Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
Contrary to her assertions, it’s not her lifestyle liberals object to. (Contrary to her delusions of grandeur, nobody really cares how she lives her life – they just wish she would stop telling them how to live theirs.) It’s her enthusiasm for “little-helpmeet” misogyny that drives them to consider her an enemy. See if you can tell why:
[P]ity the poor married man hoping to get a bit of comfort from the wife at day’s end. He must somehow seduce a woman who is economically independent of him, bone tired, philosophically disinclined to have sex unless she is jolly well in the mood, numbingly familiar with his every sexual maneuver, and still doing a slow burn over his failure to wipe down the countertops and fold the dish towel after cooking the kids’ dinner. He can hardly be blamed for opting instead to check his e-mail, catch a few minutes of SportsCenter, and call it a night.
Ahhhh . . . . So, if all that is what is wrong with women, what would it take for them to be right?
Aside from the familiar, dreary 50s drudgery of it and the cheerfully creepy rape-positivism (she can’t initiate sex, she can’t refuse it, and she must not have sexual desires of her own – but she is obligated to satisfy her man on his whim no matter what), what’s inescapable is that women of the Flanagan mold must not have any self-directed lives of any kind, nor any “philosophical inclinations” to think their own interests and values matter; they exist for the sexual gratification of, and personal service to, their husbands, and are judged (by Flanagan) on how well they perform those functions.
Where have I seen this before . . .?
Oh, yeah. Now I remember.
I wrote this movie review almost two years ago, on the blog Lean Left (where I got my start before launching Sufficient Scruples; thanks again, guys!). (Note that on the original blog, it is attributed to Dawn; that’s an error due to an archiving glitch – the post was mine. Dawn writes great stuff of her own, but sadly not often enough.) It seems strangely relevant again now that Flanagan is back in the news.
Everything Old is New Again
I dunno what to think about the current [June 2004] remake of The Stepford Wives.We’re living in weird and ugly times. Sometimes the strangeness comes too fast and furiously to keep up with; I think this movie is a case in point. Given some very weird plotting, and the fact that Stepford is not actually a very good movie (though Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, and Roger Bannister [not the running guy] have some great sequences, and Glenn Close, Jon Lovitz, and especially Christopher Walken are also good), it’s hard to tell just what this one’s trying to say. It’s trying to say something, though, and we probably ought to listen just so we don’t get clubbed over the head and stuffed into the Stepfordizer while we’re not paying attention.
The premise is well-known: dipstick men who are resentful of their wives’ independence move to a creepy town in Connecticut, where the wives are secretly replaced with technological droid-women who become submissive slaves to the men’s gratification, and the men (plan to) live happily ever after. The movie has been updated from the classic 1975 original, and the script has a few anti-reactionary zingers (”You can’t be a gay Republican! It’s like being a gay man with a bad haircut!” “Where could we create a town full of robots without being noticed? . . . Connecticut!”) that seem to give it a more modern sensibility, but basically the story is an almost exact remake of the original – with one major exception. Between the similarities and the exceptions, I can’t figure out if it’s an anti-feminist backlash daydream, a pro-feminist satire, a neo-conservative fantasy, or an anti-reactionary call to arms.
Some weird shit goin’ on, though, any way you slice it.
As I said, this version of the story follows the plot of the original almost exactly: a dynamic and independent woman is dragged by her husband to a bizarrely sterile Connecticut burb, where all the women are absurdly domestic and spend their lives in thrall to idiotic household chores and catering to their husbands’ whims. The men all join the vaguely sinister “Men’s Association” (its symbol: a crowing cock), where the lead woman’s husband slowly starts to appreciate the fine thing all the other men have going. The woman’s only friends are a smart-ass New York Jewish woman (the only Jew in town, a source of confusion to the other women) and the stereotypically swishy half of the town’s one gay male couple. They wisecrack their revulsion at the town’s weirdo 50s aesthetic, but can’t figure out why the other women (get it? – the swishy gay guy is the “woman,” while his conservative gay partner is “the man” in their relationship) are the way they are. Slowly they realize that something strange is going on. By the time the main character figures out what it is, her two loudmouth friends have been robotized into a chirpy domestic goddess and a starch-haired, conservative, gay Republican. Then the men start coming for her, carefully taking time out to explain the entire plot before stuffing her into the roboting machine.
One important difference is that, this time, the women aren’t killed and replaced by robots, but instead have microchips implanted in their brains that wipe out their independent thoughts while leaving their biological bodies intact. (A few other features are installed: breasts that inflate at the touch of a button on the husbands’ remote-control devices, and ATM cash dispensers that spit money out of their mouths.)
OK – so, same old, same old: reactionary men kill women’s independence and turn their wives into domestic and sexual slaves. What’s the confusion?
