Behind every super-successful woman in the entertainment business is a man she resents too much to fuck. This is an overstatement but one that often rings true for many of my female friends. Part of the experience of being an adult is listening to complaints by those close to you about their romantic partners. Given how many women producers, executives, talent representatives, etc., are top earners in the entertainment industry (women virtually control cable TV, for example), I find I am privy to the inner workings of many relationships where women are the breadwinners. And in so many of them, those women are aggrieved about the situation in which they find themselves.
Lucy (I’m not using anyone’s real name) is a fit talent manager who has been married for many years and has kids. In talking about her dissatisfaction with her husband, the topic of her career and money versus his is the main issue. Her hard work has paid for most of their way of life, while he has pursued a speculative career as an entrepreneur. Given that she always made more than he did, I asked if she didn’t see her present state of bitterness coming. “It didn’t become a problem until we had kids,” she said. “That’s when the resentment starts. I’m in a one-down situation, sitting in an office with a breast pump trying to talk on the phone and get projects moving forward, and my tits are exploding and my ass is the size of a fry cook’s at McDonald’s, and I get home and the baby needs me and the nanny wants to tell me about every diaper change and my boss is calling and I am literally just trying to keep it all together financially and not lose my mind. He [her husband] has been following his dream to start a company because I provided him with the opportunity to build something that wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t been out there working my ass off,” she continued. “I don’t resent the fact he built something. I wish that I had that opportunity. But he’s been using my hard work as a stepping stone for his own career.” When I asked how he could make her feel less resentful, she said, “It would be nice if he would have less of a sense of entitlement and more of a sense of gratitude.” I asked her why she thought he acted ungratefully, and she said, “Because doing that makes him feel better. It makes him feel superior.”
Sally is in her early 40s but looks younger. She is a producer and recently divorced from a writer with whom she has children. When they initially got together, he was the more successful one. Then Sally’s career took off, and his stagnated, which undermined his self-assurance. Sally’s income increased exponentially, and her husband decided to leave his unsatisfying but well-paying writing job. “I thought it would be great for him to be at home with the baby,” she told me, “and I think we were hopeful that he would create something successful. He didn’t. My having success seemed to make him feel like he lost something in comparison. It was as though he would have been happier if we were both struggling, or if he were always doing just a little bit better than me. He started becoming pessimistic and cynical, and any success I had would become uncomfortable to share because it would make him unhappy. So we just stopped talking about work. I would go to events alone because he couldn’t share in my life. I felt lonely and sad. I felt like I had another kid, because I’d have to make sure that everyone was okay including him. He would get takeout and not get anything for me. I would then go upstairs, put the kids to bed, and then make myself dinner: usually a handful of dried cereal or crackers and hummus or popcorn. I was taking care of a lot of people and felt pressure to make a lot of money.”
The money was not really the focus of Sally’s displeasure. “I resented his not saying, ‘This is a lot for you. I really appreciate your taking on the burden of our financial responsibility so I can keep trying to do it my own way.’ Instead, I just get bailed on emotionally. And the cherry on this shit sundae was that I caught him cheating. It was a relief, really, because this allowed me an exit.” In divorcing her husband, the idea of forking over a big check was particularly distasteful—much more so than it has been for my divorced male friends but similar to what it’s been like for my other divorced female friends. “It’s harder for women to get to the top than men, so you’re a little more proprietary about your money,” Sally said. “Look, it’s the law, so everyone should pay according to the law. But it feels odd to pay a man. You don’t want to think about the money you’re paying your husband so he can date some girl.”
Patty is a pretty studio executive in her late 40s with no kids. She divorced one husband who made less than she did and is now with someone else. Patty sees a big difference between the two. Her ex-husband “was socially outgoing, setting up parties and social situations, so in that respect he was bringing something into my life that wasn’t working before. It seemed okay if I was paying the bills and he was contributing all of this stuff that made our life together more interesting. And then, as time went on, he became resentful that I was more successful and better regarded. He became furious at my premieres because he wasn’t the center of attention. The angrier he became, the more resentful I felt about putting my resources into a relationship with someone who was angry all the time.” She thinks the problem isn’t specifically how much a man makes. “It’s more about confidence: each person’s feeling of self-worth and success. Men need to feel like men in order to make women feel like women.”
Patty’s current boyfriend is very accomplished in a field that doesn’t pay as well, and she makes about three times his income. Still, she told me, “his status allows him to be supportive of my success. I am super-traditional. I like a dominant man even though I have a job and make money. My boyfriend’s confident and smart, and I don’t have to be in charge of everything. If there were an accident, I know he’d get me to a hospital.” Patty then turned philosophical. “Society has said that money and success is where the value is placed. It gets a little bit chicken-and-egg-y, but the truth is a man needs to have something going on for a woman to feel protected.”
These kinds of frequent conversations with my alpha-female friends about their beta-male husbands remind me of the scene at the end of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, where Lorelei Lee, played by Marilyn Monroe, says to the father of a man whose gold she intends to dig, “I can be smart when it’s important.” If a guy chooses to be provided for by a woman, he better be smart when it’s important and find other ways to play the part of the man in his relationship; otherwise, as happens so often in Hollywood, the part he is playing will be recast.
*This article appeared in the March 10, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.