Celebrity examples of “trophy wives” abound—pretty women married to wealthier, less attractive, often older men. In fact, as the popular television series “Trophy Wife” evidences, the idea of a pretty woman leveraging her looks to score a rich man is nearly a cultural obsession. Even academics have propagated the stereotype that pretty women “marry up” by partnering with financially successful men. But is the trophy wife trade-off truly common in marriage? In a new article published in the American Sociological Review, University of Notre Dame sociologist Elizabeth Aura McClintock argues that the trophy wife stereotype is largely a myth propagated by cultural blindness to men’s attractiveness and women’s achievements. At least in the recent cohort of couples that she examines, there is little evidence of women trading beauty for men’s education, income, or occupational status. Instead, spouses match on both attractiveness and status—pretty women marry handsome men and successful men marry successful women. However, because socioeconomically-advantaged individuals are rated as more physically attractive on average, couple matching on beauty and status might be easily misidentified as exchange. For example, a pretty woman married to a high-earning man might be interpreted as a trophy wife to an observer who notices only male status and female beauty—but if the woman is a high-earner and her husband is handsome then the couple is actually matched on both traits. By assuming a stereotypically-gendered importance of beauty and status researchers and laypersons alike erroneously confirm their preconceived expectations and further perpetuate the trophy wife myth.
Scholars have long been interested in exchange and matching (assortative mating) in romantic partner selection. But many analyses of exchange, particularly those that examine beauty and socioeconomic status, fail to control for partners’ tendency to match each other on these same traits. Because traits that are desirable in mates are positively correlated between partners and within individuals, ignoring matching may exaggerate evidence of exchange. Moreover, many prior analyses have assumed a gendered exchange in which women trade beauty for men’s status without testing whether men might use handsomeness to attract higher-status women. Prior analyses have also not fully investigated how the prevalence of beauty-status exchange varies between different types of couple. I use data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health Romantic Pair Sample, a large (N = 1,507), nationally representative probability sample of dating, cohabiting and married couples, to investigate how often romantic partners exchange physical attractiveness and socioeconomic status, net of matching on these same traits. I find that controlling for matching eliminates nearly all evidence of beauty-status exchange. The discussion focuses on the contexts in which beauty-status exchange is most likely and on implications that these results have for market-based and sociobiological theories of partner selection.