It never occurred to me to be anything but thrilled. Which is why it was so strange, in the days following the awards, to hear the note of concern from friends and strangers alike. Was I okay? How was I doing? Would this, you know, change things for us?
This same line of questioning comes up a lot for men partnered with powerful women. In a 2013 interview at the Ignition innovation conference, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was asked about her husband, a tech entrepreneur with a successful career in his own right. “Still, he’s not as successful as you are,” the interviewer asked. “Doesn’t he feel kind of lame?”
“There is no woman in the world with a successful husband who people say to them, ‘How are you doing?’” Sandberg replied. “They never say that. They say ‘Congratulations!’ When it’s a woman who’s succeeding, people say to the man, ‘Are you OK?’ That is the problem. The problem is we demand and expect professional success from men. It’s optional and even threatening from women.”
Sandberg’s right. Women married to successful men are thought to have scored, which is where the stereotype of the "gold digger" comes from. Men in the same position receive an extra dose of unwanted pity: “Must be hard on his manhood.”
Nowhere are these complicated, fraught assumptions more evident than at awards shows. I’ve come to think of my own wardrobe malfunction as just a version of the weird and fascinating blend of humiliation, pride, awkwardness, and insecurity many Plus One men experience to some degree.
Historically, of course, the vast majority of Plus Ones have been female. Society expects them to glide along the red carpet, gracefully responding to press inquiries about “who” they’re wearing and basking in the reflective glow of their powerful partners (though that’s after the primping and stressing and hair and makeup are done). Male Plus Ones, though, look more like what a friend who's a talent manager once described as “biology teachers who got lost on the way home from school.”
Instead of understanding the protocol of when to pose fetchingly and when to fall back, non-celeb men get caught in the transitional lane of traffic between the stars and the publicists, the notables and the not. If one does come into view, he’ll often be smiling, but it’ll be the stiff, plastered-on smile of a guy who isn’t entirely sure what he’s supposed to be doing. Maybe he’s got a hand on the small of his lady’s back. Maybe he’s holding her purse.
It can be an intensely self-conscious experience for men, even the most evolved and secure among them. Rodger Berman, husband of celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe, says he knows people make assumptions when they see him on the arm of his celebrity wife.
“People are dismissive, one hundred percent,” he says. “I know a lot of people think I’m some loser riding on my wife’s coattails. But really, who gives a shit? I know what I mean to her, to our company. So it’s just like, ‘I’ll see you in Paris.’”
Berman, president of Rachel Zoe Inc., says he’s happy to let his wife take the front-and-center position, even as he recognizes the social conditioning that makes it difficult. “It takes a certain kind of guy to take a back seat,” he says.
The most catastrophic Plus One humiliation may have happened on the dark night in 2000 when Hillary Swank thanked everyone from her manager and publicist and attorney and stylist for her Oscar win—everyone except her husband Chad Lowe, who was caught live in cutaway, mute and dew-eyed and ever-adoring. The horror! Swank’s award will forever carry the asterisk: Forgot Chad. Shamed by the press, Swank never missed another opportunity to praise her less-famous partner, calling him “my everything” five years later when she won again. But by then the damage was done. When the couple announced their split in 2006, a lot of people thought they knew why: Forgot Chad.
Of course, women have been negotiating their roles openly and powerfully for a generation. They’ve shown us through hard-fought battles that it’s wrong to view anyone as an accessory, that it’s diminishing and destructive to marginalize one partner as a mere support spouse. So when you see the man on the red carpet holding the purse, hold the assumptions. And pray for the integrity of his footwear.
And then maybe just ask who he’s wearing.