Ira Levin was a popular writer in the 1970s churning out thriller classics like Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys From Brazil, and his satirical The Stepford Wives, a novel about the quest for evergreen beauty and feminine subjugation. An excellent allegory for the backlash against feminism, The Stepford Wives shows its readers what would happen if male privilege and anti-feminist bigotry allows to go unchecked.
Joanna Eberhart and her husband, Walter move to Stepford with their two children. The tiny Connecticut town is an ideal place to raise children – great schools, safe streets, and a devoted Men’s Association that is in charge of local civic and community projects. While Joanna is initially happy about the move, she cannot shake her urbane New Yorker persona, and has trouble assimilating with the domestically-inclined housewives of Stepford. She finally finds a pal in Bobbie Markowitz, a woman who feels just as alienated from Stepford as Joanna (it could be that Bobbie’s Jewishness and Joanna’s New Yorker status both keep them at an arm’s length from the rest of the town).
As time progresses, Joanna begins to feel stifled by the community. Her attempts at starting a women’s club, or a local NOW chapter are met with indifference from the local women. It’s when during some digging, she discovers that the women of Stepford were in fact, active in local civic and political affairs at one point, that has our heroine being to view her town with suspicion. She no longer sees her neighbors as placid sheep, but instead believes something nefarious is happening to the town’s women, and is concerned that she herself isn’t immune to whatever force that seems to be changing these women.
When Levin’s thriller came out, it made a large noise in the literary community because of its far-fetched but effective plot. The term Stepford Wife has been adopted into our vernacular, and is used to describe women who are perceived as mindless appendages to their husbands. It’s a testament to the power of this slim tome that it has made such a lasting mark on popular culture.
There is some debate as to whether this is a feminist fable or merely a man’s fantasy. While readers are meant to view the men of Stepford with suspicion and contempt, the women of the novel aren’t terribly active or proactive – they don’t have much autonomy, and even the protagonist doesn’t operate in a space that is completely independent from her husband – in fact, despite being ostensibly a modern woman (at least by the standards of the 1970s), Joanna doesn’t hold down a job, nor is it clear that she was all that thrilled about moving to Stepford. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique makes a predictable cameo in the book, as its concerns seem to shape a lot of The Stepford Wives is addressing.
But because the ending and the attitude of the author is rather ambiguous, the readers aren’t exactly sure if we’re looking at a utopia or a dystopia – a world where women are rightfully returned to their place in society, or a world where bigotry and chauvinism victimizes the women. It’s to Levin’s credit that he crafts a tight, funny thriller that delivers despite some gaps in plot as well as some rushed plot resolution towards the end of the novel. Usually I complain that books are too long, but I think this one would benefit for a few more chapters that create, heighten, and prolong the tension, suspension and fear – once Joanna becomes suspicious of her surroundings, readers are launched into a break-neck pace that doesn’t raise the stakes sufficiently enough to be a satisfyingly thrilling story – but merely disquieting. Still, despite some of the dated aspects of the book, it still manages to pack a solid punch.