Archive for August, 2011

So the last time we were down in Devon, we happened across this…place…that looked like (but wasn’t) an old military listening station. For some reason, its owners had chosen to combine a Play Barn, some lemurs, a miscellaneous collection of stuff that somehow illustrated the history of broadcasting (“This is an old television.” “This is another old television.” This is a rare old television.” This is an old mixing desk…”) and an assortment of reptiles.

All this great stuff under one weirdly Art Deco roof! Naturally, as soon as my kids saw the brochure they insisted we had to go there.

And thank God we did. I’d hate to have missed out on this –

I sort of want to say “it was stuck to the window of the ladies toilets”. But somehow I think that would be missing the point.

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You Simply Won’t Believe What I’ve Found In Here

I now have something of a literary crush on Iva Levin. I was so impressed with The Stepford Wives – and Levin’s single-handed invention of the Feminist-Horror genre – that I had to triple-check on Wikipedia he actually was a man. (Before you flame me for refusing to believe that a male writer could actually write genre fiction in the key of Feminist – just you go ahead and name me any other man in the entire canon of Western literature who has done so. Go on. I dare you. And then I’ll read every word they wrote, too, and review them here.) In Rosemary’s Baby – Levin’s ludicrously convincing tale of a woman who spawns the actual child of Satan – he proves this wasn’t just some sort of strange, one-off mistake. While poking contentedly around in the pulp fiction of a previous generation, I have found myself a creature so rare I honestly wasn’t sure they even existed. Ira Levin is an actual, honest-to-God, Strident Male Feminist.

I’ll start with a quick plot summary, although “Woman Spawns Actual Child Of Satan” pretty much covers the basics. Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse rent an apartment in New York’s Bramford building, which is a fairly standard creepy-haunted-house-that-only-an-idiot-would-want-to-live-in. Next door live an old, weird couple who talk loudly in their bedroom, give awkward dinner-parties, serve epically bad food and ultimately turn out to be devil-worshippers. One night, Rosemary passes out over an intimate dinner with Guy and has an erotic dream featuring a yacht, the Pope, being tied up, and someone with long fingernails and a big wang who has sex with her while a lot of people watch. When she wakes up, Guy explains he had sex with her while she was asleep, because she was ovulating and he didn’t want them to miss the window. And, of course, it worked, and she’s pregnant.

Rosemary then endures a nightmare pregnancy. Rosemary’s in constant pain. Loud Old Next-Door Couple are way over-involved. Her doctor gives terrifyingly bad advice. Guy experiences a creepy run of good luck based entirely on other people’s misfortunes. As her pregnancy progresses, Ro slowly realises what we’ve all known all along – she is being coerced by Devil-worshippers. At the climax of the novel she gives birth to the baby, and he is The Actual Child Of Satan. (Unfortunately, he is called Adrian. This really doesn’t work for me. But that’s a minor detail, and doesn’t spoil the book.) And then, an unexpected twist in the closing pages – when Ro finally gets to meet her baby, she loves him anyway. The book closes with the fabulous, unsettling spectacle of Ro nursing Devil Baby while the worshippers look on in awe and fascination.

How does Ro, presumably a reasonably normal young woman, end up nursing Adrian, Spawn of Satan, while a bunch of devoted elderly Satanists gawp at her? Well, one of the reasons I find this book so fascinating is because I don’t quite know how to read it. I don’t quite know how to read Rosemary.

Levin gives us plenty of signposts that point to Ro being a modern, liberated woman. She’s broadly rejected her Catholic upbringing. She has a copy of the Kinsey report on her bookshelves. She has a truly weird conversation (the only badly-written scene in the novel) with the elderly Mrs Castavet and Mrs Castavet’s friend Laura-Louise on the subject of menstruation. “You look worn,” observes Mrs Castavet. “It’s the first day of my period,” Ro explains casually. You and I might think this is a strange way to introduce yourself to a perfect stranger (“Hi, I’m Ro, and this is the first day of my period, may I offer you some coffee?”) but Laura-Louise is strangely down with it. She happily reminisces about how bad her periods used to be (The cramps! The clots! The family rushing round with bottles of gin! Ah, how we used to laugh…), takes out a bag of wool, and starts crocheting. This is a ludicrous scene, that has no visible point. The only reason I can think for its existence is to establish that Ro’s in tune with her cycle, in step with the times, happy to discuss her body; in fact, part of the sisterhood.

But despite the Kinsey report and her strange eagerness to discuss her period with total strangers, Ro still seems ridiculously passive, excessively childlike, far too submissive to authority figures. In other words; strange and exceptional. But in the Horror genre, the strange and exceptional is reserved for events. Your average Horror protagonist is almost always…just average.

