The term “trophy wife” pertains to a stereotype that attractive women marry rich men, with little regard for physical appearance, and that men look for pretty wives but don’t care about their education or earnings.
It is a stereotype often applied to spouses of professional athletes and politicians.
New research, however, shows the trophy wife stereotype is largely a myth fueled by selective observation that reinforces sexist stereotypes and trivializes women’s careers.
In a study forthcoming in the journal American Sociological Review, University of Notre Dame sociologist Dr. Elizabeth McClintock attempts to explain the way partner selections actually occur.
For the study, McClintock interviewed a nationally representative sample of young couples in which both partners were rated for physical attractiveness. She discovered that couples match on both physical attractiveness and socioeconomic status.
She says prior research in this area has ignored two important factors.
“I find that handsome men partner with pretty women and successful men partner with successful women,” said McClintock, who specializes in inequality within romantic partnerships. “So, on average, high-status men do have better-looking wives, but this is because they themselves are considered better looking — perhaps because they are less likely to be overweight and more likely to afford braces, nice clothes, and trips to the dermatologist, etc.
“Secondly, the strongest force by far in partner selection is similarity — in education, race, religion, and physical attractiveness.”
McClintock’s research shows that there is not, in fact, a general tendency for women to trade beauty for money. That is not to say trophy wife marriages never happen, just that they are very rare.
“Donald Trump and his third wife Melania Knauss-Trump may very well exemplify the trophy wife stereotype,” McClintock says.
“But, there are many examples of rich men who partner with successful women rather than ‘buying’ a supermodel wife.
“The two men who founded Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both married highly accomplished women — one has a Ph.D. and the other is a wealthy entrepreneur.”
McClintock says the trophy wife stereotype is most often wrongly applied among non-celebrities.
“I’ve heard doctors’ wives referred to as trophy wives by observers who only notice her looks and his status and fail to realize that he is good-looking too and that she is also a successful professional — or was before she had kids and left her job,” McClintock says.
McClintock’s research also indicates that, contrary to the trophy wife stereotype, social class barriers in the marriage market are relatively impermeable.
Beautiful women are unlikely to leverage their looks to secure upward mobility by marriage.
Source: University of Notre Dame