Women do too much work for free. We always have. Maybe we can’t help ourselves. Or maybe men can’t stop themselves from expecting it and accepting it. Whatever the reason, women’s unpaid labor has been driving the global economy since the beginning of the global economy.
But that’s old news. We know all about unpaid labor. We know women are unsung superheroes and frankly women are sick of telling everyone else about it.
Our unpaid labor continues to burst out of the domestic realm. In the age of personal branding we’ve all been forced to create “content” to support our work and our dreams — blog content, Instagram content, Pinterest content, TikTok content. Our very lives are now someone else’s business model. What started out as a simple way to promote a book or promote a podcast or simply to share about a school fundraiser is now a seeming zero-sum game that eats us alive and spits out gold coins into the pockets of the men who run these companies.
The list of platforms that swallow our content is too long to cite. We post selfies and pictures of pregnant bellies, inspirational quotes, fields of flowers, dance videos, diapering videos, laughing videos and crying videos. We post our books and interviews about our books and the very first terrible manuscript of our books because the internet loves a work in progress. Many of us have become nonstop content shops, whether we are creating a business around ourselves or simply laying claim to the women we are or want to claim to be. Our vital need to brand ourselves as a successful author and attentive mother, a loving wife or a doting daughter simply lets the scroll of sales continue. And through it all, we are their free programming.
I, too, am feeding the scroll. My new book launched this month, and in addition to in-person and virtual events, I am also doing nonstop Instagram broadcasting and posting in order to get my book in readers’ hands. I spend more time making social media content than I do writing books now and I’m not even sure if it really makes a difference. Still I feel compelled to keep going, to keep shouting into the void, to keep posing my book with a latte or in one of those Instagrammable fields of flowers in the hopes that I’m reaching readers.
In the past couple of years I’ve become obsessed with influencers. It happened because I had my second baby and that baby wouldn’t sleep unless she was attached to my nipple while I rocked in a chair. My only available appendage to entertain myself was my thumb and so I did nothing but scroll the internet until the sun rose.
Yeah, it is a little creepy to watch someone you’ve never met snuggling in her bed with her Keebler Elf children. It’s even creepier to like that photo and then cry because your own bedroom will never be white again, not with the pee and milk and blood and poo that constantly invade your bedroom. But I did. And then I kept up with the scroll even as my daughter started sleeping through the night.
At first I envied those women. And then I hated them. And then I wanted to know every goddamn thing about them. So, because I have no other tools for making sense of the world, I reported a podcast about the momfluencers of Instagram. I dedicated an entire year to trying to figure out who these perfect women on my little screen were.
I had started my podcast expecting a take-down. But instead I found hardworking, badass women of every class and race just trying to make a goddamn buck. Some were incredibly successful and now lived in suburban mansions and drove Range Rovers. Others were just paying the bills. And still others were striving to make ends meet even as they put out a magazine’s worth of content in a single week.
This is the not-so-shocking takeaway about the world of content creation: it is dominated by women. Mostly women make the images and videos that we all use to distract ourselves, and that the social media giants use to serve us perfectly targeted ads. And the majority of those women are doing it for free. Our national entertainment is the unpaid labor of women. We might not be toiling in the fields or making meals, but we are broadcasting the most intimate parts of our lives, cropping and highlighting and photoshopping — often capturing perfected images of the unpaid work we do at home.
We do this work in the hopes of servicing ourselves, our goals and dreams, and for some, to try to support our families. But the real beneficiaries are, once again, the men: the men behind the apps who will eventually walk away with all the real money.