For all of modern feminism's advances, you'd think a term as blatantly sexist as "trophy wife" would be on its way out of the lexicon. Unfortunately, though, the term is still widely used both ironically and sincerely, as evidenced by a recent Target scandal.
The retailer came under fire this week for selling a women's T-shirt with the word "TROPHY" on its front. Many customers were offended that Target would sell a shirt with such a sexist and outdated term, prompting social media chatter and a Change.org petition that garnered over 14,000 signatures campaigning to have the offending shirt removed from shelves.
In a statement to USA Today, Target defended the T-shirt. A representative of the store said the shirt was part of an engagement-themed collection, with other garments bearing the words "Mrs." or "Bride." The shirts, the statement said, were intended as a "fun wink."
A fun wink to what, though? Target might not be aiming to outright denigrate and objectify women, but there's the argument to be made that using a sexist term, even in jest, keeps that term — and the messages behind it — around. The implication that women are, or should aspire to be, a status symbol for a man isn't exactly "fun."
Taking away women's agency: While one would assume the term "trophy wife" would've died out in the last century, the term is still widely used in pop culture. As recently as 2014, ABC aired Trophy Wife, a show about a beautiful, young, blonde woman married to a middle-aged lawyer.
While the show was actually a clever subversion of the trophy wife stereotype, the modern meaning of the term was assumed: a young, beautiful woman who marries a rich, powerful man, while her own individual successes are ignored. Best-selling author and Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi has been described as a "trophy wife," as has businesswoman and Yale master's degree-holder Wendi Deng Murdoch. Even Amal Alamuddin, an accomplished human rights lawyer, was labeled a "trophy wife" (albeit a new, improved version of one) before she married George Clooney.
One look at the Twitter hashtag #TrophyWife offers plenty of evidence that the term is still popular as ever. On Twitter, there are dozens of men gushing about their beautiful, devoted "trophy wives."
Although such tweets are intended as compliments, comparing a sentient human being to a hunk of metal is problematic to many. To call someone a trophy wife is to imply that she's been passively "won" or "collected," which takes away a woman's agency by suggesting she had no choice in the matter.
It also also diminishes her value, reducing her defining characteristic to one that's not about her at all, but rather someone else.
Objectification is no joke: Not everyone sees the term as so problematic. For every man sincerely using the term "trophy wife," there seems to be a woman jokingly using it as a way to praise a friend for cooking dinner or doing the dishes, or using the term self-deprecatingly to describe her own domestic shortcomings. On Instagram, #trophywifeintraining illustrates how the term is often used in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, while simultaneously perpetuating the domestic goddess stereotype:
Many of these women might see this as a way to "take back" the term from men who use it to objectify them. But the ironic re-appropriation of the term doesn't always work, often inadvertently perpetuating a stereotype that some men still sincerely believe. In this way, the debate over the term "trophy wife" is similar to that over the usage of the term "slut" or "whore": If you use the term yourself, regardless of whether it's ironic or sincere, why should a man see a problem with using it as well?
Women are more than their marital status: Love, marriage, motherhood — they're all beautiful things worth celebrating. There's nothing wrong with aspiring to be an amazing, thoughtful and caring wife or mother. But when we aspire to be little more than a prize, we're inadvertently harming ourselves and other women in the process.
Not all women who use the term "trophy wife" are aspiring to self-objectify, as some women on Instagram have pointed out in the wake of the Target controversy.
But whether women embrace the term in an empowered way or not, it doesn't change the meaning behind it. After all, even though feminist activists have attempted to reclaim the word "slut," that hasn't stopped men from continuing to slut-shame women. The more the term "trophy wife" sticks around, the more the pernicious idea does: Women are objects, to be collected and consumed by men, for their pleasure.
There's not much fun or winky about that.