This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.
Over the last few months, and especially the last few weeks, TikTok’s algorithm has been feeding me more and more massively viral videos about wives showing how they take care of their husbands. Usually, my For You page is algorithmically curated with progressive content, so it’s notable that über-conservative TikToks began floating onto my FYP because of their disproportionately high engagement. This TikTok from user @madfitmaddison, which got 3.5 million views in just one week, demonstrates how she prepares the day for her husband, whom she then wakes up.
Maddison opens her TikTok by saying, “Here’s how I start my husband’s day off right.” She starts off by “writing down three reasons why I love him,” filling up his water bottle, making him a smoothie, pouring him a cup of aloe juice, and fixing him an iced coffee. She says she then cleans their house, puts on Christian music, and proceeds to wake her husband up “with a little hand squeeze.” To me, its husband-centering mothering is cringeworthy. These kinds of TikToks are personally concerning to me because I don’t subscribe to these values, but I understand that some people do, both consensually and satisfyingly.
It’s also an extraordinarily ordinary video, so I was shocked it had millions of views. A lot of the views, IMO, were largely because of all its spoofs, like this one from user @nicolemmatt. Her video is hilarious. It transforms something earnest into something absurdist.
But much of the initial reaction to Maddison’s original TikTok, and what made it go so viral, wasn’t creative satire. There was a slew of fairly judgmental comments. When I reached out, Maddison claimed a lot of messages she received were making fun of her inclusion of Christian music and calling her a “servant” to her husband. She’s since had to turn off her comments, but her video and audio track continue to be satirized.
“I shared this video hoping to inspire others to do kind things for their significant others,” said Maddison, who’s 23 and lives in Arizona. “Everyone instantly assumed I was doing these things because I’m a ‘servant’ to my husband. I am not a servant and never will be. We both help each other equally because we love each other.”
I don’t want to get into a debate on gender roles and patriarchy, as relevant as they are here and as critical as I am about them. (I think from a history of my writing and assertions here you can probably accurately deduce how I feel about these issues.) But I also know that where someone is in her own journey of interpreting systems of oppression, and possibly dismantling them and promoting empowerment, differs from woman to woman. So if Maddison is cool with it, we’ll leave this here.
What I’m a little more interested in is how this genre has become a strategic growth hack on the app, whether it’s intentional or not. It seems like Maddison’s TikTok was not a troll, but I suspect others are meant to incite division and a bit of controversy.
Take the super popular account @cheesedaily, which has 3.3 million followers. Their videos mostly show meal prepping with very curious commentary about their husband. The videos are sometimes so beyond belief I am almost convinced it’s straight satire. “While I was on my knees this morning tying my husband’s shoes before work, he says he received an electricity bill and it was extremely high, and he wants the children and I to start using candles for lighting,” they say in one video. “While my husband has been away with his mistress, I’ve been living life to the fullest,” they say in another.
My colleague Lauren had been trying to reach @cheesedaily — who also has an unrelated YouTube channel where they trial toys and miscellaneous fun items — for a while. Lauren also strongly suspects the TikTok account is a parody.
People in the comments are sometimes very confused. In a video from February, @cheesedaily says filling their husband’s gas tank is just one of their “duties” as a spouse, as they have an actual contracted agreement. “I’m sorry a CONTRACT?!?!?!” a user reacted; another wrote, “My one question are you joking.”
We still don’t know, because they have not responded to Lauren’s emails or mine. But the incongruity between the videos and the dramatically escalating narration seems to be the work of an imaginative troll. In comments of more recent videos, people are catching on and outwardly calling their videos “satire,” but there are still enough comments like “is this real” that the suspension of disbelief has become a successful growth hack for the account. People are enjoying them as comedy and are so intrigued by the potential of a scandal that many of the videos have been viewed millions of times.
I find this fascinating because so much social media success has come courtesy of perceived authenticity. In both of these cases, however, the accounts and videos have become massively popular because we’re either riffing on someone’s authenticity or we’re questioning it. That liminal space seems to be really effective on TikTok, where we’re constantly discovering new personalities. Their mystique works to their advantage, whereas on Instagram and YouTube, creators’ success has largely been built on cultivating a personality that fans and strangers learn more and more about. I don’t condone bullying Maddison or people like her because they’ve decided that serving their husbands in these domestic ways is fulfilling, but the spoofs that her TikTok have inspired are funny and also have the opportunity to go viral.
Unlike traditional influencer tactics, on TikTok, perhaps a thought experiment is more compelling than a singular personality as far as content goes. And that’s kind of an exciting way to think about accounts that will gain popularity in the future. Maybe we won’t praise a person as much as we’ll praise anyone who gets us to challenge our value systems.