Desperately Seeking Status

From Brad and Angelina to Renee and Chaka, we’re surrounded by power couples. And their influence is trickling down.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine phoned me. We’ll call her Rose.

“I’m depressed,” she said.

An ambitious 27-year-old magazine editor, Rose had recently moved to New York from Philadelphia and had just had drinks with a friend of hers from college, a young editor at a Smart Publication who, as it turned out, had lately been dating a Hot Young Novelist. The news of their union made Rose, whose last boyfriend’s day job largely involved practicing with his band and pretending to look at, feel comparatively unfabulous. “I’m so jealous,” she admitted. “I want a boyfriend like that. They’re like this cute little power couple.”

I consoled Rose by reminding her that Hot Young Novelist was a trust-fund prep-school kid, and therefore it wasn’t such a big deal that he had published a novel by 25. Plus, I reasoned, the book’s success was probably a one-off.

And I had heard he was really short.

Then I hung up, and because I’m a jerk, I immediately told my boyfriend, who likes to be referred to as Mr. Huge, how shallow I thought Rose had gotten since she moved to New York. He agreed. We basked smugly in our selflessness.

THE NEXT DAY, I was flipping through a copy of Us Weekly (which by the way I don’t subscribe to, it just appeared on our coffee table, I swear, I have no idea where it came from), thinking about what Rose had said about power couples. Maybe she had been reading too much about Brangelina, I thought, and TomKat and Vaughniston. Or Bill and Hillary Clinton or Harold Evans and Tina Brown or Joan Didion and John Dunne. Come to think of it, I think I saw her reading The Year of Magical Thinking.

You can’t blame her for having power couples on the mind. Lately, it seems like we’re all obsessed with them. Clearly, the idea of two attractive and/or educated and/or wealthy people getting it on has become narcotic to the American public. And so what? We like seeing people who are happy and successful and don’t have to worry about money. It makes us feel calm, like we might be that someday.

People so enjoy the idea of power couples, and the phrase itself, that you hear them say it to describe non-nationally famous Philadelphians, like Governor Ed and Judge Midge Rendell. Renee Chenault-Fattah and Chaka Fattah (who should be called, I think, Rhaka!, with an exclamation point), and Carrie Rickey from the Inquirer and her husband, Paul Levy from Center City District (Lickey?). The definition has been stretched to include couples in which each partner just … has a job, like public relations babe Kelly Boyd and her former husband, CEO Patrick Sylvester. (Now that they’ve divorced, she’s power-coupling with real estate developer John Westrum. Making them … Bestrum? Anyway.)

But what’s really weird about our addiction to so-called power couples is that it hasn’t stopped with the semi-notable. It’s trickled down to the common folk. What used to be entertainment is now changing how we feel about our relationships.

As reality TV has redefined who can be famous, many educated people in their 20s and 30s aren’t just looking for a solid relationship with a nice person. They want people of a certain … status. Like Rose, they want to be power couples. And it’s not just New Yorkers. Men and women in Philadelphia, it turns out, are exactly the same way.

“I definitely see myself in a power couple someday,” says Drew, 25, a writer who currently works in medical publishing. “I wouldn’t want to date a girl who wasn’t invested in her career, or didn’t want to work. Unless maybe she’s independently wealthy. Like a Greek shipping heiress. That would be hot.”

A 26-year-old with a good job in Center City suspects that his desire for the perfect person with whom to join ranks thwarted at least one relationship. “There was this girl who worked at Scoop de Ville that I had a schoolboy-type crush on,” says John, whose name has been changed so he can continue to score Rocky Road at reduced prices. “We’d make small talk whenever I went in for ice cream, and then one day it dawned on me that I’d been flirting with this girl for a couple years now, and, um, she’s still at Scoop de Ville. I don’t like to think that was a deal-breaker — but I had to wonder why I never asked her out.”

A COUPLE OF WEEKS after my conversation with Rose, Mr. Huge and I were walking home from the Ritz, playing one of our favorite games. It’s called Would You Break Up With Me If, and it goes like this:

Mr. Huge: Would you break up with me if I grew a rattail and bleached it blonde?

Me: Would it be ironic?

Mr. Huge: No, I would honestly love the way it looked.

Me: Then I’d still go out with you. Would you break up with me if I tattooed “EAT ME” on my forehead?

And so on. It’s a weird, possibly sick little game, but it’s fun. Or at least it was till I started a round that turned out to be contentious:

Me: Would you break up with me if I left my job to become a fry cook at the McDonald’s at 17th and Walnut?

Mr. Huge: (long pause)

Me: What, that would bother you, if I became a fry cook?

Mr. Huge: (hesitating) Well, would it be a phase, or would you do it forever?

Me: (growing indignant) Forever! I would want to be a fry cook forever! What’s it to you?

Sensing that this could become a big argument, and perhaps also sensing that I did not actually intend to pursue a career in fry cookery (with no offense to the good people of the McDonald’s on 17th and Walnut intended), Mr. Huge wisely promised he would love me being a fry cook at the McDonald’s on 17th and Walnut if it made me happy.

Later, I wondered. What if it was Mr. Huge’s career that tanked — he’s a writer, too — and he got a job as, say, a dishwasher? I asked myself: Am I as career-conscious as Rose? To paraphrase the immortal words of the rapper Jay-Z: If Mr. Huge couldn’t get me finer things like all of them diamond rings bitches kill for, would I still roll? If we couldn’t see the sun risin’ off the shore of Thailand, would I ride then, if he wasn’t drivin’? If he wasn’t ah eight-figure nigga by the name of Jigga —

Ahem. There was no getting away from it. I would care. I wouldn’t break up with him, but I would care.

Are we just snobs? Or is it completely reasonable to want to date a professional peer? Drew, the aspiring writer, thinks it is: “We work so much that a large part of our identity is what we do for a living,” he says. “We need someone who can relate to that.”

Unlike Anne Hathaway’s annoyingly ­under-employed boyfriend in The Devil Wears Prada, someone who is similarly ambitious will understand if you come home late. He might even like it. “Ambition and passion,” says Drew, “are very sexy.” So is the prospect of healthy dual incomes. “For someone who’s not a hedge-fund manager,” John says, “the idea of two salaries is pretty attractive.”

Because, let’s face it, it’s not just career and financial support we find hot. “It’s all about ego these days,” said my friend Alisa, who is 35 and wise. “It’s not just about finding someone you like anymore. People are looking for someone who complements them.”

MR. HUGE COULDN'T believe I was bringing up the McDonald’s thing again, but he conceded that yes, having a girlfriend who dunked fries for a living would probably wound his ego. (Also, he said, “That is the worst McDonald’s.”)

I called up Kimberly Flemke of Philly’s Council for Relationships for reassurance. “We all have a subconscious list of things that we want from a partner, and it often includes job and status preferences,” she said. This doesn’t necessarily mean we’re thinking about money or, in Bennifer’s case, access to a new audience: “It’s about how it makes you feel. It’s more emotional, like, if you’re shy, you expect your partner to be full of life and charisma so you can hang in the background. And dating someone who has what you perceive is a better or similar career to yours might make you feel smart and secure about your own.”

Hm. It is true that one of the things I like about Mr. Huge is that he’s much smarter than me, which I like partly because it makes me feel smart. (Mr. Huge will not make a list of all the things he likes about me so that I can dissect them. “But I can tell you that your column is definitely not on it,” he said.)

So maybe that means Rose, who’s just started a new job in a new city, isn’t really shallow — she’s just scared. A hot literary boyfriend would make her feel more confident and less alone in her strange and terrible world.

Which is I guess why we all get into relationships, from famous power couples right down to us common folk.