Kendal Kay is a stay-at-home girlfriend. In her popular TikTok videos, she narrates her daily routine: extensive skincare, practiced mindfulness, chores (making the bed, doing laundry, dropping her boyfriend off at the gym, heating up soup for him, taking him to his favorite wine store and coffee shop), a family birthday dinner.
In online parlance, Kendal is a tradwife: a woman who—in accordance with a certain image of 1950s American standards—chooses to stay at home while her boyfriend or husband takes the active role in socioeconomic life. The tradwife is typically portrayed as the counterpoint to the girlboss of millennial feminism: Instead of competing with men, she supports and defers to them.
A lot of things are trad right now—tradwives, tradlife, tradcaths (in theory, pre-Vatican II Catholics; in practice, zoomer converts with a flair for ornamental aesthetics). In each case, tradness refers to the ambiguous yearning for an idealized version of the old days, whenever those might have been.
Tradness is conservative in the same way nostalgia is conservative. It’s related to the Lindy effect: a theory popularized by statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb and technology lawyer Paul Skallas (@LindyMan on Twitter) that posits a correlation between the life expectancy of non-perishable things and their current age: What has stood the test of time is also most likely to endure in the future. Although the Lindy effect doesn’t dictate a value judgment, it implies one: the older, the better.
Golden-age thinking is as old as civilization, but it’s coming back around with a vengeance—ironically, on the same tech platforms that detach us from the past at an ever-accelerating pace. This makes perfect sense. The internet loves tradness because it runs on fear: fear that none of what makes up the digital shadow realm is lasting or real. That fear, in turn, drives many online to grasp for something they think they can hold on to.
Eras of structural breakdown lend themselves well to paranoia, because the paranoids are right. It feels like everything is betraying you, because everything is betraying you all the time: corporations, celebrities, language, the government, your husband, the media. Few have captured this ambient mood better than the cult director David Lynch. Conspiracies, infidelities, subterranean networks of power—he deals in it all, producing, in the process, a subtle interrogation of the anxieties that shape our collective attraction to idealized pasts.
Lynch may not instantly scan as trad, but an engagement with Americana imagery and themes rests at the core of his work—hence, his popularity on Twitter and other online platforms where trad aesthetics proliferate. Eraserhead (1977) treats the nuclear family; Twin Peaks (1990) and Blue Velvet (1986) burrow beneath the pretty façade of small-town life; Mulholland Drive (2001) is a twisted love letter to the film industry, a neo-noir Golden Age of Hollywood.
Although Lynch didn’t originate the archetypal imperfect Perfect American Girl, he perfected her in Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer: a universally adored homecoming queen with a double life and traumatic backstory. By day, Laura is a pillar of her small, picturesque Washington town; by night, she feeds her cocaine addiction, cheats on her boyfriend, and hops the Canadian border to hook up with strangers when she isn’t being raped by her demon-possessed father.
Superficially, Laura Palmer is trad. She dates the captain of her high-school football team, volunteers for Meals on Wheels, and is adored by her parents. Her murder, which launches the show—and the ensuing investigation that exposes her sordid secrets—is the only reason her community discovers her duplicity. It isn’t her fault, though; Lynch ultimately presents her as a pure entity corrupted by the perverse underbelly of her environment.
Not all of Lynch’s heroines get off so easily. In Mulholland Drive, he introduces Betty, a blonde ingénue played by Naomi Watts. About two-thirds of the way into the film, he reveals the narrative thus far to have been the extended auto-fictional psychosis of a woman named Diane Selwyn, also played by Watts. Diane creates an alternate world in which she—as Betty, a naïve but talented Los Angeles newcomer—rescues, befriends, and falls in love with the amnesiac victim of a car crash, a brunette played by Laura Elena Harring. In Diane’s real life, Harring plays her ex-girlfriend, a successful actress named Camilla Rhodes who dumps Diane for hotshot director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux).
Even in Diane’s dreamscape, there are ominous gestures towards what’s really going on, but we experience most of Mulholland Drive through her romantic delusion, rather than her ugly reality. The wonder in Betty’s eyes is palpable, and everything is shot through a fuzzy soft filter. Conspiracies still exist in Diane’s doubled narrative, but they are intimated poetically, in prophecies delivered by an enigmatic cowboy.
Diane’s delusion is a trad American Dream: as Betty, she’s innocent and fresh-faced, a bright young thing who gets discovered. She doesn’t try to be perfect and fail—she is perfect, so she trips into romantic and professional success. Instead of being her struggling, desirous self, she’s a clean-cut Miss Americana.
