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Book: The Stepford Wives

May 12, 2009

I was actually looking for Rosemary’s Baby, also by Ira Levin (I wanted to see if they had it for RIP this year) and found this instead. Who knew it was a novel, first? I didn’t. Or maybe I did. Anyway, it was a quick read, no surprises, except for how dated it was.

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past 40 years, here’s the setup: a nice couple and their two kids move to suburban utopia Stepford. Joanna, the wife, is a “Women’s Lib-ber” (and, she says, “So is my husband.”). She looks forward to making new friends. However, she quickly discovers that all the women of Stepford are interested in is housework and pleasing their husbands. The Men’s Association runs the town… no women allowed. Joanna thinks this is a crock, and so does her other new-comer friend, Bobbi. Together they try to figure out the mystery of Stepford… until one day, after a ‘second honeymoon’, Bobbi is changed… like all the other women of Stepford. Is Joanna next?

If you’ve seen the original movie, you know the book. It’s pretty true to the story. What was fun about the novel was how dated everything was… the politics, the prose, the slang. For instance, “Would you like a cocktail, my dear?” “And how!” And how? Some other choice slang used by the hyper-hip Levin: “Gee Whiz!” “Son of a gun!” “Who’da thunk it?”

While I certainly sympathize with the women of the era, I had to keep chuckling at the ‘women’s libbers’ trying to ‘drum up some outrage about the injustice — the antiquated sexism…” While it was kind of funny in the book, it’s sad that 40 years later we are still trying to get rid of antiquated sexism… although certainly some things have changed for the better. However, sometimes I think we’re not that far off from Stepford (although I have hope!).

One thing I didn’t miss was the current craze for automatic self-flagellation that most women (even in books) seem to submit themselves to when they eat. In the book, Joanna and Bobbi go out for lunch at McDonalds and have cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes. They sit in the car and talk about the scary Stepford wives, while enjoying their lunch. That’s it. They don’t make self-deprecating comments. Neither of them say, “Well, I certainly won’t get a figure like those wives eating food like this.” In fact, they don’t comment on the food at all. They just eat it. They’re too busy worrying about being turned into robots. Bigger fish to fry, you might say. Anyway, I found that actually really refreshing.

I also liked the point in the book that real women are all shapes and sizes, are smart, quirky, funny and not particularly inclined to enjoy housework. And that when you take those smart, quirky, funny women out of the picture, what you get is sterile, boring, saccharine deadness.

The book was a quick read (I read it in about two hours) and entertaining. It’s pretty thought-provoking to compare the Stepford ideal and the struggles of 1972 women’s-lib movement to today. In lots of ways we’ve made tons of progress… but in others, not so much. Not that there’s anything wrong with choosing to stay home and be a homemaker. I’d kinda like that, myself, some days. But I’d rather not be a robot. No thanks.

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