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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

trophy wife

(1990’s | businese | “the woman he left his wife for,” “second wife,” “young wife,” “gold-digger”)

Like “glass ceiling,” “trophy wife” seems to have been born at a stroke, of a magazine. Fortune magazine, August 28, 1989, it was, in an article by Julie Connelly titled, “The CEO’s Second Wife.” It contained the sentence, “Powerful men are beginning to demand trophy wives.” Actually, the New York Times quoted that very sentence in its August 14 issue, which is the first hit in LexisNexis. Wikipedia would have you believe that earlier instances may be found, but the evidence is exceedingly thin; the OED also gives the Fortune article as the first cite. Who are you going to believe, Wikipedia or the OED? (Connelly thought she invented the term, for what that’s worth, reporting that “I thought of the real-estate term ‘trophy building’ for a premiere place like the Plaza Hotel in New York, and I formed trophy wife based on that term.”)

Connelly’s description: “a decade or two younger than her husband, sometimes several inches taller, beautiful, and very often accomplished. The second wife certifies her husband’s status and, if possible given the material she has to work with, dispels the notion that men peak sexually at age 18. This trophy does not hang on the wall like a moose head — she works.” Five years later, William Safire first noticed the dichotomy that has never ceased to dog this term: “Trophy wife” had already declined from “successful, young, and hot” to “young and hot.” But a few weeks later, the Evening Standard (London) ran a news story on the remarkable fact that many older big shots in the U.S. were marrying young, beautiful, high-powered women. The trend was thought to portend the end of the trophy wife, but that’s exactly what “trophy wife” had denoted only a few years earlier, when it could be a term of respect. In those five years it had changed connotation completely to imply that the woman is of interest only as a sex object. To this day, commentators have continued to express befuddlement at the idea that many trophy wives are educated, accomplished, and powerful in their own right. A few examples: In 2004, Psychology Today ran an article on the “new” trophy wives, who were educated and successful. ABC News reported in 2007 that Jeri Kehn Thompson (married to Senator Fred Thompson) had a career of her own, proving that she should not be considered a trophy wife. And just last year, the trusty New York Post on the “new trophy wives” (yep, they have brains and class). We remain oblivious to the fact that we’re using it to mean what it meant to begin with.

So it’s not just that “trophy wife” has a double meaning; lots of expressions do. But such persistent lack of awareness is unusual. With most two-faced expressions, one meaning doesn’t get submerged and bob up periodically; both meanings are consistently available. Why should the court of common usage so swiftly and irrevocably make the connotation primarily pejorative, anyway? Contempt for the more fortunate, or the predictable result of a swarm of paunchy, insecure titans of industry flocking around vacuous blondes with implants rather than the beauty-brains-determination combo? Call it the Anna Nicole Smith effect, even though it predates her. Semantically, it’s a mutation.

When you try to dig down to the essential characteristics of the trophy wife, you keep stubbing your toe on the submerged ambiguity. A few traits seem incontrovertible: They are always younger, always physically attractive. At one time it was assumed that a trophy wife would at least be a social asset, even if she was not a successful executive. It’s not clear that that’s a necessary condition any more. Does a trophy wife have to be educated? cultured? in awe of her husband? part social secretary? Must she work out a lot, or spend all her time in spas and salons? Is the trophy wife necessarily a second (or later) wife? Is she necessarily a symbol of her husband’s sexual prowess? Is she necessarily defined in terms of her husband? To what extent is she understood to be her husband’s property, like a stag’s head on the wall?

It is instructive to compare “trophy wife” with “gold-digger.” Both terms denote women who marry men (especially older men) for their money. But a gold-digger takes the initiative; she goes out and snares her prey. The trophy wife responds to an invitation. She may take the active role in the relationship, but her social status — how she is defined by everyone else — is far different. “Trophy wife” is generally seen as an insult, but it is not as insulting as “gold-digger.” We find it easier to accept a woman who is greedy but waits to be asked than one who is greedy and goes and does something about it. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Just one more double standard unfurled in the war between the sexes.

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