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Thursday, November 28, 2002

What I Finished Reading Today:

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

OK, so I never saw the movie. But of course I haven't escaped hearing about the creepy flick in which all of a suburban town's wives are turned into emotionless, perfect automatons - it's part of our pop culture lexicon. So when I saw this book at an estate sale a while back, I thought it might be a fast, fun read. It was. But what surprised me is that it's also a pretty nifty piece of very timely social commentary (or at least it would have been at the time it was written, in 1972).

I realized years ago that some of the most successful horror movies (and books) are those which exploit and make obvious a specific fear running just under the surface of the social currents of our society. In the 1950s, when people were learning to live with the knowledge that nuclear fission was possible - and were very scared of it - we got a lot of movies about radiation-enhanced mutant monsters of one sort or another. In the 1980s, when many baby boomers were settling into what were becoming long-term marriages, and perhaps dealing with outside temptations and the fears of either being trapped forever in one relationship, or destroying their families by stepping outside the bonds of marriage, we got Fatal Attraction, and its picture of what can happen as a result of an illicit sexual affair. And in the early '90s, when baby boomers were still having children, but worried about how to raise them well and still have time for their own busy lives (just who can you trust with your children, anyway?), we got The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, which brought to life everyone's worst nightmare of a nanny (and played very effectively on the guilt of parents who do bring in help to raise their kids).

Because it seems to be somehow cathartic to see our worst fears brought to life and played out on screen, in someone else's life and not our own, movies that hit these kinds of nerves can be wildly successful at the box office. And now, after reading The Stepford Wives, I can see exactly why it was such a big hit -- both as a book and as a movie -- and why it has stayed with us for so long.

In the 1960s and 1970s, women began making huge strides in creating identities for themselves outside the boundaries of home and family. But these moves toward independence and individuality created deep fears in both men and women. Simplifying greatly, men feared that the helpers and caretakers they had come to expect in their lives would somehow disappear forever...while women often feared they would suffocate and die if they could never be any more than someone's wife or mother. And Stepford quite handily hits both those nails square on the head.

The story centers on a woman - Joanna, a housewife and aspiring photographer - who has just moved from the city to a quiet suburb with her husband and two kids. But while the husband very quickly settles into the suburban lifestyle, and happily joins the local men's club, Joanna has a hard time making friends with the local women...none of whom share her interests outside the home, and all of whom seem oddly obsessed with cooking, cleaning and laundry.

Finally, Joanna does make a couple of friends who seem different from the others, Bobbie and Charmaine, who are also both relative newcomers. But after a weekend alone with her husband, Charmaine suddenly does an about-face and becomes as drone-like as the other town women. Bobbie and Joanna become afraid there's something in the town's water supply that is drugging the women there, and both start pressuring their husbands to move before whatever it is gets them, too. But then, a few weeks later, Bobbie spends a weekend alone with her husband, and she, too, emerges a changed woman...which sends Joanna into an absolute panic.

The book is only 150 pages long, and it's so simple it can be read cover to cover in not much more than an hour. But it's actually pretty surprising how beautifully Levin's simple story so completely captures its small but significant part of the early '70s zeitgeist. (And he seems to have a talent for this kind of audience-grabbing story -- he's also the author of Rosemary's Baby, The Boys from Brazil and A Kiss Before Dying, all very successful in their day as well.) I've heard a remake of the movie may be in the works today...but it's hard to imagine it being as successful today on screen as it was in 1975, when the first movie came out, simply because I think we have moved forward a bit since then, and today's men and women have slightly different fears. If Levin - or anyone else - can figure out what today's fears are, however, and come up with another story as simple, iconic and of-the-moment as this one, they'd certainly have another huge hit on their hands.

posted by Elizabeth 8:21 AM

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All material © 2002-2004 by Elizabeth Fuller. Please do not reproduce anything you find here without the author's permission.

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