What Do Men Want? Obedient Wives and Independent Daughters, Apparently

What Do Men Want? Obedient Wives and Independent Daughters, Apparently

First, the “good” news: Some 34 percent of hetero men want a wife who is independent. Bad news: If you had a daughter with that dude, his preference for this trait in your offspring would nearly double to 66 percent. Is this logical as the known universe, or should we all hook paws and (independently) drive ourselves off a cliff?

Calm down, though, he also wants you to be smart—72 percent of men surveyed in this national poll of 818, published recently in The Shriver Report: An Insight Into the 21st Century Man, value intelligence in a wife. Of course, more men—81 percent—wanted intelligence for their daughters, and who could blame them? What’s the point of procreation if a man can’t see the fruit of his loins outwit Mom in a game of chess one day?

Another question: How much do you really mind these differences? After all, 34 percent of men greatly value sweetness in a partner, while only 19 percent care if their daughters are more sugar than spice. But the problem is, women aren’t the abstractions of their relationships to men. The ideal daughter these men are imagining will grow up contending with other men’s imagining of their ideal wife. And the differences are significant: 45 percent of men value an attractive wife, while only 19 percent worry about their daughters’ looks. 48 percent of men want strong daughters and only 28 percent want strong wives. (Hard to say if strong in this sense literally means “able to lift stuff” or like, strong-willed.)

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of those desired qualities:


On one level, the beauty preference is totally logical. As commenter idrive405 on the WaPo piece notes:

Of course men (and women) want their spouses to be attractive. But it would be creepy and quasi-incestuous to prioritize your child’s beauty.

Wouldn’t it? Though most of us want our children to have everything working in their favor—be it looks, humor, or the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time—our love for our kids should be unconditional. We should want our children to possess all the good qualities that don’t draw on shallowness, while our spouses can, if we so desire, fulfill our most whimsical preferences. We choose our spouses; we don’t choose our children. I wanted a partner who could perform reverse osmosis while assembling IKEA furniture, and by god, that’s what I went for.

But if I may attempt to inhabit the mind of the average 18-to-49 year old white man with some college—something I jump at the chance to do whenever the opportunity arises—I’ll suggest a theory for what I think is going on. For them, a wife is a reflection ON you, while a daughter is an extension OF you. If you’re choosing a mate as most men would, based on (among other things) social approval, or the idea of the sort of wife you ought to have, you’re going to go with the generic, culturally sanctioned option, i.e., “sweet,” and “attractive,” and not necessarily “brilliant/ambitious hustler.” That men added in intelligence as a top quality is a sign of progress, when “smells good” probably used to be literally the only gauge at one point in our not-so-distant past.

A daughter, on the other hand, is a direct extension of your genes. Caring about your daughter’s smarts over her looks likely ensures that the legacy that you, Man Filling Out Survey, have been socialized into wanting for yourself: intelligence, capability, rather than beefcake-itude. (I’ll admit that this is a very reductive and alarmingly evo-psychy take, and quite generous of me, I might add. But I’m feeling hospitable.)

Over at the Washington Post, Danielle Paquette finds these differences disturbing, and links them to what is possibly more compelling in the Shriver Report study results anyway—the attitudes men still have RIGHT NOW have about the shifting landscape of us sweet, purty gals in society.

Paquette writes:

In the last few decades, there have been dramatic changes in the role of women in society, and many men are still adjusting. Four in nine men confessed it’s harder to be a man today than it was for his father. The most common reason, according to the survey, was “greater gender equity,” or women attaining a stronger position in the workplace.
That trend started before anyone’s underage offspring were conceived. In the seventies, about 40 percent of U.S. women worked. Today, about sixty percent are cashing paychecks.
Today’s young women are starting careers better educated than their male counterparts. They’re also making more money relative to male peers than their mothers and grandmothers did—an effect of steadily rising earnings of women and falling wages of men.

Women having good careers and making more money should be a win for everyone, but some men still see female progress as a hella threatening zero sum game for them. It seems that the more women are able to do for themselves, the less men know what to do with themselves (not their balls though; no confusion there).

From the Shriver report:

These men also cite negative assumptions about men, a more competitive job market, greater household responsibilities for men, and greater expectations for men in society today. The following are a number of verbatim responses from survey respondents:
“In my dad’s day, women stayed home and the men worked. Now, both men and women work in the same area as men do, so it’s hard for us to be men.”
“With the blending of the gender roles and the fact that society is not dependent upon physical labor as much as it used to be, the traditional roles that men play have been dismissed.”
“If you stand up as a man, it is taken as putting females down. No more ‘Man of the House.’”
“Each generation has its challenges. In the past, it was men conforming to rigid role expectations. In our generation, a man has more challenges finding his own way.”

This chart on the comfort levels of men with women’s current economic status is telling:


In summary, dudes are pretty chill about women being fully participating citizens. They’re like, pretty alright with it. Not all the way or anything—let’s not get crazy. But more than ever. Not so hot on the doing the kid thing all by themselves or whatever, but mostly fine.

I guess this is good?

But there’s an underlying pull of inequality here. Shriver’s report found that 85 percent of those surveyed have a “clear sense” of their expectations and roles as men in spite of all the crazy gender equity happening, and that this was the case across generations/economic lines. The biggest part of those expectations was that they have “strong character” and “personal integrity.” No word on when they will associate these qualities as significant in anyone regardless of genitalia.

Paquette also notes that, in light of the study, Maria Shriver knew she had the obligation of dutifully assuaging the continued fears revealed here about women’s progress.

“No gender succeeds at the expense of others,” she said in a statement. “We believe in a gender-respectful society and that requires the engagement, education and empowerment of all individuals.”

But why do women have to keep adding on this asterisk? Why must we keep assuring men that being equal to them is good for everybody? As long as the very idea of what it means to be a man still means, on some level, doing all the things they think women can’t or shouldn’t do, that’s where we’ll remain. We can only persuade so much. It’s up to dudes to figure out this fallacy, offspring or not. But if they don’t, here’s hoping they all have really smart daughters who can explain it to them.

Images via A Woman’s Nation.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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