post-modern love

Judging Priscilla Chan: Why People Won’t Stop

Celebrities at the Knicks vs Mavericks basketball game held at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Pictured: Mark Zuckerberg with his girlfriend Priscilla Chan.
Photo: Ron Asadorian/Splash News

As Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan begin their marriage with an Italian honeymoon, she has frustrated the celebrity industrial complex just as he has vexed Wall Street: by refusing to play the game.

The gossip press’s new favorite narrative about the couple focuses on their tightwad ways. First, Zuckerberg didn’t get Chan an expensive enough ring; now he’s cheap for taking her to McDonald’s and for failing to tip at a sit-down restaurant (you’re often not supposed to tip in Europe). Not only does Chan not seem upset by McDonald’s or a wedding menu featuring $7.50 burritos, she appears to prefer it. In a world of celebrity weddings and bejeweled arm-candy wives, she’s not demanding to be treated as a princess by her wealthy husband, and worse still, she’s ignoring demands from the public that she act like one for their amusement. Chan might have been forgiven her disinterest in material status symbols if she’d shown any willingness to let the press take a look at what she does value, but instead, she’s largely refused to grant interviews, making the celebrity press even more inclined toward vindictiveness.

There’s always been a certain amount of interest in Chan as Zuckerberg’s longtime love interest. But the captivating wedding photograph, in which Chan looks elegant and gorgeous at the peak of post-IPO Facebook hysteria, gave her the style and aura of a bona fide princess (Buzzfeed’s Shift breathlessly dubbed her the “Kate Middleton of Silicon Valley”). Long before and long after Jackie Kennedy, Americans have been looking for a princess of our own; every new possible entrant has to be auditioned for the role in the pages of Vogue and the New York Times “Styles” section. Chan’s behavior hasn’t been encouraging for that faction. The Times recounts an incident in which Chan and Randi Zuckerberg were shopping, and she picked up a pair of $600 shoes. “You should get them, you have the money,” said Zuckerberg, to which Chan reportedly replied, “It’s not my money.”  The Harvard and medical school grad is doing her own thing, and it does not include expensive footwear. (Another recent topic of Zuckerberg-Chan speculation: that they timed the wedding to purposely fall after the IPO so their shared marital assets wouldn’t include that new wealth, which he’d acquired while still — if barely — a bachelor.)

Chan, who grew up in Boston with Chinese parents, has also come in for a fair amount of ethnicity-specific judgment. Another Buzzfeed Shift writer complained, with a mixture of envy and admiration, that Chan’s academic and marital achievements make her “every Tiger Mom’s dream child.” On the flipside, she has not been well-received by bloggers in China, one of whom described her as a “dark, ugly dwarf” who wed the “tall, rich, handsome man.” Another Chinese critic said: “I really do not understand foreigners’ aesthetic standards when it comes to Chinese girls.” It’s not just Americans who want to fit her into a neat box of what a billionaire’s wife might look and act like, in other words.

But Silicon Valley has a very different definition of “trophy wife” — it’s often the woman who wins the trophies instead of being one. Zuckerberg is hardly the first tech-billionaire to have a wife who is highly accomplished in her own right; he joins Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, to name just a couple of examples. Maybe it’s something about the way the constant exchange of ideas (not confined to work hours) is valued in the industry and culture of tech. More likely, a certain breed of tech titans looks forward to having a modern marriage that is, above all, a partnership of equals. And what tech guy would want to look backwards?

Judging Priscilla Chan: Why People Won’t Stop