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.