Gender Roles In Relationships: The Bethenny Frankel Divorce Edition

As I’m sure many of you out there already know, former “Real Housewife” reality TV star, Bethenny Frankel, announced her impending divorce form husband, Jason Hoppy. Frankel and Hoppy met in 2008 and their courtship, marriage, family, and ultimate demise were chronicled and archived for the entire world to see via “Real Housewives of New York”, “Bethenny Getting Married”, and two seasons of “Bethenny Ever After”.

While divorce is always difficult, Frankel and Hoppy are public personas, which means that every detail of their divorce is available for mass consumption. So when Frankel listed out the reasons behind their separation, she exposed their ills to the whole world.

Frankel cited “money, family, and gender roles” as the reasons for their separation. Money I understand, as it frequently causes friction in a relationship. Family as well can be troublesome. But Gender Roles? I have never heard this mentioned before as a reason for divorce. Usually it’s infidelity, lack of communication, or irreconcilable differences.

I wanted to explore the subject of Gender Roles in relationship, in general terms and then with regards to Frankel-Hoppy specifically. I think that gender roles have two key components. First, there is the practical day-to-day level, and secondly there is the philosophical level.

General roles when applied to daily life still have clear delineations, even in our enlightened day and age. Numerous studies have found that for the most part, women do cleaning, cooking, and child rearing while men don’t, even in the most egalitarian dual-income households. There is no clear consensus on why this still exists. Some experts say lingering sociological/cultural traits. Others say biological/genetic predispositions. And most say that media images only perpetuate the differences.

I propose a different approach, one espoused by recent theories from the world of economics. Think of your entire household as one closed economy. List out everything that needs to happen to maintain your household for a month and the time it takes to do it; from cleaning dishes and grocery shopping all the way through mowing the lawn and cleaning the gutters. Economic theory states that whoever has a strict comparative advantage in one activity should strictly do that activity for the good of overall efficiency. If one partner can do dishes in ten minutes and the other in twenty, whoever does it faster should do it always in order to free up the other partner to do tasks that he/she is better at.

In this vein, it doesn’t matter what the actual chore is. If the male is better at dishes, then he should strictly do dishes. If the female is better at taking out the trash, then she should strictly do that. What is important, is that on the aggregate each partner contributes the same amount of time and effort, regardless of the specific chore. There is one caveat, of course. In order to figure out how to divide labor, the guy should vacuum and do laundry to see if he is better at it. And you ladies reading this should try your hand at building Ikea furniture and changing the oil in the car.

For Frankel and Hoppy, I believe the practical component of gender roles is irrelevant. They have enough notoriety and cash (her dubious SkinnyGirl Cocktail line was recently bought for $8.1M) to buy people who will take care of all the nuisances that normal people face. There is no doubt in my mind that the two of them have a full-time staff of babysitters, housekeepers, personal shoppers, and cooks to ensure that they never have to deal with the reality of division of labor. Therefore, in order to examine what Frankel means by “Gender Roles”, we need to look at the philosophical implications.

The ideology of gender roles is fairly obvious: men are the bread winners and go to work, while women stay at home and manage the house and the kids. Think Pete Campbell and his wife Trudy from Mad Men. These anachronistic views have largely dissipated in the Western World because of gender equality in education and the workplace, but also out of necessity. In our day and age, it is extremely difficult for the Middle Class to subsist and thrive on one income, meaning that both partners have to be gainfully employed in order to afford mortgage, childcare, etc. Therefore, lingering beliefs about gender roles in relationships is not only puritanical, but also impractical.

For Frankel and Hoppy, though, this seems to be a key issue. Sources (here and here) mention Hoppy’s feelings of emasculation in the marriage.  Frankel paid the bill for everything, and Hoppy couldn’t deal with being married to a strong woman. “As a man, I never thought I’d be in a situation where my wife, financially, was this successful,” Hoppy, who is in real estate, admitted on Bethenny Ever After. 

To all of this, I officially call Shenanigans on Hoppy. It’s one thing if Frankel’s career ambitions leave her absent from home life, but Hoppy doesn’t seem to have a problem with this. He could happily have spent his days spending his wife’s money at the clubs or on vacation like Scott Disick, but instead he chose to wallow in his antiquated view of the world. Just like his ex, Hoppy could have capitalized on his reality TV stardom to build his fame and fortune, but he whined and complained about her success instead.

Even though we will never know what really happened between Frankel and Hoppy, my guess is that there is something deeper than gender roles. Hoppy’s feelings of emasculation may stem from his insecurity about himself and his manhood in a relationship, which could be the root of much of their conflict. Or, it could be that Hoppy just wants his old life back of hitting on twenty year-olds in Lower Manhattan lounges. He, himself allegedly said:  “My balls [were] cut off two years ago,” in 2010. Well, guess what, life changes when you enter into a committed relationship, and it changes even more when you have a child. So either grow up and accept the responsibility, or don’t get into it in the first place.

For the rest of us in the proletariat, yes, there will be gender differences in the day-to-day life of relationships, but you should try to look at them holistically and even economically, and try to find a balance where each partner contributes an equal share to the total, regardless of individual tasks.  And from a philosophical perspective, if some guy insinuates that women should be confined to the kitchen, think twice about whether this type of Mad Men-lifestyle matches your view of the world before you get serious with him.


Pete and Trudy image via Entertaining Views from Cinti

Bethenny and Jason image via Life and Style Mag

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