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Conservative Christian momfluencers and the romanticization of a fantasy that never existed
An interview with Kyla Wazana Tompkins
Kyla Wazana Tompkins is a professor of English and Gender and Women’s Studies at Pomona College. She is interested in women of color feminism and the history, politics, and aesthetics of food. She’s also the author of Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the Nineteenth Century and edited Keywords for Gender and Sexuality Studies.
Kyla and I first became acquainted when she weighed in my tweet about “slow down” momfluencer culture, pointing out how class, capitalism, and inequality contribute to a fetishization of slowing down to savor raising “artisanal children” when most of us are “barely freaking making it.”
Here’s Kyla’s response to my tweet:
to start: time is an unequally distributed resource and like seriously when people "move slow" because they are "healing" or "being anti-capitalist" or "anti-work" or raising their artisanal children it is fundamentally irritating to those of us who are barely freaking making it. because these people are NOT ALONE IN THE WORLD. second of all instagram parenting fetishists: stop elevating motherhood to a bespoke picturesque practice, as though it was not gritty awful smelly sticky usually loving but nonetheless boring labor unsupported by any state or cultural infrastructure
As soon as I read Kyla’s tweets, I copied her Twitter profile and pasted it into a super organized Google doc entitled simply “newsletter,” and emailed her a few weeks later to see if she’d be interested in helping me bushwhack my way through the ideological briar patch that is white, trad, conservative Christian momfluencer culture. Think petticoats. Think fields. Think calico. Think sourdough. Think sacrifice with a smile.
Some of these momfluencers have big accounts that have enabled them to gain traction for side hustles (online home goods shops; Etsy shops from which they sell aprons; cookbooks; direct-to-consumer grass-fed meat businesses). And some of them only have a few thousand followers but are clearly getting something from their Instagram labor (and it is labor) even if that something isn’t money. Otherwise, why bother?
Some of these momfluencers perform an all-in version of 19th century domestic goddess cosplay, while others simply grow their own veggies and espouse traditional gender norms while not necessarily removing all traces of the trappings of modern from their feeds. But they all traffic in the performance of traditional [white], conservative femininity and the vast majority of them make it look pretty damn idyllic.
Luckily, Kyla said yes to my interview request, and I knew she was the perfect person for the job when she immediately recognized the aesthetic and imaginative power of these accounts and frankly questioned why everyone wasn’t consuming them.
Here’s our conversation, which does not include the bit at the beginning when I realized my computer audio recording thing wasn’t working because I HAD MY EARPODS IN and asked Kyla to repeat her last three insightful statements. It also doesn’t include our consideration of a pink tulle skirt hanging in Kyla’s Zoom background, and honestly, maybe me cutting that bit of the interview was a mistake because who doesn’t love a tulle skirt?
I pretty routinely aim my cultural critiques at white momfluencer accounts that celebrate a very nostalgic, insular ideal of the nuclear family. Conservative Christianity is often involved and there’s heavy emphasis on aesthetics and the beauty of sacrificial, idealized motherhood. When people wonder what the point of this type of cultural criticism is, when they wonder where the harm lies in a few women simply sharing their lives and apple pie recipes, what do you say? Why are accounts like this inherently political?
Okay, so these are brilliant, energetic, highly professionalized women producing very targeted, beautiful content. I honestly don’t know why we’re all not looking at it! It's smart, it's gorgeous and it's seductive. But what feels coercive about it is that the seduction of the incredible aesthetics is actually kind of a buried argument for an outdated and in fact, very limited idea of what womanhood can be in a way that reinforces a particular norm in a moment of the ascendancy and the deep power of the Christian right.
So it's not neutral, but it seems neutral, because these momfluencers are not doing any of the things that women aren't supposed to do, right? Like making an argument, like speaking forcefully, like publicly criticizing something. God forbid a woman should criticize anything. But what they are doing is performing. And by fetishizing their lifestyles, they're actually abstracting their lifestyles from living, because domestic labor, reproductive labor, and care work is hard work. It's really hard work. And the performance erases the labor: the work and mess and grit, and, you know, the barf and poo and smell and dust and dust bunnies and disease, like all of it, right?
So I understand the impulse to say, you know, live and let live, but that kind of relativistic relation to what these women are performing—which by the way, I also really admire— make implicit arguments for and against certain ideologies. And the fact that they’re making implicit arguments also affirms that women are not allowed to make explicit arguments.
