Every time I see a high schooler on TikTok flying through a tutorial of how she gets perfect beach waves with her Dyson Airwrap hair wand, I think of the time my mother straightened my ringlet-curly hair with an iron. Like, on the ironing board, in the kitchen, before a middle-school dance in the 1990s. Or my first Conair flat iron, purchased with money saved up from my summer job, which only got hot enough to make me look like the lead singer of a hair-metal band. Or the time I spent in my freshman college dorm, trying and mostly failing to harness the dexterity and fine motor skills necessary to manipulate the clamp on a Hot Tools curling iron. The Dyson Airwrap is my version of In my day, we used to walk to school uphill, both ways, in the snow. It is my proof, as someone rapidly progressing toward 40, that kids these days are soft.
TikTok is crowded with these tutorials, which feature the $600 hair tool or one of its many dupes. And hairstyling is just the beginning of TikTok’s love affair with gizmos and doodads. After you Airwrap your hair, you can prep your face for makeup with red-light currents, remove some hairs with your at-home follicle zapper, and throw together a salad with your veggie chopper. The chatty, short-form recommendation videos that proliferate on TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram, all algorithmically targeting various interests and demographics, have helped usher shoppers toward a new crop of tools designed to aid in domestic or personal-care tasks—domains traditionally thought of as women’s work. Some of these devices, such as Dyson’s hair tools and Dr. Dennis Gross’s at-home LED masks, cost hundreds of dollars. Others, such as personal milk-frothing wands and motorized scrubbing brushes, are pretty cheap.
These products count as something of a reversal in fate for gadgets as a concept. Tech-industry watchers and pundits have spent years wondering if the end of the gadget era might be nigh. Our phones, after all, obviate most people’s need for so many of the consumer-tech products that crowded the shelves of electronics stores in the recent past: GPS systems, digital cameras, CD and DVD players, iPods. After a brief resurgence during the pandemic, when Americans stocked up on ring lights and gaming rigs and tablets to entertain the kids, traditional consumer-electronics companies have seen demand slump. But not in every part of the market. Au contraire: We’re in a golden age of gadgets for girlies.
Dyson, which debuted its absurdly popular and very expensive vacuums in the United States in 2002, likely deserves much of the recent credit for convincing other brands that women might have a real interest in high-tech gadgetry, or that engineering advancements could be a selling point in stereotypically feminine realms. After winning over the vacuum market, Dyson released a series of fans and motion-sensing hand dryers—products with useful applications, but not the type of stuff that captures the public’s imagination. Then, in 2016, came a product that seemed a little out of left field at the time: Dyson’s Supersonic hair dryer, the first of a triad of launches that reimagined the basic physical reality of commonplace hairstyling tools. The Airwrap followed in 2018, and in 2020, the brand launched a cordless flat iron. All three have been smash hits, especially among the cohort of wealthy young women who are particularly influential in setting beauty trends online. Hair tools now account for almost a third of Dyson’s business in the U.S.
In tech-industry terms, a gadget is a piece of hardware—your smartphone is plausibly a gadget, but none of the apps within it is. In more traditional terms, a gadget is a device with a narrow set of uses, usually designed to perform or simplify a particular task. Not all gadgets are tech products, but a lot of them are the result of certain kinds of technology becoming less expensive to produce and more widely available to the average person. The idea that women will buy tech products that take their needs seriously is so obvious that I feel sort of stupid even bothering to explicate it, but it’s nonetheless something that tech companies seem to talk themselves out of—or just forget—over and over again. The industry is dominated by men, and that colors which new ideas attract support and which products get passed over for improvement. Certainly some past gadgets have been designed with women and girls in mind—most obviously tools used in the kitchen—but the domains of domesticity and personal care remained off the radar in the gadget boom that arose alongside personal computing. The curling iron that I struggled to learn to use in college was called a Marcel iron—so named because its complex hinged-clamp mechanism was largely unchanged from the one patented by the hairdresser Marcel Grateau in 1905.
