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Saturday, April 28, 2012

There's something in the water!

Nowadays, women don't think twice about being able to do the same things as men.  I mean, in the sense that women can become police officers and judges, they can vote and become CEO's, and many women earn much more than men do.  However, what if there was a place where none of women's liberation ever happened.  What if the glass ceiling and equality fought by 'pink collars' in the 70's and 80's was a blip that became erased?  WELCOME TO STEPFORD!

I'm sure many of you reading this have seen the recent 2004 film re-make of The Stepford Wives with Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close, Faith Hill, Christopher Walken and Bette Midler.  However, not only is that movie kind of hokey but it totally downplays the creepy factor of the original 1975 movie with Catherine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Tina Louise, Peter Masterson, and Patrick O'Neal as well as the 1972 novel by Ira Levin.

I just watched both the 1975 film and read the novel for the first time (the latter first).  I have to say that if you are a virgin to the Stepford Wife story, DO NOT see the 2004 film (at least not first).  It pales by comparison to the original movie AND novel.  The novel is brilliant.  Though short, only 123 pages (the 2002 edition I read), it is a masterpiece of literature.  I am surprised that this book is not taught in more curriculums in college classrooms and even high schools.  It could definitely be added to any 60's/70's counterculture class, science fiction class, or feminist/women's movement literature class.  I LOVE this book!

It might be because I have a soft spot for fucked up dystopian novels about suburbia and the 'American dream' in all of its lovely perfection and glory (smell my sarcasm?).  The book isn't just commenting on a dark suburban town that transforms women into robots/zombies to domesticate and shut them up.  It is a commentary on the silencing of women in general and looks at an alternate reality where women didn't care about burning their bras and marching for equal rights and pay.  There are realities where this exists, though Stepford is a far cry from most people's daily reality.  Believe me when I say that where I grew up, sometimes I wondered if places like Stepford were too true.   That's another story for another time.  Though, I do think it peaks my interest in the story behind this book.  Women who only exist to be beautiful and stay home to cook and clean.  Certainly there are men out there (cough Rick Santorum).  There was a lecturer (her name escapes me) who came to my college on the platform that women should stay in the home, not going out to earn a living.  In fact there are whole websites devoted to the anti-feminist female perspective: Anti-Feminist Females

What's interesting is that it is a more recent phenomenon for women to work outside the home.  Take my sister and myself.  We are distanced by six years.  We went to the same preparatory high school.  In my class, very few of the mothers worked a full-time job.  My mom was one of the few, and she went back to get a law degree in her 40's.  Mom, you rock!  By the time my sister was in high school, I'd say that it was peculiar if one's mother stayed at home making cupcakes.

Look, I'm not devaluing being a homemaker and housewife.  My wife stays at home with our two year old son right now.  It is a job that is not paid and where you work 24-7.  All mothers, and women for that matter should get a round of applause.  Women who are full-time mothers and/or work outside of the home deserve more credit than they get.  Though, I'm a little biased because I generally think men are pigs and should be kept on short leashes.  Yes, I just said that and I am a man.  Get over it!

Going back to Ira Levin's novel, one can see why I am so enthralled with the premise.  Take a New York family, the Eberhardts and transplant them to a Connecticut town, Stepford.  At first glance, it seems that things are peachy-keen.  The taxes and crime are low, the schools are great, and the women are obsessed with cooking and cleaning.  Sounds normal, right?  Not for Joanna Eberhardt, a native New Yorker with two small children, Pete and Kim.  She is a hobby photographer who has a yearning to be the next Annie Leibotvitz or Dorthea Lange.  What's more is that her husband, Walter, is a lawyer who completely digs women's liberation.  He is level with Joanna's passions and aspirations, at least in the book, he is.  The problem is that his feminist tendencies wain as he joins the seemingly only social organization in Stepford, the Men's Association.  Though, Walter makes a plan and promises Joanna to make the Men's Association co-ed. 

Joanna also will try to start a local NOW (National Organization for Women), which began in 1966.  However, Joanna does not have many female friends, as the women aren't interested in socializing together beyond trivialities.  Joanna makes friends with Bobbie Markowe who says that 'given the complete freedom of choice' would 'just as soon not squeeze the Charmin' (17-18).  She also makes friends with Charmaine Wimperis, who loves playing tennis on her own backyard clay court and reads about astrology.  With Charmaine and Bobbie on her side, Joanna tries to get the women of Stepford to organize a women's group.  However, they find out that this was already done.

After digging in the library, Joanna finds out that the town of Stepford had a League of Women Voters and a Woman's Club.  In fact, the Woman's Club mysteriously disbanded and lost its fifty plus members after Betty Friedan came to speak to them.  For those not in the know, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique which was published in 1963 and help spark the women's lib movement.  It was at this time that the Men's Association began and takes in the men of Stepford, who are ironically all inventors as well as computer and chemical engineers.  Spooky!

