In an era where acceptance and assimilation have an increasingly blurred boundary, The Stepford Wives becomes the tragedy of a generation of activists slain by those who call themselves allies.
Since its publication in 1972, the ubiquity of Ira Levin’s dark satire novel The Stepford Wives has been almost unquestionable. With millions of copies sold, two movie adaptations (one passable, one frankly terrible), and a permanent place in the vernacular with the term ‘Stepford wife’, Levin has inspired a generation of social horror and brought a very real sense of the terror of everyday prejudice into the limelight. With this political niche of horror growing in popularity after the success of 2017’s social horror masterpiece Get Out, we are reminded again and again that the patterns we see in fiction are replicated in society at large. The victims of horror are the victims in reality too. Social horror presents us with a tension marked by very clear social categorisations that are easier for many to ignore in reality: black versus white, men versus women, oppressor versus oppressed. Battle lines in horror are drawn clearly for those who choose to see them, and protagonists are left to deal with the messy in-betweens, the people they love, and the betrayals of trust involved. For those unfamiliar with Levin’s sinister suburb, The Stepford Wives tells the story of Joanna Eberhart, a feminist/photographer/mother/housewife who has moved with her family from a bustling city to the idyllic Stepford, a suburb with unassuming middle-class professionals and their submissive, carbon-copy wives. From the very beginning, it is clear that something is amiss in Stepford, and the novel tells the story of Joanna uncovering a conspiracy against Stepford’s women, coordinated by the men of the town. The novel has been lauded for its prescience, with Levin presenting a world in which perfection is the biggest aberration, where against the backdrop of the rise of second-wave feminism, these Stepford wives are the biggest abnormality, not the feminist protagonist who questions them.
Levin’s novel does not end happily. The protagonist, Joanna, becomes a Stepford wife herself and, although we don’t see it, is most likely murdered for her refusal to submit. Read in 2018, The Stepford Wives doesn’t come across as dated, but eerily prescient. The novel features no central villain, no mastermind that Joanna comes up against in some bloody climax. In fact, none of the apparent antagonists, particularly Dale Coba (Joanna’s main focus point for her fear and distrust throughout the novel), even appear in the final stand-off. As villains, Levin offers us only Joanna’s family, friends, and neighbours. The narrative skirts close to confrontation three times: with Walter, Joanna’s husband, with the men of Stepford, and finally with her best friend, Bobbie. Each conflict is less of an argument and more of a coercion, with subtle deflections after every moment of concern. Moments of doubt spiral until Joanna sees a psychiatrist, doubts her own beliefs, and eventually walks directly into a trap. It is no coincidence that all three of these conflicts are with people that readers are led to assume were safe bets for the protagonist. Walter was interested in the Women’s Liberation movement. The other men think it’s ridiculous that women aren’t allowed in the Men’s Association and imply that their wives want to stay home and clean. Bobbie was different that the other wives. In a horror story about the threat of forced assimilation, Joanna’s main enemies are those who would, in any other story, be her allies. And thus begins the horror of assimilation.
Among the commentary on social movements and their subsequent backlashes, Levin hides a few subtle references to queerness. In a novel focused so heavily on gender dynamics and what happens to the women who defy them, the presence of queerness is almost unnoticeable. As a bisexual woman, the existence of marginalized sexualities was at once both a horror and a comfort. It’s too easy for people to pretend that queerness wasn’t invented in the 80s. In a few blink-and- you’ll-miss-it moments, The Stepford Wives offers a portrayal of hidden queerness that feels only too relatable to those who don’t fit neatly into binaries. When one of the female characters, Charmaine Wimperis, describes herself as what we would today label as asexual, stating ‘I’m just not interested in sex. I don’t think any woman is, really’, her queerness is almost instantly abandoned within the larger narrative. Her indifference to sex cements a feminist interpretation rather than establishing a queer one. Charmaine becomes marginalised even within the margins she already exists in, living as a confident, independent woman in Stepford. The erasure of her sexuality mirrors the frequent erasure of asexual and bisexual women even within politically active and learned queer/feminist circles. Having dealt with biphobia and the erasure of my own identity within queer circles, Charmaine’s doubt as to whether her friends actually enjoy sex with their husbands or just think that they should struck a very specific chord. The constant instinct to question, to doubt the dominant narrative strikes just a little too close to home, especially for Charmaine to almost immediately become a Stepford, happily submissive and of standard sexuality. While the idea is dismissed quickly, Levin subtly implies the horror of compulsory heterosexuality for queer women in a way that was downright revolutionary in 1972. The 2004 film remake of The Stepford Wives, an otherwise embarrassingly goofy affair, is the only iteration of the story to openly question what differences of sexuality might add to the narrative, depicting a ‘Stepford husband’ and having the true mastermind of the conspiracy be a successful woman, bitter at her husband. But this misunderstands Levin fundamentally. The characters persecuted in the novel are, like queer women and politically active women, those who don’t fit into a comfortable binary. We are the women who are inconvenient for men. While Levin doesn’t go to any great depths with his implications of queerness, it’s erasure is all too familiar in narratives of compulsory heterosexuality. As in art, as in life, queer and questioning women are too often relegated to the margins.
