Magazine article The Spectator

Women Know Their Place

Magazine article The Spectator

Women Know Their Place

Article excerpt

Over the next few weeks, I predict, the weekend supplements will be frothing with halter-neck frocks and wide-brimmed floppy hats, all in a sweet palette of sugared-almond colours. It's not the start to the so-called 'Season', though it will look very like it. It's the start of something else. The Stepford Wives are back.

To celebrate the remake, all the crunchiest spokespersons of the gender movements will be invited on Start the Week to debate the notion of domestic perfectionism. And, of course, there will be interviews with the belle du jour, Nicole Kidman, who is playing the plum role of photographer and libber Joanna Eberhart, who moves to Stepford, Connecticut, from New York.

When she gets there, remember, Joanna discovers she has upped sticks to The Town That Time Forgot. All the other women she meets glide around supermarkets in full maquillage. They wax floors by night and wear white gloves by day to prune the roses. And they're openly in love with their vacuum cleaners.

They are serene, fulfilled and much too busy scrubbing to kvetch with the new kid on the block, because they are not real women (do keep up) but animatronic fembots, of course, controlled by the Men's Association of Stepford. The menfolk have been so insulted by their wives' stroppy determination to pursue interests outside the home that they have traded in their lifetime partners for robots, programmed to be fulfilled by housework and marital sex and at least two cup-sizes bigger than they were before.

With Christopher Walken joining Nicole as arch-baddie, the 2004 remake of the 1975 movie of the Ira Levin parable about men's fears of feminism should be a smash.

But isn't it ironic? At the time of its first release, women were in the middle of burning their bras, examining their cervixes and defiantly plaiting their leg hairs. Their attitude to home cooking was, 'Make it yourself, I'm late for group.' Housework was a political issue. As Pat Mainardi wrote for Redstocking magazine in 1970, women have been 'brainwashed' into doing it without complaint for generations, for some reason. 'It's probably too many years of seeing television women in ecstasy over their shiny waxed floors or breaking down over their dirty shirt collars. Men have no such conditioning. They recognise the essential fact of housework right from the very beginning. Which is that it stinks.'

The movie's director, Bryan Forbes, remains perplexed by the reaction to the film, given what the book was really about. 'I have always felt that, far from being antiwomen, it is the Stepford men who are held up to ridicule, and anyway, in the last analysis, Levin wrote it as a savage comment on a media-driven society which values the pursuit of youth and beauty above all else.'

Still, the term Stepford Wives has done sturdy service for the past 30 years as shorthand for a certain kind of housewifely devotion to detail, not as a critique of male sexism or pursuit of youth and beauty, etc. - a misunderstanding that has persisted for much too long to correct now. Whenever Martha Stewart advocates baking a new sort of cupcake for every month of the year, or Nigella uses the term Domestic Goddess, they are ribbed for being Stepford Wives. The Evening Standard recently ran a feature entitled 'Top Ten Stepford Wives'.

There was Betsy Duncan Smith, for being her hubby's secretary. There was Kylie, of course, who has eschewed Lurex hotpants for rubber gloves: 'I get my Marigolds on and have a frenzy,' Kylie claims. …

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