woman, and I want to be hot and successful. Where do I start?

At first, most of the advice I found was generic self-help stuff: heal your inner child, dance in the rain, go outside and connect with Mother Nature. But the longer I spent looking at this content, the more extreme my algorithm diet became. Women started teaching me makeup looks that would attract ‘high value men’, and recommended that I stop trying to prove my point in arguments. Eventually, they began to espouse the benefits of embracing a woman’s traditional role in the kitchen. This was tagged ‘tradwife’ (portmanteau of traditional wife), and led me to a whole community of conservative women who preach that a woman’s only jobs should be wife and mother. This is the current running under most divine feminine content. If you spend enough time scrolling, you eventually end up here.

This makes sense. The entire premise of divine feminine energy depends upon the idea that this energy is an inherent part of womanhood, a biologically-determined magic just waiting for us to step into it. It’s gender-essentialism: the belief that gender and its associated traits are determined by biology, inborn and unchangeable. This is a cornerstone of conservative thinking and repressive gender roles, so it will come as no surprise that there are no trans women taking part in this trend, or any trans people in the videos at all. Despite some ‘woke’ creators’ assurances that ‘divine feminine’ doesn’t mean you actually have to be feminine, they’re the minority, and even they stay in the safer waters of traditional femininity. Some only wear minimal makeup, or even a T-shirt, but you get the feeling this is as butch as they can go before their divine femininity is in peril. 

And it is in peril. A lot of these women centre their content around healing their divine feminine energy, mending some deep spiritual wound that they and their followers all seem to be bleeding from. This pain is why I think divine feminine content is worth examining. Judging by the massive amount of engagement these videos garner, hundreds of thousands of women are in a kind of spiritual pain, and are finding comfort in a reactionary, anti-feminist pipeline whose only solutions are ‘go for a walk’ and ‘regress into a 50s housewife’. These Tiktoks make the latter look very appealing. Slideshows of women in flowing white dresses promise days filled with picnics and baking and strong, masculine husbands doing all the hard work.

‘No work’ is an essential part of the fantasy. One woman expresses how exhausting she finds it living in ‘a very masculine world that values power, success, money’. Another says she has stopped making decisions based on money altogether. Yet another describes supporting herself on her own income as ‘survival mode’.

But success and money aren’t the features of a masculine world – they’re the obsessions of a capitalist one, and working under capitalism sucks.

People are working longer hours for less pay, in capitalist economies where the rental crisis keeps home ownership out of reach. Indeed/YouGov’s 2022 Workplace Happiness Study found that 72% of Australians have felt unhappy at work in the past year, citing demanding workloads and long hours as the leading causes for this unhappiness. A quarter of them are so unhappy they’re looking for a new job. This isn’t an Australian phenomenon. In the United Kingdom, a study conducted in 2018 found that 47% of workers were searching for a new job, for reasons including not enjoying their work and, interestingly, not feeling as if their work made a difference.

This last reason is especially damaging. In his essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”, anthropologist David Graeber points out that although we now have the technology that could automate a lot of our work, we aren’t actually working any less. Instead, pointless jobs have been created to keep us grinding punishing hours. Worse, the people doing these jobs know their work is pointless. They cycle from refreshing their inbox, to waiting by the phone, to organising files, to redirecting customers in the endless maze of their call centre, and all the while it eats away at their soul. Graeber describes this as a ‘moral and spiritual damage’, like the spiritual wound divine feminine energy is meant to heal.

Women might feel Graeber’s spiritual damage more keenly when they enter the workplace because they have been taught to expect so much more. We’ve seen the girlbosses of the 2000s and 2010s, pantsuited feminist heroes who smash glass ceilings with the sharp point of their stiletto heels and claim a six figure bonus for their trouble. When this is the image of empowering feminist success, imagine the disappointment of women who go into the workplace and find that their work is less liberation and more meaningless grind. The girlboss is dead and zombified, refreshing her inbox with an atrophied index finger and dreaming a 50s daydream of baking bread in a pin-up dress. Women’s mass discontent suggests that capitalism has failed, and the effort of pretending otherwise – turning hours of bullshit work into a performance review, forwarding emails to higher-ups, making Tiktoks to sell your girlboss lifestyle – is bleeding people dry.

Yet none of these women become anti-capitalist. They don’t join unions or agitate for better pay, less hours, or anything that would make their work less painful. Often, they can’t even name these problems. Their vague discontent is instead turned inwards, and they suffer alone.

It’s similar to the mental health crisis Mark Fisher describes in Capitalist Realism. Capitalism has privatised the symptoms of mental health. The biomedical model, which suggests that psychological problems are literal diseases of the brain, has become more and more popular. Research is focused on finding biological explanations for mental health conditions – genetic predisposition, family history, chemical imbalances – despite the lack of conclusive results. Even Thomas Insel (former director of the US National Institute of Mental Health), a supporter of the biomedical model, has admitted that only a few of these biological causes have been replicable across different studies, and none are conclusive enough to be clinically actionable. But this biological fixation persists, conveniently minimising or eliminating any question of systemic or societal causation, even though the mental health epidemic proves that capitalism is failing to meet our mental health needs. 

Just as today’s modern mental health narrative pushes people to look inside themselves rather than at the world around them, the gender essentialism of divine feminine content drives women towards their own biological fixation. It acknowledges their disillusionment, and provides them with an atomised, individual solution. The problem, it insists, is inside you. There’s no need for social, political and economic reform, only personal growth. The content explains away women’s spiritual injury. It reinforces what Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’: “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” How can we fight for reform if we can’t even imagine what that reform would look like? Is this the best we can hope for?

Divine feminine and tradwife content is seductive because it avoids these tough questions. It’s far easier to focus on spiritual healing and to go back to the kitchen than it is to work for, or even imagine, an alternative to capitalism. Never mind that spiritual healing is useless if the environmental conditions that cause the spiritual damage persist, or that housewives were so miserable they resorted to amphetamines to keep that pearly-white smile. This content presents an ideal that’s comfortably couched in tradition and sepia-toned nostalgia. And when the capitalist world is grinding them to exhaustion, who can blame women for buying into an easier solution?

But this gender-essentialist solution is a lie. If you want proof that the problem is not unbalanced feminine energy, look no further than divine feminine creators’ Tiktok bios. Every one of them is selling something. Podcasts, one-on-one coaching sessions (for $700!!!), sponsored brand partnerships. Despite preaching about letting go of ambition, ignoring monetary incentives and leaving the masculine, power-hungry world behind, they still desperately need capital. They work to survive, and although they’ve escaped the traditional 9-to-5, I doubt their careers as grifters are any more fulfilling.

Ultimately these creators don’t care about housewives or spirituality. They don’t acknowledge the practices – Buddhism, tai chi, yoga – that they steal their divine feminine healing methods from. They don’t recognise the difficult, important domestic labour that housewives do, or even teach their followers how to make good bread. They are convincing women that it’s their fault they’re unhappy and then selling them a reactionary fantasy to fix it. But this fantasy won’t save you. It hasn’t even saved them.

Capitalism doesn’t only affect women. Everybody is working and everybody hates it. Divine feminine content and the atomised individualism of today’s mental health narrative insist that these issues are wholly our own, but hasn’t the popularity of this content proved that we’re not alone in feeling this way? 

I can’t give you a step-by-step guide to socialism (for that, talk to your coworkers, join a union, agitate for tenants’ rights) because I’m nineteen and don’t really know anything. But I do know there’s nothing wrong with your energy, at least nothing that a ‘feminine energy level-up course’ will fix.

Maybe there’s some cold comfort in knowing that the problem isn’t inside you; it’s all around you.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.