Earlier this year, Glenn Close, won a Golden Globe Award for her performance in The Wife, based on Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 book, about the unequal marriage between a writer and his wife. As Joe Castleman is about to receive a prestigious international prize (Nobel in the film, a lesser Finnish award in the book), Joan, his wife of 40 years, thinks of finally leaving him. Over the years, she has put up with his arrogance and his constant infidelities, when the truth is that without her, he would not be what he is.
She hates the idea of his acknowledging her in his acceptance speech, when all through their marriage, she has played the subservient wife, who is told that she can go shopping or for beauty treatments while the man is busy with important things; the woman standing behind her husband, who humiliatingly hands her his coat when he enters a social event; she sees to it that he takes his medication on time, brushes crumbs from his beard and bristles when he cruelly says, “My wife does not write.” When, in fact, she put her own talent at his disposal.
Back in the 1950s, women writers were not taken seriously by the publishing industry controlled entirely by men. Joan is discouraged in her ambition to be a writer by an older, embittered female author, who knows how hopeless it is. She makes the choice to stay in the background as the wife of a famous writer, and takes the dubious stability of a long-lasting marriage, instead of the effort of pursuing a career for herself in a hostile environment.
“Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream up blueprints, recipes, ideas for a better world, and then sometimes lose them on the way to the crib in the middle of the night, on the way to the Stop & Shop, or the bath. They lose them on the way to greasing the path on which their husband and children will ride serenely through life,” writes Wolitzer for Joan; and later in the chapter, “Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives.
Wives tend, they hover. Their ears are twin sensitive instruments, satellites picking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaction. Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies. We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else. ‘Listen,’ we say. ‘Everything will be okay.’ And then, as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is.”
In this case, the wife has a major contribution in her husband’s success, but look around; for every woman who latches on to a rich man or celebrity for reflected privilege, there are hundreds of women who slog quietly to support their husbands, so that they can go out there and become achievers. Still, the role of homemaker and mother is disparaged. It can be argued that they made a choice, but more often than not, it was a Hobson’s choice offered to them.
If the marriage ends, nobody will consider the effort the wife put in, but she will be condemned for her inability to save the relationship. And if she gets a large financial settlement, she is perceived as the gold-digger who is bent on cleaning out her husband’s bank account. Look at how the judgmental vultures are hovering over the high-profile divorce of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie, following his affair with another woman. Never mind men, even women are bitching about how a woman can become a millionaire by divorcing a billionaire, because she gets half his fortune.
In their admiration for the world’s richest man—and an unfaithful husband—people forget that MacKenzie was not an air-headed bimbo when she married Bezos. Not only is she a spectacular looking woman, she was also a Princeton graduate, like him. They started Amazon together and worked to make it a massive success. If, after four children, she chose to be homemaker and author, she made it possible for Bezos to become a super-achiever.
If she gets half his wealth in the divorce settlement, why is it being made to sound in the nasty “Mackenzie’s Revenge” kind of headlines, as if she is the freeloading harpy just waiting to get her share of her husband’s money, and he is the generous husband who is giving it to her? The money is rightfully hers, she earned it. Fortunately for her, this scandal-mongering press cannot find anything wrong with her appearance, or she would have been painted as greedy, pathetic and vengeful because her husband left her for a younger, prettier, sexier woman.
It is almost a trend—more so in the West—for rich and powerful men to trade in their wives for younger women every few years, which is why most of them, now, make the wives sign pre-nuptial agreements, so that they don’t get half their wealth in the eventuality of a divorce. Divorce is a shattering experience, however, nobody needs to feel sorry for Jeff Bezos or envious of Mackenzie Bezos. But spare a thought for the millions of women struggling in single-parent and single-income households, or the real-life Joan Castlemans keeping their husbands on pedestals.
The accomplished Hillary Clintons and Michelle Obamas, who play the husband’s shadow, when in a better world, they could have been President. In The Wife, the King of Sweden seated next to Joan at the Nobel banquet asked her what is her occupation, and she replies, “I am the kingmaker.” An occupation many women could tick—only it does not have any cachet in the real world if the king’s rule ends.
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.