There are two possible readings of this. Number one: Ro is weird, and this book breaks a fundamental rule of the Horror genre to make the plot work. Number two: Ro is totally normal for her time, and we should all take a deep breath of thankfulness that times have moved on.

Here’s a case in point. When it comes time to pick a doctor to supervise this pregnancy, Ro’s first choice is Dr Hill – recommended by her friend Ellie, who’s already had two babies. Dr Hill is young and cute and nice, and gives her some pre-natal vitamins. But Guy and the Castavets steer her towards Dr Sapirstein (who is, of course, a member of the Coven). To modern eyes, Dr Sapirstein’s advice is so utterly stupid that I actually laughed.

Number One: “Please don’t read books.” Seriously; that’s his very first piece of direct speech. “Please don’t read books.” Number two piece of advice is even better (and again, I’m quoting directly) – “Don’t listen to your friends.” After all, what would they know? They’ve only been through this pregnancy thing themselves multiple times and all, right? Nothing to learn there. But number three is my personal favourite; he tells her to throw away her vitamin pills and start drinking the herbal mixture Mrs Castavet upstairs is going to start making and bringing down for her every morning. That’s Mrs Castavet, who has no medical qualifications. And who can’t even make chocolate mousse taste normal. Or mix a cocktail without slopping it all over the new carpet.

I’m seriously considering posting a dressed-up version of this encounter on the Mumsnet prenatal boards, just to see what happens. “I saw my doctor this morning, and he told me not to read any books or talk to any other women because it would only worry me. Also, a woman I have only known for two months, and who has no medical qualifications, is going to bring me a herb drink every morning which I am supposed to drink. I don’t know what’s in it, but apparently it’s good for me. AIBU to be a bit suspicious of this advice?”

But instead of laughing in his face just before walking out, finding a lawyer and threatening a malpractice suit, Ro goes along with every word. He’s a doctor. She’s just a silly little woman. Of course Dr Saperstein knows best!

This dynamic – Ro’s strange passivity in the face of outrageous coercion – turns up again and again and again. The dinner-party where Ro’s best female friends stage an intervention in her kitchen, insisting she must see another doctor because constant pain and severe weight-loss are absolutely not normal symptoms of pregnancy. (Meanwhile, Guy is practically beating down the door in case they’re managing to convince her.) The book that Ro’s friend Hutch gives her, which reveals the Castavet’s Devil-worshipping habits – and which Guy hides from her, then throws away when she’s not looking, because “worrying isn’t good for you, or the baby”. And, most chillingly, the occasion of Devil Child’s conception.

One evening, Creepy Old Neighbour Minnie Castavet appears at the doorway citing a surfeit of chocolate mousse, and leaves Guy and Ro with two ramekins. Ro thinks hers tastes weird. Guy bullies her into eating it; Ro rebels by secretly hiding the last bit in her napkin. Of course, the mousse is drugged. As soon as Ro’s out cold, she is carried into the Castavets’ apartment, who summon up the Devil, who possesses Guy and impregnates her. When Ro awakes the next morning, Guy explains that he had sex with her while she was passed out. “It was kind of fun,” he tells her, “in a necrophile sort of way.”

Ro’s response is beautifully executed, and incredibly chilling. She tries to assert herself – “I dreamed someone was raping me”, and then backs away again – “Oh, I guess I’m being silly.” She makes Guy his breakfast, and when he’s left, she does the washing-up. She makes the bed, and tidies up the apartment. And then, when all these household tasks are done, she gets into the shower and washes, and washes, and washes.

These days, this is marital rape – a criminal offence with jail-time attached. Back in 1967, the crime quite literally didn’t exist. These days, Ro would have a language and a label for her outrage, and the backing of the law. Back in 1967, Ro still has the outrage, but she has no way to articulate it. She’s on the cusp of breaking free – in fact, she actually leaves Guy for a while to stay in a friend’s cabin – but, in the end, she goes back again. The whole of society is telling her to stay with Guy. All she has to fight it with are her own instincts. And that’s just not enough.

So, she goes back to Guy. She sees Dr Sapirstein. She doesn’t read books. She doesn’t listen to her friends. She drinks the herbal drink. And as a consequence, she spawns the actual child of the Devil.

Ultimately, that’s why I think this book is still relevant to Feminist debates. If you look past its outrageous B-movie premise, what you actually have is a horror-story about control. Ro wants to control her own body – she’s this close to emancipation, this close to breaking out – but she can’t quite get there. (In fact, now that I think about it, even the title – “Rosemary’s Baby” – is ironic. Does it count as “your” baby if you didn’t consent to its conception, can’t remember the birth, didn’t choose its name and have no say over its future?) Even if Guy, not Satan, was the father of Rosemary’s Baby, I’d still say she’d given birth to the Devil’s child. Guy is a controlling, manipulative, aggressive, narcissistic rapist. That sounds pretty Satanic to me.

