Pretty? Check. Skinny? Check. Successful and smart? Check and check. This criteria makes up the modern day “trophy wife.” The term was coined in Fortune Magazine in 1989 as, “a woman who is a decade or two younger than her husband, sometimes several inches taller, beautiful, and very often accomplished” (Friedman, par. 11). For the average man, attaining a woman like this seems impossible. Getting a woman extremely out of his league would be a massive achievement and elevate the man’s status.
This pursuit becomes the goal for Gennarino, a communist, Sicilian deckhand who gets trapped on a deserted island with a beautiful, wealthy woman in Lena Wertmüller’s film, Swept Away. The object of Gennarino’s desires, Rafaella, comes from a life of leisure and luxury as opposed to his lower class background. When stowed away on the island, Gennarino abuses and assaults Rafaella multiple times in an attempt to make her want him as a potential partner. He does not do this out of love, however, as he, like many lower-class men, wants her as an object to boost his prestige. Obtaining her affection is nothing more than a way to increase his confidence and status rather than pursuing her for love.
At the beginning of the film, Gennarino is a servant to Rafaella and her husband while on their yacht. She bosses around Gennarino while she and her rich friends lounge, swim, and eat on the deck of the boat. Rafaella has complete agency over the deckhand, at this point, and does not consider him to be anywhere near as impressive as her own wealthy, intellectual husband. Gennarino complains about Rafaella behind her back, irritated by the fact that a rich woman has the audacity to boss him around, and there is nothing he can do about it (Wertmüller, 00:08:50). He loathes the pretentious, political conversations Rafaella has with her husband and shows no fondness towards her whatsoever, since she represents something he knows he can never attain.
There is a change of power, however, once the two are swept away to an abandoned island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Gennarino finds himself in power since he is the only one who knows how to perform manual labor and feed himself. Whenever Rafaella demands help, he rejects her and forces her to do demeaning tasks to earn her food. He is able to get away with things he would never have been able to do had they still been on the yacht, such as forcing Rafaella to clean his pants (Wertmüller, 00:53:00) and kiss his hand (Wertmüller, 1:00:51). Although these are traditionally flirtatious actions, Gennarino’s demand for such actions comes off as him getting Rafaella to no longer consider him as a servant but rather a master. He wants her to feel the way he felt when she was bossing him around on the boat, such as when she complained about his pasta not being edible for her (Wertmüller, 00:12:32). He does, however, eventually go on even further than the point of just getting back at her for the mistreatment. Anna Rudegeair compares Gennarino’s taming of Rafaella to be resonant of Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. Both Katherine and Rafaella are considered challenges for their male counterparts to pursue, with love and power being the prizes at the finish line. Petruchio, Kate’s partner, “insistently flatters and threatens Kate despite her protests” (Rudegeair, par. 3). Petruchio tries to tame Kate for the purpose of winning her affection while Gennarino just wants to make Rafaella his subordinate and elevate his status by getting her to do demeaning tasks.
Gennarino’s poor treatment of Rafaella is out of frustration since she represents everything he detests about upper society. While he beats her, he screams, “that’s for causing inflation and not paying taxes and hoarding your money in Swiss banks instead… That’s for the hospitals where the poor can’t even get in… That’s for raising the prices of meat and cheese” (Wertmüller, 1:09:18). By putting her in her place, he is able to gain revenge for the lower class and feel successful in his status as a man by dominating her. There is a purpose to this domination, however, as it not only allows for Gennarino to get revenge for his lower class but also get Rafaella to look at him as a macho man rather than just a lowly deckhand.
He continuously beats Rafaella like a broken toy to the point of submission so that she wants him more than her wealthy husband. In normal circumstances, Rafaella would never bat an eye at Gennarino. On this isolated island, he finally has the opportunity to express his masculinity and dominance without any repercussions. He believes that breaking her down to the point where she sees how much bravado he has will show Rafaella that just because he is some poor Sicilian deckhand does not mean he cannot satisfy her. He is trying to prove that he is more competent and masculine than her wealthy Milanese husband. Earning her affection would boost his confidence and show the world that he is capable of wooing one of the most unattainable and untouchable women in the world.
