Reading Stepford Wives at the End of Roe
It's not all in your head
This is the mid-week version of Men Yell At Me. A newsletter about the intersection of patriarchy and politics in America. You can read more about me here. If you like it and you want more, well, there is more where it came from.
The last thing I wanted to read was a book by a man describing women. Especially not that day, when I had spent the morning listening to Supreme Court justices whittle away at my right to an abortion during the oral arguments of Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson.
The case was, and is, not a direct attack on Roe. But a kind of side attack. A case whose entire goal is to undermine the enforcement of a constitutional right. And allow the justices a cloak of respectability, under which they can undermine settled law without appearing to undermine settled law.
Essentially, the case was arguing whether abortion providers could sue officials to stop the enforcement of SB8, the Texas law that allows citizens to sue anyone who aids in an abortion. The majority ruled that yes, providers can sue, but there is only a narrow path to challenging the law, which remains in effect.
Ian Millhiser, writing for Vox, explained, “SB 8 was written for the very purpose of evading judicial review, and Jackson largely blesses that tactic. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor writes in dissent, Gorsuch’s opinion ‘leaves all manner of constitutional rights more vulnerable than ever before.’”
But the night I read The Stepford Wives, I didn’t know the outcome. Pundits were not optimistic. And neither was I. I grew up going to anti-abortion rallies. My mother would parade out the eight of us children. A testament to God’s holy call for families. I grew up attending church on “Right to Life” Sunday and listening to the prayers and sermons of ministers actively encouraging their congregations to vote for politicians who vowed to undermine the constitutional right to an abortion under Roe.
I’ve written about this threat against reproductive freedom in a book and countless articles. Post 2016 election, I heard so many people I knew here in Iowa say they voted for Trump specifically so he could help reverse Roe. That was all anecdotal, of course. But whenever I offered that up—the rollback on women’s rights as a solution for the conundrum of 2016—I was told it wasn’t that simple. Surely, it was other things, a more complex theory that I, a person who grew up religiously conservative in red states, would know nothing about.
And well, we women were all overreacting, weren’t we? Roe was settled law after all. And each justice would smugly sit before a Senate panel and say they would respect settled law. And each time, I’d say, no, no, no. But what, ultimately, could I do but keep shouting?
And I went to bed that night with a feeling of dread and helplessness. I turned off social media, which feels more and more like an endless scream into the void. And I picked up The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin, poured some wine, and I began to read.
In the introduction, Peter Straub, writes that the book “is so effortlessly readable that it has been persistently misread, which is to say, misunderstood, over the thirty years since the original publication.” He is right.
The 2004 film The Stepford Wives gets everything miserably wrong. I watched the movie when I was 20 and home from college. It came out the year before I graduated and got married. In a time when I was trying to unravel the lessons I’d been taught, ones about women, and choices, and freedom. I was a feminist, or so I thought. But I was also a lost girl, whose family was falling apart. My sister had told us about her sexual assault. Another family member was lost in an abusive relationship. I was lying to myself about my own assault. And I had just become engaged to the most stable person I’d ever met—someone who felt like a life raft in a world that was submerging me.
I saw the movie with my parents. The people who taught me Proverbs 31:10: “A good woman is hard to find, and worth far more than diamonds.” The ones who had told me this is the woman I ought to be.
I know so many people think like this still. And when I say this, people will laugh and say, “oh not many.” Or “maybe just in backwards places.” But I know it’s everywhere.
The movie, if it is anything, is a send-up of women. In it, Nicole Kidman plays Joanna Eberhart, a laid-off and burnt-out TV executive dealing with the effect her high-powered career has had on her family. All the women in the movie portray burnt-out feminists, women who have risen too high and been knocked down. And they, one by one, are being turned into happy, well-endowed robots—not by men, but by Claire, a former surgeon played by Glenn Close.
In this retelling, it’s not the men who are bad, not exactly. It’s the women. The women who have flown too high, gone too far, and left the men and their children behind. But whatever edge of satire the movie gets close to, it immediately moves away from. In the end, the women become themselves, and they punish the men.
The year the movie came out, Maureen Dowd, the columnist who won a Pulitzer for slut shaming Monica Lewinsky, wrote that women were turning themselves into Stepford Wives, because they were using botox and cooking. In her column, she compares Betty Friedan to Nigella Lawson, which is the intellectual equivalent of comparing a razor blade to a porch. Not making sense doesn’t even begin to encompass the fallacy of it all. But the point is similar in that, whatever oppression women have, it’s their fault. Maybe men play a role, but this is the fault of women.
I don’t know what Levin, who died in 2007, thought of the remakes. I know he had some regrets about his other book Rosemary’s Baby, but as he pointed out, he never stopped cashing the checks. And after all, books are there to be misinterpreted. The ones that capture our imagination are written over not with the intent of the author, but with the anxieties and prejudices of the movie producers and screenwriters until there is nothing left.
By the time I sat down to read the book, I’d been married, I’d tried to be a good wife, such a wonderful and good wife. Packing a lunch for my husband every morning for 10 years, until postpartum depression and two kids ended my streak. I’d cut coupons and read marriage tips and waited on my career while his took off. And he wasn’t, isn’t, bad. Wasn’t that the problem? He was a “good man,” everyone said. Now, I am divorced. Another wife has taken my place. I don’t take much stock in men who claim they are the good ones anymore. What is good in a system that is bad?
