What does it mean to be a wife in a world where your local market abounds with T-shirts displaying reluctant husbands at the altar above the words "Game Over"? Well, according to Grazia this week, a wife can be many things, united by the fact of all being heavily stereotyped and unrealistic. In case you didn’t catch it (horror of social horrors!), their three-page editorial "Rebel vs Regal: A Tale of Two Wives", in which the differing approaches to "wifeliness" on the part of Kate Middleton and Kate Moss were compared in mind-numbingly tedious detail, ended with a question that we’re sure you’re all dying to answer: which wife-style are you?
"The Kates have become more significant to us as wives than they were as single women", bleats Grazia, who claim their false dichotomy has generated furious debate the length and breadth of the country. Everywhere you go, from a builder’s caff to a dole office to a queue of irate and pay-chequeless Natwest customers, people are talking about whether or not they’re "team Kate" or, er, "team Kate". Both, according to the nameless staffer who wrote the article, epitomise the extreme versions of "modern wifehood" and as such have made us think more deeply about, like, what it means to be a woman and to be married and stuff.
Except it hasn’t. People couldn’t care less. They’re worrying about their mortgages, or their job security, or the cost of childcare, or whether they’ll ever get housing benefit or a pension or where their next shag is coming from. No one is sitting in their house weighing up the relative merits of two women they’ve never met in terms of their marital attributes, except possibly everyone who works for Grazia. We’re all too busy. And that’s the way it should be. Equally, teenage girls haven’t looked at Kate Middleton’s life and immediately been transformed into "smart, well groomed, demure ladies", as a nameless poll in Grazia suggests. Whoever conducted the poll has obviously never been to Watford on a Saturday night - and to suggest that teenage girls are in any way concerned with what some posh lass does of an evening (run William a bath, apparently) is sheer lunacy. What they’re actually doing is worrying whether you can get pregnant off a blowjob or where they put their lip shimmer. Teenage girls, as you were.
According to common social perception, however, a wife is something that every little girl wants to become. Disclaimer: you can only navigate this treacherous path if a man asks you first, and he in turn will only ask when cultural pressure reaches a fever pitch and he runs to the jeweller’s in a sweat of peer-pressure-induced commitment. As the girlfriend (wife-in-waiting), you will of course be sat at home during this time, plotting your latest series of subtle manipulations to make him ask you, with your lonely left hand outstretched. He will run back, panting with the shock of blowing three months' wages on a shiny piece of earth dust, and present you with a ring. Immediately, your sex life will be blown to pieces (in the bad way) and you’ll magically transform into a carbon copy of - God forbid! - your mother.
Where does this leave us women, so often referred to as the "ball and chain" in a wifely context? We know that in the fifties, the ideal was to bake beautiful cupcakes and smile sweetly at dinner parties while refraining from expressing any controversial views, as per the well-known Harry Enfield sketch (women: know your limits!) Since then, we’ve seen movements that have discouraged women from "becoming wives" and entering into such a traditionally patriarchal institution altogether. We’ve also seen a resurgence of what we might deem "cupcake culture", which celebrates the sugar-centred, insufferably twee qualities of fifties housewifery and attempts to recast them in a world where women also have jobs and more meaningful responsibilities. Finally, we’ve seen the rise of and reaction to the "have it all" imperative, which we discussed in detail in last week’s column.
None of these choices are without their respective downfalls, and all of them reflect the day-to-day lives of 90 per cent of the population about as much as the two "wives" to whom Grazia have taken such a "liking" (read: the linguistic equivalent of a rusty machete). Here are two women: a supermodel and a princess, both of whom have traded on their looks to get where they are today, and who are supposed to be telling us something significant about the role of women in modern times. (Clue: the real significance lies in the first part of this sentence.) The suggestion that the rest of us should somehow be aspiring to either one of these "wifestyles" is as out of touch as appointing a well-known tax evader as a government spending advisor (ahem).
As per usual, this false debate surrounding a pair of straw wives says just as much about class as it does about female equality. Perhaps if more young couples were able to afford their rent or mortgages on a sole income, more women would choose to devote themselves to wifely duties - or indeed, men to husbandly ones. While K-Middy may appear to fit the bill of "humble wife", the suggestion that La Moss, a woman who built her own multimillion-pound career from nothing, has somehow become "more significant" since getting married is deeply insulting. Her only crime is to have refused to compromise her lifestyle. The implications in Grazia that her independence means she is somehow falling short assumes that there are modes of behaviour that should come into play the minute a ring is placed on a woman’s finger. Sod that.
Surely it’s as simple as loving one another enough, warts and all, to be able to build a life together? Suddenly becoming a simpering, submissive, desexualised bath-runner the minute you chow down on the marzipan-coated fruitcake means you’re probably not the woman he married anymore. If becoming a "wife" means not only losing your name (and why do that?) but a part of yourself so fundamental that you need to reassess your day-to-day behaviour, then it’s a sacrifice that we’re not willing to make. And guess what, Grazia? Our mothers weren’t either.