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What Makes the Trophy Wife Such a Prize

The trophy wife: She’s married to a rich, powerful man—possibly decades her senior. And at a glance, this gorgeous woman appears entirely out of her husband’s league. Her beauty adds to his status and social capital–hence the “trophy” part of the label. While the Trophy Wife is technically defined as being a positive status symbol for her partner, the identity often comes with a negative implication that she’s not his intellectual or professional equal or isn’t deserving of the success she gets to enjoy. Here’s our take on who the trophy wife really is–onscreen and off–how the qualities that make her a prize shift over time, and what her evolution says about “ideal” womanhood.

Transcript

The trophy wife. She’s married to a rich, powerful man—possibly decades her senior. And at a glance, this gorgeous woman appears entirely out of her husband’s league.

If he’s a five, she’s a 10. And if he’s a three, she’s still a 10. Her beauty adds to his status and social capital–hence the “trophy” part of the label. Thus the trophy wife is highly aware of her beauty as a contribution of value to her marriage, and she shows it off. She’s not just girl-next-door pretty—her beauty is a force all its own, constantly remarked on. She likely sees it as her job to maintain this impeccable appearance on behalf of her wealthy husband.

She’s not the ‘main character’ of the couple. When we get a window into many of these (fictional or real) couples onscreen, the husband’s the decision-maker

He handles the money, calls the shots and isn’t too hands-on with the children, if they have them. Even if she’s accomplished in her own right–talented as a singer, actress, or entrepreneur, her husband’s career is the bigger one, producing significantly more fame or income.

“We get along very well, and there’s not a lot of disagreement because, ultimately, Ivana does exactly as I tell her to do.”

- Donald Trump

So while the Trophy Wife is technically defined as being a positive status symbol for her partner, the identity often comes with a negative implication that she’s not his intellectual or professional equal or isn’t deserving of the success she gets to enjoy. She can be fighting a losing battle for respect, both outside and inside of her own home. When a young, unreasonably beautiful woman marries an older man with numerous times her net worth (and probably an ex-wife or wives in his past), she’s bound to attract both envy and judgment. But while the trophy wife overlaps somewhat with the more explicitly derogatory “gold digger” or the exclusively transactional “sugar baby,” this figure embodies a strange mix of admiration and resentment. Plenty of men aspire to have a trophy wife, and plenty of women aspire to be one

The relationship between a trophy wife and her husband can be one of mutual love and support between two people who each have a lot to offer. On the other end of the spectrum, it can be plagued by power imbalance, or even viewed as a dehumanizing form of conspicuous consumption. Some find the term itself sexist and demeaning, and to truly be a trophy wife, a woman also feels a lot of pressure to keep up her impeccable appearance, as well as a fear of being discarded if she doesn’t. Here’s our take on who the trophy wife really is–onscreen and off–how the qualities that make her a prize shift over time, and what her evolution says about “ideal” womanhood.

Chapter One – The Trophy Wife, A Moving Target

Marriage as a romantic arrangement is relatively new. Historically, it was an exchange of money, power, and land. And since it was rare for women to have independent wealth until a few generations ago, for many women marrying a rich man was just an obvious, rational goal, if they could manage it. But in modern times, while women are still implicitly encouraged to marry partners of means, if they’re perceived to be “trophy wives”–married to someone of substantially greater wealth or age–they’re often judged harshly by both men and women, assumed to be “going after the man’s wealth” and undeserving of the lifestyle it affords. Women deemed trophy wives like Anna Nicole Smith or Marla Maples have been ruthlessly scrutinized and dehumanized by the public or even their former partners. And many classic trophy wives in TV and cinema are painted broadly as shallow, lazy, amoral money grubbers. Ironically, this cartoonish portrayal suggests that the trophy wife is the one in control–that she’s somehow outwitted, manipulated or entranced her husband, and is therefore the craftier and ultimately more powerful member of the couple.

“You expect me to believe that you aren’t marrying him for his money?” “It’s true.” “Then why do you want to marry him?” “I want to marry him for your money.”

- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

In reality, though, the problem that often plagues trophy wives is that they might lack power in their relationship, due to their husbands’ superior wealth, older age and/or public profile–as we often see in both real and fleshed-out fictional examples. The trophy wife might be controlled by a partner who’s not fully sharing information, finances, or their family decision-making process with her. And she can be very aware that her situation isn’t secure. Her status as a societal prize is tied to her youthful beauty–a notoriously fleeting gift. And men who marry trophy wives are often known for having multiple marriages. But in a world of prenuptial agreements, the trophy wife herself might not have the same options for leaving an unhappy marriage without giving up a lot. The term “trophy wife” can be applied to several of the central women of Mad Men, like Jane Sterling or Betty and Megan Draper. And for the three of them, the power dynamic is always uneven, skewed in favor of the male provider who takes for granted that he can do whatever he wants with no accountability; if things go south, he knows he always has the option of fleeing into the arms of someone new

“You get everything you want and you still had to do this.”

- Mad Men

Real-life “trophy wives” have experienced this unequal power dynamic in extremes. When Mariah Carey was beginning to top the music charts in the 90s, she was married to Tommy Mottola, who she met when she was 18. He was a much wealthier Sony music exec, 21 years her senior. And Carey describes that time as feeling as if she were held ‘captive.’

