Society December 2003

A Stepford for Our Times

To work as social satire today, a remake of The Stepford Wives should be as much about perfecting children as about perfecting wives

In 1975, when the movie The Stepford Wives first came out, it was widely regarded as a chilling parable about men's fears of feminism, a tale of horror that also worked as a social satire on sexism. Sure, it struck some women's liberationists as a ham-fisted attempt to cash in on the movement. But Ira Levin, who wrote the novel on which the movie was based, seems to have been in earnest—or as earnest as he could be with a brisk little potboiler in which suburban husbands band together to replace their wives with lubricious and empty-headed robots. Levin even broadcast his good faith with a somber epigraph from Simone de Beauvoir.

Now The Stepford Wives is being remade (a summer release is planned), with a big-name cast headed by Nicole Kidman, and in a spirit bent on preserving its reputation as both camp classic and libber invective—a barb aimed squarely at what De Beauvoir called the "bad grace" of men forced to deal with autonomous women. "Straight white males act like the angry new endangered minority," Paul Rudnick, the remake's screenwriter, told Maureen Dowd for a column in The New York Times. "Men only evolve with a gun at their head."

So it is curious that the term "Stepford wives," which has enjoyed such a sturdy life in our culture, is so seldom used in the critique of sexism. What the term has come to signify, above all, is a kind of feminine perfectionism—usually in the domestic realm, but not necessarily in the service of a husband. It evokes the control freak rather than the hopeless submissive. (It has had a particularly successful run as a taunt for Martha Stewart.) As Peter Straub laments in his introduction to the thirtieth-anniversary edition of Levin's novel, the "misconception" of the book as a "satire on the banality of suburban housewives" has "installed its title in our language as shorthand for those homemakers who affect an uncanny perfection."

I can imagine a few explanations for why the reference has served more effectively as a dis of (overly domesticated) women than of (tyrannical) men. One is a sort of conspiracy theory, which holds that any parody of male behavior eventually becomes, through the relentless workings of misogyny, a parody of female behavior. But another—and, I think, a more convincing one—is that the specter of men transforming their wives into cookie-baking robots with a limited grasp of the language doesn't seem so chilling now, because it is not so salient. Sure, Lara Croft and her video-game progeny are busty cyber-babes, like Stepford wives on steroids. But those babes kick ass, which confuses matters a bit. And yes, as Maureen Dowd reminded us, Botox and all the other domesticated and mass-marketed forms of plastic surgery make their consumers a little more placid-looking, a little more Stepford-perfect. Finally, if we want to throw them in, mood-modulating prescription drugs are easier than ever to resort to. But Botox and Xanax are hardly the sexist husband's revenge. Their success is a highly complex achievement of marketing, not of male supremacy. And given that the vast majority of twentysomethings, men included, say that what they are seeking in a spouse is an economically independent "soul mate," the ideal of wifely vacuousness, if it ever existed, isn't exactly thriving today.

In contrast, parodies of pan-gender upper-middle-class perfectionism do have bite, because we live in a world of it: life coaches and education consultants; endless hours of strenuously enriching and uplifting activities for children; IQ-boosting exercises everywhere we look. One of the most striking things about the original Stepford Wives, both the novel and the movie, is how small a place is occupied by children. The protagonist, Joanna Eberhart, and her husband move from Manhattan to suburban Connecticut partly because the schools are better, but not much is made of that fact. In the movie two little blonde girls bounce around in the back of the family's station wagon (no seat-belt laws in 1975) as the family decamps for still, green Stepford; but after that we don't see much of them. Katharine Ross as Joanna, a listlessly rebellious amateur photographer and hippie chick, comes off as a little childlike herself, with her tomboy frame, her long loose hair, and her lovely unlined face. None of the wives, least of all Joanna, is busy schlepping her kids to afternoon activities—or, indeed, anywhere. With so few parental duties to attend to, Joanna seems to have plenty of time, in her pre-robotic state, to stare dreamily into space and to troop around town with her louche friend Bobbie, trying to stoke interest in a consciousness-raising group and giggling over afternoon treats of Scotch and Ring-Dings. She makes coffee for her husband, but it's instant (this is the seventies, after all, an era ignorant of the unyielding foodie standards to come): a couple of spoonfuls of those glittering crystals and he's good to go. This was a time when a bubbling tuna casserole and some Toll House cookies could make one a domestic paragon. Imagine all the recipes those evil Stepford guys would now have to program into their robots—who'd probably go haywire serving the coulis-of-heirloom-tomato appetizer at their first dinner party. Stepford's animatronic wives don't shine in a maternal capacity either. Mainly they boff their husbands, cook (casseroles), clean with household products they adore, and glide languidly through the supermarket in frilly halter dresses—all Jordan-almond pastels, a palette their barbarous menfolk evidently favor.

From the archives:

"The Organization Kid" (April 2001)
The young men and women of America's future elite work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life. By David Brooks

A Stepford Wives that worked as social satire today would be different from its predecessor: It would be at least as much about the project of perfecting children as that of perfecting wives. It would be about the collaboration between ambitious fathers and mothers who believe both in the meritocracy and in doing what it takes to rig it in the interest of their own offspring's Ivy League prospects. It would be about shameless string-pulling to get kids into the right nursery school. Status anxiety about three-year-olds. The subtle assessing of other people's children in relation to one's own.

But I suspect that such half-panicked striving won't be a big part of the new Stepford Wives, which promises to be a fizzier sort of thing. An audience can more easily feel a smug distance from diabolically boorish men than from familiar-looking couples with a shared investment in perfecting their children. What the new Stepford Wives may well turn out to be, perhaps despite itself, is a movie that reminds us how farfetched the idea of a backlash male conspiracy really is.

Margaret Talbot is a fellow at the New America Foundation and a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine.
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