The notion of a trophy wife immediately calls to mind a certain aesthetic: big blonde hair, bouncy silicone breasts, and eyes that flash dollar signs every time a man in an expensive suit walks by. It's almost synonymous with women who lounge poolside all day in L.A.
But according to a new study by Elizabeth McClintock, an assistant professor of sociology at Notre Dame, the idea of a beautiful young woman marrying a man exclusively for his wealth – and a man trading his wealth for a nubile young thing – is a beloved American tradition that’s actually almost exclusively a myth.
“Not to say that it never, ever happens,” says McClintock, “rather, that it happens so rarely among a random sample of young adults that it’s not really a force.”
McClintock got the idea to study trophy wives when she began to suspect that previous research on the subject was flawed. About five years ago, she started looking at how a cohort of young couples paired up: how did they compare to their partners in wealth? In beauty? In social status?
What she found was this: more often than not, women and men (the study only looked at heterosexual couples) married their equals. Attractive people married other attractive people. Rich people married other rich people. And so forth. By the time equals had matched up, there were almost no outliers. And thus, the idea that unattractive, rich men were routinely snatching up beautiful, single young women began to look downright false.
“There’s entire academic research that has suggested that that’s a common mating pattern,” says McClintock. “I argue that if you correctly specify the models, you really don’t see this pattern.”
So how, then, did the concept of the trophy wife take such a strong hold in our collective consciousness? After all, the notion dates back decades, if not longer — the New York Times once claimed that the term was coined in 1989, and stories of warriors capturing beautiful women to take home and marry have been told for centuries.
McClintock and other experts believe that it’s a case of both Americans latching onto sensational headlines, and researchers who came before them not doing their due diligence.
First of all, says Benjamin Karney, a professor of social psychology at UCLA, older studies often started out biased. “Prior research looked at only the attractiveness of the woman and the wealth of the man,” he says. “It didn’t look at how rich the women were, or how attractive the guys were.”
If it had, says McClintock, it likely would have found the same thing she did – that while wealthy men had attractive wives, those men were also attractive, and the wives were equally wealthy and accomplished in most cases.
“There are cultural stereotypes on both sides,” says McClintock. “We have a tendency to look at a woman and focus on her attractiveness rather than her achievements in the workplace, and to look at a guy and focus on his status and not think too much about how good-looking he is.”
Additionally, says McClintock, earlier studies didn’t account for the fact that wealthier people tend to be better-looking anyway – they’re more likely to be able to afford things like gym memberships, dermatological care and orthodontia. “You see the positive correlation between how good-looking you are, and how rich you are,” she says.
All of this is not to say, of course, that trophy wives don’t exist at all – think Anna Nicole Smith, or, says Karney, “anyone Donald Trump has ever married.” But because those stories are so sensational, they grab headlines – and that perpetuates the stereotype.
“There are, in the world, exceptions to the rule,” says Karney. “But that doesn’t make it a trend.”
One person who knows first hand what it’s like to confront those stereotypes is Sarah Haskins, the creator of the now-cancelled ABC show Trophy Wife. Haskins wrote the show about her own experiences marrying an older man, and dealing with his multiple ex-wives, the community around them and assumptions based on her youth and his success.
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“I would technically be the trophy wife,” she says. The hardest part, she says, was combatting the ideas that her stepkids' school community had about her and her intentions – but, she adds, once they realized she was a hugely accomplished woman in her own right, and that she wasn’t in the relationship for the “lavish vacations,” they accepted her and her new marriage.
With any luck, Haskins’ experiences and McClintock’s research are telling of what’s to come – a world in which played out stereotypes of gold-digging women start to crumble. “Hopefully it will fall by the wayside,” says McClintock, “because I think [the idea of trophy wives] tends to trivialize women’s accomplishments, and it also tends to objectify them a little bit.”
Unfortunately, though, there may be some people who are reluctant to let the idea of trophy wives go. “People hold pretty strongly to the trophy wife myth,” says McClintock. “They get often very upset and distressed when I tell them it’s not very common.”
She’s not sure exactly why that is, but she does have a guess: “I don’t know, maybe I’m shattering a bunch of nerdy guys’ hopes of marrying a hot model,” she says. “That’s the best explanation I’ve come up with for the way people are passionately attached to it.”