Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives
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Write an essay on the relationship between the social and spatial characteristics of the suburban setting and growing unease of main character Joanna in Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives.
In the introduction of the 2011 edition of The Stepford Wives, Chuck Palahniuk remarks that by the 1970s, 'No one wanted to be crowned Miss America. The Playboy Bunny was an antiquated joke. A woman's place was on the picket line, and it's no wonder men were scared.' In the wake of the newly liberated feminist woman, suburban housewives were considered a symbol of oppression by the hands of the patriarchy. The Post-Mystique feminist of the 1970s held an attitude surrounding housework and the role of the housewife that diverged significantly from what was portrayed on television and in magazines when they were teenagers. Herein lies the driving forces of conflict of Ira Levin's science fiction thriller, The Stepford Wives: the polarisation of the feminist and the suburban housewife, and the male reaction to this contention. The suburban environment of Stepford, with its liminal, in-between quality and oppressive male institution, amplifies Joanna's anxieties surrounding her personal identity, as she is caught between new and old conventions of womanhood, reflecting the cultural conflict of the feminist and the housewife in the 1970s. Levin creates this stifling and dissonant environment by demonstrating a stark contrast between the lifestyles of heroines Joanna and Bobbie and their automated counterparts' and establishing the Men's Association as a spatial and social landmark of the community.
With her husband Walter and two small children, Joanna emigrates from New York City, a place she describes as a 'filthy, crowded, crime-ridden, but so-alive city' to sleepy Stepford, characterised by 'white frame Colonial shopfronts' and large houses with tennis courts in the backyard. Bernice M. Murphy posits that 'the very concept of suburban development implies a falling between two geographical stools. The suburb is, after all, an in-between space by definition: located beyond the heart of a town or city, yet still existing within its urban orbit.' The nature of the suburbs as a space in between two spectrum-ends (urban and rural), mirrors Joanna's struggle as a woman caught between the figure of the liberated feminist and the docile housewife. Like so many white, middle-class Americans in the second half of the twentieth century, the Eberharts make the move from the city to the suburbs, but rather than portray the suburbs as a haven from the bustle and crime of the city, Levin creates what Murphy describes as the 'Suburban Nightmare,' marked by conformity and threat from within the community. This comes to fruition in the end of the novel when Joanna realises all of the women in the town are robots, created by the Men's Association to replace the human women.
In her first few weeks in Stepford, Joanna is keen to observe that she is unlike the other wives, who sweep the floors and polish silverware from dawn until dusk. Upon her first day in Stepford, Joanna encounters a Stepford wife, her neighbour Carol Van Sant, who declines to have coffee with her in lieu of waxing the family room floor at night while her husband goes to the Men's Association. Joanna labels Carol as a 'compulsive hausfrau' with a 'too-big bosom', clashing with her personality on all levels. When Walter goes to the Men's Association, Joanna decides 'As a matter of principle she wasn't going to do any housework. [...] Walter was at the Men's Association, fine; [...] But she wasn't going to do housework while he was there [...] any more than he was going to do it when she was out.' Instead, she works in her basement darkroom and enjoys a vodka and tonic. Joanna is a feminist, semi-professional photographer who drinks, smokes, and eats McDonald's. In essence, Joanna is the anti-Stepford woman, which is exactly what makes her so threatening to the Men's Association.
Fortunately for Joanna, she does meet one woman to whom she can relate, the quick-witted and authentic Bobbie Markowe. When Joanna first meets Bobbie, she is described as wearing casual clothes: 'a blue Snoopy sweatshirt and jeans and sandals.' This is in sharp contrast to the clothes her replacement wears later on: 'a padded high-uplift bra under her green sweater, and a hip-whittling girdle under the brown pleated skirt,' demonstrating the eventual conformity to the image of the Stepford housewife Joanna and Bobbie had once joked about. Before the replacement, Bobbie and Joanna are decidedly modern women, especially against the backdrop of suburban Stepford, in which nearly all the wives primp and gussy themselves up to do nothing but housework all day long, and the men attend meetings for an exclusionary organisation. The 1970's saw unprecedented growth in interest and advocation for the Women's Liberation movement, and both Joanna and Bobbie are members of the National Organization for Women in the United States. Bobbie and Joanna take it upon themselves to drum up interest for a women's organisation in Stepford, with aspirations of eventually starting a NOW chapter in the town. They are, of course, met with decline from every Stepford wife, leading Bobbie to exclaim, '"We're in the Town That Time Forgot!'" Both women realise just how different they are from the housewives of Stepford, accentuating the contention between the housewife and the feminist in the 1970s.
