Trophy wives and the Napoleon complex: The perils of selective stereotyping explained

The age-old trope of trophy wives and their doddering old (and insanely rich) husbands may be prominent in movies and television shows, but have you ever actually met one?

Passing judgment on the odd-couple pairing of an attractive, young woman and a rich old man isn’t just outdated, it’s harmful to gender progress, according to research.

The trophy wife stereotype

The trophy wife stereotype dates back centuries. The connotation is that attractive women marry rich men for power and wealth. These men, in turn, benefit from the relationship because their wives are essentially status symbols “bought” to boost their public image.

“The ill-matched couple”: a 1550 AD painting by Lucas Cranach illustrates just how pervasive this stereotype has been over the centuries.

In 2014, University of Notre Dame Sociologist Elizabeth McClintock, explained that the trophy wife stereotype is largely a myth fueled by selective observation that reinforces sexist views and trivializes women’s careers.

Her research revealed that couples primarily match on both physical attractiveness and socioeconomic status. The more modern term, ‘power couple’ recognizes a union of two people who are each influential or successful in their own right. But the term ‘trophy wife’ or ‘sugar daddy’ both reduce gender roles and downgrades coupling as a transactional relationship.

On average, high-status men do have better-looking wives, says McClintock, but this is because they themselves are considered attractive, she suggests. More importantly, the strongest factor in partner selection is common ground in education, culture, and interests, rather than just physical attractiveness.

Confirmation bias: seeing what you want to see

The trophy wife stereotype assumes that the women in these relationships are one-dimensional, and are happy to trade in their looks for money. According to McClintock, there’s no real merit in the stereotype. Marriages of convenience do happen, but they’re not as common as we’ve grown to think. This is where selective stereotyping comes into play.

“Donald Trump and his third wife Melania Knauss-Trump may very well exemplify the trophy wife stereotype. But, there are many examples of rich men who partner with successful women rather than ‘buying’ a supermodel wife,” she adds.

People also tend to ignore the accomplishments and strengths of these women. For example, Melania Trump was an acclaimed supermodel, celebrity, and socially influential personality long before her marriage.

McClintock explains that this selective stereotyping can hamper the chances of female empowerment. For example, when people know that a man in a relationship is well-to-do or accomplished, they are more likely to notice his partner’s looks than her other strengths. This is a form of confirmation bias, where observers have a stereotype in mind and look for cues that back their beliefs up.

The Napoleon complex harms men

“Napoleon complex” is a theorized condition that suggests that men who are short in stature are overly-aggressive or domineering. The implication is that this behavior is how short men compensate for their lack of height.

A study by the University of Central Lancashire in the UK found taller men were more likely to lose their temper if anything.

Dr. Mike Eslea, who led the research, explains that this too boils down to confirmation bias. “The results were consistent with the view that Small Man Syndrome is a myth. When people see a short man being aggressive, they are likely to think it is due to his size simply because that attribute is obvious and grabs their attention.”

As long as these myths linger in public consciousness, men and women who look a certain way are at risk of being singled out and underestimated, which can set gender progress back.