Just “The Wife”

The Wives

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).

22 thoughts on “Just “The Wife”

  1. This is great, you should submit this as a freelance piece to a newspaper or website. Maybe The New York Times or The Guardian.

    1. Oh, wow, thank you, L! I don’t know about the NY Times or anything that impressive, but that’s so incredibly kind of you to suggest! xo

  2. Amen, sister friend. This drives me nuts and I’ve often wondered the same thing: is that REALLY the best title for that book? I loved The Paris Wife but the title irked me. My husband couldn’t understand why I was annoyed by all the “as a father/husband/son” qualifier’s from GOP members recently until I explained to him that those qualifiers STILL deny the woman her basic humanity. You shouldn’t be offended because you have a mother/daughter/wife; you should be offended bc the comments were offensive to any human being! And ditto on the social media bios – I get especially annoyed when the handle is something like “@charliesmommy” or “@johnswife”. Own your Self, ladies!

    1. It’s so frustrating to see other women (fully formed, individual HUMANS) refer to themselves as someone else’s wife. Like, it’s bad enough publishers and lawmakers and you know, SOCIETY does that, but for women to do it to themselves? Oh, the blinding rage. It’s so disheartening! Good on you for explaining to your husband precisely why it’s so bothersome. I think most people don’t even realize it! I want to turn “Own your Self” into a hashtag, a movement. xoxo

  3. THANK YOU! This literary trend has long been an irritation of mine– you put it into words much more eloquently than I could have.

    1. Thank you, Emily!! That’s so nice of you to say. I wish there were more posts like this, or that I’d written it (or articulated it) sooner! xo

  4. I’ve been wondering if i should update my instagram description with “daughter, sister, ex-girlfriend, tax-payer” but i’m not sure anyone would get my slightly enraged point…

    Yes Erin, YES!

    1. Hahah, oh I would get it! I would laugh out loud if I saw “tax-payer” in anyone’s bio. Amazing! xo

  5. Yes, you are a writer and a brilliant one at that! Like L above said, you should submit this.

    What annoys me above all the other things you’ve already summoned up so brilliantly is that women seem to use this title “wife” as some kind of achievement. They wear it like badge. Look, I’ve made it! I’m married and I’m not some desperately lonely spinster.

    1. Oh, Tanja, thank you so much! That’s incredibly kind of you to say. And I couldn’t agree with you more. The phrase “wifed up” makes me see red. Billions of people get married. This is not an achievement. I wish our society stopped peddling “wifedom” as some end all be all for women! I love my husband, but I am going to feel far more personally satisfied when I finish my novel! xo

  6. I do think you should submit this somewhere – I think it’s one of my favorite posts ever on your blog, and I’ve been reading a while now!

    I’m not even married, and it’s interesting to me how many people (men and women both!) first ask questions related to my boyfriend or relationship first, before showing interest in me as an individual. I’d imagine that only increases after getting married too.

    1. Allyson! That’s amazing, thank you so much. You’ve been a reader for a really long time, so that is saying something! Merci merci merciiii.

      Oh, you’re right, the questions about the other person in your life only increase after you’re married, but they’re filled with the extra added pleasure of questions about when you’re going to procreate. Because, after all, women are only vessels for babies and haven’t fulfilled their purpose in life unless they get pregnant! :eye roll: xo

  7. Strongly agree with L.

    But, isn’t it so often that the editor is the one behind this choice of words?

    So what do you do when the editor tells you that a better choice of titles is the wife…….

    She says. “You will sell more books, make more money.
    Life can be cruel.

    1. It’s a hard question, Ted. I don’t know what I would do if I invested so much time and effort into a story about a woman, only to have an editor or publishing honcho tell me it had to have the word “Wife” in the title. I’d like to think I’d walk away from the deal and the money, but I don’t know. Thankfully, I’ve avoided that scenario by not making my novel about anyone’s wife! Ha! xo

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