I’ve been mentally compiling this post for months; every time I go to Barnes & Noble I’m greeted/assaulted by yet another novel on the “New Fiction” table about someone’s wife. The wife of someone with a notable profession or occupation or designation. This is a somewhat strange trend in women’s literature that’s appeared in the last few years that, if the covers above are any indication, has gotten way, way out of hand. (I searched “wife” on B&N’s website and this wasn’t even all the results from the first few pages.) There seems to be no end to the interpretations: there’s the wife of a ringmaster, the wife of a tea planter, the wife of a tiger (um?), the wife of a traitor, the wife of a widower (wait…), even the wife of a Nazi officer. There’s the 19th wife (I haven’t read it but I’m guessing/hoping it’s about a polygamist family), the silent wife, the secret wife, and a wife who is ~unseemly~. There’s a wife in Paris and a wife in California. There’s even the absolutely confounding “My Husband’s Wife.” (Your husband’s wife IS YOU.) So many wives! So many novels about women, women ostensibly interesting enough to string a whole book around. And yet! This sub-genre of women’s lit has relegated these interesting, novel-worthy women to secondary characters in their own stories. Women, even when they are the protagonists, are only defined by their relationship to men.
Oh, the rage.
To be fair, I’ve only read “The Paris Wife,” (because of course I have) and I fell in love with McLain’s interpretation of Hemingway’s first, long-suffering wife, Hadley. Do I get why it was titled “The Paris Wife”? Sure. Could it have easily been titled something else entirely, something befitting the struggles of the main character, her resilience in the face of infidelity, her selflessness and goodness? Yes! But nah, she was married to Hemingway right when they first moved to Paris, so naturally her story became, “The Paris Wife.” She was just his wife, after all. Merely an extension of her husband. Except she wasn’t! She was strong-willed and independent and the title on the cover was so unbefitting for the character inside the pages.
I have the same reaction when I see other women’s social media profiles that start “Wife, mama,” and list a thousand other descriptions based solely on their relationship to other people before listing anything about themselves as an individual human being. I’m my own fully-formed person who isn’t defined by her husband, and I would never expect Jamal to say he’s “a husband” first when meeting new people. I have never described myself as a wife first. And that isn’t a deliberate, feminist choice, or a slight to Jamal. I speak French, I’m working on a novel, I drink an obscene amount of tea, I can pick things up with my toes, I slept with a nightlight until I was in my early 20s, I listen exclusively to classical music on the radio, and I have a membership to the Louvre. I’m a writer who happens to have a husband, I am not a wife who writes occasionally. If you boiled my existence down to my identity as Jamal’s spouse, I would become “The Senior Vice President of Solutions Architecture’s Wife,” which says absolutely nothing about me and everything about him. I think that’s what is so infuriating about all of these titles, especially because the books go on to say everything about the women. Maybe publishers don’t think people (read: men) would buy them otherwise?
I saw a tweet recently, in response to the hideous comments about glorified-sexual-assault made by one of the candidates for president, that fit this post perfectly. Lots of men came out to express how disgusted they were by the comments…not as human beings with morals, but rather as husbands and as fathers of daughters. Because if you can’t even title a novel about a women with deference to the actual woman, why wouldn’t men only think about women in relation to themselves? The tweet read: “Fun fact: in addition to being wives and daughters and mothers and sisters and grandmas and aunties, women are also people.” A novel concept (pun very much intended).