The young beauty and the billionaire

Why both women and men resent this modern parable.

WE MAY think we know the real story behind this week’s report that 67-year-old billionaire media magnate Rupert Murdoch intends to marry his 31-year-old girlfriend Wendy Deng after he divorces Anna Murdoch. But what do we know, and what do we think we know, about the relationship between Murdoch and Deng? And is it truth or perception that matters in public interpretation and comment about the impending marriage?

Let’s get one thing clear. No one, except perhaps those in Murdoch’s and Deng’s inner circle, actually knows much about the relationship. Yet many of us think we know that it forms another chapter in a sorry late–20th-century cultural tale, in which ageing rich men abandon their similarly ageing wives for younger, attractive women. (Remember Paul Hogan and Donald Trump.) The women who form such relationships are similarly seen to be engaged in an unholy system of barter in which they trade their youth and beauty for a share of their new husband’s power and money (a la Anna Nicole Smith and Rose Hancock).

Rather than speculate on whether the Murdoch-Deng relationship conforms to this stereotype, I would like to examine the assumptions and anxieties that underlie and fuel it.

The Billionaire and His Younger New Wife parable generates anxiety for both men and women. For many women, the dominant concern is that men value them only for their transient attributes of youth and beauty. An additional female apprehension, explicitly read into Paul Hogan’s marital break-up, is that while it is the “old” wife who contributes to their husband’s rise to fame and fortune, it is the new wife who reaps the rewards. Many men feel similarly devalued by the Billionaire tale, believing it wrong for a woman to marry a man for his money.

For both men and women, what is being devalued in the Billionaire tale is love. Middle-class views of marriage hold that it ought to be a lifelong commitment. We are meant to love the other for who they are, not for what they have. Our obligations in marriage are to fulfil our partner’s desire for love, not for more prosaic human needs and emotions such as money and power.

But how realistic is this view of marriage? Several recent studies (including Birrell and Rapson, on this page on 22 October) suggest that declines in marriage rates owe much to a drop-off of coupling among the working classes. In the past, working-class women traded their work in the home and raising of children in exchange for a share of their partner’s income. Yet rising unemployment has meant that many working-class men can no longer keep the bargain.

Many working-class men and women have seen marriage as a way of pooling scarce resources to achieve shared goals, such as children and economic survival. This isn’t to say that the partners in these marriages don’t love each other, but that the basis of the marriage is not love, but reciprocal materially based obligation. Yet while few would judge such marriages harshly, they feel free to condemn those between ageing billionaires and their younger new wives. Surely these too are based on reciprocal obligation: for having to appear on the arms and in the beds of their rich husbands, the women may make use of his power and money.

Maybe the Billionaire parable arouses our ire because we see that both parties are choosing a marriage based on reciprocal obligation, rather than love. Those who opt for such a marriage, unlike the less well-off who have little choice, are seen to degrade both themselves and the shared value of love.

Or perhaps we resent the Billionaire tale because it reminds us that, feminism notwithstanding, there has been little change in the social value men and women accord one another. Men still see women as current or former beauties, women still view men as walking wallets. And for most of us, this value system marks us as inferior goods.

The Billionaire parable angers women by reminding them that their market value is in irreversible day-by-day decline. Men are incensed by being reminded that, as the real value of their pay packet is decaying, their primary value to women is still as providers of money and status. In a world where many of us will marry at least twice, reminders that our value as partners is ever declining may simply be unwelcome news.