The biggest difference between this movie and the original is that, this time, the main male character changes his mind at the last minute and decides not to turn his wife into a zombie. (In the original, the movie ends with the main character – the woman fighting for her independence – finally getting killed and replaced.) Instead, he and she cooperate to undo the brain programming on all the other women, so that, in the end, all the women return to their normal, hard-charging, dynamic, professional selves – in a high state of pissed-offedness. When he sees his work undone, the head male scientist character rants at the holdout “I thought you were ready! You’re a coward!”, to which his wife replies “He’s a man!”
Other major twists include a play on the final scene of the original movie (in which all the robot women, including the main character, are seen mindlessly pushing shopping carts around the supermarket). In this new version, the men of the town are forced (apparently under threat of legal action for roboting their wives) to take over the domestic chores, and are seen pushing carts around the supermarket with no clue how to do the shopping. And, lastly, it turns out in this case that there is only one actual non-human robot in the town, and it’s the male scientist who supposedly created the fembots! His wife is the brains behind the zombie brigade. She bursts into tears as all the women return to normal, and explains that she just wanted everything to be “beautiful” – she wanted a society where men wore tuxedos and women wore party gowns, and everything was “perfect”, but there would never be one if all the women were pursuing careers in addition to family. So she turned the women into perfect robots, and, she says, later on she was going to get around to the men. Nicole Kidman replies proudly that “we don’t have to be perfect.”
So: what the hell’s going on here? I honestly can’t figure it out.
The icky retro version of domesticity (the movie opens with a pseudo-50s montage of Donna Reed-type women swooning over kitchen appliances) is sick enough: stay-at-home wives and mothers baking cupcakes and catering to their husbands; cigar-chomping men in leather club chairs making jokes about the little women; women as cash- cleavage- and sex-dispensers. That’s an evil society – but what does the movie have to say about it?
That society (literally) explodes in the final scene, as opposed to the original movie where that society was finally triumphant. So maybe the film is telling us that we’re supposed to reject the neo-retro trend the conservative mouthbreathers keep pushing on us. That’s the lifestyle, after all, that the cool characters in the movie can’t stand, and finally succeed in destroying; we’re not supposed to want it to succeed.
But . . . but . . . the movie doesn’t seem to have the courage of its own convictions. Even the spunky main character refers to that domestic wasteland as “perfect.” She doesn’t say that nobody but a lobotomized Eagle Forum drone would ever live that way – she just says she should be forgiven if she’s not “perfect” enough to do so. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of women’s independence. And her character is an obnoxious bitch – she’s a jittery TV exec whose latest reality show destroys its players’ lives and results in several shootings, but whose only concern afterwards is for the effect on ratings. Her husband finally decides (momentarily) to have her zombieized because she can’t commit any emotional energy to their relationship – which, in fact, is a justified complaint. The Jewish and gay-male characters are annoying stereotypes as well.
The movie rejects the sterility of the empty lives of its “perfect” domestic couples, but makes its normal couples in some ways even worse. As for what is actually being done to these women, the movie seems to take the anti-feminist sting out of putting computerized brain-locks on all the women, making them slaves of the male characters, and putting pleasure-devices in their bodies for the men to use by having all this result from a female character. You see, there’s nothing about all this that’s, you know, anti-woman in any way. In fact, jailing women in domestic and sexual slavery with their husbands as masters is just another woman’s way of making them “perfect”. The most dynamic and independent woman in the town says explicitly that a real man wants an independent woman, but also that a “perfect” woman is the airhead domestic drudge the movie makes her out to be and her own independence is a sign of her failure to be perfect. Add to that that the women then make their husbands domestic slaves as soon as they get the upper hand, and the fact that the robot program as originally conceived was aimed at both women and men (as opposed to the original Stepford Wives, where the anti-feminist message was up-front and unapologetic) and the movie seems to suggest that the entire program has nothing to do with male/female relations or women’s social roles – it’s just a kind of social engineering for the post-debutante crowd. Men oppress women, women oppress men . . . there’s no actual gender inequality, it’s just a question of who’s holding the robot-remote-control device. We’re apparently supposed to reject social slavery for women, but not take the radical leap of imagining that this reflects on women’s rights or independence in any way.
Given the mixed messages in the plot, I’m led to wonder what, exactly, got this movie made at just this time. The movie would be a lot easier to accept as satire if we weren’t living in an age when the same messages are being promulgated – in no small part by highly-placed government officials, as well as swaths of the punditocracy – without irony to a public frighteningly willing to listen to them without guffawing. Maybe it’s a hipster thing: the movie can play to red-state yokels as a timely and relevant thriller, while the coastal cognoscenti will pick up the nods and the winks that give away the joke. Maybe it truly doesn’t have the courage of its convictions: the anti-reactionary theme is real, but the makers couldn’t bring themselves to give it an honestly feminist flavor. Maybe it’s just clueless. After watching it, I know I am.
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