Why women of color are missing from TikTok's 'stay-at-home girlfriend' trend

Why women of color are missing from TikTok's 'stay-at-home girlfriend' trend
  • TikTok's 'stay-at-home girlfriend' trend shows young women who have opted out of the workforce sharing their daily routines.

  • These videos often portray a lifestyle that has been branded as unattainable to most.

  • The trend has been criticized by some as anti-feminist, but more recent conversations online have focused on race.

On November 9, 25-year-old influencer Kendel Kay posted a TikTok video detailing her day in the life as a stay-at-home girlfriend. Her morning routine consisted of leisure activities, like taking an aloe shot, preparing a matcha latte, making her boyfriend coffee, journaling, reading, and an intensive skincare regime. The now-viral video, which appears innocent in intention, sparked a conversation online about the harmful stereotypes some believe this lifestyle promotes. Other videos of its kind began to follow, and the "stay-at-home girlfriend" TikTok quickly became a trend. Many online have criticized these videos for what they see as regressive and anti-feminist undertones, but more recently, some have focused in on another common thread among these videos – they're mostly posted by young white women.

In these TikToks, girlfriends do not hold full-time jobs or engage in strenuous work. Their duties include light house chores, like making the bed and loading the dishwasher, catering to their boyfriends, and doing activities that help maintain their looks, like facials and pilates. Many of these videos show stay-at-home girlfriends receiving money, or an allowance, and several gifts from their partner, presenting a lavish lifestyle that many have criticized for being highly unattainable and exclusionary.

"They're typically shown as somebody who is upper-middle class or upper class. It's very heterosexual, very heteronormative, and very white," says Lilian Wright, a 25-year-old assistant at UCLA Law. Wright posted a TikTok critiquing the trend as a cultural phenomenon where "white women romanticize the idea of opting out of labor that is otherwise delegated to lower income people and people of color."

'If Black women were to do the same thing, they would be framed as lazy or welfare queens'

Hajar Yazdiha, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, says a reason why we probably don't see women of color taking part in this trend is because within the performative space of TikTok, their actions may not be read the same way that white women's would be.

"Research shows that these traditional notions of femininity and white feminism are really rooted in white supremacy. And so these performances are something where if Black women were to do the same thing, they would be framed as 'lazy' or 'welfare queens'," Yazdiha said.

On the other hand, Yazdiha said, white women have more freedom in their choices. "It's not to say that they're not going to have consequences, but this is really an idea where for them to choose to stay home can be read as a feminist decision and at the same time could be understood as a traditional decision."

The impact of the pandemic

Wright thinks the trend may be a byproduct of the pandemic. "We saw a lot of people who kind of had the means to stay at home and just do it. It kind of brought into question, 'Is it really necessary for me to work if I can stay at home?' So when the time came for people to return to work, there were just a lot of white women that didn't," she explained.

Yazdiha said she witnessed the same growth during the pandemic. "This is where highly educated white women, who had high paying careers, were faced with the sort of constraints of being stuck at home," Yazdiha said. "But then also being at home where the expectations were that they were going to be doing their jobs and childcare, had that choice of 'opting out,'" she explained.

Rooted in history

Historians and sociologists have found that the romanticization of and the ability to opt out of labor amongst white women has been around for centuries. During the time of chattel slavery, enslaved Black women were forced to work alongside their male counterparts, as well as tend to the plantation owner's family, which involved preparing meals, cleaning the house, bathing and caring for the children, and making shopping trips. Meanwhile, white housewives took part in leisure activities without needing to run their own home.

After slavery was abolished in the US, many plantation owners employed Black workers to continue working and caring for their home and family. Meanwhile, Black women workers, derogatorily referred to as "the help," were expected to take care of their own families in addition to the white families who employed them, reinforcing the idea of Black women as workers rather than as mothers.

Discriminatory public policies also supported the view that white women could work differently, and less than, women of color. Since the early 20th century, protective welfare policies, like the state-level Mothers' Pensions and the national-level Social Security Act of 1935, enabled low-income, single white mothers to stay at home and care for their children. Meanwhile, up until the 1960s, low-income Black women, especially in Southern states, were excluded from receiving cash assistance.

"For centuries, white women have had the privilege of doing this subservient version of femininity," said Brittany Friedman, an assistant professor of sociology at University of Southern California. "They have long benefited from this assertion that they are this feminine ideal, and for this, they are placed on this pedestal, so they are benefiting from this pedestal."

On the other side is the mammy figure, often portrayed in media by Black and Mexican female housekeepers. "Mammies are portrayed as being an asexual, unattractive, obedient domestic servant who acts as this surrogate mother or surrogate caregiver for the cultivation of white families, even at the expense of being able to nurture her own," Friedman said, noting that despite women of color's long history of domestic service work like cooking, cleaning, and caregiving, which is often associated with mothering, white women remain the face of femininity.

Black women in the workforce

According to a 2019 analysis, "compared with other women in the United States, Black women have always had the highest levels of labor market participation regardless of age, marital status, or presence of children at home." The study also found that Black women's higher participation rates extended over their lifetimes, even after having children. In fact, it found that nearly 80% of Black mothers are key breadwinners for their families.

In 1880 alone, a time known as the origin of Black and white work differences, 35.4 percent of married Black women and 73.3 percent of single Black women were in the labor force compared with only 7.3 percent of married white women and 23.8 percent of single white women.

The 'trophy girlfriend' vs. the 'gold digger' 

In Wright's TikTok, she poses the question, "What do videos like this tell you about who gets to rest, who deserves rest, and how you get rest?" She also draws attention to the fact that most of the comments are of concern for the women being taken advantage of as opposed to falling back on negative stereotypes of being "lazy" or a "gold digger." Friedman said she believes if these women were Black, there would be bigger backlash.

"The power of labels is very important here because they imbue upon us certain labels that are very hard to remove – it becomes a mark. For example, the use of labels such as 'gold digger,' yes, is gendered, but it has a very racialized undertone," Friedman said. She said she believes when white women are presenting content that shows how easy and simple their lives are, it is being presented as aspirational. "It's like this beacon of a lifestyle, and even naming it lifestyle content is a white-gendered label," she said.

Wright sees this trend as being indicative of our current time. "I think that upper-middle class white people are running out of ways to avoid the fact that the world is falling apart – like inequity with social media and talking about things like BLM – there are so many people that just want nothing to do with that," Wright said.

"And even though it should affect you because it's people that you should care about and they're your neighbors, there is this dramatic pull to just opt out of social responsibility. 'I just wanna be happy. I just wanna take care of myself. I just want to retreat," Wright said.

The problems with romanticizing a lifestyle

As many have pointed out within their critiques, the problem is not the trend of staying at home itself — there is nothing wrong with women choosing for themselves that they would rather not work and would rather pursue other interests. However, Yazdiha warns that the romanticization of it, the idea that anybody can do it, and the stereotypes and beliefs being reinforced by sharing this content without mention of privilege or historical context can be problematic.

"It's actually incredibly dangerous because it completely negates and obscures the reality of a system of power that renders it impossible for a lot of women at particular intersections, but especially Black and brown women, poor women, from engaging in the same sort of behaviors," Yazdiha said. "And so, it's not just that these women can't do it, it's also that if they were to, they would be met with a level of cultural critique and public criticism."

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