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.