Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce are the couple of the hour. The pop star and the football player are young, gorgeous, at the top of their respective games and seemingly in the throes of an intense new love.
They’re also a surprisingly positive relationship model for men and women alike.
Swift needs no introduction: She’s a singer, songwriter and performer who boasts a string of broken records: highest-grossing tour of all time; most number-one albums by a female artist; most-attended concert by a female artist. Her “Eras” tour has been a phenomenon — a must-see for thousands of girls (and some boys) around the world, and projected to rake in billions.
Kelce needs a little more explanation for those of us who aren’t football enthusiasts. He’s a 34-year-old tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, scoring touchdowns in two Super Bowls the Chiefs won. He also co-hosts a podcast with his brother Jason, who plays center for the Philadelphia Eagles. Kelce, in other words, is a star in his own world. But Swift is a superstar the world over.
In a moment of what feels like peak male insecurity, the Taylor-Travis relationship is a useful model: two ambitious adults, both excellent at what they do, but the female half of the couple is both more successful and a higher earner, by a huge margin — and the male half seems totally fine with that.
Finding love isn’t always easy for American women in a more feminist world, even as American women have become far better off. Thanks to immense social changes brought about by a combination of feminist activism, reliable contraception and the right to a safe and legal abortion (that last bit was good while it lasted), American women have been on a steady rise since the 1950s.
Age of first marriage has gone up while birth rates have gone down, which means American women and girls are far less likely than in past decades to be teenage brides or mothers before they are ready. Women have outnumbered men on college campuses for the last several decades, and record numbers of women now work outside the home. This has all been wonderful for women and families, and for men, too, who can enjoy the benefits of healthier, wealthier and freer friends, wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. Women, to borrow from Gloria Steinem, are becoming the men they once wanted to marry.
Unfortunately, though, a startling number of men see women’s successes as a threat. The husband-as-breadwinner nuclear family model has been on a rapid decline, but nearly half of Americans still say that men prefer to out-earn their wives. Studies have found that men become stressed and uncomfortable when their wives out-earn them, and that men feel emasculated by intelligent and successful women.
Perhaps as a result of these many fragile male egos, women seem to go out of their way to soothe their husbands’ anxieties about shifting gender roles: While stay-at-home wives predictably and rightly take on more housework than their employed husbands, breadwinner wives do more housework than their unemployed spouses — that is, women who are the primary or sole earners in their marriages still do more around the house than their husbands. Their husbands, however, enjoy significant leisure time: Stay-at-home husbands spend nearly twice as much time on leisure activities as stay-at-home wives. And even among couples who both work and earn roughly equal amounts of money, wives do roughly twice as much housework as their husbands, according to a Pew Research Center study this year.
Wives who earn more than their husbands also tend to under-report their earnings, while men inflate theirs, according to research from the US Census Bureau — something researchers believe signals insecurity on both sides of the gender divide. And that’s perhaps not surprising, given the pressures put on men to be financial providers: A 2017 Pew survey found that more than 71% of Americans say that a man has to be able to financially support a family in order to be a good partner; just 32% say the same about women.
Women routinely say they are looking for financial equals in their romantic relationships; men, on the other hand, are comparatively happier to date women who earn less than they do, or earn nothing at all. According to the Survey Center on American Life at the American Enterprise Institute, 89% of college-educated women and 74% of non-college women say they would be less likely to date a man who was unemployed, while only 66% of college-educated men and 47% of non-college men say they would be less likely to date an unemployed women. Nearly half of women with college degrees, according to the survey, say they struggle to find a partner, even though their expectations don’t seem impossibly high (have a job, live nearby, take care of your health, be decent to women). Fewer than a quarter of single men say they have a hard time finding a romantic mate who meets their expectations.
As more women have thrived and more men have floundered, and as men and women alike continue to prioritize men’s earning power, it’s no surprise marriage rates have declined, particularly among the working class where higher rates of workplace injury, drug addiction, alcoholism and incarceration have pulled men out of the workforce and made them less stable and desirable partners.
Swift and Kelce are both fabulously wealthy, and money does make relationships easier — she’s now a billionaire, according to Bloomberg. When couples aren’t stressed about money and resources, and when all of their basic needs are met, any relationship will have a stronger foundation. But even the rich and famous still live in societies with social norms and gendered expectations, and Kelce holds one of the most masculine-coded jobs in the world.
There are no female players in the NFL and barely any female coaches or referees; sports fans are disproportionately male; and women’s sports gets virtually no coverage on local TV and ESPN. Sports fans tilt conservative, and conservatives are much more likely to desire traditional gender roles in their families and in society more broadly. In the US, there’s no more macho man than the football player, and Kelce himself is a very macho guy: bearded, square-jawed, physically imposing.
Right-wing carping aside, the Swift-Kelce romance is a nice reminder that statistics only tell half the story, and there are many, many men out there who don’t hang their masculinity on out-earning or professionally out-ranking their wives or girlfriends, and are thrilled to celebrate their partner’s ambition and success — including when their partners are more ambitious and more successful than they are. And it’s a nice model, especially for the young men who look at sports stars as paragons of masculinity and see Kelce, who asked Swift out by trying to give her a friendship bracelet, who shows up to her concerts singing and dancing, and who, when called “Taylor’s boyfriend” at a game, pumped his fist with pride. Swift, in turn, makes time in what is an undoubtedly insane schedule to support Kelce at his games — and to go out with her girlfriends, too.
Some skeptics say that the Swift-Kelce relationship is fake, drummed up for the positive PR. It does feel a little too perfect: Swift, the popstar who catapulted her way to fame by singing about heartbreak and bad boyfriends and big, swinging teenager feelings, and who is beloved by so many girls because she’s both aspirational and an all-American Everywoman, is in big public puppy love with about the most all-American boy you could imagine. The truth may also be somewhere in the middle: that these two have a romantic connection, but they’re also media-savvy enough to leverage their budding relationship for maximal positive coverage. It’s certainly been good for both of their public profiles.
Whether the romance exists or not, the power dynamic it reflects is real: Either Swift and Kelce are genuinely in love and breaking the gender norms typically on display from athletes and often at play in American households, or this is a relationship entered into for mutual benefit, in which case it’s a sign of progress that a football star is happy to be “Taylor’s boyfriend.”
Sports stars notoriously partner with WAGs, beautiful women who are reduced to “wives and girlfriends,” and whose own work traditionally ceases or takes a backseat to their partners’ — not unlike the dynamic at play in the relationships of a great many not-famous couples. In the Swift-Kelce relationship, Swift certainly shows up to support him, but it’s hard to imagine that her primary concern is, as one football player’s wife put it, “Are things taken care of at home so that they can focus on the game?”
Sure, Swift is in the bleachers, dating the football star. But she’s also headlining shows all over the world. And her less-famous football player boyfriend is the one in the stands, cheering her on.