(Not a) Trophy Wife

I was never one for “advertising” through my clothes. So when it came to my engagement, I didn’t run out and buy all the t-shirts emblazoned with “bride,” “future Mrs.,” or anything like that, or buy them for my bridal party. Okay, once because it was on sale and I needed to hit a minimum for a Michael’s coupon, I bought a tank that said bride. And wore it once, on the day before my wedding. Now I see that Target has a line of tops for the engaged and bridal market. A pink “Bride” shirt (because pink is all women’s favorite color….), a gray “Mrs.” top, which I suppose I would wear, but I still like going by my first name to my peers, and, a black one with “trophy” in all caps. Oh, and these tops have been merchandised by many stores in what’s considered the “Juniors” section. Um.

I don’t want to write the problem of young teens identifying as “bride” when child marriage is a real, serious problem in the world. Or even that we’re treating it as no big deal that young women wear things to the mall and aren’t being trained to think about what they wear could signify…do they even know about the outside world? Instead, I want to join the chorus about that “trophy” shirt. A couple weeks after my wedding, it was the talk of the radio morning shows. On the first program, someone called in to say they couldn’t understand why some women were upset. To me it was quite obvious: a trophy is an object. And women are people, not objects. Even if they haven’t read Saint John Paul II’s wonderful writings on how we should not objectify people, they understand that we can’t take too casually a comparison of women to things. Dehumanizing a class of people is not good for the culture’s soul. This world and its history have seen too many examples of individuals or groups that started with small campaigns to dehumanize or use the groups of people that ballooned into full-scale evil acts against them. Now, I’m not saying a top at Target that might get phased out in six months is Step One in female suppression, but it does make me worry for society when it refuses, or worse, excuses plain examples of objectification.

The next morning, a different program, a different caller, and a different problem. A woman said that she thought the shirt was great. She was, essentially, claiming “ownership” of the word–as a wonderful wife and mother who did a lot for her family, she thought of herself as deserving a trophy. Because she used the construct of meriting the thing she was describing herself as, the male host tried to suss out the logic of what she’s saying. If she, as a trophy, is the thing that is won, then isn’t that saying her husband won her? The female host an the caller immediately jumped on him, thinking he was saying something offensive. All I could do was bang my steering wheel. No, no, no, no. They weren’t listening to him, and they certainly didn’t hear themselves. Identifying as a trophy–the lifeless, possibly plastic, object sitting on a shelf, perhaps collecting dust, perhaps sitting with a bunch of other forgotten awards in a box–is much different than earning a trophy. Do women deserve accolades for all that they are and do? Of course! Should men prize their wives, be worthy of them? Yes! But why be so proud about being a thing?

Lately it seems like everything and every word now has to be “reclaimed” or we take ownership over something. If you look at the history of trophy wife, it’s not something I or any woman should be proud to call ourselves–or to associate with our dear, sweet husbands. But why the need to take over the meanings of words? Or the need to “advertise”?  Perhaps it is because despite all the progress we’ve made in social, political, and financial equality for women, derogatory words and phrases are still around, and our protests have been ineffectual and women still feel that they are repressed, suppressed, or oppressed. That if we control the word then we can’t possibly be its victim. If women wore this shirt deliberately to provoke discussion on ingrained and cultural sexism, to demand that our social language and policies no longer denigrate the female sex because we’re successfully taking it over, I might be on board. But that’s not what’s going on. Instead, it’s meant for teens and other young women to think it’s funny (ignorant of the history and meaning) to the mall or the gym or the grocery store devoid of any context. Not only are we not thinking, we’re being told not to think to much about it, to not make a big deal. Now that is repression.

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