Young. Bimbo. Gold digger. Admit it. You were thinking it. In the 1980s, the Trophy Wife was the ultimate businessman accessory: Young, beautiful, pliant arm candy to prove he wasn’t just rich but also in demand.
In science, it’s known as the ‘beauty-status exchange’. The phenomena describes the widely held belief that the beautiful woman, whose most valuable commodity is her looks, partners the economically successful man in a sort of symbiotic relationship called marriage. He gives her luxe, she gives him ‘top dawg’ credibility.
However, the inspiration behind this now-demeaning term has more earnest beginnings.
In her August 1989 cover story, Fortune magazine editor Julie Connelly coined the term ‘trophy wife’. Decades later, speaking to the New York Times on what inspired it: “I thought of the real-estate term trophy building for a premier place like the Plaza Hotel in New York, and I formed trophy wife based on that term.”
Fast forward 30 years, and the definition of ‘trophy wife’ has progressed with the times.
Sociologist Elizabeth McClintock puts it bluntly: “The truth is,” she says, “people are evaluating women for their looks, and they’re evaluating men for their looks.”
McClintock, whose 2014 research of 1,507 couples was part of a study with the University of Notre Dame, concluded: “Women are as shallow as men when it comes to appearance, and they should focus on their own accomplishments. If women want an accomplished guy, that’s going to come with being accomplished.”
What does ‘accomplished’ imply?
Today, it means a woman who is a Triple Threat: smart, savvy, stylish.
Think human rights attorney Amal Clooney née Alamuddin, whose marriage to actor George Clooney propelled both their careers to a different level – she using her newfound celebrity status to raise awareness on various human right violations from WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange to Yazidi rape victims in Syria; he gaining credibility by marriage to Old Bailey’s star international human rights lawyer.
In fact, comedienne Tina Fey jibed in her 2015 Golden Globes opening monologue: “Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, an adviser to Kofi Annan on Syria and was appointed to a three-person commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza strip.”
“So, tonight, her husband is getting a lifetime achievement award.”
But if the Amal Clooney-esque life – where a woman can be educated, beautiful, financially independent, with a deep sense of self-worth and loved by her partner for it – is possible, why is it the exception rather than the norm?
The answer boils down to how women and men perceive reality.
According to a survey by Match. com, the dating website with 24.6 million members, 62% of marriage-minded men said they were not reluctant to have career women as partners, while 74% of women felt that men were intimidated by women with successful careers.
So either our men are being coy or capable women need to get a grip on their own insecurities and reverse their mindset.
As American sexologist Professor Pepper Schwartz succinctly said: “Women have an asset they perceive as a liability.”
The numbers stack up. A recent Pew Research Center analysis points to a reversal in gender roles. The trophy wife phenomena typified a time when fewer women worked or had meaningful careers – ‘marrying up’ enhanced their social and economic status. However, the last few decades have shifted the scales.
Today, 1 in 3 wives who earn above US$100,000 are married to men who earn less. Women today are more highly educated, have expanded opportunities and cultivated self-worth through their professions. They’re just marrying later than their mothers’ generation.
Young men this generation – growing up exposed to strong, capable women – have also shifted their expectations. They do not shy away from women who are their equals, both emotionally and professionally.
In fact, it has opened the door to an entirely new sort of sociological phenomenon. “Young men see these women growing up: She’s your doctor, your teacher, your professor. These models can be quite erotic,” said Schwartz.
Just as Henry Kissinger proclaimed, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”, wielding this popper is today firmly in women’s courts.
At a Ted Talks seminar, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg emphasised the importance of equality at home. “Make your partner a real partner,” she said. “Study shows that households with equal earnings and equal responsibilities also had half the divorce rate,” said Sandberg. And if that wasn’t good enough a motivation to keep an even household, studies also show that couples who are equals have more sex.
Sandberg attributes part of her success to having the right man by her side. In a Financial Times interview, she quipped, “You should marry the nerds and the good guys. The guys who want an equal relationship. Guys who want to support your career.”
And if they don’t? “You don’t want to date them anyway.”
But the new trophy wife isn’t just defined by her career. Whether high-powered careerist or high-profile housewife, it is her fearlessness and confidence that set her apart from the stereotype of predecessors.
Suzanne Johnson née Ircha, the much-younger wife to fourth-generation Johnson & Johnson scion Robert “Woody” Johnson, was already a selfmade financier who wheeled and dealed with the toughest and smartest men in equities and hedge funds. The one-time actress and daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, Suzanne opted to fully immerse herself in motherhood and didn’t fear public opinion or the narrative of a “woman who’s made it” by marrying a much older, far wealthier man.
Trading mutual funds for mitts, she’s admittedly missed the adrenaline and cerebral happenings of Wall Street but has carved her own way forward, juggling high-society state dinners (Woody was recently named US Ambassador), her role as an ambassador for a women’s apparel line while being a full-time wife and mother. She hasn’t been afraid to reign in a role that puts family first.
Today’s trophy wife is more than just arm candy. It is a union of peers. And it pays off.
Just take Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s union, the epitome of peer marriage. Rising from lower-to-middle-class backgrounds, their self-made fortunes are today worth more when combined to create music and fashion empires valued at over US$1.16 billion by Forbes. They’re not just a couple, they’re a brand. And one that people can relate to.
In January 2018, they brought daughter Blue Ivy with them to the Grammys. What did she do when her six-year-old got antsy? Whip out a juice box, snacks and munched together like a regular family.
You’ve got motherhood swag when your US$20,000 Judith Leiber mini clutch bag seamlessly transitions into a moveable pantry.
Today’s female icons aren’t so much about career, money and recognition as they are about women who are confident, defy conventions and possess a deep authenticity.
And to women everywhere, being beautiful and fulfilled – inside and out – finally seems to be paying off.
This feature first appeared in the May 2018 issue of UNRESERVED.