The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin (1972)

Not only Walter, she realised suddenly. They would all be out looking for her, cruising the road with flashlights, spotlights. How could they let her get away and tell? Every man was a threat, every car a danger. (p.124)

Plot

A clean-cut, white, all-American young family move out of the big bad city to the idyllic small town of Stepford. The lead character, Joanna Eberhart, is oppressed by how domestic and submissive so many of the other wives are. Her husband joins the men-only Men’s Association, vowing to change it from within. Slowly, through an accumulation of details, Joanna begins to suspect there’s something actively wrong with all the other wives.

Eventually, as her two closest friends are transformed overnight into compliant, characterless housewives, she – and the reader – realise they have all been murdered and replaced by robots, androids created by the town’s menfolk, in order to create a race of ideally servile, completely submissive, domestic servants and sex slaves.

Satire

Obviously the novel is a satire on a certain kind of male backlash against the women’s rights, women’s liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s, combined with equally topical anxieties about androids, robots, artificial intelligence, to create a short powerful horror story-cum-parable. It had a big cultural impact on its publication in 1972 though it is a little hard, in 2015, to recapture the thrill of either strand.

It could be (and obviously was) read as being ‘about’ Women’s Liberation, as Rosemary’s Baby is ‘about’ Satanism and The Boys From Brazil is ‘about’ ex-Nazis. But all three novels are also canny commercial moves to exploit hot cultural issues of the day in order to create thrilling narratives – and make money.

Points

The main things I noticed are:

  • it’s short and quick, as the best parables often are (eg Animal Farm), a brisk two-hour read
  • it’s another novel told largely from the perspective of a young woman (cf Rosemary’s Baby)
  • it takes the classic narrative template of the narrator arriving in a new community and slowly realising it is the setting for a horrifying conspiracy (cf RB)
  • a surprising number of the secondary topics and issues which it references are still with us
  • Levin’s casual, make-it-up style is fresh and easy compared to the stodgy prose of contemporary English writers

Women’s Liberation

Apparently the term Women’s Liberation refers to the late 1960s/early 70s, early forms of the feminist movement, nowadays referred to as second wave feminism. 1970 was a pivotal year:

– A snapshot of some of the events and books published 45 years ago, as Levin was writing this novel.

According to Wikipedia, 45 years later, we are currently in third wave feminism. Compared to the post-structuralist, Derridean deconstruction of gender, race and identity stereotypes implied in TWF, the discussions of Levin’s lead character, Joanna, seem rather simplistic – her most articulated concern is simply that it’s unfair and out of date to have a men-only club. Then again, she’s not a tenured academic expert in Queer Studies, and a lot, an awful lot of thinking – academic and political – has taken place in the 43 years since the novel’s publication.

Other issues

Town versus country The Eberharts have made a decision to leave the big bad city (‘the filthy, crowded, crime-ridden, but so-alive city’ p.8) now their children are 7 or so, a debate had by almost all the parents of children of the same age who I know. The city is polluted, stressful but exciting; the country is peaceful, clean but boring.

There is a familiar Gothic strand to the story: in how many novels and movies have a young couple moved into their ideal suburban house only to find it contains dark secrets?

And in a way the sci-fi fantasy element of the story is not only about mad male scientists concocting sexist robot slaves; it is the uncanny way the stress and inhumanity of the city follow urban exiles, revealing the country to be even more artificial, constructed and manipulated than the city.

Androids Androids have appeared in a range of 20th century novels, movies and TV series with increasing frequency from the 1970s onwards – in Star Wars, Blade Runner, the Terminator franchise, to name some obvious ones. Almost always they are bad.

As to the thinking about artificial intelligence at the precise moment when Levin published this novel, it is tempting to link it with the sci-fi movie Westworld (1973) in which the androids in a futuristic kind of Disneyworld malfunction and start attacking the paying guests. Though the plot and even the plot archetype are different, novel and movie both share an anxiety about the anti-human, destructive potential of lifelike robots.

