Blond and Beautiful? What Really Makes a 'Trophy Wife'

Jeri Kehn Thompson may be the latest woman to be branded a "trophy wife."


July 13, 2007 — -- "Stripper." "Bimbo." "Permanently tan."

These are just a few of the adjectives used in the media lately to describe Jeri Kehn Thompson.

She's the wife of likely Republican presidential candidate and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, and one of the latest women to have characteristics associated with "trophy wives."

Thompson joins the ranks of other notable women who have been referred to as trophy wives, like Donald Trump's ex-wife Marla Maples and the late Anna Nicole Smith.

But is she really a trophy wife? Though she's blond, beautiful and nearly 25 years younger than her husband, Kehn Thompson, a political media consultant who previously worked for the Senate Republican Conference and a prestigious Washington law firm, doesn't appear to fit the typical description.

Can a woman be so accomplished on her own and still be considered her husband's "trophy"? set out to figure out exactly what makes an ordinary wife into a trophy wife.

Some say it's youth and good looks, others argue smarts and success, and still others believe the formula for the ultimate trophy wife is a cocktail of beauty and intelligence.

Many believe the term is highly sexist and demeaning toward women, but others are certain some women would do just about anything to be crowned a trophy wife.

A 1989 article in Fortune magazine may have introduced the phrase, describing a trophy wife as a woman who is a "decade or two younger than her husband, sometimes several inches taller, beautiful, and very often accomplished."

A man who marries for the second and third time, the article explained, was likely looking for a partner who was a lot like his first wife -- just younger, more beautiful and successful enough to have her own career (but not so much so that she steals the spotlight).

But the meaning of the phrase has changed, some experts say, with more and more emphasis being placed on the success of the woman.

"The idea of the trophy wife has progressed so that men want a woman who has some social equality, and it's not a dominant-submissive relationship," said Anne Kingston, author of "The Meaning of Wife." "Increasingly, it's not simply the decoration that a truly accomplished man wants, but an equal."

But stereotypes still abound, and the superficial connotation associated with trophy wives is hard to avoid.

"When we talk about a trophy, it doesn't matter how successful a woman is. It comes down to the decorative aspect and the idea that she's a babe," said Kingston.

"The general conception of a trophy wife is that she knows how to wear expensive clothes, is good looking and can make chitchat at cocktail parties," said Raoul Felder, a celebrity divorce lawyer who has worked with so-called trophy wives. "A trophy by definition just hangs out there."

To some, the fact that there is no prevalent trophy husband stereotype for men makes the trophy wife label seem that much more unfair to women. And some consider it offensive that the term implies that the wife is an object who is bought, or won by a husband.

"The individual sees the wife as a highly desirable object to obtain, roughly equivalent to one's vacation house, one's expensive car and one's status possessions," said Michael Cunningham, a psychologist who specializes in physical attractiveness. "So to be labeled as a desirable object by definition means one has value. But one is not being complimented for one's passion or intelligence."

In fact, Kehn Thompson, who formerly worked as a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, has quite an impressive resume. She could not be reached for comment regarding her description as a trophy wife.

"People may not like Mrs. Thompson for whatever reasons, but she's an accomplished woman, and to call her a trophy wife is really sexist," said Paul Costello, former press secretary for Kitty Dukakis. "And it's really demeaning. No one would use those terms to a guy who was good looking and stylish. I find it really sexist."

Claims of sexism may abound, but at the end of the day, many women would be flattered to be considered a trophy wife, and those who are not may actually aspire to become one, according to Dr. Debbie Then, a social psychologist who specializes in women and appearance.

"Any woman who is deemed a trophy wife has sort of a feather in her cap, it's a compliment," said Then. "I think most of the women think it's flattering on some level. Because no matter what a woman does in her life, when the chips are down, women are all evaluated based on their appearance."

But there may be such a thing as being too beautiful, she said, and many women feel slighted when their beauty is the only thing people notice.

"There can be that double-edged sword that she can be too good looking for her own good," said Then. "It can take away from her other qualities, and people might see her as less professional."

Even if some women are pleased about the trophy wife label, men are likely even happier. Having an attractive wife, some say, cannot only make the husband feel more powerful, but may even make him appear more attractive to others.

"The concept of trophy wives is more focused on the man than the woman in the sense that he has gotten a trophy," said Dr. Lucia Gilbert, a professor at the department of educational psychology and the director of women's studies at the University of Texas-Austin. "He has been able to snag, in a sense, a spouse or a wife that other men are envious of.

And there's the radiated beauty effect, which proves that men who have attractive spouses are considered more popular, more attractive and more successful by other people, regardless of their own looks.

"An unattractive man or a reasonably attractive man will be elevated in the eyes of those around him if he's with an attractive woman," said Then. "And if she's a young beauty queen, even better. People think he must be fabulous to have attracted her."

Whether Kehn Thompson really is a trophy wife may ultimately be up to her to decide. Depending on her perspective on the label, she may deem the trophy wife branding as an insult or a compliment.

Until she says otherwise, it's probably safe to assume that for now Kehn Thompson is OK with dropping the "trophy" moniker and just being a regular wife.

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