That Dyson tapped into such demand for improved vacuums and hair tools is perhaps less of a reflection of the company’s capacity for technical innovation than of its capacity to identify stale markets and willing consumers. Or, I should say, once-stale markets. At the end of 2022, Dyson announced that it would invest roughly $600 million to develop 20 new beauty gadgets over the following four years. It will have far more competition for those gadgets than it did just a few years ago. Dyson’s existing hair tools alone have spawned enough knockoffs and dupes to fuel a cottage industry of tutorials and recommendations. In the case of the Airwrap, the cycle has been perpetuating itself for more than a year: New but very similar tools show up on TikTok Shop or Amazon or Temu, maybe at a newly low price or with some novel attachments. Influencers try them out, often because they’ve received the product for free (sometimes with an additional cash payment on top of it); make demonstration videos promising that this is actually the best dupe out there; and provide commission-generating shopping links. Smaller creators and regular users buy whatever new thing is surging in popularity and post their own reviews, many of them hoping that their accounts rise to greater prominence as everyone else tries to figure out what’s up with this new thing they’re suddenly seeing everywhere.
In other corners of the internet, much the same thing happens. CleanTok, where creators swap housecleaning tips and hacks, has links to a seemingly limitless number of battery-powered scrub brushes in every size and length, all from companies with inscrutable Amazon-brand names, that promise to make maintaining a pristine kitchen and bathroom a cinch. The skincare-curious have found a genre of device that costs less than $10 and shoots red light into your face to give you a “snatched” jawline. Fitness influencers extoll the virtues of compact steppers and walking pads that you can tuck under a standing desk. I have seen so many close-ups of hairless underarms thanks to Ulike at-home hair-removal devices.
What gadgets of all kinds promise, above and beyond whatever specific task they’re intended to execute, is ease. On some level, most of these new gadgets marketed to women do make something—usually the fulfillment of a particular aesthetic or domestic standard—easier. Less time and skill needed to perfect your hair and less elbow grease spent making your bathroom fixtures shine offer potential buyers the possibility of, finally, getting it all done. Perhaps most important, those gadgets provide the possibility of relief—if not from the standards themselves, maybe from the sense that fulfilling them all would be impossible.
But when adherence to cultural standards is at stake, convenience never holds for long. When current expectations become too easy to achieve, those expectations change. Consumer history is littered with examples of exactly how this happens. In her book Never Done: A History of American Housework, the historian Susan Strasser traces the path of domestic gadgetry over the course of industrialization and finds consequences both intended and not. Electric washing machines, for instance, genuinely did make the task of household laundry less physically demanding and more productive. They also changed where and how laundry fit into women’s lives: It became less communal and more isolated inside homes, and the ease of electric washers changed hygiene norms, requiring clothes to be washed more frequently. Over time, a hated once-a-week chore transformed into a ceaseless burden. Strasser found little evidence that the amount of time women spent doing laundry had been reduced at all.
Innovations in domestic and personal-care technologies tend not to clear the way for more leisure or personal time for women, even if they do reduce the physical strength or skill involved in some of their labor. Instead, they clear the way for even more onerous expectations of how we’ll perform, domestically and aesthetically. The results that many of these gadgets promise are the kinds of things that were, until recently, available only to the wealthy, and therefore not the default expectation of most of us: Your hair will look like you just got a fresh blowout, your skin will look like you see a cosmetic dermatologist, and your house will look like you have a maid. You can watch the bar of expectation get higher in real time on social media, as young women sort out how they should groom themselves and organize their living spaces. Ideas about how flawless their skin should look or how undisturbed their homes should be grow more uncanny, and things that gadgets can’t yet replicate—Botox, buccal-fat removal, expensive home renovations, adherence to rapidly changing furniture trends—become the new baseline among the affluent and influential. No matter how hard we run, the finish line is always getting a little farther away.