I’ve always felt really guilty about how much I enjoy watching any reality TV show about wives. I mean, there are so many! There’s The Starter Wife, The Good Wife, The Farmer Wants a Wife, The Real Housewives, Hockey Wives, Sister Wives, Extreme Cougar Wives, Baseball Wives, Trophy Wife, Desperate Housewives, My Five Wives, Celebrity Wife Swap, Mob Wives, and American Housewife, just to name a few.
But while I keep seeing more and more wife-related TV, I also keep reading that more and more women are putting off actually becoming wives. In 2009, the percentage of women marrying in America dropped below 50% for the first time ever. According to the 2010 census, only 20% of American households consisted of a married heterosexual couple with children. Why is the traditional marriage sidelined yet still so prominent in popular culture?
According to Dr. Suzanne Leonard, Associate Professor of English at Simmons College and author of the brilliant new book, Wife, Inc.: The Business of Marriage in the Twenty-First Century, the only way popular culture has to understand a woman’s life is by calling her a wife. “Any story that we want to tell about women’s lives, in some strange way we have to tell it as a story about a wife, even if it’s a story about something completely different.”
Part of the reason for this is historical. "Throughout history, women have always needed to negotiate their relationship through men. Part of that was socioeconomic." For example, women couldn't even get a credit card without a man's sponsorship until 1974. That means many of our moms couldn't get a credit card without her father or husband's approval. "So the wife is our biggest icon of how we talk about women’s lives. It's so problematic but calling them wives allows us to tell women’s stories.”
And let's admit it, most of these shows aren't about being a wife, they are just about women. After all, many don't even feature actual wives. Can you name a Real Housewife of New York who's actually married? No. But that's what's interesting about this cultural phenomena. Dr. Leonard explains that "Marriage is increasingly becoming a sign of wealth. Wealthy people marry in good numbers. Poor people are marrying in fewer. That is what's exacerbating wealth inequality. This consolidation of wealth from two wealthy people. The best thing a woman can do for her financial future is get married and stay married, but they have to be a viable economic partner.” And those are hard to find. But you know what's not? A show about wives.
Check out my full conversation with Dr. Leonard in the video above. For more conversations with thought provoking women, check out Strong Opinions Loosely Held.