Recently I was at a Swedish spa when I noticed an older man who was thinning a bit on top and thickening a bit around the middle. Actually, it wasn’t so much him I noticed as the fact that he was arm in arm with a stunning young woman with long blonde hair and appropriately positioned boobs. ‘What the hell does she see in him?’ was my instinctive reaction, before I immediately answered my own question by concluding that he must have money. Loads of it. Later in the day I saw them leaving the spa – and getting into the smallest car in the carpark.
Gorgeous young women who marry rich and powerful men are traditionally called trophy wives. Their most important role is to make their husband seem wealthy and virile, or – to sum it up in a single word– powerful. You’re left to read between the lines that she’s selling her body and youth in exchange for money and social protection. Probably because she’s either too lazy or too stupid to work hard and earn the same luxuries for herself. Basically she’s a spoiled cow whose only talent is for manic, credit-card-draining spending sprees and giving other men a hard-on.
But it’s not like that these days. The equal rights movement has left its mark here too: not only have trophy wives undergone a serious upgrade but they’ve started demanding trophy husbands!
Julianne Moore, Emma Watson and Michelle Obama are just three examples of women who in many ways embody the modern trophy wife. Intelligent, talented, funny and in touch with their emotions, they have strong careers of their own, and they either are or want to be fantastic, caring mothers. They’re good-looking, too, but in that indefinable way that signals class and self-respect. No longer just a pretty accessory, they’re an interesting and important sparring partner for their husband in every aspect of life. There’s so much more to them than their looks: they’ve got good heads and hearts.
Such exemplary she-creatures naturally want a husband who can match them. A traditional trophy husband is a powerful man who earns a lot of money, owns big cars and houses, with great business connections and a seat at the head of the table in the boardroom.
Mr Trophy Husband 2.0 has to look good, keep fit, have an interesting career, be a great dad and – not least – a caring partner. If he’s also good with his hands (around the house, at the stove and in bed) then that’s a definite plus.
A modern ‘trophy person’, in other words, is a well-rounded human being who is successful in all areas of life. And that sounds more than a little stressful. Yet it’s perfectly in line with contemporary notions of what constitutes the perfect life, notions that despite taking a beating in the media – and on moral grounds – are still going strong, if buried a little deeper. If you look around you, it’s not unusual to see men and women trying to have it all, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. I do it myself. It’s almost unthinkable that I wouldn’t commit to a career while also setting myself new challenges and goals, trying to be a conscientious and affectionate mother who’s closely involved in her children’s lives, doing my (limited!) best in the kitchen and going to the gym several times a week – then also taking care of my mental health, plus sinking time and energy into my relationship and paying attention to my appearance. These days we expect to be able to have it all, simply because the possibility exists. And perhaps here we could usefully tone down the whole trophy thing.
In its original sense, a trophy is an object you keep to remind yourself of a victory or a particular achievement. It might be a prize, the stuffed head of an animal or the spoils of war. Although if you start thinking about exhibiting your husband’s handsome head on your living-room wall then you may not get the applause you’re looking for from trendy lifestyle-magazine editors. Not even if it was a good copy made of harmless materials (although that could be funny). Today the spoils of victory are a strong, healthy constitution, a Zen-like mindset, a fit body and a social life with both close relationships and cherished ambitions.
A trophy was also originally an item captured in battle, which would then be dedicated to Zeus on the spot where the enemy had turned and fled. Do modern trophy husbands and wives occasionally feel like turning and fleeing from themselves, I wonder? I think so. It might explain why I’ve gone on a yoga retreat to Lesbos twice just so I can get some peace and quiet, and to practice forgetting myself and my deadlines. Although that kind of trip can very quickly seem a bit trophy-esque, since it’s all about finding inner balance and flashy, trendy yoga and blah blah blah… you see, it’s not easy! Maybe we should just give up on the trophy part and simply be true to ourselves – being loved for what we are instead of what we can deliver. Like the man at the Swedish spa with the tiny car and the (presumably) devoted wife…