As numerous reviewers of the overblown and over-remade remake of The Stepford Wives have pointed out, men do not really want to be married to robots. In particular, it is probably safe to say, they do not want to be married to robots who wear pastel flowered dresses and floppy garden-party hats and who wax ecstatic over cupcakes and Christmas crafts–even if they fetch drinks like Rover and don see-through lingerie for a lunchtime quickie. Indeed, in none of its versions–Ira Levin’s slender novel, the 1975 scary movie or the new, comic rendition–does the plot of The Stepford Wives make a lot of sense. Why would men go to all the trouble of killing their uppity feminist wives and replacing them with pliant androids when they could just divorce them and marry 25-year-olds? Or hire a housekeeper and have girlfriends?
A lot of cultural change has gone over the dam since 1975. By today’s standards the original heroine, Joanna Eberhart, a mildly spirited amateur photographer, would be a slacker. In the remake, Joanna (Nicole Kidman) is the brilliant, tightly wound head of a TV network who specializes in battle-of-the-sexes reality shows (I Can Do Better) in which the women always win. In the original, the men were cold and sinister; in the new version, they’re nebbishes who need to be constantly drilled in masculine prerogatives by the head of the Men’s Association (Christopher Walken). Time has changed Stepford, too, the Connecticut suburb to which Joanna’s junior-executive husband (Matthew Broderick) whisks her away to save their marriage after a career crash gives her a nervous breakdown: The town has morphed from staid and comfortable to hard-right and rich. It’s lost its one black family and gained a token pair of homosexuals.
It’s all downhill after the setup. Paul Rudnick, who wrote the script, is a very funny man in the classic gay style–the movie has enough camp for all the Boy Scouts in America–but the story makes no sense. Basically, Rudnick wants to have his cupcakes and eat them too: Thus, men are sexist weaklings and housewives are servile bimbos and ambitious women are obnoxious but will either mellow through love or turn the tables on men because They Can Do Better–take your pick. The movie is such a confused satire of its original premises–this time, the ultimate villain is an ultratraditional woman–that the characters seem to utter all their lines as if they are speaking in scare quotes.
Commentators have bridled at the implication that men are hustling resistant women into suburban purdah: Today, women stay home because they want to. “Look at the fringe benefits,” Stephanie Zacharek writes in Salon, “a giant, comfortable house in Connecticut, the freedom to watch your children grow up instead of rushing off to work every day, enough money to feed and clothe them well–sure doesn’t look bad to me.” (Children are barely more visible than blacks in Stepford, but let that pass.) Domestic goddesshood is definitely back, and, if only as a fantasy, a lot of women are buying it: It wasn’t men who made Martha Stewart a multimillionaire. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I live and where the standard feminine garb has for decades been strictly Hot Sicilian Widow, the display windows this season are full of frilly getups straight out of a Stepford shoppe (if you’d rather be a doll than an automaton, Mattel is bringing out a line of Barbie clothes for real-life women).
As a plot the story may be silly, but as a metaphor it’s powerful. There’s a reason “Stepford wife” has entered the American lexicon. It expresses, dramatically and succinctly, two compelling and in some ways competing explanations for women’s subjection within marriage: Men insist on it, and women–other women–insist on it. In the 1970s, when feminism was new, both these truths were obvious. Now, they are obscure: Women have learned to describe everything they do, no matter how apparently conformist, submissive, self-destructive or humiliating, as a personal choice that cannot be criticized because personal choice is what feminism is all about. Women have become incredibly clever at explaining these choices in ways that barely mention social pressures or male desires. How many bright little essays have I read by young brides who insist that giving up their names is just the sensible, logical, mature, modern, feminist thing to do, the very proof of their marriage’s egalitarianism? Probably they actually believe this. And yet, were it not for those social and masculine pressures, it is difficult to imagine that women would make some of the “personal” choices they now truculently defend.
After all, you have to wonder, as Catherine Orenstein did in a much-discussed New York Times op-ed, if women are free to be whatever they want, why are they still so obsessed with fitting narrow and rigid definitions of beauty? Feminism was supposed to send those to the trash can along with girdles and white gloves. Who would have thought in 1975 that thirty years later women would be tottering about in excruciating shoes–and having their little toes cut off to fit into them? Or injecting their faces with botulism toxin and undergoing plastic surgery at ever younger ages? Even teenagers are getting breast implants–11,326 girls 18 and under had them in 2003, nearly triple the previous year’s figure. Just try, though, to find a female in a plastic surgeon’s waiting room who’ll admit that breast augmentation has anything to do with pleasing men. Oh no, that expensive and painful operation, with its attendant, well-publicized dangers, is all about curing a tragic disease (micromastia, aka small breasts), finding clothes that fit or boosting her self-esteem. But why does her self-esteem hinge on having big breasts in the first place? Forget self-esteem. What about self-respect? Why can’t she feel good about herself by accomplishing something–climbing a mountain, painting a picture, reading a book? That’s what real self-esteem comes from. In fact, according to several studies, women with breast implants are three times as likely to kill themselves as other women, even the flat-chested.
Of course, the critics are literally right: There is no town like Stepford, even in deepest Connecticut. But it still exists where it always did: in our heads.