“I’d just like you to put on a little lipstick once in a while. That’s no big deal.”
The book, Straub argues, is a satire, not of women, but of men. He writes, “This is a novel that satirizes its oppressors and their desires, not their victims, within a context that satirizes its very status as a thriller.”
I read the entire book in one night. It’s so elegantly constructed. Compact and hard like a diamond created from the compressed carbon of the earth.
And Straub is right. This book is not a mockery of women, which is what I was afraid of. In fact, Stepford Wives isn’t even really about women, it’s about men.
In the book, it’s the men who are lampooned. They jerk off to fantasies of robot women; they can barely carry conversations in front of Joanna. And all the while, their wives, before they are turned into animatronic women, are convinced these are the good men.
Levin published this book in 1972, the year the ERA was passed and nearly a decade after the Feminist Mystique was published. In Divided We Stand, Marjorie Spruill points out that in the early ’70s, the women’s movement had widespread support, and both Republican and Democrat politicians, at least publicly, supported the the basic tenets of feminism.
But Levin had picked up on something more sinister, that all those men, those good-loving men out there who were, at the time, saying, Yes, honey, I support your career and I support your rights, were secretly thinking something else.
Levin writes in a close third-person narration to the protagonist Joanna Eberhart, who slowly pieces together what is happening in Stepford. Women are changing. Men meet in a club. Some of the men used to work at Disney making the animatronic characters. But Joanna never sees this happen. She has no evidence. She goes to a therapist who gently chided her delusions. Her husband gaslights her. When she asks him if he wants her to change, his response is reassuring. “I’d just like you to put on a little lipstick once in a while. That’s no big deal. I’d like me to change a little, too, like lose a few pounds for instance.”
When Bobbie, one of the women in the novel, is transformed, she tells Joanna, “Yes, I’ve changed. I realized I was being awfully sloppy and self-indulgent. It’s no disgrace to be a good homemaker. I’ve decided to do my job conscientiously, the way Dave does his, and to be more careful about my appearance. Are you sure you don’t want a sandwich?”
The words are said by a female character, but they are programmed there by a man. It’s the most honest thing a man says in the book, and it’s said by a robot wife.
But the reader is allowed to think this could all be in her head. This could just be her imagination. Joanna sees a psychiatrist who tells her that her suspicions sound “like the idea of a woman who, like many women today, and with good reason, feels a deep resentment and suspicion of men.”
And Joanna never has proof. All she finds are newspaper clippings that prove the women used to be different. They used to host book clubs and talk about Betty Friedan. Joanna’s fears grow until she runs away from home. She’s caught by a group of men, and even then they don’t tell her the truth. There is no villainous monologue where they confess. Nothing but denials and reassurances. They take her to her friend Bobbie. There, Joanna demands that Bobbie cut her hand to prove that she is real, that she has blood. Bobbie takes out the knife, and then the book cuts away. We see the men standing outside, warming their hands and waiting.
The next chapter begins with a happy, placid, boobalicious Joanna, grocery shopping.
In the 2004 movie, the women ultimately win back their freedom. But in the book, there is no redemption, no hope. One by one, they become the animatrons their husbands want.
I understand why this book is willfully misinterpreted. In a world that so desperately wants to shout, “Not All Men!” and that seeks male saviors, even as they fail us, it’s easier to read this book and try to find a way to reinterpret it to blame women. But there is no hope on that page.
No, it is not in your head. Levin seems to be saying. You are not imagining it. No one wants the reality and inconvenience of you and your flesh.
I close the book and go to bed. Days later, Chris Cuomo resigns for his role in helping his brother, disgraced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, hide stories about his role in sexual assault. And nearly a month later, the ruling. A ruling that was the undermining of Roe, but which gave Supreme Court justices the plausible deniability of not exactly undermining Roe.
A small change here. A little ruling there. A clinic closed here. A reproductive-care desert here. And gradually the landscape changes.
Imani Perry wrote in her newsletter for The Atlantic, “If Roe is overturned, it will not ban abortion. It will allow states to ban abortion. Meaning, it will allow state action to overrun what the Court had previously acknowledged as a fundamental right. It is not incidental that the history of discrimination law in this country has pivoted around whether states have the authority to deny constitutional rights to individuals. States have a long history of structuring inequality through limiting the scope of protected rights. The Court is marching toward not only affirming but encouraging that practice again.”
There is a line in Stepford Wives, when Joanna demands to move from Stepford. Her husband recommends a psychiatrist, but she tells him, “I don’t need a psychiatrist. I need to move!”
I think about this all the time now. How she should have left. How she should have taken the kids and gone. I think about how the solution in the book’s puzzle is that you have to go, go, go. Not wait. Not stick around. Not wheedle and plead for your freedom. I am not interested in discussing who is good and who isn’t. The system is bad. This entire place is bad. We have to to run. We do not need self-care. We do not need more tips for happy living or Tik Tok affirmations or cozy sweaters. We need to get the hell out of Stepford.
It’s not in our heads.
Men Yell At Me is about the places where politics and our bodies collide, and yes, all the men who yell. I am an author and journalist. You can read more about my work here. I send out two weekly emails. The mid-week email is usually an essay, interview, or piece of journalism. The Friday email is a round up of stories I’m reading, drinks I’m drinking, and the dinguses in the news who are dingusing. If you read this email and value it, consider subscribing.