Taylor Swift was an anomaly among the hyper-curated, eventually prodigal Disney stars of the aughts and 2010s (Britney, Christina, Lindsay, Miley): She grew up outside the industry, on a Christmas-tree farm in Pennsylvania. She named her 2020 bio-documentary Miss Americana for a reason.
In the first phase of her career, Swift embodied a wholesome trad fantasy much like the women of Lynchian myth. She was initially marketed as a family-friendly country singer telling stories of teen heartache, and she retained her sanitized image as she became a pop star.
Through all of this, Swift remained markedly apolitical; as the country polarized, and her contemporaries took stands on social issues, she was silent. It wasn’t until a series of convoluted mini-scandals pitting her against—who else?—Kanye West incurred serious reputational damage that she strategically dropped the mask, rebranding herself first as an edgy anti-hero and then as a folksy liberal balladeer in the vein of Joan Baez.
Swift’s turn away from her early posture of squeaky-clean innocence says something about how the public responds to unalloyed tradness. As her star rose, we began to perceive Swift as too pure to be authentic or trustworthy. As cultural critic Rayne Fisher-Quann puts it, she got woman’d—overexposed, castigated for the image that made her beloved in the first place.
For women in the public eye, there is a delicate balance to engaging with traditional ideas of femininity. When you are too sweet, too wholesome, people eventually get sick of you—you become saccharine, nauseating, unconvincing. Without an element of subversion, tradness is read as a front for inauthenticity: It’s too perfect, too performed. That’s the fear that Lynch’s Laura Palmer and Diane Selwyn embody. It was all fake. They were betraying you the whole time.
Perhaps it’s no accident that Taylor Swift exhumes herself—shortly before burying her old self—at the beginning of the music video for “Look What You Made Me Do,” the lead single from her 2017 comeback album, Reputation. We can’t hate you if you are dead already.
Not counting the 1992 Twin Peaks prequel Fire Walk with Me, Laura Palmer never exists in her living, corporeal form in the Twin Peaks universe. The pilot opens with her murder; she is a victim. The tragedy of her death exacts sufficient punishment for her infidelity to her idealized image. Her sins are explicable, forgiven.
Diane Selwyn shoots herself in the head at the end of Mulholland Drive, but she doesn’t get to die easily. Camilla doesn’t just reject Diane, she insists upon her attendance at a party where she announces her engagement to Adam. Through the ritual of Diane’s humiliation, we come to understand the motivations behind her delusion. She creates her trad fantasy realm out of fear and cope—as Betty, she is an ingenuous diamond in the rough; her beloved falls for her; and her rival is sidelined as an emasculated puppet whose wife cheats on him with the pool guy.
In the romantic sense, tradness typically refers to heterosexual monogamy within the nuclear family. Betty’s queer romance doesn’t fit this model; neither she nor her lover is a tradwife. But in Diane’s dream world, their love story follows a traditional, even wholesome pattern—Betty nurses her beloved back to health and helps solve the mystery of her identity as the two become each other’s sole confidantes. It’s the kind of noir plotline in which the femme fatale is revealed to be an innocent woman caught up in circumstances beyond her control, the kind where the detective straightens everything out and she rides off into the sunset with him. The fairytale is cut short, though; reality comes to call before Betty gets her happy ending.
Compared to Diane’s reality, which is shot through with cruelty, Betty’s fantasy world is simple, old-fashioned, with clear boundaries drawn between darkness and light. Betty and Rita can trust each other; they are stock characters; their actions are predictable. But the word old-fashioned points to its own fundamental flaw: Fashioning something in the patterns of the past is an artificial exercise in pursuit of authenticity.
Through Diane’s delusion, Lynch deconstructs tradness. Diane attempts to create a perfect world by drawing on familiar narrative patterns, but this requires ignoring the complicated motives and conflicting desires of the woman she loves. The real tragedy in Mulholland Drive—and in most of Lynch’s work—stems from the sacrifice of the present to the past, of the real to ideal.
When Lana Del Rey (née Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, or Lizzy Grant) experienced a meteoric rise to stardom with her viral 2011 hit, “Video Games,” she was buoyed by the same kind of hatred that, in 2016, sank Taylor Swift. When New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica reviewed her performance at the Bowery Ballroom, he wrote:
Lana Del Rey is a singer of songs that are very popular on the Internet. Stop. Rewind. That’s not quite it. Let’s try again.