“He controlled everybody around me. Everybody was scared of him. There was so much security and armed security”

- Mariah Carey

More recently, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ Erika Jayne originally seemed to embrace her trophy wife image as the spouse of rich lawyer Tom Girardi, who’s over 30 years older than her. But after Girardi began to be prosecuted for allegedly stealing millions from victims he’d represented, Erika was targeted by numerous articles and lawsuits that blamed her as responsible for her husband’s actions, even though she’s not a lawyer, didn’t work at his firm, and the cases determined so far in court have found no evidence she was involved in his wrongdoings. While it’s nearly impossible to nail down exactly what she did or didn’t know, and she’s often not a very sympathetic figure she’s a good example of a cultural trap that ensnares the trophy wife, where she can’t win and is judged from all sides. At least according to Erika, she had little power in their marriage and poor knowledge of or access to their finances.

“I was not in control of my finances. / I gave every paycheck to my husband.”

- Erika Jayne

Onscreen, Martin Scorsese has explored the doomed trophy wife figure through characters like Casino’s Ginger and The Wolf of Wall Street’s Naomi, who are both exceptionally seductive, beautiful and self-aware–and don’t really make any secret of the fact that they’re interested in money and the lifestyle it provides. Their husbands are well aware that this woman is a prize that they set out to win with their success But these characters also showcase the near impossibility of being respected or enjoying full agency as a trophy wife. Ginger’s lifestyle leads to her being addicted to drugs and alcohol and more or less abandoned by her husband. Naomi is much more together–seeming to capably balance her life as a mother with maintaining her bombshell looks–but she’s pretty sidelined and disrespected while her spouse Jordan Belfort does whatever he wants. When Jordan is eventually prosecuted for financial crimes, she reaches a breaking point and leaves him. But while in one light, this comes off as cartoonish “trophy wife” behavior (abandoning the man once it’s no longer financially wise to stay with him), it’s also more than understandable that she’s completely fed up with him. He’s unhinged and erratic not the partner or father figure a responsible mother wants to center a family around.

2013’s Blue Jasmine delves more directly into the question of the trophy wife’s culpability for her husband’s transgressions–as Manhattan socialite trophy wife, Jasmine, intentionally looks the other way when it comes to both her husband’s Bernie Madoff-like financial schemes and his dalliances with other women. This disconnect between the perfect appearance the trophy wife has to maintain, and a behind-the-scenes life that may include a less-than-ideal, often philandering husband, seems to be a common pattern for many onscreen and real trophy wives. For Jasmine, eventually the cognitive dissonance of having to constantly pretend (especially to herself) that everything in her life is actually great spurs her to sabotage her own situation and status and undergo a mental breakdown.

“Well, there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.”

- Blue Jasmine

But disempowerment is not the experience of all trophy wives. Modern Family’s Gloria Pritchett and Legally Blonde’s Brooke Taylor are both well-aware of how the outside world perceives their marriages—but they don’t care what anyone thinks. They love their husbands unapologetically for who they are, and are one-half of their marriages that are based on kindness and mutual respect.

In real life, a number of cast members on the Real Housewives series are beautiful women married to older, wealthy men, and show every indication of having equal, happy marriages.

Today even women like Salma Hayek, Amal Clooney and Carla Bruni have been called trophy wives, even though they’re incredibly accomplished, famous and successful in their own rights–arguably more so than their husbands in certain fields–and certainly don’t need their husbands’ fame or money. So if there’s not an unequal power dynamic, and what makes a trophy wife is simply that her husband is proud of showing her off, what’s inherently so bad about that?

“There’s nothing sexier than feeling supported and that the person you are with wants you to thrive.”

- Salma Hayek

Chapter Two – Is The Trophy Wife Even Real Today?

The evolution of the trophy wife reflects societal expectations of ideal womanhood. In the ‘50s, she would’ve been a domestic goddess. In the ‘80s, she would have been an all-American beauty queen. And today? She’s more likely to be educated or successful in her own right, holding down the house and kids while looking like she just stepped off the runway, but in a relatable way. Whether she’s a housewife goddess, sex pot, superwoman or therapist, truly being a worthy trophy feels about as attainable as hitting the lottery. And no woman could ever meet this bar so impeccably that she can be sure she won’t be cast aside for a newer, shinier prize.

All of which begs the question: is the trophy wife even real today, when it’s so difficult to define what makes one and who truly qualifies? The conventional trophy wife trope suggests a woman’s youth and beauty are her most valuable qualities–but in fact, most of the real and fictional trophy wives that are visible in today’s popular media seem to have a lot more to offer in their marriages, families and as individuals. Perhaps one reason people are fascinated by this trope is that most couples are of similar socioeconomic status, educational level, attractiveness, and age today people are less interested in hyper heteronormative, binary roles in relationships, and more are looking for their equals—as shown in the rise of “power couples.” We’re also seeing more examples of the Trophy Husband or Trophy Man

Outro

The trophy wife‘s evolution in the public imagination from empty-headed gold digger to the multifaceted “every” woman further proves that we’re often not really thinking of her as a person, but as a representation of what society simultaneously wants from and resents about women. She’s defined by what she means to other people—the second wife, the mooch, the prize, the scapegoat—so it’s time to start viewing this woman on her own terms, defined by her own qualities, and let her determine how she sees her story.

“I married you because you were sexy. You still are. Who knows how long that’s going to last, for either of us.”

- Modern Family