Stepford Identity Politics
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The new version of The Stepford Wives is opening this weekend and I'm so excited that even if I had a face full of Botox you'd be able to see my enthusiasm. I loved the original because it put a name to the eternal fear of homogeneity. Say, "That's so Stepford," and everyone knows what you mean: a terrifying sameness, as viscous as ankle-deep cream cheese. Stepford denotes a tricky security, an iron fist with a tasteful French manicure; the Borg in matte finish lipstick. The original 1975 flick and the 2004 remake both focus on the idea of a ruthless patriarchy -- in a small Connecticut town the husbands replace all their wives with complacent, submissive robots -- but the story also stirs that nameless fear of losing one's identity, a fear which found a name in the word Stepford.
While suburban life is the most obvious form of Stepfordism, it isn't the only one. You could be a Stepford anything. All you have to do is pick your stereotype, hold onto it for dear life, and you're on the well planned, neatly kept road to Stepfordization.
Ferinstance, I think I was Stepford Punk when I was younger. My intention in wearing studded leather accessories and frightened hair was because it was fun and it gave the sartorial finger to the preppie world. Still, rebellion had a dress code and I followed it as sedulously as I had the one for the Brownies and Catholic School. I'd never have believed it then, but looking back, I think I might have been wearing that most oxymoronic of things: a rebel uniform.
We've all probably met some Stepford artistes (show a gaudy disdain for sports, TV, anything else middle America likes) as well as Stepford conservatives ("God says it, I believe it, that settles it," says the bumper sticker). Then there's the Stepford Health Nut, a convert whose free lecture on the evils of caffeine will leech more precious moments from your life than an order of curly fries.
Politics is probably the most Stepfordized profession since being a Robert Palmer girl: When was the last time you saw a successful campaigner who didn't look as though he was born wearing a blue suit alongside a wife and 2.5 clean-cut kids? We don't know what to do with the independent thinkers but then we bitch that all their agendas sound kinda the same. My favorites when I lived in New York were the Stepford Bohemians, who all had the same alternative hair and dressed so vintage you'd wonder if up close they smelled like mothballs. They seemed to affect a disinterest in clothing, but I bet if forced to wear a full-on Ralph Lauren ensemble they'd break out in a tribal-art-shaped rash.
Being Stepford isn't just about being superficial and benign: Marching in lockstep to a cultural tune can foment attempts to make that song a banner-waving, all-encompassing anthem. Raise your hand if the melody of "traditional values" gets caught your head there. Standardization, blandfication, legislating taste in our radio or our lovestyles, and hinting that we're un-American if we hold contrary opinions: Stepford stops being funny when it starts getting political. The people most likely to go Stepford in the scary way are the people least likely to see that as a bad thing.
Nope, the best place for Stepfordism -- and with people being social creatures it will always exist -- is in pop culture. The best example? "The Swan." I never got to see this remarkable show, but as I understand it, real girls agree to have their faces and bodies carved up to become 'ideal.' That idea was a creepy sci fi flick in 1975; now it's 'reality' TV.
Guess we don't need that ruthless patriarchy anymore if we're willing to do it ourselves. Right, ladies?
Liz Langley is a freelance writer who lives in Florida.