Lana Del Rey is a person who makes music that is much discussed online. OK, that’s closer, but still not there. A music-making thing? Nah. One more time.
Lana Del Rey is a tabula rasa, a punching bag, a reflection of our collective nightmares about American cynicism and disingenuousness.
It’s no coincidence that Lana covered the 1963 Bobby Vinton song “Blue Velvet” in a 2012 H&M ad; she cites David Lynch as a profound influence on her work. Like Lynch’s neo-noir Blue Velvet, named for the same song and featuring it, Del Rey’s “Ultraviolence,” which reprises the Crystals’ 1962 line “he hit me and it felt like a kiss,” is both trad and notoriously violent.
Del Rey’s artistic visions of love and womanhood were nothing if not removed from the fourth-wave feminism that dominated cultural discourse during the years she was rising to prominence. She took on the aesthetics of 1950s and ’60s Americana; as a songwriter and performer, she espoused devotion and subservience to the man a woman loves. In “Body Electric,” she sings: “Elvis is my daddy, Marilyn’s my mother, Jesus is my bestest friend.” It doesn’t get more trad than that.
In Blue Velvet, as in Del Rey’s early discography, women submit themselves to abusive men in the distorted, dreamlike shadows of American suburbia. In Lynch’s film, the detective-esque protagonist ends up with his love interest—another blonde, all-American ingénue played by Lynch muse Laura Dern—after reuniting a troubled nightclub singer with her son. This is one of Lynch’s most optimistic endings. He takes us past the perfect picket fences, down into the underworld, and back up to the light.
At least in the early part of her career, Lana Del Rey rarely made it that far. Her original brand was perpetual victimhood. Here was a young woman tragically enamored with damage, trapped beneath her own aestheticized pain: a Stepford wife on her nights off, a living Laura Palmer with her secrets in plain sight. She made her name from looking perfect and confessing everything—living, as she sang in “Without You,” “on the dark side of the American Dream.”
Her ill-fated romances weren’t just interpersonal. It was like America—the idea of America, its national mythology—was her boyfriend, too. In 2012, she dropped her single “National Anthem” with an accompanying music video featuring ASAP Rocky as John F. Kennedy and herself as both Jacqueline Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.
Her decision to cast a rapper as the late president was obviously subversive, as was the couple’s decidedly un-Kennedy bling. At its heart, though, the video is a bleeding-heart, sunset-filtered ode to the golden years of the 1960s: a love letter to an American dynasty, a lost point in time, a retconned fairytale.
And it is a fairytale. It’s perfect: ASAP Rocky and Lana Del Rey having a picnic on the lawn of their estate, cuddling on a sailboat, running on the beach, dancing on a yacht, letting their children blow out the candles. This Lana-flavored fantasy of an idealized Kennedy romance resembles the end of Mulholland Drive—after Diane kills herself, there’s a white-hot blur of the happiest moments from her dream life as Betty—the music even sounds the same. Since Del Rey inserts herself as both Jackie and Marilyn, though, she is able to paper over JFK’s rumored infidelities. The only betrayal here is when ASAP Rocky gets shot in the head.
Just as she faithfully recreates Marilyn’s performance of “Happy Birthday,” Del Rey mimics Jackie’s scramble over the back of the black limousine. She plays the clip in slow motion, over a two-minute monologue:
And I remember when I met him, it was so clear that he was the only one for me. We both knew it, right away. And as the years went on, things got more difficult—we were faced with more challenges. I begged him to stay. Try to remember what we had at the beginning. He was charismatic, magnetic, electric and everybody knew it. When he walked in, every woman’s head turned, everyone stood up to talk to him. He was like this hybrid, this mix of a man who couldn’t contain himself. I always got the sense that he became torn between being a good person and missing out on all of the opportunities that life could offer a man as magnificent as him. And in that way I understood him and I loved him. I loved him, I loved him, I loved him. And I still love him. I love him.
She understands her man—JFK, cast out of the fairytale, suddenly returned to his flawed reality—and begs him to stay with her. She forgives him despite his transgressions, purely because of his magnificence. In the trad sense, this is a vision of perfect womanhood: the perfect empath, grimacing through her perfect mouth with tears in her eyes.