The Stepford Wives is terrifying because the questions it raises about gender equality still feel horribly relevant. By contrast, Rosemary’s Baby feels more like a period piece. It’s a reminder of the bad old days, when you could actually be told by an actual professional to actually not bother your pretty little head with all that book-learning stuff, and feel grateful to him for doing so. I wasn’t expecting to find a piece of feminist history buried in a fifty-year-old horror story, but that’s why I love poking around in the trash so much. You never quite know what you’re going to find.

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And we won’t like Mr Tesco when he’s angry.

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Good to know.

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Seriously, People. If This Book Doesn’t Scare The Shit Out Of You Then You’re Really Not Paying Attention.

If you’re anything like me, you don’t really feel like you need to read The Stepford Wives. Because honestly, we already know what it’s about, right? Traditional American community, frilly aprons, nicely waxed floors, scarily upbeat housewives, something about baking, blah blah blah, little bit hazy on the ending. Stepford is an icon of modern culture. It stands for the fifties and high heels and restrictive underwear and immaculate hairdos and a weird fixation with baked goods. It’s so established a part of our lexicon that I can even casually refer to it when posting up a recipe and know that you’ll know what I mean.

But, having read and thoroughly enjoyed Rosemary’s Baby (review coming up shortly), and discovering that it would only cost me 99p to download the Kindle version, I thought I’d give The Stepford Wives a go. And Jaheeseus Christ, I may just never lightheartedly refer to a Stepford Anything ever, ever again.

So, the plot. Joanna Eberhart and her family have made the decision to escape the urban jungle of 1970s New York City and move out to the suburbs. Their community of choice is Stepford. The book opens with Joanna talking to the Welcome Wagon lady. Specifically, she is briefing the Welcome Wagon lady, because she wants her write-up in the local paper to help her meet like-minded women. So she lists her interests, which are: tennis, photography (which she is building into a career), politics and the Women’s Liberation Movement. “Very much so into that,” she says. “And so is my husband.” [my emphasis.]

There’s more to come, but – just as when I first read it – I need to stop and get my breath back. This isn’t a book about the 1950s; it’s a book about the 1970s. This isn’t a book about a polite non-entity who gets steamrollered by the suburban dream; this is a book about an active political feminist. And her husband Walter…is apparently proud to call himself a feminist too.

This I did not expect.

Joanna and Walter set about integrating into their new lives. Walter joins the Men’s Association – an odd move for an apparently self-declared Women’s Libber, but he promises Joanna he will effect change from the inside. In fact, he claims, if in six months women can’t join the Men’s Association, he’ll quit. (Remember this six-month time limit; it will become indescribably creepy later on.) Joanna makes contact with a number of the other local wives, but finds most of them strangely uninterested in joining a Women’s group. Instead, while their husbands are out at the Men’s Association, the women stay up late and wax floors. Truly, that’s what Joanna’s neighbour is doing the first night she and Walter move in – she’s waxing the living-room floor. That’s not making cup-cakes look pretty – that’s hard, physical labour, the kind of job I’d automatically get someone else in to do for me. And she’s doing it at the end of a busy day.

Wasn’t quite expecting that either.

Joanna finds one like-minded soul; Bobby Markowe. Bobby keeps a happy, dirty house full of dogs and contented, messy children. She has a cheerful smile, dirty feet and a nice fat bum, and doesn’t worry about her appearance. She’s also a strident feminist, and despises the Men’s Association. Apart from the dogs, she’s pretty much me, at least on a good day. Probably she’s you, too.

Fired by their friendship, Joanna and Bobby try to set up a Women’s Association, but are almost totally unsuccessful. The other women are too busy ironing, or cleaning folding doors with a sponge and a bucket of soapy water, or stacking their shopping trolleys tidily. (Note how utterly mundane, how labour-intensive, how soul-destroyingly pointless all of these tasks are. Being a Stepford Wife is emphatically not about the cupcakes.) Which is weird, because they used to belong to the Stepford Women’s Association – a now-defunct group who used to regularly attract heavyweight speakers from the Women’s Lib movement. They do find one other potential member – Charmaine, also a new arrival. But suddenly, inexplicably, Charmaine and Bobby also become strangely groomed and beautiful, and lose all interest in anything other than housework…

