In The Stepford Wives, Ira Levin imagines a claustrophobic world in which women are man-made, and feminism doesn’t exist. Contains spoilers.

The Handmaid’s Tale anticipates a violent regime which strips away women’s rights and turns them back into servers and breeders. More than a decade before Margaret Atwood, however, Ira Levin had already explored the feminist dystopia in his novel The Stepford Wives.

Both books consider what life in the West would be like if women’s lib and feminism were neatly rolled back. But in Stepford, this reverse revolution doesn’t come about with guns and threats, but with secrecy and stealth. And rather than reducing women to drudges, it elevates them to flawless goddesses – on the surface, at least.

The angel in the house

‘Real’ women are (supposedly) a bit messy around the edges – i.e., they don’t always have time to clean house or cook from scratch. Compare the adverts we see on-screen now, in which ‘real’ women rush onto the beaches in plus-size bikinis. Real women, the message goes, are flawed but fabulous.

In The Stepford Wives, Joanna Eberhart’s friend Bobbie says something very similar. The two have are just starting to suspect that something disturbing is happening to the women in Stepford, unlike in Norwood and other towns nearby:

‘I went into Norwood to get my hair done for your party; I saw a dozen women who were rushed and sloppy and irritated and alive; I wanted to hug every one of them!’

What bothers Joanna and Bobbie about Stepford, of course, is that the other wives aren’t real, they’re perfect.

For instance, when Joanna meets her neighbour, Carol Van Sant, she gets strong glamazon vibes. Carol is beautiful, bosomy and impeccably dressed – and loves house keeping. Frankly, she sounds terrifying. But then Joanna comes to realise that nearly all the other Stepford wives are the same.

The Stepford wives don’t get mussed up – they probably don’t sweat, either. They don’t have personal interests; they’re devoted solely to their husbands, homes and children.

As dull as these women sound, they represent the ideal or ‘ultimate’ woman, as dreamed up by the Stepford Men’s Association. In fact, the men pool their desires and create a template of femininity: docile, beautiful, clean, ego-less … and bosomy.

This reeks of Victorianism, of the ‘angel in the house’ and an era when respectable women were (both in reality and desire) delicate, ethereal creatures incapable of strenuous activity or deep intelligence. They were home bodies, existing for the most part only in the domestic realm. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly what the men of Stepford are recreating.

My Fair Lady

Being anything like a Stepford wife doesn’t come naturally for most women, which is why we’ve come such a long way from Victorian ideals and other social tyrannies (… on the whole).

Realistically, most women would struggle to be as perfect and unselfish as the Stepford wives, which is why the beauty and diet industries do as well as they do. The Stepford men recognise this, and so take a more impatient gear: they force the transformation.

Levin doesn’t explain in detail how this comes about, but it seems to involve a mix of male talents in engineering, design and chemistry. The wives are in turn whisked off for a ‘weekend away’, during which the procedure is forced on them. When they return, they are Stepford Wives.

In fact, the women are reduced to ‘robots’ – they may even be dead, and animated entirely by some form of animatronics and preservatives. We know that they’re incapable of speech, because Claude Axhelm (of the Men’s Association) gets each wife to record herself speaking, presumably to programme the creature that will replace her after death.

Claude is even referred to twice as ‘Henry Higgins’, the lead character in George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, Pygmalion (later adapted as the musical My Fair Lady). The original Greek myth of Pygmalion concerns a sculptor who falls in love with a statue. In Shaw’s play, professor of phonetics Henry Higgins plucks a flower girl from the streets and, by teaching her how to speak and act, turns her into a lady.

What connects Stepford with Shaw’s play – aside from the modification of women – is the idea that women can only learn what men teach them. They’re empty vessels, some of which may be filled instead with [a lesser version of] male knowledge, and male standards of perfection.

Resistance is futile

At the end of the book, Joanna Eberhart is turned into a Stepford wife. What are we to make of this? Well, it’s worth nothing that she’s not Levin’s only heroine to be conquered: in Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary Woodhouse similarly ends by accepting her fate.

As a response to the “pent-up male reaction to the Women’s Liberation Movement” [Chuck Palahniuk writing in the introduction to The Stepford Wives], Levin seems to suggest that patriarchy is inevitable. Or, as Joanna finds at the end of the novel:

Every man was a threat, every car a danger.

There are two consequences to this. On the one hand, male desire is painted as a clichéd, childish toy: men invariably want attractive, selfless, docile young women, and are prepared to leave or switch wives to get what they want. Secondly, women can’t escape from this ideal.

Ultimately, it seems short-sighted. The men may have created flawless robots, but the robots are only capable of care, not love. They’re able to listen without interrupting, but have no interest in what the men might have to say. They have no choice, so the attention they pay is valueless.

On the other hand, removing individuality also removes worry. When all the women are programmed to do is shop and clean, they have nothing to stress about. At the end of the novel, Joanna confides:

‘Housework’s enough for me. I used to feel I had to have other interests, but I’m more at ease with myself now. I’m much happier too, and so is my family. That’s what counts, isn’t it?’

By turning their wives into zombies, the Men’s Association achieves female happiness, and the greater social good. However, by creating a society that reserves true intimacy between men, it’s may even be the case that the Stepford husbands aren’t truly interested in women at all.

Consumerism in The Stepford Wives

Another way of reading The Stepford Wives is as a commentary on consumerism. It’s consumerism which works hardest to push the beauty ideal, for instance, because dissatisfaction with person appearance keeps cosmetics companies, the media and the fitness industry in business.

The backlash to the women’s lib movement in the West could (and has) come from men. But consumerist society is also at threat from bra-burning feminists, especially those who prefer to grow out their armpit hair or live sustainably rather than on retail therapy.

It’s telling that when the Stepford wives finally leave their homes, it’s to go shopping. Consider Mary Ann’s response when Joanna meets her in the supermarket:

‘But you go out sometimes, don’t you?” Joanna said. ‘Of course I do,’ Mary Ann said. ‘I’m out now, aren’t I?’

Consumerism is inescapable – an idea which can be said to be true of contemporary life. Being free of it would mean not getting drawn into ideals or debates about women’s behaviour, body rights or beauty means not engaging with popular culture or mass media, for one thing.

It seems that, as the Stepford Wives comes to a close, Royal Hendry also knows this. His wife, Ruthanne – like Joanna – has her indulgent hobbies and interests instead of looking after her man (in his sticky-taped glasses).

When Royal agrees to take the kids out of pizza, he has plenty of reason to be unhurried and amenable. He’s already booked in a weekend away with his wife: her cards are already marked. Her time will come.

Ira Levin, The Stepford Wives (1972). Corsair, 2011.

Picture credit: Joshua Coleman