The stereotypical “trophy wife” is less common than supposed, according to a new study reported by social science researcher Elizabeth A. McClintock: “Beauty and Status: The Illusion of Exchange in Partner Selection?”, American Sociological Review, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/0003122414536391
The “trophy wife” label generally refers to a beautiful but possibly not too bright wife of a powerful or wealthy husband, with the presumption she is a “trophy” of his high status selected for her looks, and in some sense trading her looks for access to the easy life offered by marrying a high-status man.
In the study (which is pay-to-view but was reported in Science Daily) young couples were interviewed separately and rated for physical attractiveness. Good-looking men tended to be with good-looking women, and highly-accomplished men tended to mate with high-accomplishment women.
“I find that handsome men partner with pretty women and successful men partner with successful women,” says 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 PhD 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.
Thus the stereotype would appear to be a kind of selection or detection bias: you notice the beautiful wife, assume that characteristic is why her husband selected her, but fail to notice that she is a high-status or accomplished person on her own, and that her husband is also good-looking. This is similar to the common stereotype that Prius drivers tend to drive too slowly in the left lane of freeways, based on the easy identification of a Prius and the tendency to only notice the Prius drivers that are slow.
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