Stepford Guys

The classic tale of suburban paranoia turns 40.

It has been 40 years since Random House published The Stepford Wives, Ira Levin’s immensely popular tale of submissive suburban robots. Thanks to the book and the film it inspired three years later, the word Stepford has entered the language, an easily recognized synonym for feminine docility and for conformity in general. The novel owed an obvious debt to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and other science fiction stories in which aliens impersonate or possess human beings. But the villains in this thriller didn’t come from outer space. They came from the other side of the bed.

Levin’s book opens as Joanna Eberhart and her family move to the apparently idyllic suburb of Stepford, Connecticut, where it soon becomes clear that something is wrong with the town’s women. “That’s what they all were, all the Stepford wives,” Eberhart tells herself: “actresses in commercials, pleased with detergents and floor wax, with cleansers, shampoos, and deodorants. Pretty actresses, big in the bosom but small in the talent, playing suburban housewives unconvincingly, too nicey-nice to be real.” The women’s own husbands, we learn, have conspired to kill off their flesh-and-blood wives and put busty, servile androids in their place. The substitute spouses are uninterested in anything but cleaning their homes, raising their children, and pleasing their men in bed. They have been programmed to enact the 1950s suburban ideal.

Or rather, a satirical spin on that suburban ideal, one that altered the original in an important way. The stereotypical woman in a postwar suburb was a joiner: When she wasn’t doing housework or tending to the children, she’d be involved in the PTA, the Cub Scouts, or a charity. But the Stepford wives don’t have social lives. The men meet in a lodge called the Men’s Association, giving a vaguely Masonic cast to their conspiracy. The women don’t meet anywhere. There used to be a Women’s Club, and it could attract a crowd of 50 to see the feminist icon Betty Friedan give a speech. That ended after the Men’s Association imposed the new order. The only organized women’s activities in Stepford involve ladies too old to have been replaced.

Friedan’s cameo is a tip-off to Levin’s intentions. In The Feminine Mystique, an influential bestseller published in 1963, Friedan warned that “a new breed of women” was coming to the suburbs. “Like the empty plains of Kansas that tempted the restless immigrant,” she argued, “the suburbs in their very newness and lack of structured service, offered, at least at first, a limitless challenge to the energy of educated American women.” But once those pioneers helped establish the new communities, subsequent settlers “were perfectly willing to accept the suburban community as they found it (their only problem was ‘how to fit in’); they were perfectly willing to fill their days with the trivia of housewifery.” Men began to fill the most important volunteer jobs, and housework expanded “to fill the time available.”

If you bred Body Snatchers with The Feminine Mystique, Levin’s novel would be the result. Except that it appeared in 1972, not 1963, arriving at a time when Friedan’s vision of the suburban future had been averted. There was a much more vibrant women’s movement now, and there was much more visible resentment of that movement as well. In effect, Levin took an allegory for Friedan’s critique of the postwar suburb and overlaid it with a critique of the anti-feminist backlash.

The story that resulted had enough staying power to spawn an entire franchise, with the Stepford Wives movie inspiring three made-for-TV follow-ups. Revenge of the Stepford Wives (1980) changed the scenario somewhat: The town’s women are drugged and brainwashed rather than replaced by robots. The story ends with two liberated women seizing the means of mind control and inducing a Stepford riot. In The Stepford Children (1987) the conspiracy is back to using androids, and with The Stepford Husbands (1996) we get the inevitable table turning. Stepford returned to theaters in 2004, when a muddled remake attempted to update Levin’s story for an era when gender equality wasn’t as controversial as it was in the 1970s. Fittingly for a film in which people are reduced to puppets, the picture was directed by the veteran muppeteer Frank Oz.

The remake was a flop. But back in the ’70s, the story struck a chord: The book was a bestseller, and its adaptation did well at the box office. Even then, though, not everyone enjoyed the tale. When the first film debuted in 1975, Friedan stormed out of a screening, denouncing the movie as a “rip-off of the women’s movement.” Someone had taken her ideas, she fretted, and replaced them with an ersatz Hollywood confection, a superficially similar crowd-pleasing substitute. Call it the invasion of the feminism snatchers.  

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  • John||

    Two words Katherine Ross. The hottest women of the late 60s and early 70s. Just the ultimate sexy college girl of her day, see e.g. her in The Graduate.

  • PapayaSF||

    Not bad at all, but that was the era of Raquel Welch, Claudia Cardinale, Ursula Andress, Tina Louise, Natalie Wood, Catherine Deneuve, Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Anita Ekberg, Barbara Eden, Brigitte Bardot, Dian Parkinson....

  • Scott Lahti||

    Dudes left out Charlotte Rampling and Jackie Bisset and Angie Dickinson and Stella Stevens and ...

  • StepFord||

    That totally makes sense when you think about it, honey. Would you like a sandwich? LOL.

    db@steppriv.anon.tk

  • Pro Libertate||

    I love these new sentient adbots.