In some of Del Rey’s earliest videos (“Video Games,” “Summertime Sadness”), she blurs herself into a figure approximating what’s now known as “Instagram Face”: a vague lo-fi composite of optimized feminine features, a void punctuated with lips and lashes framed by Old Hollywood waves. In a contemporary setting, this kind of trad gender essentialism automatically picks up an element of subversion. While these performances aren’t definitionally drag, they approach it. Lana Del Rey is a character, a stage name, a mask for the real Lizzy Grant. She isn’t playing herself, she is creating a dream world. She puts on an idea of a woman, made up of archetypes modern (Marilyn, Jackie, femme fatale, ingénue) and ancient (Madonna, whore).
Tradness—any kind of tradition—appears once again as a collection of signifiers, potent images developed over time, available for endless repurposing. Woman (riding in the passenger seat of a convertible, clinging to her boyfriend’s motorcycle, rising backlit from a pool) is an idea just like Los Angeles (palm trees, red carpets, tacky glass-walled estates in the Hollywood Hills). LA is a perfect canvas for projection, because it exists for most of us through the medium of ahistorical Hollywood fantasy.
When Lana Del Rey headlined Lollapalooza Brasil 2018, her set design included a projection of the Hollywood sign framed by plastic palm trees and backed by greener foliage than I have ever seen in the Santa Monica Mountains. The Hollywood sign is incredibly disappointing in real life: The closest you can legally get is on foot, by approaching it from behind. It’s just a bunch of scrubby grass and scaffolding. The symbol is rendered more legible, and therefore more real, through simulacra like the concert backdrop.
Del Rey performs “Young and Beautiful”—with its eponymous, emblematic question of womanhood: “Will you still love when I’m no longer young and beautiful?”—a little over halfway through her Lollapalooza set. At 1:03:55, the camera pans over the audience to a bespectacled, bearded man emphatically singing along.
“Young and Beautiful” was written for Baz Lurhmann’s 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby, that most American novel: a poignant, tightly encapsulated ode to the American Dream and its inherent tragedy. But when Del Rey changes the second half of the lyric Those crazy days, city lights to São Paulo nights, it doesn’t feel like pandering. Despite its associations, the song isn’t about any particular time or place more than it is about beauty, which belongs to everyone.
Tradness is reductive. That doesn’t mean that its performance doesn’t touch something real. Tradition is the borrowed aesthetic of recorded history. It holds a weight we have given it, but it’s a considerable weight nonetheless. It’s a site of memory through which you can approximate a kind of truth.
On the basis of their distinct deployments of trad aesthetics, Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift have experienced contrapuntal career arcs. Del Rey went from the toast of edgy Tumblr to highly curated retrograde femininity to about the closest a celebrity gets to being a normal person: wearing off-the-rack dresses to awards shows, dating a cop, carrying Fourth of July decorations around in a trash bag. Taylor Swift is by no means transgressive—it’s pretty much impossible to be transgressive after selling out stadiums at 19—but she put on edginess, then indie-girl confessionalism. She says four-letter words in songs now, which isn’t a big deal until you contrast it against her old, squeaky-clean Miss Americana image.
So it’s funny that the two artists have converged on Taylor Swift’s most recent album. On a track called “Snow on the Beach,” they sing: “It’s fine to fake it til you make it / Til you do / Til it’s true.”
To believe in the dark side of the American Dream, you have to believe in the American Dream; to believe in the American Dream, or in any ideal, is to see it spoiled by real life. To believe that something can be impure is to believe that it was once pure, but to take that belief further—to be, in your personal and political life, obsessed with realizing that purity—is to pursue an impossible object.
People disappoint. Tropes are predictable, comforting in times of chaos. But even then, we rarely allow ourselves to wholeheartedly believe in tradness for too long. We can’t help but recognize it as what it is: performance, a deliberate act of construction.
In Kendal Kay’s viral TikTok, there are a few seconds in which the camera lingers on the contents of her journal. These moments have been paused, analyzed more times than I can count. In flawless all-caps script, she’s written things like UNSATISFIED WITH MY LOOKS, NEGATIVE SELF TALK, STAGNATION IN MY CAREER/SATISFACTION/FULFILLMENT.
People online went rabid, as people online are wont to do; at turns, they jeered (what career?) and theorized about the whole thing being a big cry for help. It’s no diary of Laura Palmer—no litany of sordid confessions—but it’s taken as a lie, a betrayal, a slip of the mask because being a tradwife also means being perfect.
Tradness is a state of non-reality. The past never was—not the way we imagine it. We fear its image and yet we are drawn towards it anyway, just to hate it when it inevitably fails us. We have lived past the end of our myth and we are trying to repeat it, to take refuge in it. What, then, is our punishment?