A power couple is made by a powerful woman.
Many men are powerful alone. It is the talented woman who makes the couple interesting.
Aristotle spoke of relationships as being of three sorts. Those based on pleasure, those on profit and those on shared virtue (or lack of virtue).
The relationship between powerful men and powerful women is unusual and different because it has elements of all three. The phrase we use for the product of this bonding, “power couple”, is boring. It disguises how the dynamic of the relationship changes as the position of the woman shifts in the relationship. Let’s examine a few types and observe the difference.
1) Where the woman is as famous as the man when they become a couple.
This is the most volatile and most unpredictable relationship of the ones we will look at. Volatile because there is no pressure on the woman to be subservient. Since the woman has achieved fame independently of the man, he does not tire of her easily, if ever, even if he is a serial monogamist.
Often he returns to her, because others envy his place.
Maria Callas was many years the Western world’s most famous singer when she was wooed by Aristotle Onassis. She was married, he wasn’t. She left her husband (holding a press conference to dump him) and moved in with Onassis. But he chose not to marry her. Soon after, America’s president was murdered and his 34-year-old widow, even more powerful and more beautiful (not in my opinion, though) than Callas, was on the market. Callas lost her pregnancy as her Greek millionaire chased after and married Jacqueline Kennedy, who promptly cleaned him out. Anne Edwards writes in Callas’ biography that Jackie O spent $20 million (around Rs.100 crore now) the first year. Onassis went back to Callas, this time whistling love songs outside her building till she submitted. And then, inevitably, he returned to Jacqueline again.
The second example of this sort of power couple is Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. They married, separated, married and separated, never satisfied with one another and never really happy with anyone else.
In a piece he wrote for Life’s March 1967 issue, when they were married, Burton referred to how much they were paid per film. “I have an inferiority complex about Elizabeth getting $2 million and I only $1 million.” This insecurity came out again later in his piece. He informs us, having first met Taylor when she was 19, that now, at 34, there were “a few flaws in the masterpiece: she has an insipid double-chin, her legs are too short and she has a slight pot-belly.” He only slightly retrieves it by adding “she has a wonderful bosom, though”.
2) Where, though both are famous, the woman is more so than the man.
Here we are aware of a sense of tragedy that’s built into the relationship because of the imbalance or asymmetry.
Our example is Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller. The playwright was different from other men who chased the actress, including John F. Kennedy. “You’re the saddest girl I’ve ever known,” Miller told her. “Nobody ever said that to me!” she replied.
I don’t think he got over her. In his autobiography Timebends, the photographs are captioned with dates, names and places, except for the one page with three pictures of her, with him. “The best of times” are the only words on it.
3) Where the woman is dominant and the man becomes famous through her.
This is slightly different from the one above. Mark Antony was powerful as part of the three-man gang that succeeded Julius Caesar, along with emperor Augustus and... can you remember the third man? Few have heard of Marcus Lepidus. It is not Antony’s position as triumvir that made him famous. It is his bedding of Cleopatra which drew Suetonius and Plutarch and Shakespeare to him. Cleopatra was Greek, and had earlier been an item with Caesar (whose child she bore). Of all the people on this page, she is the most impressive, apparently killing herself by having an asp bite her. She would have been famous no matter who she slept with, but Antony has gone down in history because of her.
4) When a beautiful woman marries a rich man.
This is the most common type of power couple. It is also the most boring sort. This sort of relationship can be sustainable if the woman is mature. She adds to the man’s power and sustains her own, if her power came, as is most often the case with powerful women, through her looks. Actresses marrying rich people, or fellow actors who have a longer shelf life, usually fall into this bracket, especially in India.
5) Where the woman achieves fame through the man, but later eclipses him.
Sonia Gandhi is already more influential and more powerful than her husband was. In the beginning they might not have qualified as a power couple in the sense that one was only a spouse. But in the East, this is not relevant. Even in the West, some have used the springboard of marriage well. Will Hillary become a bigger figure than Bill Clinton? Michelle Obama is another to watch out for. What a fascinating time we have ahead of us.
The sexual inverse of the Rajiv-Sonia story is to be found in Pakistan, where Asif Ali Zardari became famous through marriage and is now on his way to becoming, even more than Benazir Bhutto, the person to temper that country’s instinct for suicide.
6) Where the woman uses her position after marriage to assume power.
The great modern example is Melinda Gates, who is the force behind the wealthiest and most powerful philanthropic body in history after the Church, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They’ve eradicated polio from India and are now going after malaria.
Another example of the same type is Noor Jahan and Jahangir. The Mughal was either out hunting or stoned for large periods of his two-decade rule. Noor Jahan took over the emperor’s principal task, deciding the imperial bureaucracy’s transfers, promotions and demotions, from Jahangir. She was the most powerful woman in the 200 years of Mughal dominance.
Unlike the other Mughals, Jahangir actually chose to marry her. It was neither an arranged marriage, nor one of prestige, nor one of convenience. She was a widow and was spotted by him at a playful bazaar the Mughals sometimes held where women of nobility sold trinkets and could appear unveiled, putting their wares on display, this time successfully.
7) Where the woman is both equally famous and also the man’s rival.
This is actually a stable relationship, because the couple is forced to keep the outside world out of their relationship. The brilliant Democrat strategist James Carville (who coined “It’s the economy, stupid!”, the line with which Clinton defeated George Bush Sr) is married to Mary Matalin, who was on Bush’s campaign team. The couple often appear on television panels, taking one another’s parties apart often angrily and always articulately. It is remarkable, given how deeply they believe in their positions, that they have a successful marriage.
“We never talk politics at home,” says Carville.
Actually, most couples in India’s big cities now have such marriages. The wife has a corporate job, and she is skilled, competing with the man in making money. In that sense, we are all power couples, and she is what makes us interesting.
Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.
Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns