Trophy Wives May Not Really Be a Thing

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 27: Donald Trump and wife Melania Knauss arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party at Mortons on February 27, 2005 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Trophy wives are a constant source of media and pop-culture fixation, and for understandable reasons: One, they tend to be beautiful, and two, they tend to be hitched to powerful, prominent men. Underlying the concept, of course, is a particularly old-fashioned notion of gender, of who seeks what in a relationship — but one which has been supported by certain empirical literature on relationship and marriage patterns. An important new study argues that this idea, and the research backing it, may be a myth that can be explained by biased misinterpretations of who is pairing with whom, and why.

The paper, written by Elizabeth Aura McClintock of Notre Dame and published in American Sociological Review, examined a big data set of heterosexual young-adult couples to better figure out how people choose a mate. McClintock discusses two mechanisms at work that potentially help explain the pairing process: matching and exchange. Matching is the notion that people “select a partner with similar characteristics” to themselves when it comes to education, attractiveness, and other characteristics. Exchange, on the other hand, is the idea of someone trading beauty or status to land a partner who has what they lack. The classic example of this is the trophy wife marrying a rich guy — she has beauty but lacks dough, while he has money but ain’t much to look at, so each partner is trading something for something.

McClintock’s argument is that past evidence for so-called “beauty-status exchange” — focusing, naturally, on attractive women settling down with rich men — is built on a misreading of the data. To make a long and somewhat wonky story short, socioeconomic status and beauty are correlated — richer people are more likely to be attractive, and vice-versa (this may be because attractive people are treated better and have an easier time gaining status, because rich people are healthier and can afford better beauty and grooming products, or some combination of these and other factors). This leads to problems when you realize that several of the past studies upon which the idea of beauty-status exchange is built only examined the women’s attractiveness and the men’s status. They ignored how the men looked and the education and/or the status levels of the women.

So let’s say you’re a researcher conducting one of these studies, and you notice that lots of high-status men marry beautiful women. Bam — beauty-status exchange. Only, slow down: What if these results can mostly be explained by matching rather than exchange? If people with high levels of status or beauty simply seek out similarly blessed people, that could explain why high-status men (who are more likely to be attractive) often end up with attractive women (who are more likely to be high status). Like is seeking like: It isn’t necessarily the case that much trading is going on. Without data on male attractiveness or female status, you’d miss these potential dynamics entirely, and instead chalk the patterns in the data up to a trophy-wife mechanism.

That’s the case McClintock makes, writing that her study is the first of its size and scope to look at both partners’ attractiveness and status. Sure enough, she finds scant evidence for beauty-status exchange — and what little evidence she does find is gender-symmetric, meaning men are just as likely to trade their beauty for a woman’s status as vice-versa, and seems restricted to shorter-term relationships.

It’s easy to find oneself flailing about in this methodological morass, but it’s worth understanding what’s going on here. McClintock’s study touches on some extremely important, fundamental questions about how we deal with gender in the social sciences, about how we potentially let our biases creep into the scientific (or “scientific”) method and therefore become legitimatized. No one study can conclusively disprove the idea of beauty-status exchange, but this one certainly puts a sizable dent in it, and it offers a rather compelling-seeming reason as to how so many researchers could have come to believe this idea in the first place. 

As McClintock puts it:

This article … demonstrates how the expectations researchers bring to a topic may bias their findings. Assuming that the importance of beauty and status is gendered may cause researchers to overlook men’s attractiveness and women’s socioeconomic resources and thus to misidentify matching as exchange.

Eli Finkel, a psychologist at Northwestern who studies relationships but who wasn’t involved in this study, expanded on this point in an email. “Scientists are humans, too, and we can be inadvertently blinded by their beliefs about how the world works,” he said. “The studies that only looked at men’s (but not women’s) income and only looked at women’s (but not men’s) attractiveness were problematic in that way, as was the peer review process that allowed flawed papers like that to be published. Fortunately, cases like that are the exception rather than the rule, and science tends to do a good job of ferretting them out. That’s what McClintock has done here.”