It is an unspecified time in the 1970s. Joanna Eberhart, a semi-professional photographer, moves with her husband Walter to the idyllic, sleepy town of Stepford. It’s the perfect antidote to their previous life in New York and an ideal place to bring up their children Pete and Kim. And yet, progressive and independent Joanna notices that she doesn’t really fit in with her perfectly dressed, beautifully made-up neighbours. Keen to make an effort, she tries to form friendships while Walter joins the Men’s Association; but with two exceptions the other women in Stepford are too busy with domestic tasks to spare time for coffees, lunches and social trips.
The exceptions are Charmaine and Bobbie, with whom Joanna becomes friends; but presently Charmaine abruptly loses interest in socialising and turns her attention exclusively to the house and the needs of her husband. Joanna and Bobbie begin to suspect that all is not as it should be in Stepford and they set out to unravel its mysteries – namely, what exactly does happen at the Men’s Association?
This very short novel is now so famous that virtually everyone knows what the secret of Stepford is; but although the phrase ‘Stepford wife’ has entered everyday language, I’d never bothered to sit down and read the book before. It’s very easy to read and really isn’t long at all – I polished it off in a couple of hours – yet ever since finishing it I’ve found it hard to shake off a lingering discomfort. My reaction was much the same as my response to The Female Eunuch, which I ‘discovered’ last year. When we have supposedly moved on with forty years of progress between the publication of these books and the present day, how can so little have changed? Look around now and we are being bombarded by floral vintage dresses, cupcake bakeries and crochet groups. There’s an unspoken sense that for, all her intellectual cachet, a woman’s primary duty is to be a domestic goddess (in fact, I’m beginning to wonder about Nigella Lawson…). It’s rather scary that girls of my age are increasingly choosing to engage in a vision of womanhood that is so cosy, retro and unchallenging.
I’m no exception, although my little flutters of domestic virtue are few and far between. I spent the entirety of last Saturday baking, although this was less a celebration of my inner goddess and more a canny effort to part my colleagues from their money in the name of charity. But I’m conscious, when I put on a pretty dress, or cook wearing my snazzy Anthropologie apron, that I’m somehow gaining credit for socially-acceptable femininity, in a way that I don’t when I’m sprawled on the sofa with several days’ washing-up left undone, drinking a glass of wine and losing myself in a book. Talking of books: as if the modern social drive for women to be pretty and submissive wasn’t enough, E.L. James is now encouraging everyone to think that submission is chic in a relationship as well.
Chuck Palahniuk wrote his introduction to The Stepford Wives while Fifty Shades was but a twinkle in James’s eye, but even he points out that modern culture increasingly makes older women, not men, into the villains. Our world is shaping young women to see men as the goal; the prize that can be reached by tottering along an avenue of stereotypes in a pair of Manolos. And we let this happen because we lazily indulge it as irony. Palahniuk makes a chilling point at the conclusion of his introduction:
Now everyplace is Stepford, but it’s okay. It’s fine. This is what the modern politically aware, fully awake, enlightened, assertive woman really, really, really wants: a manicure We can’t say Ira Levin didn’t warn us.
And the really interesting thing is that Ira Levin’s warning has had its claws pulled for modern audiences, almost as if the book is no longer relevant in its original form. Until today, I had no idea how much of a travesty the recent Hollywood film is. It turns the story into a comedy, for goodness sake! And, as Palahniuk notes, Hollywood completely neuters the book’s urgent dynamic by making the mastermind a bitter older woman – a shameful shift of focus (by male executives, I suspect) that lets the husbands off the hook. The film encourages us to laugh; to shrug it all off; and to let Hollywood tidy away the loose ends, with everything neatly resolved. Expecting something similar, I was even more shocked by the original.
If you haven’t read this, you should. You really should: because it gives back to us a cracked and frankly alarming vision of our own society.