  • fish||

    Utter nonsense.....Betty Friedan wasn't a woman.

  • Bill||

    She was a fembot.

  • JW||

    Good times...

  • SugarFree||

    Revenge of the Stepford Wives (1980) changed the scenario somewhat: The town’s women are drugged and brainwashed rather than replaced by robots

    Egads. Good thing anti-depressants and therapy and the entire self-help industry isn't anything at all like this fictional scenario.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    But once those pioneers helped establish the new communities, subsequent settlers “were perfectly willing to accept the suburban community as they found it (their only problem was ‘how to fit in’); they were perfectly willing to fill their days with the trivia of housewifery.” Men began to fill the most important volunteer jobs, and housework expanded “to fill the time available.”

    That, in a nutshell, is the progressive philosophy--act as fifth columnists in socially stable communities and do your best to create fissures that upend the very things that make it stable, particularly community trust bonds based on shared values and mores.

    This is why the Left, in principle, DESPISES suburban communities so much. It's not because these places are inherently more conservative--some of the most prominent whiteopias in the country are reflexively liberal--it's because the prog philosophy can't take root in places where people trust each other.

  • John||

    +200 The progs are like vampires they take over every institution they tough and destroy it turning it into a vehicle to advance their ideology. Think about. Start a damned little league baseball league and if progs get a hold of it they will make it about teaching children about responsibility, sharing and social justice.

  • Loki||

    Start a damned little league baseball league and if progs get a hold of it they will make it about teaching children about responsibility, sharing and social justice.

    Don't forget about self esteem. Every player gets to play, and every player gets a participation ribbon. No championship trophies, because that implies that someone won. In fact, why even bother keeping score? Double in fact, why call them "participation ribbons"? Let's just make them all MVP ribbons! Ooh, better yet, everyone gets and MVP trophy! That way non of the special little snowflakes ever have to feel bad about not winning ever again!

  • John||

    That is right. The whole point stops being about playing baseball and becomes about making children into good little progs. They do that to everything they touch. They are fucking vampires.

  • Loki||

    Except that vampires are cool. Until women got a hold of them. Fucking Twilight.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Don't you like your vampires with body glitter?

    Sparkly vampires - they need a sequel where they find pegacorns, and braid their long, flowing manes on a flowery meadow near a mountain waterfall.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Forks, WA is now a Twilight tourist trap.

  • JW||

    Every player gets to play, and every player gets a participation ribbon.

    The boy's soccer league is just like that, in the People's Republic of Takoma Park. He likes the medals and all, but I don't see that diminishing his competitive nature at all. There is clearly a skills hierarchy on the teams he's played on and he used to get insanely pissed off when the team lost.

    I will say that I never saw any of the touchy-feely bullshit espoused, beyond the participation medals.

  • ||

    I think you are confusing progressives and self-esteem fetishists. Progressives only care about giving the government more power, and using it to redistribute resources.

    They really aren't interested in handing out MVP ribbons. That's a totally different group of people. Those are the "for the children" ninnies, and they come in both R and D flavors.

    Progs are much more ambitious than that.

  • Loki||

    When the first film debuted in 1975, Friedan stormed out of a screening, denouncing the movie as a “rip-off of the women’s movement.” Someone had taken her ideas, she fretted, and replaced them with an ersatz Hollywood confection, a superficially similar crowd-pleasing substitute.

    Not surprising. Feminists generally don't have a sense of humor, and take their mental droppings way to seriously 99.9999999% of the time.

    How dare people take her ideas and present them in a way that might actually be entertaining! These are serious ideas, not for mere entertainment! /feminist harpy

  • John||

    They took her ideas and put them in a form where just anyone could understand them. That is unforgivable.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Maybe someone should do Atlas Shrugged with robots.

  • ||

    Calculon: [in movie] Father, I've asked you to join me on the White House roof so we could have a heart-to-heart talk. I will never follow in your footsteps. Here is my resignation as Vice President.
    [Zoid cuts the paper up.]
    Zoid: [in movie] No! My son will not shame me like this. I would sooner die, I would!
    [He pushes his wheelchair away.]
    Calculon: [in movie] Father! The ledge!
    [Zoid's chair rolls off the ledge.]
    Zoid: [in movie] Oy!
    Calculon: [in movie] Oh!
    [Zoidberg opens a hatch in the roof.]
    Zoidberg: [in movie] The President is dead. Congratulations, Mr. President!
    Calculon: [screaming; in movie] Nooo!

  • John||

    A retelling of Atlas Shrugged in a sci fi setting is a pretty good idea.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I've long thought so. Put it in space, way in the future, and leave out the speeches.

  • Stormy Dragon||

    It already is in a sci-fi setting. We just don't realize that because it's a 1957 idea of the near future, which seems anitquated looking back on it from 2012.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I knew someone was going to say that. More science fictiony.

