I learned about the Freudian model of the “Madonna-whore dichotomy” around the same time I first heard the term “wifey.” I was in college, and some chiseled frat bro used it to describe his ideal future bride. Suddenly I understood how quickly men place every woman into one of two categories: the virginal “Madonna” (“wifey”), or the filthy “whore” who’s not suitable for marriage.
I knew right then, I was not a wifey. Which left, well, just one other option.
That was 20 years ago. Since then, the definition of what it means to be a wife has changed. Same-sex marriage is legal across the country, giving us more examples of what being a spouse looks like. At the same time, marriage rates have dropped, so more women can see futures for themselves where being a wife isn’t their only option. Yet, the slut-or-wife stereotype remains.
As marriage has become both more accessible and less compulsory, why does this insult still hang around? And why does it infuriate so acutely?
For me, it’s the reduction of my complex identity to a label that has the condescending, infantilizing singsong tenor with which you might speak to a child. Wifey. Baby. Honey. Sweetie.
Throughout pop culture, there are many ways women are described as “wifeys.” Most significant, it is used to evaluate a woman’s narrow potential as a spouse. For example, in the Lifetime television series “UnReal," wifey is basically sexist, racist code for an upstanding young woman who looks the part, as opposed to an “old sad” who is somehow unworthy of being “wifed up.” In communities on Facebook, there are women who actively embrace and reclaim the status, with groups such as “Retro Wifey” and “Wifey University.”
Of course, wifey is just the tip of the linguistic iceberg in how we rate women’s supposed qualification for marriage. In my own life, I internalized the idea that I wasn’t cut out to be a spouse because of how men treated me (and how I let them treat me), as the wild party girl who wasn’t looking for commitment. I even called my recent memoir “Unwifeable." When the New York Post published a first-person essay about the book, the eye-popping headline read: “My epic bender of drugs, booze and sex led to a happy marriage.” I couldn’t help but laugh at the brutal juxtaposition of facts. Who could believe that such a train wreck like me could “land a man”?
Hopefully, unwifeable-to-wifey trajectories like my own demonstrate just how wrongly predictive such confining stereotypes can be — and how easily they unravel. One thing that’s different from when I was first slapped with the label is that today’s women are finally publicly calling foul on the term.
Perhaps this will be buoyed by the legions of supposedly “unwifeable” women who do end up married, shattering the myth that whatever society told them about their sexually uninhibited behavior in the past was not such a dealbreaker after all.
When Kim Kardashian West was Kim Kardashian, she was also called unwifeable, for appearing in a sex tape. The label followed her for years, yet she and her husband, Kanye West, have three kids and often appear the picture of domesticity. Raunchy comic Amy Schumer got married recently, despite her violating what is often the No. 1 rule on the list for any future wifey: She slept with her now-husband on their first date. Even Snooki, once named “one of the 10 most unwifeable celebrities,” punctured rumors that appearing on MTV’s “Jersey Shore: Family Vacation” posed a threat to her marriage. Instead, she confessed to “mom guilt” for being away from her two kids.
Today’s feminists are not afraid to call out wifey double standards. When singer J Balvin shamed Rihanna by saying she “isn’t a good woman to marry, just fool around,” social media dragged him — hard. He later apologized. When tabloids condemned Prince Harry’s future bride Meghan Markle as not “wife material,” many spoke out in her defense, saying that he’s the one marrying up, not her. Even Ciara felt the wrath of wifeability clapback when she shared a clip of Pastor John Gray preaching that “too many women want to be married but you’re walking in the spirit of ‘girlfriend.’ ” Her followers were not pleased.
Nowadays, even science has disproved Sigmund Freud’s Madonna-whore complex. A study published this year found that men who believe such dichotomies — that a woman is either good and chaste or promiscuous and bad — have less successful relationships.
Still, even as our culture shifts, broad markers and divisions remain. We frequently lean on pejorative labels so we can better box people in. For women, identities are key to their portrayal on TV. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, one of the creators of “UnReal,” recently revealed a slew of slurs employed by producers to sum up the contestants on “The Bachelor,” where she used to work and the inspiration for “UnReal.” There was “wifey,” of course, along with terms that read like a round of misogynistic Mad Libs: “Boring." “Horny.” “Broken.” “Psycho.” “Loudmouth.” “Fugly.” “Crazy-eyed.” “Dumb-Dumb.” “Stalker.” “Slut.”
Such labels are not far off from wifey or unwifeable in their limiting reach and possibility. I say this not only as a boring, horny, broken, psycho loudmouth — but as a fugly, crazy-eyed, dumb-dumb stalker slut as well.
Steffans, who has been on all sides of the equation, nailed it.
“I have never liked the term wifey,” she tells me. “I’m not a fan of baby talk. I don’t have a blanky. I don’t get boo-boos. I don’t have to go potty, and I’m not your wifey. I’m a grown woman — and you will refer to me as such.”