Bobbie and Joanna discover by way of old newspaper that Stepford previously had a Women's Club who had even succeeded in bringing Betty Friedan to speak in front of the club. Having previously spoken to Kit Sundersen, the president of the now-defunct club, about the prospect of her and Bobbie's women's organisation, Joanna sets out to ask why she hadn't mentioned the old club when they had met before. Kit's explanation is simple yet certainly of note. She explains to Joanna that the club no longer exists because the meetings were far less 'useful' than housework. In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir wrote of her view on housework in The Second Sex, which dissents from that of the Stepford wife significantly. Quoted by English scholars Rebecca Munford and Melanie Waters, Beauvoir says '"A woman's work within the home gives her no autonomy; it is not directly useful to society, it does not open out on the future, it produces nothing."' Here, the contemporary feminist ideology surrounding housework suggests the opposite of Kit's view on the matter. For Joanna, the distinction between the feminist and the housewife becomes increasingly evident, reminding her that a place like Stepford is not a place for women like herself. As Munford and Waters put it, the 'awkward irreconcilability of the feminist and the housewife in the 1970s cultural imaginary' has become the main source of tension in Joanna's life, and the tension is only magnified by way of the men's reaction to her struggle.
After discovering the old Women's Club of Stepford, it dawns on Joanna that there was a fair amount of community engagement in the Women's Movement before the Men's Association took hold. While hosting a dinner party, Joanna is shocked to discover from her one-town-over hired help that the Men's Association is a relatively new organisation, as the idea of the club always seemed laughably archaic to Joanna. Perhaps the reason why Joanna had believed '"it went back to the Puritans'" is due to the fact that the Men's Association operates out of a 19th century house in the centre of town. By housing the Men's Association in a Victorian estate, Levin harkens back to the era marked by the Cult of Domesticity, a 19th-century ideology that deemed 'the home as the domain of women and the workplace as the domain of men, specifically for middle‐ and upper‐class white people.' The Cult of Domesticity had a renaissance following World War II, which English scholar Robert A. Beuka believes to have 'reflected a desire in mainstream national culture to reinforce the sense of masculine agency temporarily lost during the war years.' This desire to assert 'traditional' gender roles in the face of female agency is exaggerated in Stepford when the men begin to replace their feminist wives with passive robots, but the message remains grounded: the concept of a woman venturing outside of the narrow box set in front of her is often met with anxiety and the reification of gender roles. The house itself, then, is a physical manifestation of these old conventions and gender roles the Men's Association aspires to return to.
Early in the novel, Joanna receives a call from her husband who is at a meeting for the Men's Association. He asks her if he and a few of the men could come over to discuss community projects, and Joanna agrees, as she had wanted to speak to men of the Association about the ban on women's joining. The men arrive and Joanna meets the New Projects Committee members, among them famed illustrator Ike Mazzard and Association president Dale 'Diz' Coba. Joanna shakes Ike's hand, telling him that he 'blighted [her] adolescence with those dream girls' he drew in magazines and advertisements. Throughout the meeting, Ike sketches Joanna in different poses and expressions, capturing her visually in order to eventually create a realistic robot model. Mazzard's gaze upon Joanna makes her feel objectified and physically uncomfortable, demonstrating the use of the male gaze in order to diminish a woman and gain control and dominance. As the meeting goes on, Joanna is relegated to the kitchen to wash up after the men, and she is greeted by Diz Coba in the doorframe, who observes her and remarks, '"I like to watch women doing little domestic chores.'" Through his gaze upon Joanna as she cleans, Coba embodies the neo-traditionalist conventions of gender in post-WWII suburban America by 'fetishizing housework,' which 'turns women from individuals with goals and ambitions into cleaning appliances: robots.' Through the use of the objectifying male gaze and the antiquated Men's Association house, Levin creates a world in which a modern woman like Joanna cannot survive, exhibiting the irreconcilable nature of conventional gender roles and the emerging Women's Liberation in the 1970s.
In The Stepford Wives, Levin crafts an unsettling world of conflict for the progressive Joanna by placing her in a setting ruled by archaic conventions of gender. The town of Stepford and its male inhabitants act as an exaggerated microcosm of the male reaction to the Women's Movement, while also highlighting the dissent between the symbol of the housewife and the feminist. In this world, Joanna cannot be both a woman of Stepford and a feminist, and it is this conflict, combined with the destructive male reaction to her attempt to be both, that leads to her fatality.
Beuka, Robert Andrew. SuburbiaNation: Reading Suburban Landscape in Twentieth -Century American Fiction and Film. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Fehlbaum, Amanda. "Cult of Domesticity" in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Family Studies, edited by Constance L. Shehan. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell
Levin, Ira. The Stepford Wives, 1972. London: Corsair
Murphy, Bernice M. The Suburban Gothic in American Pop Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Murphy, Bernice M. '"Identical Boxes Spreading Like Gangrene": Defining the Suburban Gothic' in A Companion to American Gothic. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons
Munford, Rebecca, and Melanie Waters. "Haunted Housewives and the Post-feminist Mystique" in Feminism & Popular Culture: Investigating the Post-feminist Mystique. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press
Silver, Anna Krugovoy. 'The Cyborg Mystique: The Stepford Wives and Second Wave Feminism.' Women's Studies Quarterly