The Sneaky Relationship Ploy That's Screwing Over Women
“Weaponized incompetence” is just as infuriating as it sounds.
Many mothers in cis-hetero relationships have experienced the frustrating/enraging/baffling experience of directing our male partners to do something related to childcare or domestic work, only to end up watching them half-ass the task at hand, or worse, fail to do it entirely. One such example, as illustrated by @thatdarnchat on TikTok, is a mom being "gifted" a half hour to exercise, by her male partner who subsequently falls asleep while "watching" their baby. Laura, the creator behind @thatdarnchat (who prefers not to share her last name), calls this "weaponized incompetence," and her video breaking down the term has gone viral, receiving nearly 500k likes, and being shared almost 25k times. It also inspired some spinoff videos, like this one by @notwildlin, which begins with an analysis of a woman's grocery list, illustrated in excruciating detail for her apparently inept husband.
I reached out to Laura who said another creator brought the phrase to her attention about a year ago (she can't remember the original source video, but @jessica_jo_xo, @professorneil, @chrystheauthor, and others have also posted about it). Laura posted her first video about weaponized incompetence in February, and she defines the phrase as follows: "Doing a care task poorly so your spouse will pick up the slack, asking 100 questions about how it's done, never really learning how to do a domestic task well. All of these things take up the default domestic engineer's time and mental energy and keep those tasks on the DE's [domestic engineer] mind! It does not lighten the load to do a task poorly!"
In fact, weaponized incompetence achieves the exact opposite — in addition to forcing the domestic engineer (another apt phrase, which Laura credits to her mom) to fix the failed task, weaponized incompetence also compels the DE to teach her male partner how to do said task correctly (even while doubting his willingness to retain her instructions). Or she can decide that in the future, she won't even bother asking for help in the first place. Additional labor (and rage?!) either way.
Laura says she was "overwhelmed" at the public response to her recent video. "My comments exploded with stories about resentful partners, and new moms suffering from depression, not getting time to bathe or feed themselves. I knew it was an issue and I'd seen the research, but my comment section turned into a space where parents were holding each other up and connecting in the collective pain and isolation of parenthood."
If you peruse more of Laura's content, you'll see she has built a platform on highlighting the still pervasive problem of the "second shift," a term originated by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her book of the same name. Hochshild found that women, after leaving full days at their paid jobs, came home to another shift of unpaid domestic labor and care work. Laura wants to "bring attention to the issue and undo the normalization of this behavior." The Second Shift was published in 1989, but as Laura's work on Tiktok attests, the "second shift" is still very much a problem for many women and mothers.
In the recent viral video, Laura plugs Eve Rodsky's book Fair Play, which takes a systematic approach to creating gender equity within households. I emailed Rodsky, who thinks the phrase is "brilliant." She noted that USC professor of psychology, Darby Saxbe, calls weaponized incompetence "male malingering," which I also love. Rodsky went on to say that advice for women to "'lower their standards' or 'stop doing unnecessary things' is not only infuriating but it is dangerous." She cites a friend's story as an example of this danger: "My friend is married to a chef and found a paring knife in her kid's carseat WTF!" As Rodsky's friend said of the incident, "I am not lowering my standards. There was a knife in my kid's fucking car seat."
While the ol' "knife in the car seat" trick is a crystal clear example of weaponized incompetence, I do think it can be a little tricky to distinguish what might be an unreasonable standard from a simple expectation that something be done completely and safely. According to Laura: "Being on dish duty and letting it get so bad that the dinner-duty partner doesn't have what they need to cook? Weaponized incompetence. But graham crackers, carrots and peanut butter for weekend lunch? Sending the kid to daycare in mismatched clothes? You need to come to a compromise."
What's key, according to both Laura and Rodsky, is that women should not (and, if they want lasting change, cannot) view domestic inequity as solely their problem to fix. Communication, delegation, and setting up clear, agreed upon standards can ensure that both partners take ownership of specific tasks. Women are spared the resentment and extra workload that attends being their male partners' de facto managers, while male partners are precluded from viewing their female partners as unreasonable absolutists. We should all have the "gift" of living in a society that stops viewing fathers and male partners as "helpers" and mothers and women as "naturally" suited for the emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion of taking on domestic labor and care work. The real "gift" we all want is to take a shower without fearing our male partners' "babysitting" skills aren't up to snuff.