It’s easy to focus on our enemies. On the day I finished reading The Stepford Wives, news broke that a young British man had been convicted for planning a terrorist attack on the LGBT community. There was no relief or joy, only fear – fear that the next attack might not be averted. We have more than enough enemies to go around, and in the face of such a threat, assimilation can be tempting. Self- identified, often well-meaning ‘allies’ dictate our own politics, our own history, and the direction of our own movement to us. It’s a refrain any activist has heard a thousand times. We have to listen to all sides of the debate. The system can only be changed from the inside. By attempting to balance an already unfair argument in favour of the oppressors, these ‘allies’ undermine an entire movement. In reality, they uphold the system more than they subvert it. In a 2011 foreword to the novel, author Chuck Palahniuk notes that feminism as a social movement seems to have regressed as a result of capitalist and neoliberal commentators, suggesting that ‘Women may now choose to be pretty, stylishly dressed, and vapid. This is no longer the shrill, politically charged climate of 1972; if it’s a choice freely made, then it’s… okay’. This new brand of socially acceptable feminist, coerced and contained by outside parties, sets an unsettling precedent for the LGBT+ rights movement. Pride is already being depoliticised. We embrace corporate sponsorship at the expense of radical politics (the inclusion of Mercedes-Benz at Toronto Pride was a particularly stinging betrayal of queer history – the luxury car manufacturer had previously exploited gay slave labour from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in World War Two). With the birth of rainbow capitalism and a thousand different #LoveIsLove t-shirts, the LGBT+ community are faced with a similar proposition as the second- wave of feminists in The Stepford Wives: assimilate, forget your history of fighting for your rights, and be accepted into mainstream society. Of course, the unspoken caveat of this acceptance is that it comes only at the expense of those who refuse to assimilate. In the very first scene between the protagonist and her husband, Walter tells Joanna that he intends to join the local Men’s Association. He overcomes her anxieties with familiar rhetoric: ‘the only way to change it is from the inside’, ‘if these men I spoke to are typical, it’ll be The Everybody’s Association before you know it’, ‘if it’s not open to women in six months, I’ll quit and we’ll march together’. Joanna reluctantly accepts her husband’s defences of the quiet oppression present in Stepford and ultimately dooms herself by doing so. In a scene shockingly prescient for the current political moment, the couple happily devise glib protest-placard slogans, already trivialising the assimilation they’ve accepted. Walter comes to embody a very relatable paranoia, with his open acceptance of the women’s liberation movement and subtle denials of it throughout the rest of the novel, he becomes the image of the fair-weather ally. Ultimately, he benefits more from the presence of the patriarchy than he does from supporting his wife’s rights. Regardless of Walter’s professed beliefs, he has made his choice by the end of the novel. Levin draws up battle lines early, making clear early on that a declared feminist is choosing a group of men over his wife. Joanna ignores the warning just as much as Levin’s readers do. We avoid conflict and confrontation in favour of assimilation and deflection and the instinct to de-escalate is what seals a horror- movie fate.
Ultimately, Levin leaves us with a valuable lesson in The Stepford Wives: to fight assimilation like the disease it is and to refuse to concede even an inch of the ground we’ve gained. Cisgender and heterosexual people may consider themselves allies, but given the right circumstances they’ll throw any of us under the bus. Like the Armitage family denying their own racism in Get Out, the men of Stepford deny any hatred of women. Some call themselves feminists. Antagonists in social horrors refuse to acknowledge the social prejudices driving their actions and the trust that these false allies build with their outward appearance is what ultimately endangers the protagonists, who excuse the evidence in front of them out of misplaced trust. In obituaries for Levin, his style of horror is often described as ‘paranoid’, a description which is easily and often applied to activists too. At the height of her own paranoia, Joanna doubts her own sanity and even visits a psychiatrist at the behest of her husband. We are constantly told that the world isn’t out to get us in the same world where our mere existence in the wrong places can be punishable by death. Even now, the debate on whether it should be legal to refuse to serve LGBT folk and which bathrooms our trans brothers and sisters can use continues. We’re told there is nothing to fear. We have the most rights now that we’ve ever had. However, within the subtext of The Stepford Wives, Levin poses a counter-argument to this culture of denial: it isn’t paranoia if you’re right.