Feminism and a male backlash against feminism; the perils of artificial intelligence; the suburban Gothic horror story – The Stepford Wives can be viewed as a text where a number of contemporary anxieties or tropes meet and up the ante on each other.

(I note that female androids have been named gynoids.)

Pesticides and pollution As topical as women’s liberation – the ostensible subject of the book – was concern about pollution. The early 1970s not only saw the formation of the first women’s groups, but were also a period when the first Green parties were set up to reflect widespread concern about the destruction of the natural envinronment, and all forms of industrial pollution.

Levin is, therefore, tapping into another very newsy and hot topic when he makes Joanna’s only friend among the wives, Bobbie, as she begins to realise something is wrong, point the finger at the local drinking water supply. She suspects there is effluent from the industrial estate just outside the town which has got into the water and is causing the zombification of the women.

She’s right to be afraid of industry – for these are the computer and tech companies where the men work and have realised they have the combined skills to create lifelike androids – but just wrong about which aspect to be blaming.


Style

As usual the style, the way with words, interests me as much as the subject matter. Levin is bright and breezy, coining neologisms and phrases with Yanky confidence.

She was about a third of the way down the stairs, going by foot-feel, holding the damn laundry basket to her face because of the damn banister, when wouldn’t you know it, the double-damn phone rang.

She couldn’t put the basket down, it would fall, and there wasn’t enough room to turn around with it and go back up; so she kept going slowly down, foot-feeling and thinking Okay, okay to the phone’s answer-me-this-instant ringing. (p.19)

As with Rosemary’s Baby it’s partly the jazzy modernity of the characters’ attitudes and phraseology which makes the story all the more plausible, and the heavy leaning on the female protagonist’s point of view, as the walls close in, which make it all the more terrifying.


Conclusions

From one point of view Rosemary’s Baby and this are identical: the husband in a young married couple completely betrays his wife into a horrifying conspiracy. In Rosemary the husband betrays her to satanists in order to further his acting career; this one goes further as the husband, Walter, acquiesces in the murder of his wife.

The novels are pulp, or horror, or genre fiction because no consideration is given to the husband’s character or motivation. The plot is purely a pretext to create (again) the character of a vulnerable young(ish) woman and then terrify the daylights out of her (and the audience). It’s intelligently and precisely done, but it’s exploitative nonetheless.

References to the story (and the title, after all) generally focus on the perfect wives; but all the wives are dead. It’s actually about a town of male murderers, about a community of men who have ganged together to murder all of their wives. Imagine what JG Ballard would have made of that – I can’t believe they wouldn’t all be pretty damaged by the act, some of them would become unhinged, and therein would lie some really interesting fictive material.

But the purpose of this book is to be a quick, intense jolt of horror and so the entire psychology of the men is excluded; in the final hunting down of Joanna, who goes on the run across country in the winter snow, the men appear (very effectively) just as silhouettes holding the bright torches which surround her, simply as ‘shapes darker than the darkness’ (p.126).

They are the eternal bogeymen of our childhood nightmares.


The movie

Two movies have been made: the 1975 version directed by Bryan Forbes with a screenplay by William Goldman, starring Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Nanette Newman and Tina Louise; and the 2004 version, directed by Frank Oz and starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken, Faith Hill and Glenn Close.

Related links

Ira Levin’s novels

  • A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1967) A group of satanists in New York arrange for a young wife to be drugged and raped by the Devil, make her think it was her husband who inseminated her after a drunken party, then keep her isolated and controlled while she slowly, horrifyingly, uncovers the truth.
  • This Perfect Day (1970)
  • The Stepford Wives (1972) Young housewife Joanna Eberhart moves with her husband and two children to the idyllic small town of Stepford where she slowly realises the men are part of a conspiracy to murder their wives and replace them with perfectly submissive androids.
  • The Boys from Brazil (1976)
  • Sliver (1991)
  • Son of Rosemary (1997)
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