Notes on Wifey
Other than a man, the most legitimate thing a person can be is a wife. The government insures the wife has material rights, tax and health care benefits, and legal standing. Biopolitics bind the wife to reproduction of children, to be sure, but also to the reproduction of cultural, social, and racial norms. “Wife” is a structural position held by women as well as non-gender-conforming, non-binary, and intersex people. What, then, is a wifey?
While a wifey might occupy the same position as a wife, a wifey is not necessarily a wife. The word first appears in early 18th-century Scotland, referring to a small, plain, or elderly woman. However, it wasn’t widely used until around the year 2000, when a Google Ngram shows it skyrocketing in popularity. We now hear “wifey” in rap and R&B, romance novels, and internet chatter, where a person can be “wifed up” or “wife material.” We thought we’d find “wifey” functioning outside of internet parlance and in the real world, but most contributors viewed the term as a curiosity.
Frankly, when we conceptualized this issue we anticipated being able to disambiguate “wife” from “wifey,” but “wifey” as a term has proven too slippery for us to pin down. “Wifey” is weak in comparison to the juggernaut that is “wife.” We thought it might have a limited transformational potential, but it is even more limited than we imagined. Taken together, the pieces assembled in this issue all carry an element of protest against the terms of the assignment. From calls for family abolition to a withering takedown of wife guys, their quarrel is with “wife,” not “wifey.” All wifeys lead to wives.
We thought “wifey” might show some cracks forming in the dominant account of marriage, but the hegemonic weight of wife is too resistant to shift. The salutary lesson here is one about the constraints of looking at a coinage having a moment. Sometimes, new terms can be a useful bellwether of changing attitudes, and sometimes what they show you is just how entrenched an idea is. This issue contributes to the ongoing effort to keep the institution of the wife from settling into the cosmic background radiation of naturalized social structures.
In her essay on the figure of the tradwife, Sophie Lewis examines the history and politics baked into the decidedly sour concoction of appeals to “traditional” visions of marriage and their constructions of the ideal wife. What kind of reactionary backlash–or fresh hell–explains the rise of the tradwife in the twenty-first century? This piece makes full use of the riches of irony as it unfolds the paradoxes of tradwifery, most of which, Lewis contends, look an awful lot like hypocrisy when they come out of the oven. Grounded in the Marxist-feminist conception of the “double shift,” Lewis’s writing shows that liberal feminism’s ostensible challenge to tradwifery actually enables it to thrive.
In harmony with Lewis’s work in this issue, Jina B. Kim’s study of the oppressive structures of wifedom ranges widely, synthesizing disability theory, the Marxist-feminist tradition of family abolition, Black feminist “love-politics,” and personal experience. Her essay argues for a livable present in which new experiments in care and care-work stand against cishetero organizations of life and their embedded ableist and racist ideologies. What new possibilities become available, she asks, when we chip away at the pervasive mythologies of marriage, love, romance, and the roles they demand people play as individuals and political beings?
Lily Sparks turns her attention, with a heavy dose of side-eye, to a particularly vexing, seemingly ubiquitous figure: the fallen wife guy. The salient question, she posits, is not “Why do these husbands cheat?” Rather it is, “Why are we as an audience so relentlessly informed when a wife guy is unfaithful?” The two-timing wife guy, as a public figure, Sparks ultimately finds, is not openly vilified on moral or ethical grounds; his true crime is the flagrant destruction of his once profitable image.
Kendall deBoer’s critical history of wedding cake toppers shrinks a large institution into a miniature, sometimes edible, decorative flourish. Her defense of decoration as a meaningful creative act ties wedding cake toppers to feminist art and craft practices. Along with the mass-produced wedding cake topper comes a stream of DIY personalizations to create icons reflective of couples’ skin color, gender, and personal details—bakers and brides making their own narratives and fantasies, in and against normativity.
In Merchandizing the Void, Kelly Pendergrast analyzes Khloé Kardashian’s perfectly organized pantry. This massive display of home goods calls on the primary model of late capitalism, the logistics fulfillment center, to model the horizontal distribution of information and goods. With it, Kardashian plays the role of wife as home manager in the stage set of her home.
Danielle Drori’s analysis of her dreams before, during, and after her divorce calls the wife up from the waters of the unconscious. She merges psychoanalytic theory with a defense of dream interpretation as a crucial psychoanalytic tool, applying Freudian models to the meditative recounting of a dissolving marriage: an intimate portrait of the death of a partnership and the birth of a new world.
For artist Chloë Bass, the watch word is “intimacy.” In conversation with Dilettante Army, she describes the intimacy that exists on every scale from the self, to partnership, to institutions. Bass’s public artwork becomes a stage set for private feelings. When the artist disappears behind the familiarity and vulnerability of the work, the viewer can feel the importance and possibility of their own experiences, and potentially extend that empathy in unexpected directions.
And finally, Wifey has been stunningly merchandized by Chrissy Rhee, who has created a product line that offers easy gendered solutions to common household problems. The cracks and bugs in Wifey products are part of their old-fashioned charm.
At the end of this impressive and fascinating list of contributions, we admit that we have failed to secure one essay we thought of as essential: a definitive piece of cultural criticism on the reality TV show Sister Wives. In fact, this issue came about because, at a rough estimate, at least half of each Dilettante Army editorial meeting has been devoted to a discussion of this topic. Let us leave you with this thought: if you are reading this, whenever you are reading this, we stand ready to commission this work and shepherd it into the world. It is our white whale. The prophecy is unfulfilled. It’s like you are the one we have been waiting for. (Even our metaphors are polygamous.)