Feminist lessons and childhood memories: Readers respond to Stephanie Zacharek's review of "The Stepford Wives" and Charles Taylor's ode to Ray Charles.

Published June 15, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

[Read Stephanie Zacharek's review of "The Stepford Wives."]

I would like to respond to Stephanie Zacharek's review of the remake of "The Stepford Wives." I teach a freshman composition course at a large Midwestern university. I often show my (largely resistant) students the original 1975 "The Stepford Wives," and we discuss it as part of a unit on '60s and '70s feminism's renegotiation of women's roles. By and large, my students find the movie slowly paced, boring and preachy (flaws largely remedied by the actually funny remake). Once they move on to analysis, however, they always discover something interesting: The movie's biggest flaw lies in its hyperbole.

As Ms. Zacharek suggests, no one will believe that men actually want a wife who cannot carry on a conversation, who is concerned with housekeeping above all else, who drops everything in the middle of the day to have wild sex with her husband, who worships her husband and places him above all else, even (especially) herself. (Well, people would probably believe the last two.) The hyperbole allows the movie's message to be obscured and dismissed -- as it is by Zacharek. But that message is still relevant today, perhaps even more relevant than in 1975, when feminism was closer to the forefront of American consciousness.

Social pressures on women to conform to a particular set of gender norms are intense, varied and nowadays even more insidious. Think of recent movies like "Raising Helen" and "Kate & Leopold," which portray the life of a career woman as not only empty but immoral, until she is "saved" by her adherence to conventional female roles (mother/rescued damsel, respectively). Observation and experience as a woman dating in the 21st century have taught me that the desire for a woman who devotes her life to a man, leaving aside any ambition of her own, remains fervent. There certainly are men who love smart career women (and not in spite of that fact, but because of it), but they seem to be in the same sort of ratio to the general male population as Matthew Broderick to the rest of the male cast of the film.

The original's turning of this legitimate threat to female autonomy (financial security -- at least until your husband trades you in for a younger, hotter model -- notwithstanding) into a conspiracy of men to turn women into mindless automatons removes the teeth from the message, and isn't really relevant (as my freshmen routinely point out) to today's society. The remake of "The Stepford Wives," however, is. It takes a buried theme in the original -- women collude in their own destruction by embracing these ideals and their rewards -- and makes it the focus of the new film.

The villain of the piece describes her vision as a sort of utopia, where men are men and women are worshipped as they should be, a glossy 1950s landscape that obviously never existed except on television (as the character Joanna's profession reminds us). This is of course an attractive vision -- all pretty and blond -- and society rewards women for squeezing themselves as closely as they can into that mold. Several scenes in the film -- Joanna baking thousands of cupcakes (the housewife as mass production machine), her change into pastel clothes, her vocal acceptance of and recruitment of her friends into the cause of conformity -- bear out this message, as Joanna tries to save her marriage by believing the lies she's told about who she should be. The message -- more sophisticated, more relevant -- of the remake is that still, even though women appear to have even more choices as to what they want to do with their lives and their bodies, social pressures are enormous to comply with a conservative version of femininity. This film's hyperbole, by contrast to the last, mocks those standards, as they should be mocked, for their impossibility, their ridiculousness and, of course, their unattractiveness to the right-thinking, enlightened kind of man.

With the current administration espousing those standards, and making war on women's right to choose (which is, of course, always in jeopardy), this version of "The Stepford Wives" seems even more important. And colluding in portraying those conservative gender values as acceptable, normal, even desirable -- as I am afraid the review does -- seems even more dangerous.

-- Beth Palatnik

While I cannot speak to the earlier movie version of "The Stepford Wives," I believe that Stephanie Zacharek has missed the point of Ira Levin's slim but punchy book. The novel "The Stepford Wives" suggests not that "feminism has disturbed the natural order of things," as Zacharek suggests, but that men are so attuned to limited ideas of comfort that they would prefer robot slaves to living -- and thus imperfect -- human wives. The novel is indeed a satire, but its target is not feminism; instead, it satirizes the resistance to feminism.

It is significant that the wives of the book were not CEOs or judges, as in the new movie; the book's Joanna is attempting to jump-start a career as a photographer, one wife is a writer, but the others seem largely to have worked as volunteers. The Stepford husbands are motivated not by jealousy of their spouses' high-profile achievements, but by jealousy of all activities that do not put them at the center of their wives' universe.

By the way, in the book the Stepford wives do not sport the floral dresses or floppy hats of the movie versions; they wear miniskirts and low-cut tops, the better to show off their robotic assets.

-- Jill Beifuss

I disagree with your writer on "The Stepford Wives" not representing any kind of reality then or now. I grew up in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood in the '70s, similar to the one that was portrayed in the original movie; maybe the writer isn't personally familiar with the trophy wife, but those couples and values definitely existed. When I watched the original movie for the first time last year I was ready for it to be a strident male-bashing flick, but Joanna really was a victim of her unwillingness to grow up. She argued with her husband for things she needed to provide for herself; instead she expected him to give her both her artistic career and her childlike protected existence too.

Self-actualization is scary and demanding, and she only wanted the rewards, not the perils. Not giving herself to either fully, she took no action and became frozen in an "inhuman" robotic state, no growth. If anything, the movie wasn't about how men are selfish pigs; it was about how women needed to take responsibility for themselves and stop exchanging comfort for adult strength. Most women already know that today but I think that, even now, there are still Stepford wives.

-- Shannon O'Brien

[Read "The Genius Hits the Road," by Charles Taylor.]

I'm a 58-year-old white guy who first heard Ray Charles on the radio in Indiana when I was about 12 years old and living on a farm. Before that voice grabbed me by the throat and then the soul, I thought "singing" was Pat Boone or Perry Como. At first it was like an assault, disturbing, yet somehow so moving that it seemed beyond words.

I saw him live in Ft. Wayne at age 16 and was even more captivated by the genius of the man. Since then, I saw him in concert probably 30 times and he seldom failed to deliver an almost mystic rapport with both the music and the audience.

Some of the greatest moments occurred not when he was playing a popular song, but when he was in total sync with the band and a seemingly improvised flow of country (complete with yodeling), down-and-dirty blues and exquisite jazz would merge as only Ray Charles could make them and mesmerize the crowd. One could only wonder how all that talent got in one man.

A year or two ago, my daughter and I saw him in Toronto. After the usual standing ovation and he had left the stage, the audience stood quietly, almost motionless, for several minutes. I told my daughter that this was the last time we would see Ray Charles and somehow many were aware of this.

Frank Sinatra said Ray Charles was the only true genius in the business. I'll drink to that.

-- Rex Meade

By Salon Staff

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