Stepford Is Us
Published: June 9, 2004

Paramount’s remake of “The Stepford Wives” is billed as a comedy, but the continuing relevance of this cult classic’s dark themes ought to make us all think twice.

The original 1975 film, in which suburban husbands killed and replaced their partners with blonder, bustier robotic look-alikes, dramatized the feminist argument that marriage transformed women into ever-smiling, floor-mopping automatons. In those days, the vast majority of new American houses were built in suburbs, and women — who in midcentury began marrying younger, having children earlier, and doing more hours of housework than in previous decades — were complaining of a malaise brought on by what Betty Friedan had dubbed “the feminine mystique.” The remake, in contrast, stars Nicole Kidman as a high-powered TV executive who, previews suggest, is more than a match for her husband — or anyone else’s.

While the wives of Stepford have advanced since 1975, along with the rest of us, not everything has panned out the way feminists envisioned. American women today tend to delay marriage; we have careers; we demand that men do their share of the housework; we expect to be equal partners. At the same time, we have internalized a piece of Stepford, becoming, metaphorically speaking, our own Stepford husbands — imposing a conformist definition of beauty and femininity. Girls’ and women’s magazines incessantly promote perfect thighs, abs and hair, and achieving the perfect look has moved beyond diet and exercise. More and more, we place ourselves willingly under the knife, happily embracing the plastic.

The remake opens at a peak in our Stepfordian obsession with cosmetic surgery. No longer reserved for the rich and the old, reaching for the knife begins these days with the first wrinkle. Along with collagen implants and Botox, summer beauty treatments now include toe-shortening and even pinky-toe removal — the better to fit into pointy shoes.

Television reality shows like “Extreme Makeover” and “The Swan,” in which contestants undergo extensive surgery, reinforce our relentless pursuit of physical perfection. On MTV’s “I Want a Famous Face,” men and women endured radical reconstructions to look like their favorite movie stars. On Fox’s series “The Swan,” surgically altered women competed against one another for a chance to be part of the beauty pageant in the final episode.

Because they undergo many of the same cosmetic procedures — breast and chin implants, nose and teeth straightening, liposuction and hair lightening — executed by the same surgeons and beauticians, the contestants on these shows ended up looking eerily alike. And, not incidentally, like the two blondes who vied for the Bachelor’s hand in marriage, who in turn looked like Britney Spears. All could be knockoffs of the blond Nicole Kidman in the “Stepford” movie posters.

Why do we wish to reinvent ourselves so badly — and so blandly? Our desire taps a powerful myth of self-transformation in which we magically become — and are recognized for — our most ideal selves.

The Cinderella Cycle, as folklorists call that fairy tale and its multitude of global variants, is ubiquitous, appearing in ancient texts (the earliest written version is from ninth century China) as well as in the modern mythic genre of cinema. In movies like “Sabrina,” “Pretty Woman,” “Moonstruck,” “Maid in Manhattan” or “The Princess Diaries,” the heroine’s transformation from Plain Jane to Queen Bee is represented by a montage in which she shops for clothes and gets her hair and make-up overhauled.

Scholars have debated the meaning of this narrative path, some calling it a seasonal or fertility myth, perhaps derived from ancient ritual. In the eyes of Bruno Bettelheim, the popular Freudian psychologist, the Cinderella tale embodies sibling rivalry and Oedipal conflicts. In its modern incarnations, as in our real-life fixations with rehabbing ourselves through diet, cosmeceuticals and surgery, the fairy tale lends itself to a literal interpretation, as a mere physical makeover. But it also has metaphoric power.

Narratives of physical transformation can be read as symbolic of our desire to be seen, and loved, for who we really are — and to find love, recognition and acceptance that transcends stereotype, class, age, poverty and physical imperfection. The truly climactic moment of Charles Perrault’s famous 1697 version of “Cinderella” is not the moment soot stains disappear from the heroine’s cheeks; rather, it is the moment when she is recognized, while still in rags, by the prince — thanks to her ability to fit her foot into a tiny slipper (a detail that, incidentally, most likely derives from China, where foot-binding produced a standard of beauty and womanhood).

We could say, then, that the myth of self-transformation is really about recognition of the inner person, perhaps explaining why so many “improved” contestants on “The Swan” and “Extreme Makeover” say they feel for the first time that they look like their true selves.

At what point, though, does a myth about recognition, acceptance and truth become just the opposite — a tale of artifice and disguise?

Myths often contain the seeds of their own inversion, and so it is in this case. In our quest to be Cinderellas, we are risking becoming her impostor stepsisters — eagerly slicing off toe and heel (as they do in the Grimms’ version of the fairy tale) to fit into a false shoe.

It is not men (or at least, not men alone) who do this to us. Indeed, Paramount’s Web site for “The Stepford Wives” hardly mentions husbands. Instead it addresses the female viewer, showcasing “before” and “after” photos of the character played by Bette Midler much like those belonging to “Swan” contestants, and inviting us to upload our own photos for a personalized “Stepford Makeover.”

It’s a funny but frightening parody of our aspirations, given the original movie’s dark ending. As Sylvia Plath warned us, not long before her suicide in 1963: “The woman is perfected/Her dead/Body wears the smile of accomplishment.”

Catherine Orenstein is the author of “Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale.”

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