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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Lauren Mechling

The women who earn more than their partners: ‘I’m with someone who is threatened by me’

Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor in Fair Play
Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor in Fair Play. Photograph: Sergej Radovic/AP

They’re the luckiest boy and girl alive, Luke and Emily. Close colleagues and covert lovers at a New York hedge fund – one of those temples of capitalism where everyone is buzzed on entitlement and top-grade espresso – this young and beautiful pair of analysts want for nothing. But then disaster comes – in the form of a promotion and fat raise for Emily (Bridgerton’s luminous Phoebe Dynevor). It’s this extra stroke of good fortune that upends the equation and sets in motion their scrappy race to the bottom. Emily initially pussyfoots around her new status and Luke (a smoldering Alden Ehrenreich) can only keep telling his brilliant fiancee “I’m so happy for you” for so long. He is burning with humiliation and resentment at being leapfrogged over by a member of the fairer sex, igniting the Netflix thriller Fair Play, the writer-director Chloe Domont’s deftly rendered and needle-sharp war of the sexes.

Domont, 36, who has directed episodes of Billions and Ballers, said her film was inspired by her own experiences navigating power dynamics while dating. “When my career started to take off, I had this feeling that my success would cost me my relationships,” she said. “I was dating men who, on the one hand, supported me and were attracted to me because I was ambitious and intelligent and they wanted me to succeed. But on the other hand, there was this feeling that they needed to get there first, and for whatever reason my accomplishments became a poor reflection of their self-worth.”

Her tinderbox of a film lays bare the tensions that poison so many relationships between men, who are supposed to be enlightened, and women, who are supposed to be comfortable with having it all. “We’re in a post-#MeToo era where we’re meant to be past a lot of these things, but I think it’s just less on the surface and more under the rug,” the film-maker said. Like Emily, Domont had a hand in perpetuating the charade, and underplaying the fraught nature of the situation. “It wasn’t something I wanted to admit to my friends because what would that say about me and my choice of partner? I would never want to admit to my girlfriends that I’m with someone who is threatened by me, because I would feel like they would judge me.”

More than a sleek psychosexual thriller, her film points to an unsettling and increasingly relevant truth: as the gender pay gap narrows to the slimmest on record, entrenched beliefs and hangups are slow to evaporate. Women make 84 cents for every dollar a man earns – up from just above 60% of what men made in 1979, the first year the US government began collecting data. “The number of married women who make the same or more than husbands has tripled in the last 50 years, with 16% of wives earning more,” said Julia Pollak, the chief economist at the job search site ZipRecruiter. “But norms take longer to change.”

The reasons that the numbers are moving in women’s favor are myriad. For one, top growing job categories, including those in healthcare, are predominantly occupied by women. Women are having children later, which reduces the lifelong “wage penalty” that comes with career interruptions. Some men deal with the discomfort of earning less than their partners by leaning into the dynamic and posting #sixfigurewife TikTok tributes. Others rely on chauvinistic gurus like Andrew Tate or Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has made the anti-manspreading movement one of his targets.

“I have a theory that women who are powerful seek out men who are complementary,” said Stephanie Danler, the bestselling author of the novel Sweetbitter. “A lot of us unconsciously search for balance, and if you are an ambitious woman then I often think you are searching for a partner who can nurture that.” Her husband, a landscape architect, recently devoted three years to caring for their young children. He has just returned to work. “The porous boundaries are revealing themselves again,” said Danler, who now finds herself juggling Hollywood meetings and writing sessions with children’s doctors’ appointments and playdates during the work day.

Olivia, who lives in Alaska and did not want her last name to be used, makes $90,000 a year – twice what her boyfriend earns as a human rights lawyer. “We split everything down the middle and just send each other a hundred Venmo requests every month,” she said matter of factly. “He keeps track of every shared expense on an Excel spreadsheet.” Except for the expenses that she doesn’t tell him about, out of a desire not to upset him, or be judged for her own desires. “If I buy something like Halloween candy or the expensive cereal at the grocery store, I won’t mention or charge him for it. And when I buy myself something nice, like a new bike, I’ll lie about what it costs.”

Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor in Fair Play
Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor in Fair Play. Photograph: Courtesy of Netflix

“Nicole” (her middle name) works in finance and makes $115,000 a year, while her boyfriend, a dog walker who plans to go to graduate school, earns between $20,000 and $25,000. The biggest stress, she said, comes from her parents, who are dubious about the wage disparity and “tell me to make sure he’s not taking advantage of you”, she said. “There’s a sense that they think I could do better, and I’m always managing that.”

Power roles and “power dispersion” are a key theme in the practices of Sue Marriott and Ann Kelley, who are therapists in Austin, Texas, wives and co-hosts of Therapist Uncensored podcast and co-authors of the upcoming book Secure Relating. “Both the men and the women often report that they want equity, but then when it happens, it hits our body in a different way,” said Kelley. “We think we’re supposed to feel good about it. But when a woman is making more than a man, it can make both of them struggle, and something will feel off or wrong.” Marriott added: “There’s a split between our conscious thinking and our limbic, fight-or-flight learning of, like, what we’ve actually internalized as our map of the world.”

A sudden change in economic circumstances can be just as upsetting to the higher earner, as is rendered in Fair Play. Emily agonizes over how to downplay her success. “When the inequity inverts, that can change their feeling about the relationship because they can either struggle with the man’s struggle, or they lose themselves trying to help their partners,” said Marriott. “We keep hearing that men are toxic. But what’s really toxic? Is that the way that we have in our culture promoted invulnerability in men.”

Domont’s film, which came out in a few theaters last week and is now on Netflix, has hit a nerve, especially among male critics. One cried misanthropy, and a fellow scribe faulted it for not living up to the promise of being an erotic thriller (fair enough, it’s more of a neurotic thriller). Of all the aspects of Domont’s work, the most unbearable might be the complexity with which Luke is portrayed. The movie is less an indictment of his poor sportsmanship than a harrowing depiction of what happens when a society is loaded with retrograde norms and double standards. “I think so many of us are tiptoeing around these things to not make them a thing, but the tension is still there,” said Domont. “I don’t blame Luke for having those feelings. He has internalized that masculinity means that success is a zero-sum game. To break this cycle, it’s going to be up to future generations, and how they raise boys and girls.”

Domont recently started dating a man who seems comfortable with her skyrocketing success. It helps, she said, that he was raised by a mother who was the breadwinner. “Up to this point, I would have said a woman has to choose. I would have said: you can either have a career or a relationship, that women can have it all, but not at the same time.”

  • Fair Play is now available on Netflix

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