Trophy Wives Are Probably More Myth Than Reality

Trophy Wives Are Probably More Myth Than Reality

When a pretty woman marries a rich man, you'll always find some people offering snide comments about "trophy wives." But is the trophy wife actually a thing? New research suggests not.

In an upcoming study in the journal American Sociological Review, Elizabeth McClintock, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, examines an aspect of this kind of romantic pairing that often gets overlooked. Yes, you do sometimes see beautiful women ending up with wealthy men. But in many such cases, the man is also attractive -- and the woman is also wealthy.

McClintock's study, titled "Beauty and Status: The Illusion of Exchange in Partner Selection," addresses a common blind spot in previous examinations of the trophy wife phenomenon: Women also make money. Unlike past studies that looked at a woman's attractiveness in relation to a man's wealth, McClintock measured women's wealth and attractiveness in relation to her partner's.

Drawing on what a press release calls "a nationally representative sample" of young heterosexual couples, McClintock determined the socioeconomic status and level of attractiveness of each partner in her study. Sure enough, she found a correlation: You're likely to partner with someone equally as attractive and wealthy as you. And attractive men and women are also likely to be wealthy.

Multiple studies in the past have borne this out, showing that couples tend to match up based on similarities. Individuals with similar economic status marry one another, as do those with equal levels of attractiveness. Still, you can find plenty of research in the past 25 years that claims the existence of a "beauty-status exchange," by which attractive women literally cash in on their looks to find a rich, homely husband.

McClintock's findings -- and the gaps they reveal in prior studies -- point up the way internalized cultural understandings of gender roles can influence scientific research.

In an era when women make up 51 percent of the workforce and earn more than their male peers in many urban centers, how common is the "trophy wife?"

Maybe not very, says McClintock.

"The trophy wife stereotype is largely a myth fueled by selective observation that reinforces sexist stereotypes and trivializes women's careers," McClintock said in the press release for the study.

To be sure, there are still rich, shallow men. But there may be just as many rich, shallow women. Both wealthy men and wealthy women cozied up to better-looking people for short-term relationships, McClintock found. So instead of talking about "trophy wives" in contemporary courtship, the more gender-neutral "trophy fling" may be more accurate.

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