Gennarino is trying to add another trophy to his collection, and he is aiming for the most difficult trophy in all of Italy. She presents a challenge to Gennarino because she is the kind of woman someone like him would never be able to have. Turning her into a quasi-trophy wife would allow Gennarino to feel that “he has been able to snag, in a sense, a spouse or a wife that other men are envious of” (Friedman, par. 26). No one amongst Rafaella’s rich socialite friends would be able to imagine her with someone as grimy and plain as Gennarino, which only further motivates him to get her to fall in love with him. She is unlike his ordinary Sicilian wife back home because Rafaella is “highly educated, self-assured and able to hold her own financially. She’s also not afraid to intimidate any male” (Houghton, par. 7). These are qualities that modern day men search for when hunting for their trophy wives; they do not want just some plain Jane who does whatever he wants.
Women such as Amal Clooney, Michelle Obama, and Melinda Gates are like Rafaella in their elite status amongst society, intelligence, and ability to speak their minds. Rafaella’s verbal skills become apparent in her debate with her husband and his friends about the legality of abortion (Wertmüller, 00:04:18). She is able to carry any intellectual conversation and defend her opinion without any worry (that is, until Gennarino starts chasing her across the island). Dr. Dion Metzger, a psychiatrist and expert in couples therapy, states that “powerful men [search] for a trophy wife to accompany their wealth and prosperity” (Dixon, par. 4). On the island, Gennarino finally gets to be the “powerful man” (finally something prosperous for him) and claim Rafaella as his. The reaction he would receive back in Italy should they remain together would flabbergast his and Rafaella’s family and friends. The pursuit of Rafaella as a personal trophy serves as a way for Gennarino to exert agency over her. She represents everything Gennarino could never attain. Assaulting her and getting her to refer to him as her “master” would prove to him that he is as valuable and capable as all the elites who Rafaella associates with (Wertmüller, 00:59:44). The island is the only place on Earth where the tables are turned and she is found begging to be with him.
Leaving the island together was supposed to be the final test to prove to the aristocrats of Italy that he is just as masculine and desirable as they are by returning home with Rafaella. He calls this the “ultimate proof” to have her show how much she wants him (Wertmüller, 1:37:58). The journey home would be the official confirmation for Gennarino that he is as good, if not better, than the elite men that Rafaella surrounds herself with. She is simply a tool for him to show the world how much of a masculine, domineering man he is. For Gennarino, having Rafaella tell her husband she prefers the Sicilian deckhand rather than her wealthy husband would be the ultimate middle finger to the upper-class folk he has been oppressed by for so long. It would put him on equal footing with the wealthy men who treated him poorly in the past.
Rafaella has the opportunity to give Gennarino the validation he craves should she leave her husband for him, but she rejects him in the end. This rejection denies Gennarino of the satisfaction and power he would have received if she chose to stay with him. Love was never the end game for Gennarino – it was all about leveling his status with the wealthy elites that have mistreated him for so long. It is understandable to empathize with him for wanting to get back at the upper class, but Gennarino’s conquest of Rafaella as the hunt for the most valuable trophy around is all for his own selfish reasons.
Dixon, Carole. “The Modern Day Trophy Wife Is All About Goals, Not Gold.” Bravo TV Official Site, 13 Oct. 2016, www.bravotv.com/blogs/the-modern-day-trophy-wife-is-all-about-goals-not-gold. Accessed 1 Apr. 2019.
Friedman, Emily. “Blond and Beautiful? What Really Makes a 'Trophy Wife'.” ABC News, ABC News Network, abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=3372209&page=1. Accessed 1 Apr. 2019.
Houghton, Kristen. “The New Trophy Wife.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 25 Jan. 2015, www.huffpost.com/entry/the-new-trophy-wife_b_6207364. Accessed 1 Apr. 2019.
Rudegeair, Anna. “The Same Old Story: Tamed Women and Their Misogynistic Counterparts.” Blogspot. N.p. 28 Feb. 2018, http://giantstepspress.blogspot.com/2018/02/the-same-old-story-tamed-women-and.html. Accessed 1 Apr. 2019.
Wertmüller, Lena (Dir.). Swept Away. Perf. Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato. Romano Cardarelli, 1974. Film. Accessed 1 Apr. 2019.