Still haunted by the ‘Stepford Wives’

30 Oct

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By: Danielle Schmersal, BSW
MSW Intern, NASW Ohio Chapter

Halloween is this week, which offers the perfect excuse to take a break from politics with a scary movie and some popcorn.  Or, at least you can try. One movie I watched this year was the original 1975 The Stepford Wives.  For those not familiar with the story, a young New Yorker moves to the suburbs with her family only to discover that the perfection of the women in the community is not by choice and she’s next in line for a transformation into a submissive hausfrau. A feminist horror movie, really. So, of course, not really a break from politics at all—especially when the original got me thinking about the not-so-feminist remake from 2004 and all of the recent activity in women’s rights. After nearly two years of continuous roll-backs on abortion rights and attacks on contraception and fair pay; after a presidential contest that has alternatively pandered to women and completely ignored them; after needing to introduce the 88-year-old Equal Rights Amendment yet again, The Stepford Wives serves as a reminder of how new, incomplete and fragile gender equality really is in the United States. 

A record number of abortion-related legislative bills were introduced across the country in 2011. Some states’ laws have gotten so severe that these women are turning to unregulated, sometimes dangerous, Mexican drug alternatives. A Wisconsin law that made it easier for victims of wage discrimination to have their day in court was repealed this spring. Of course, any accusations of a “War on Women”—like accusations of Stepford newcomers—are met with immediate denials, references to wives, mothers and daughters, and strange analogies.

Sadly, there are many in this country who believe that because a few women have run for U.S. President and because 12 CEOs for Fortune 500 companies are women (down from 15), everyone is equal, nothing like Stepford will ever happen, and we can all laugh at silly sexism. Just look at the Stepford Wives remake. In this horror-made-comedy, the Stepford wives’ transformations are being orchestrated not by the community’s Men’s Association as in the original, but by one of the suburb’s matriarchs. The women in the community all had remarkable careers—a judge, a successful television executive, a surgeon, a famous writer. The main character, Joanna, is rescued by her husband—who apparently undergoes a last-minute change of heart. The effects can also be reversed in the remake. In addition, one of the targets for transformation is a gay man—thus, taking gender completely out of the equation.  

Now, unfortunately, the remake is right in that women frequently play a large role in rolling back their own rights and place in society.  As an extreme example, this article notes the multiple women who have argued against American women having the right to vote. In Ohio, female legislators have sponsored and voted alongside their male counterparts for bills that restrict access to abortion and family planning.   Consider how women jumped on Hilary Rosen when she said that Ann Romney has “never worked a day in her life” because she was a stay-at-home mother.  Clearly, the intention was to point out that Ann Romney has never held a paying job and she is, therefore, maybe not the most reliable source on the needs of working women —not to imply that parenting is not hard work. But, of course, it is easier, cheaper and more entertaining to keep women fighting about the trivial than to actually have frank discussions about things like fair pay, equal consideration in promotions, reproductive choice and access to affordable care for children and elderly parents.  

Still, as many contributions as women have made to the fight against equality, it is still men who run the show.  A male legislator introduced the controversial Heartbeat bill in Ohio. Highlights of this election cycle have included Todd Aiken’s misunderstanding of female biology and Mitt Romney’s collection of binders full of women. Perhaps one of the most frustrating Stepford-like transformations we have seen during the last few years is the transformation of abortion and contraception from women’s issues into issues for religious men. Just look at how the issue of abortion was framed at the vice-presidential debate. What struck me in the final presidential debate were the many references to promoting gender equality in the Middle East as if we lived in the United States that appears in the remake of The Stepford Wives where women are just so successful all we really have to worry about is a crazy doctor lady turning us all into robots.

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