Also, we know historically that Christianity has never stopped trying to tell us all what to do. Christianity is one of the religions that actively says no to certain types of people who are trying to live and create new ways of flourishing. So the argument that what these Christian, traditional momfluencers are doing is relativistic and neutral is interesting in a moment when the right doesn't experience any way of living beyond the norm as anything but a threat.
These are really brilliant women. And they're surfing the tide of late capitalism. They're making money. They're getting book deals, they're getting TV deals. They're creating cultural and social power for themselves and for their families.
And they're doing it in in ways that seem ahistorical, in a way that calls upon “the old ways” within a genius deployment of late capitalism.
I often write about food, cooking and the 19th century. And femininity and feminine skills are under theorized in the history of feminism except as a problem for a whole generation of feminists. It was like, no, I don't know how to cook. Why are you wearing high heels?
I’m a Women’s Studies professor, and very early on in my career, I remember women who were very senior to me would talk about how I wore too much makeup, that my skirts were wrong for a professor, and that my interest in femininity was somehow problematic.
There's a whole generation of feminism that failed to really speak to femininity and certain kinds of labor and knowledge that were actually completely brilliant. But they were economically and culturally undervalued according to patriarchal norms. Like, why did we stop teaching Home Economics? We should never have stopped teaching Home Economics. We should have deepened our understanding of Home Economics, and made it available to everyone.
At the time, I think our understanding of second-wave feminism made it seem progressive to get rid of that type of knowledge-making, but actually women (especially the women of color who worked for white women) knew important things that we still need to know.
And these traditional, Christian momfluencers are writing into that space that feminism failed. Mainstream feminism accepted the terms of patriarchy in many ways and let so much fall by the wayside. So if you identify with femininity, or if you identify with the type of knowledge that has been gendered as feminine knowledge, you’re living with the fact that mainstream feminist culture has debased that way of being and that kind of knowledge.
In her book The Politics of Piety, Saba Mahmood argues that according to the mandates of mainstream Western feminism, people are only exercising agency if they're resistant. And according to mainstream Western feminism, people are not exercising agency if they're actually doubling down on and celebrating patriarchal norms. But Mahmood points out that it’s really important to understand these women who embrace patriarchal norms as powerful, brilliant, active, and political.
Here’s a question about implicit versus explicit power (and implicit versus explicit influence). Some of these women will share a post of themselves photographed in the kitchen, and sort of wax poetic about the heart of a home, and feeling most fulfilled when they’re in the kitchen feeding their children. And that does strike me as an explicit argument for what they've chosen to center their lives around.
But what they’re not saying is, I am performing an ideal against which other ways of living as a woman should be judged. They’re not explicitly saying that. None of them are saying, If I was a community college professor or working in a factory instead of submitting my will to God and my husband, I wouldn't be able to be here in the home taking care of my family. None of them are explicitly saying that. It’s always performance and never an explicitly negative critique of other women’s choices. And because it’s never explicit, they’re also staying in the feminine affective wheelhouse.
And so they remain protected from accusations that their public sharing of their way of life is somehow denigrating other women's life choices.
Many of these women don’t have traditional sponsorship deals. Many of them haven’t monetized their accounts according to the standards of the influencer economy. Maybe they sell aprons on the side or whatever, but in many cases, I don't see a direct link between their social media content and financial gain. So what sort of role do these non-monetized accounts play and how much power do they wield?
I think we need to think about capitalism in more complex ways. There’s financial capital, which we all unfortunately need. And there’s social and cultural capital. And really, that’s what influencing is, to be able to wield social capital. And I think the momfluencers you’re referring to gain a great deal of social capital. A really good example of this in the 19th century was Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catherine Beecher, who both wielded a great deal of cultural power while arguing for for seemingly apolitical agendas. They created domestic manuals about how women could run their households as efficiently and independently as possible. And so there’s an interesting paradox here. People like the Beecher sisters and Anita Bryant doubled down on conservative values and in doing so actually found very powerful ways to be in the world. So it might not always be about money.
Right. Phyllis Schlafly is another one that comes to mind.
Yeah. And Sarah Palin. And these women were and are so aggressive in pursuit of general disempowerment.
