The Plight of the Male 'Plus One'

Playing accessory to an awards-show nominee is an inherently awkward task. Add in society's gender expectations, and it gets more so.

Eric Gaillard/Reuters

Here’s a game to play during this Monday’s Emmy red carpet show. Keep an eye out for the Plus Ones.

Plus Ones are guests of the stars, writers, and industry bigwigs who are the Emmys’ main event. I first heard the phrase 15 years ago when I attended the Emmys for the first time with my wife Jenji Kohan, long before she created Weeds or Orange Is the New Black. At dinner afterwards, someone at our table—either the boyfriend of an actress or another writer’s husband—pulled out his invitation and happily identified himself by the words printed in tiny lettering at the bottom, below the calligraphed name of the invitee, near the information about limo drop-offs: Plus One.

It’s a good job if you can get it. All you really need to do look presentable, support your partner, and not draw too much attention to yourself.

Somehow, though, I screwed it up back in 1999, in my first fateful appearance as a Plus One. At the time I was a reporter with a suburban LA newspaper and Jenji was a junior writer on the HBO sketch show Tracey Takes On. Being nominated was a huge deal for us both. The show wasn’t expected to win, but we were psyched just to go to the ceremony; Jenji bought a sheer black dress and picked me up a pair of shiny patent-leather shoes to go with the tux I’d rented at a reasonably priced but stinky rental joint in Atwater Village, on the far outskirts of the Hollywood high life.

Shortly after we were picked up in a gleaming new Town Car, I felt something funny with my right shoe. I looked down and noticed that the sole had come undone and was peeling away from the bottom. I held up my left shoe and it was the same; the tip was drooping precariously away from the shoe’s underside, like a long moist tongue.

Panicked, I turned to Jenji, my personal shopper. Why were my shoes falling apart? Where had they come from?

Jenji smiled, proud and oblivious. “The County Morgue Thrift Store. Such a deal!”

My Emmy dress shoes were apparently never meant to hold the weight of a living man. From their shoddy, prop-like construction it appeared they were literally made for a corpse.

When the car pulled up at the curb outside the Shrine Auditorium, Jenji helped me, her hobbled date, onto the red carpet. For a split second, all the assembled fans and photographers fired their laser-beam attention at us. At this point, it is customary for the unfamous to duck their heads and hustle into the crowd. But as I stepped gingerly forward, it became clear any additional movement would cause the shoes to fall apart entirely. So I stopped. And smiled. And waved lamely, as if yes, everyone here had come to see me, the frozen man with the crazy grimace. I remember watching a beefy guy with a walkie talkie making his way toward me.

The moment remains flash-frozen in my mind. Feeling the hot glare of the crowd zero in on me, knowing I’d run afoul of all sorts of unspoken etiquette, I glanced down at those decomposing shoes and had two thoughts. One, I am a complete idiot. And two, these shoes are some fucking metaphor. For what, I wasn’t sure right away.

The author on the way to the Emmys in 1999. (Courtesy of Christopher Noxon)

While I stood there ruminating, Jenji ducked into the crowd, elbows out, gown billowing behind her, not pausing until reaching a phalanx of technicians. She yanked a roll of utility tape from a gaffer’s belt and jogged back to me, grinning crazily and holding the roll over her head like the award she’d come for.

She then kneeled down on the red carpet and with a quick flourish, wrapped each of my shoes in black tape. My glass slipper fit! I was good to go.

* * *

The rest of the night was a blur, owing first to the intense gratitude I felt for my wife’s intrepid engineering then to the bizarre and pleasing experience of seeing so many heretofore unreal people in person (Rupert Murdoch at a urinal! Janeane Garofalo smoking a Camel!), and then finally, close to the end of the evening, to the announcement that Tracey Takes On had won. I was every bit the gushing overjoyed proud partner. It was her victory, but it was also, I felt, ours. Jenji, me, the morgue shoes; we were all in this together.

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.