The rest of the novel follows Joanna’s gradual realisation that the men of Stepford are replacing their wives – their sassy, flesh-and-blood, politically-active wives – with robots. Robots with bigger tits and smaller waists and more perfectly-kept hair. Robots with no opinions. Robots who will gratify even the very strangest of sexual kinks. Robots who don’t mind, or even notice, that their husbands are getting older and paunchier. And the real women the robots have replaced? Well, it appears they’ve all been murdered. Based on what she learns, Joanna suspects there’s about a four-month window in which the “Stepford effect” happens, so she’s constantly working against the clock. (Remember how Walter said he’d give the Men’s Association six months to buck its ideas up?) Joanna finds out the truth in time, but she dies anyway; in the closing scene of the novel, we see Joanna’s robotic replacement, serenely cruising the supermarket aisles while another new arrival, Ruthanne, watches her in bewilderment.

The thing is, this isn’t a story where the men rebel against their wives’ demands that they do their share of the washing-up. Since housework is a zero-sum game that no-one enjoys, I personally think the idea of outsourcing to a willing machine is totally sensible. But that’s not what the Stepford men do. If they wanted their kitchens cleaner or their floors…I don’t know, waxier…they could just have built a strange, sexless robotic functionary who could liberate both them and their wives from all of the crappy, boring tasks that come with running a home and raising a family.

They could have done that, for sure, no problem. But instead, they murder their wives – their extraordinary, funny, intelligent, talented, successful wives – and replace them with robots with big tits. This is a novel about the bone-deep and irrational hatred of newly-liberated women, by men with power.

The second reason it scares me to death is this. Joanna repeatedly seeks reassurance from her husband that he loves her – that he doesn’t want her to be like the Stepford wives. Of course, he insists that he loves her just the way she is. And, of course, she’s never completely convinced. And, of course, that’s because he’s lying. It’s not all in Joanna’s head. If any woman asks her husband, “Darling, would you love me more if I had a figure like Jessica Rabbit and thought everything you did was perfect?”, I doubt any of them would say, “Actually, yeah.” But if we believed them, would we ever need to ask? Have any of us truly shaken the belief that the perfect woman is the woman who most perfectly services her husband?

Which leads me onto the next reason I find this book utterly bone-chilling. Joanna, watching these robots stacking their trolleys in the supermarket – neatly, precisely, not an inch wasted – has to fight off the compulsion to start doing the same thing. In an environment where there are no men, these robots have been programmed to conform to an absurd stereotype of femininity. And when Joanna looks at another woman’s neater, better-stacked shopping trolley, she actually experiences the urge to rearrange her shopping. Why is this scary? Because I totally get this impulse. Whenever the real women encounter the Stepford robots, they’re conflicted. They despise the empty vacuity of their Stepford counterparts…and they also worry that actually, they’re the ones who look like the losers.

Here’s the scene that haunts me the most. Joanna goes to visit Bobby, and talks to her little boy in the yard. “I can’t get over the way your mother’s changed,” she says to him. And this little boy, not even yet into puberty, replies: “She doesn’t shout any more, she makes hot breakfasts…I hope it lasts.” [my emphasis.]

And again, a little part of me finds it believable.

This book scares me because of what it tells me about myself. Despite being the lucky and privileged daughter of several generations of feminists, part of me still secretly believes that women’s liberation, like housework, is a zero-sum game; that the happier and freer I become, the more unhappy and frustrated my husband and children will be. When a writer presents me with the proposition that even educated, clever men prefer a beautiful, brainless domestic slave to a real live woman, a little bit of me thinks, Yeah. That makes sense. Somewhere in my head is the belief that the perfect woman would, in fact, have a perfectly-stacked trolley. I’m pretty sure it’s dumb. But I also know it’s there.

Furthermore, I know where it comes from. It’s reinforced every time I read an article explaining how women can combine housework with their career. Every time a piece of legislation is passed granting women (but not men) the right to request “flexible working” (which, and you can trust me on this, means “the right to cram a full-time job into part-time hours for a part-time salary, in return for which you can spend a bit of time with your kids, and feel guilty that it’s not more”). Every single newspaper report declaring that working mothers either do, or do not, fuck up their children by working outside the home; and all the research that’s not done to investigate whether working fathers have the same impact. Every woman who’s asked, “So, how do you combine your career with your family?”; and every man who isn’t.

Most of all, it scares me because it makes me wonder how many men – men who run companies – men who run countries – men who run Health services – men with power – share these beliefs too.

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…because you are a bunch of gougers whose entire concept of the word “Honesty” begins and ends with “Word beginning with ‘H'”. So now you have to have an ordinary Pay and Display car park, like the scum you are. Yeah.

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