This might be too simplistic, but do you think if motherhood in our country was culturally respected and financially supported, like, if we gave moms the same cultural respect we give to doctors, and if moms got a financial stipend each month for their labor, do you think this desire to gain cultural capital through the performance of feminine domesticity on social media would be as great?
It's a good question. I don't know. The thing is, I got to social media because of my investment in a fantasy that I can learn how to live better. And I really do learn some skills and life hacks from some of these homesteading influencers, right? For example, I’m reading a lot about fermentation right now. And I'm interested in what people are doing that pulls back some power from capital, that says, like, I can make this on my own and I can produce this on my own. But for domestic labor and care work and traditionally feminine work to be meaningfully valued, it would require a big cultural shift. And this shift would mean that these types of knowledge were more freely available, and more freely available to all genders, right? And more classes, right?
I come from four generations of single moms. It has never occurred to me that I would not work outside the home. And so the fantasy of the stay-at-home-mom is only available only to certain classes. And only available to certain racial and ethnic demographics because race and class work together alongside gender.
I feel really sad for men who wish they could stay home with their kids. My husband would be much better at stay-at-home-parenthood. For me, I tried to stay home in the early days, and I hated it. I understand why everyone used to be so medicated! For me, it was just so boring, and dull, and dirty, and I hated it. My husband would have been much better at it. But we sort of fell into traditional gendered roles. And that's the thing. Conservative Christian ideology always says no to the flourishing of difference. And encourages a failure of imagination.
I think you’re right that these accounts wouldn’t necessarily disappear if care work and domestic labor were supported and respected, but do you think they would be less intrinsically attached to essentialist understandings of gender?
Yes. And racial norms. Because gender is race and race is gender. In my friend Kyla Schuller's book, The Trouble with White Women, Kyla built on the work of so many Black feminists to show how particular performances of idealized womanhood are inherently racialized and gendered, because to exist outside of racialized, gendered norms is to be deviant.
I mean, we need free and subsidized daycare. And why do we need that? Even if I have enough money to pay for a nanny or to buy into private daycare or to send my kid to a fancy Waldorf school, there are working class and middle-class people who don’t have the money to do those things. And because I'm invested in the collective well-being of this national project that I am a part of, even if I don’t need subsidized daycare, I want my neighbor to have access to subsidized daycare because it is better for the world. And it's better for my child to live in a world in which all people have equal access, all people have the ability to thrive.
So many of the comment threads on these accounts gush about a particular momfluencer’s “good motherhood,” as evidenced only through her public performance of traditional, gendered womanhood on social media. But what continuously shocks me is that there's no consideration of whether or not these apparently amazing moms are also concerned in the collective wellbeing of the communities they live in, in the world they live in. They can be “good moms” without considering whether or not all moms have the tools and resources they need to thrive as mothers.
That's right. It's an individualized response.
Yeah, and the fact that American individualism as a paradigm supports the idea of a woman wholly concerned with her insular world (and no one outside of that world) as an incontrovertibly “good mom,” is kind of interesting to me.
It also reinforces the idea that, you know, if only I woke up earlier, if only I learned how to nurture sour dough starter, if only I bought all my food food from organic gardens, if only I existed in this constant state of trying harder as an individual when in reality the issue is lack of infrastructure. And poverty! And the failure of a social framework.
These women’s representations of their supposedly ahistorical lives also obscures the historical reality of the way people lived in pre-industrial times, when there were more collective models of care, and when the labor of women was actually much more valued.
A woman who could produce a great deal of food was actively contributing to the economic survival and well-being of her family. And that woman wasn’t canning fall preserves on her own, you know? She worked as part of a collective of people also invested in providing food for their families and their communities. So this fantasy of individualism and insularity showcased on certain traditional momfluencer accounts never actually existed.
Thank you Kyla!
What do you think? Do you find these types of accounts fascinating? Do you (like me) struggle to get to the bottom of why they’re so alluring? Let me know! This particular subset of momfluencer culture is of evergreen fascination to me, so I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Have a great weekend, and if you happen to bake a beautiful loaf of sourdough and feel inclined to post it to social media, post away! It’s so important to extract these individual skillsets and bases of knowledge from the ideological minefield of whiteness and conservatism. We can bake sourdough and advocate for a better world in which all people, regardless of how well they adhere to gendered and racialized norms, can thrive.
We contain multitudes!