Kate Middleton and Prince William spreading awareness on World Mental Health Day

Kate Middleton and Prince William spreading awareness on World Mental Health Day
| Photo Credit: Getty Images

It was while deep in the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories about the disappearance of Kate Middleton from public life that I came upon the phenomenon of “tradwives”, a TikTok and Instagram trend racking up millions of views, of young women who play and promote very traditional gender roles. Their job is to cook, clean, and raise children, and pointedly play a subservient role to men.

Their husbands, whose household role is only to be the financial provider, have to approve of the money they are spending, even if it is for the house and not for themselves. The core aesthetic of tradwife fashion is frills and dresses, perfectly brushed hair and a fully made-up face. One video showed a tradwife waking up at 5 a.m. to apply make-up so that her husband would never see her plain face.

Middleton, of whom there isn’t a single photograph in which you can, quite literally, find a hair out of place, is a brand ambassador of sorts for tradwives, she is their icon. It is unclear how much cooking and baking the Princess of Wales is engaging in, but it does not matter because we are bang in the middle of the era of the image, and her image is that of a person who has happily and contentedly taken the role of being by her husband’s side.

Middleton’s ethos ever since she got engaged to a future king has been one of appropriate perfection — her dress is just right, her hair is always spectacular, she has a wide smile when necessary and an air of gravitas at others. The most interesting thing she has done since her wedding 13 years ago, is disappearing from public view after a surgery. In fact, when she appeared in a video to end weeks of speculation about her whereabouts and well-being (with the perfect amount of radiance for someone dealing with a health issue), it was the first time most people heard her speak. A tradwife, presumably, should be seen and not heard.

Blending into sameness

For a moment, let’s keep aside what this says about the reversal of the strides that feminism has achieved, the long march for equality that took centuries. What I really don’t understand about women choosing this lifestyle is how boring this kind of perfection seems to be. Look at Middleton herself, so obsessive her need to project absolute flawlessness that she (or whoever is in charge of her X account; those conspiracy theories are best left for another column) came out and confessed to Photoshopping the image she’d posted for Mother’s Day.

Middleton is a brand ambassador of sorts for tradwives.

Middleton is a brand ambassador of sorts for tradwives.
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images

What does she need, I wondered, for her smile to be brighter, her hair to be even more shiny, for her arms to be longer so that she can hold three growing children in her embrace? If all character is stripped, how will any image be indicative of anything? Can anyone remember any previous Mother’s Day photos that she’d posted? They all blend into the sameness of happy, sunny perfection.

Middleton, and her tradwife followers, don’t need to look far for lessons in authentic relevance. Her predecessor as the Princess of Wales, Diana, was the master of being a relatable person behind a beautiful photo. Her look was effortless but the burden was visible, and it was in the times that she slipped that she endeared herself. There are countless photos and videos of her various imperfections, as a young mother snapping at her husband, as a new divorcee dishing the dirt on her marriage, as a person drowning in the demands of the world, desperate to find love. Here was a woman who looked impossibly, unattainably beautiful, who seemed to be living a life as full of confusions and ugliness as the rest of us.

Diana’s enduring legacy derives from the fact that she was a person, and not just an image. With Middleton, as we have now come to realise, it is nearly impossible to tell whether she is real or a creation of artificial intelligence. (The writer Hilary Mantel once famously wrote that Middleton looks like she was put together by a committee.)

And so it goes for the tradwives too. Beyond the aspiration and outrage of a social media post, these pie baking, frill-wearing, flawlessly made-up women have very little to speak for themselves. They are all interchangeable and easily replaceable. There is, really, nothing more boring than this kind of perfection.

The writer is the author of Independence Day: A People’s History.


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