If someday you move to a quaint little town, picturesque and for the families who live there picture perfect with ideal lives, and your husband or partner tells you you need a nice quiet weekend away--just the two of you--run! Now, not to put the blame too squarely on the men's/husband's shoulders, because in Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives, the husbands are not entirely bad or without redeeming qualities. Maybe it is down to the 'pack mentality', but in a group setting they cave into the fable of what the media/society tells them (all of us really) is the ideal marriage/woman/wife/mother.
The Stepford Wives is an iconic novel/movie. Even if you have not read or seen either, I am sure you understand what a Stepford wife is. You probably have an image in mind and the narrative to match. And even not having read the book that mental narrative will still be pretty close to what the story portrays, which I guess is fitting really. In a way the book mimics life in that those images are what our culture feeds into, and our expectations (even though they are not based much in reality) of what it means to be the perfect wife/woman.
I knew how the story was going to go well before opening the book, having seen the movie years ago. I knew the outcome, but it still creeped me out to read it--no matter that the book is well under 150 pages. It took me a few days to get to that final denouement. That climactic last chase. And especially the realization and understanding that led up to that last chase. And what is so wonderfully subversive about this narrative is it can be read as a horror story of sorts, but the real horror is the reality it is based on. Maybe it couldn't quite happen the way it does in the story, but then again, maybe it does happen in other ways.
Stepford is a quaint town, and in its day was as progressive as any with womens' groups and author events. More than fifty Stepford women belonged and their husbands by all appearances supported them. And then poof, somewhere along the way something happened. Or someone happened. By the time Joanna and her husband Walter and their two children arrived the sleepy town of Stepford really seemed to have gone asleep. Or the women did. Not all of them. Joanna bonds with two women in particular, also fairly recently arrived. Charmaine first and then Bobbie.
Charmaine has a tennis court. A clay court, mind you. And she reads her horoscope daily and buys into all the astrological phenomenon so prevalent in the 1970s (Ira Levin published the novel in 1972). And Bobbie is earthy and hip and as interested in expanding her knowledge of the world at large and making a difference in women's lives as is Joanna. Joanna herself is a talented photographer just beginning to get her photos published. She and Walter have moved to Stepford from New York and are thrilled with their house and the community. At least a first glance.
Stepford is neat and tidy and so are the wives and mothers who make up the community. Maybe to the husbands all is what it should be, but to Joanna and Bobbie in particular, Stepford is just weird. The wives are weird. More interested in hot waxing their floors on a Saturday night while their husbands go off to their Men's Club, than expanding their own minds. At one point Joanna is talking to a psychologist and shaking her head, says:
"'If only you could see what Stepford women are like. They're actresses in TV commercials, all of them. No, not even that. They're--they're like--' She sat forward. 'There was a program four or five weeks ago,' she said. 'My children were watching it. These figures of all the Presidents, moving around, making different facial expressions. Abraham Lincoln stood up and delivered the Gettysburg Address; he was so lifelike you'd have--' she sat still."
"'Disneyland,' Joanna said. 'The program was from Disneyland . . .'"
So real and yet so not. And there is the crux of the story. The story plays out quickly in those 130 or so pages. It moves in quick segments as first Charmaine and then Bobbie change. They turn into these weird automatons, Stepford Wives. It all seems to happen within four months of moving to Stepford is what Bobbie determines, and she is determined not to become one of them. Joanna is not entirely convinced. She thinks Bobbie is taking it all a little too far. Drinking bottled water and fearing chemical taint. Until she begins piecing it all together. And the reader sits back and watches her do so. And there is where the creepiness comes in. Knowing what Joanna doesn't and sitting back and watching her figure it out.
Stefanie reminded me of a wonderful book of essays, one of which talks about the movie, called You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages by Carina Chocano. Chocono doesn't write only about the movie in her essay "Can This Marriage Be Saved?", but the movie as viewed through the prism of the women's movement, particularly the movement as it was occurring at that time. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique had come out a decade or so earlier. I am still reading the essay so won't try and distill what she's saying here, but there are a few things she has written, and I have noted, that help explain the book--to me at least.
"Friedan demystified the fairy tale and traced it back to its roots. She named the unnamed problem. She told women they weren't crazy, that the culture was set up to drive them crazy and make them relinquish themselves and step into a mass-produced, ready-made identity, ready to please."
"The Stepford Wives isn't really about men and women, or husbands and wives, but about how patriarchy and capitalism use 'traditional' marriage--that is, the single-income, 'family wage,' upper-middle-class model that became dominant in the nineteenth century--to reinforce the existing global patriarchal power structure. And it's about how mass media helps perpetuate this power structure by forever spinning fairy tales about marriage that, on closer inspection, are revealed to be horror stories."
I didn't quite realize what I was getting into when I picked up The Stepford Wives as my monthly prompt, but I am glad it turned out to be an even richer read than anticipated (and made me pick up the essays, which I plan on continuing to read as she has some interesting and insightful observations). If you are looking for a good, creepy verging on horror story I can heartily recommend the Levin. If you are looking for something with a bit more punch I can still point you towards the Levin. All really good books probably will lead you to another one. It certainly has led me to another good read. Now on to November's prompt.