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The 'Oscar Curse' is real, study finds

Sandra Bullock and her husband, Jesse James, divorced within months of her Oscar win.
Courtesy of Alcon Entertainment
Sandra Bullock and her husband, Jesse James, divorced within months of her Oscar win.

Here’s a topic to bring up at your Oscar party on Sunday: Do married women who win the best actress award head to divorce court more quickly than their losing peers?

In other words, is the so-called Oscar Curse real?

A new study [PDF], released earlier this year by a team of researchers at the University of Toronto and Carnegie Mellon University, found that, yes, the women who walk away with the best actress award on Oscar night do tend to have shorter marriages than the non-winners.

The study also found that male actors do not experience any increased risk of divorce after taking home a best actor award.

Well, at least the female losers can take solace in a bit of schadenfreude.

Study details
For the study, the researchers looked at the marriage history of the 752 men and women nominated in the best actor and best actress categories between 1936 and 2010. They found that the best actress winners stayed married for a median of 4.30 years, much lower than the 9.51 years for the non-winners. To put it another way, the winners were 63 percent more likely to have a shorter marriage than the non-winners.

Best actor winners, on the other hand, remained married for a median of 11.97 years compared to 12.66 years for their non-winning peers — a difference that’s not statistically significant.

Some broader meaning
This study may seem trivial, but it actually supports some serious research on the social psychology of gender roles. Social norms have long held that married men should earn more and have a higher social status than their spouses. And, indeed, some research has found, as the authors of this study point out, that men may “eschew partners whose intelligence and ambition exceeds their own, and men and women who do not conform to gender stereotypes may elicit negative attitudes not only from their spouse, but also from other family members and observers.”

“Violating this norm,” the researchers add, “can cause discomfort in both partners and strain their marriage.”

More alike than different
In that respect, then, Oscar-winning actresses have a lot in common with the women who watch them on the screen. But, as in “ordinary” marriages, it’s often difficult to know whether the wife or the husband feels this violation of the social norm the keenest — and opts out of the marriage.

“On the one hand,” conclude the study’s authors, “the increased risk of divorce women experience may be ascribed to a husband’s discomfort with his wife’s fame and success. On the other hand, after a status increase, the wife may grow dissatisfied with her current marital arrangement either because she has outgrown the relationship or because she now has the confidence and opportunity to move away from a bad marriage.”

Either way, it’s not a happy ending.

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