Joanna then realizes that her friends begin to change.  It begins with Charmaine, who is very independent and free thinking but then tears up her clay court to make room for a golf course for her husband.  Now, she is obsessed with pleasing her husband and is too far wrapped around cleaning her house than do anything else.  Then Bobbie changes; one minute she wants to get out of Stepford and drinks bottled water, wanting the Department of Health to investigate.  The next minute, she wears lacy frocks and suddenly cleans up her house; her only worries are to look pretty and keep a spotless house for her husband.  Joanna's only hope is an African American woman who just moved to town, Ruthanne Hendry, who hasn't become a 'housefrau' yet. 

However, Joanna realizes that time is running out, as she figures out that the women of Stepford get only four months until they 'change'.  Walter thinks Joanna is stark raving mad crazy and sends her to a shrink.  Joanna begins to sound more like Mia Farrow as Rosemary Woodhouse in the 1968 film, Rosemary's Baby (the book was also written by Ira Levin in 1967; creepy irony!)  So Joanna is left between a rock and a hard place.  This could be a metaphor for how a battered woman would feel before the age of equal opportunities.  Actually, I volunteered for Legal Aid of Eastern Missouri, and did intakes for the battered women's unit.  I will never forget the stories I encountered.  Women told me about how they called the police and were told they were crazy or drunk.  One woman said a police officer told her 'drunk bitch, get back in the house.'  So, Ira Levin's fiction isn't too far off from reality.

What happens to Joanna Eberhart?  You'll have to read the rest of Ira Levin's book.  Also, read the books before you watch either film.  And, if you watch the film, watch the 1975 version first.  The 2004 version strays pretty far away from the book, and I was disappointed in it.

The 1975 film paints the characters pretty vividly.  You get the sense of time and place.  Even though the movie came three years after the book, you still get a sense of the 70's woman.  I also like that the women of Stepford are sexy 'housefraus' but they are not overt.  In the 2004 version, they're all airhead blow-up dolls.  In the 75' version, the women just seem lost in outer space, like they've been drugged/brainwashed or turned into cleaning zombies.  The science-fiction element hasn't been erased; the '75 film is submerged in it.  The Stepford women are shells of their former selves, taking no interest in activities other than cooking, cleaning, shopping, and looking good.  I like that in the '75 version, the women dress modestly in public, with floor length skirts and tasteful outfits.  You get the sense that whoever is behind turning these women into robots, wants them to be the ultimate 50's housewife, 'housefrau'.

I also like the alternate book ending in the '75 version.  The 2004 version didn't know which concept to choose (robots or computer chips), and had a very different, happier ending, which didn't sit right with me.  I like the darkness and eeriness of the book, and it was lost in the 2004 movie.  The 2004 version also had the women be more modern in the sense that all the women of Stepford are 'retired' CEO's and successful career women whereas in the '75 version, they're just smart, assertive and wear pant suits.

What I like best about the book, though, is how the women of Stepford are described.  Joanna says this about the women of Stepford: 'They never stop, these Stepford wives..they work like robots all their lives (64).  Joanna's friend, Bobbie says this at wanting to move away: "I wanted to buy in Norwood all along; too many WASPs, he said.  Well I'd rather get stung by WASPs than poisoned by whatever's working around here" (58).  In the 1975 film the idea of the women as freakish 50's housewife sitcom drones is played-up.  As Joanna tries to organize a woman's meeting, one Stepford wife can only talk about cleaning products, "Is it that good?  Well, if time is your enemy, make friends with Easy-On, that's all I can tell you.  It's so good that if ever I became famous and the Easy-On people asked me would I do a commercial, not only would I do it, I'd do it for free.  That's how good it is."  Then the best line in the 2004 film, is when Glenn Close's character says, "'Where would people never notice a town full of robots?  Connecticut!'"

So I've told you here.  Read the book, see the 1975 film, and then maybe watch the 2004 version.  I'd also read and watch Rosemarys' Baby.  Actually, I kind of want to read all of Ira Levin's stuff now.  It is appropriately sinister and creepy.

*Levin, Ira.  The Stepford Wives.  New York: Harper Collins, 2002.

   Works of Ira Levin (1929-2007):

      BOOKS-                                                     PLAYS                                   
   A Kiss Before Dying (1953)                   No Time for Sergeants (1956)
   Rosemary's Baby (1967)                        Interlock (1958)
  This Perfect Day (1970)                         Critic's Choice (1960)
  The Stepford Wives (1972)                    General Seeger (1962)

  The Boys from Brazil (1976)                 Dr. Cook's Garden (1968)

  Sliver (1991)                                          Veronica's Room (1974)

  Son of Rosemary (1997)                         Deathtrap (1978)

                                                                  Break a Leg: A Comedy in Two Acts (1981)
      MUSICALS                                        Cantorial (1982)
 Drat!  The Cat! (1965)

Literature-ly Yours,


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