  • db||

    Unfortunately the success of Galt's Gulch relies on some sort of free energy engine that would make a Nikola Tesla fanboi proud. Sadly, the only way Rand could come up with to save the spirit of entrepeneurialism and human exchange was to violate the laws of thermodynamics.

  • db||

    And I write that as a fan of the book.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Can't happen here may have been the message--who knows? The only thing I'm sure about is that she liked industrialists, modern architecture, and rape.

  • Stormy Dragon||

    I believe it was intended not so much as a literal power source as a metaphor for human ingenuity, the "free energy source" that ultimately powers all progress. What the strikers were essentially doing was taking away access to ingenuity (by refusing to exercise theirs), and watching society grind to a halt without that power source.

  • db||

    I understand its use as a metaphor, but given the rapidly converging trajectories of the book plot and the real world today, a hidden secret island of entrpeneurs and producers is hard to imagine. Any government worth its salt would find and destroy such a community in today's world. Without the energy source and cloaking device, such destruction is inevitable.

  • db||

    Don't forget that some of today's most prolific producers of breakthrough technology are creating the tools of oppression and handing them over to governments.

  • Stormy Dragon||

    Any government worth its salt would find and destroy such a community in today's world. Without the energy source and cloaking device, such destruction is inevitable.

    In my more pessimistic moments, I sometimes wonder if humanity isn't evolutionary programmed for authoritarianism, and the freedom can only exist in the transitory phase between the collapse of domminance hierarchy and the establishment of another.

  • ||

    I love that interpretation.

    +1 to you, good sir.

  • Jilly||

    It's ironic that the progressive feminists have become lockstep Stepfordians now. Ladyparts and all that.

  • SugarFree||

    It was never about individuality. They are fine with women being robots as long as they are the right kind of robots.

    Witness the rage they exhibit when a woman who otherwise is a feminist refuses to identify as one because of the damage done to the brand.

  • ||

    “Sir, while I would never suggest this otherwise, given the situation perhaps we should consider Pangar Nine? According to my charts, it is within our range and perhaps if we are allowed to dock there we could offer our cargo as a bribe in exchange for passage to a more, uh, suitable outpost?”

    Smith stared straight ahead, lost in thought. The possibility of attempting to land at Pangar Nine had crossed his mind, but he had quickly dismissed it. It had been eons since Federal Starcraft were allowed anywhere near that system. The last time a cargo ship had attempted an emergency docking there, in fact, the Nyr-Roimms blasted it to bits with a beewtryl cannon.

  • db||

    I'd love to see a remake wherein a group of women remake their husbands into a feminist male ideal and then get so sick of them they all run away with the pool boy.

  • db||

    The pool boy dies because they treat him as a commons and nobody wants to have to take care of him.

  • NeonCat||

    "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is spongy and bruised."

  • SugarFree||

    a group of women remake their husbands into a feminist male idea

    It is called Brooklyn by most.

    and then get so sick of them they all run away with the pool boy.

    It's called Fifty Shades of Grey. Although in this case the pool boy is a billionaire who whips them.

    If women would just admit what they really wanted there would be a lot less unhappiness on both sides. (The brave and beautiful women of HyR are obviously an exception.)

  • Lisa||

    I'm reminded me of that research showing anti-egalitarian women as more attractive.
    http://www.nerve.com/news/poli.....ys-science

    Here's a liberal lady's scientific interpretation
    http://thehairpin.com/2011/03/the-hot-ticket/
    "Well, it turns out being gorgeous makes you a terrible person."

  • Lisa||

    ergh *-me

  • buybuydandavis||

    In most movements there's an libertarian impulse to question imposed values of society, then there's the totalitarian impulse to impose a new set of values. Freedom from the old is sold as a package deal with obedience to the new, but it's the freedom from the old that makes the sale.

    The movie is more individualist than feminist. In one of the big emotional money shots of the movie, the protagonist is talking to a psychologist about her fears.

    Joanna Eberhart: "I won't be here when you get back, don't you see? It's going to happen before then. Don't ask me to explain it, I just know. There'll be somebody with my name, and she'll cook and clean like crazy, but she won't take pictures, and she won't be me!"

    She fears losing *herself*, losing her identity. The conflict is between self assertion and an imposed societal ideal, but those who would impose a new ideal like to get at the head of the parade and pretend that it's the new ideal that matters, not the freedom from the old.

    Rebecca West has a good quote in this regard.

    "I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute."

  • Big 'Orra||

    The novel owed an obvious debt to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and other science fiction stories in which aliens impersonate or possess human beings. But the villains in this thriller didn’t come from outer space. They came from the other side of the bed.

    Now THAT is beautifully written!

  • Scott Lahti||

    Feminism: socialism with tits.

  • cinsel chat||

    good thanks sohbet
    cinsel sohbet

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