Exploring the Horror of the Female Domestic: A Review of The Stepford Wives
Oh, how I adore this book. I’ve read it twice now and I’m looking forward to teaching it in the fall and talking about how this novel bridges science fiction, women’s lit, and dystopian fantasy all in one, and if you’re looking for something that speaks to the women’s movement, has a strong female protagonist, a fair amount of dark humor, and that concludes with a rally cry to overthrow the patriarchy, this book is for you.
Now for those of you who know me, you already know that I’m a huge Ira Levin fan (Rosemary’s Baby literally changed my life), but this book particularly excited me because even though it was written in 1972—which was during the second wave of feminism—it feels very timely now, especially in Trump’s America. As a woman in my 30s, and as someone who is recently married, I’ve been getting used to different roles and labels attached to my person now, and honestly, it’s been a rather strange, disassociating experience at times. People look at me differently, expect me to push out a kid at any given moment, I feel like I’m keeping house more and have more responsibility to my family, and while these aren’t necessarily bad things, they are happenings that speak to my evolution as both a woman and as someone who is growing up and has different obligations now whether that’s in regard to myself, my career, my ever-growing pit bull horde, or to my partner.
Reading The Stepford Wives at this point in my life gave me a lot of hope and a lot of fear, and I related to it now in a way that made me truly uncomfortable, and as someone who has experienced a fair amount of gaslighting in her life, the interactions between the characters really got under my skin and quite honestly just creeped me out. Now I’ve also been reading a lot of Shirley Jackson and Charlotte Perkins Gilman for my classes, too, so this focus on patriarchal law, the hysteric woman, this demand to be see and not heard, and generally just the female domestic as a growing theme throughout all of these texts has proven to me time and time again that the fight for equality is not only still a rally cry for the masses but it’s also an absolute necessity, and something that is becoming more and more apparent to me as November gets closer and closer.
Another piece of the story that I want to lightly touch on is the message within the book about performative allyship. Something that we, as readers, see a lot of in the text are excuses and a willingness to stand by instead of act out. Here I’m specifically referring to Walter’s insistence that he’s a feminist yet each time he’s faced with an opportunity to support or fight for his wife’s rights, he either cowers, becomes submissive to the crowd, or rallies against her. I think this was a really bold and brilliant move on Levin’s behalf because while he’s showing us hypocrisy in everyone, he’s honing in on the people these characters are closet to and love the most.
Essentially, he’s saying that there is never an excuse and we need to do better and to do the right thing, even when—most especially when!—it’s the harder choice to make.
At the end of the day, this novel is about humanity, respect, and the autonomy of one’s mind and body, and my favorite takeaway this time was the message that yes, we should believe women.
I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars.