Women Should Not Be Smarter Than Their Husbands / by Jessie Tseng

By Patricia Park

Patricia reading her essay at the Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty. 

Patricia reading her essay at the Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty. 

Women with Oscars don’t keep their men. Or so I read in the Journal of Investigatory Studies in Popular Culture (JISPC). Or maybe it was TMZ. It is a question of shifts in power and dominance, questions of ego. The opposite phenomenon is not a phenomenon.

My mother used to say, Women should not be smarter than their husbands. Or maybe that’s my perfect English translation. What she’d actually said was this: Smart ooh-mahn, husband go running away.

Over cinnamon-scallion tea, she’d cite examples of smart, unhappily married women to support her evidence:

-Look at your aunt. She make your uncle depress.
-Look at Mrs. Kim from church. She make husband have no choice but follow younger women who say, Oh, you #1! and make man feel like he some kind of bigshot.
-Look at Mrs. Lee. She have big nail salon and make husband no power and now they have all kind of problem.

Having a big nail salon is not the equivalent of winning an Oscar. Or maybe it’s not all that far off. For women of my mother’s generation, for women in our community, this might be the highest they could soar. Or maybe the ceiling is so low—for immigrant women, for female actors in Hollywood. And as much as talent and hard work come into play, perhaps real success trades on a woman’s looks.

Ooh-mahn can be either smart or pretty, my mother would say. I think of these women with their Oscars. Of their limo rides home, basking in the glow of their win, slender fingers with their lovely painted nails clutching the broad chest of that golden statuette. I think of their husbands sitting opposite them: sulking or happy or feigning happiness, pondering their newfound positions, these shifts in power.                                                                  

I think of their husbands, weeks maybe days later, finding the sorts of younger women who say, “Oh, you #1!” and make them feel they are some kind of bigshot.

I think of their divorces that flash as news alerts on my iPhone before the year’s end.

Ooh-mahn must choose, my mother would say. But they cannot be both.

Patricia Park is the author of acclaimed novel Re Jane, a modern-day reimagining of Brontë's Jane Eyre. She has written for The New York Times, Guardian, Salon, and others. She received fellowships from Fulbright, Sewanee, and the Center for Fiction. She is Assistant Professor in the MFA program at American University.