Something of a Bitch

“She would be beautiful, but that her eyes seem to have no ray of life; they almost seem to lack the power of sight. Her gait is curiously measured, as though her every movement were produced by some mechanism like clockwork. She plays and sings with the disagreeably perfect, soulless timing of a machine and she dances similarly. Olimpia gave us a very weird feeling; we wanted nothing to do with her; we felt that she was only pretending to be a living being, and that there was something very strange about her.”

 –          ETA Hoffman – “The Sandman.”

“For a woman to have anything about her she must be something of a bitch.”

–          Lemmy.

Many times I have heard (and thought) “the book is better than the film.” It’s usually true. I’m unsure if it’s true in respect to The Stepford Wives. This is not to say the film is better, but the film is certainly different.

The film is about sex, or rather, the lack of it. In the movie the husband gets rid of the little woman because (for whatever reason) she won’t sleep with him. But it’s not so simple in the book because Walter and Joanna do have relations. The most obvious difference between the two is politics.

The Stepford Wives is a novel about (and was written at the time of) “Womens’ Liberation.” The lead character, Joanna, is a feminist. She wants her husband, Walter, to work on changing Stepford’s “Men’s Association” from the inside quite soon after they move to the town. I mean to say, where’s the “Womens’ Association”? (She’s got a point, as it happens. Where’s the “White Police Association”?)

He says he will begin making suggestions and whatnot to the members but doesn’t want to start laying down the law after being in town only five minutes. After his first visit to the “Men’s Association” he returns somewhat “in the mood” and negotiates some excellent business with the wife. So good are the negotiations, in fact, Joanna exits the bathroom and says she’s “still weak.” This is a beautiful line for an avowed feminist to speak. Think about it.

Orwell made the same point in Keep The Aspidistra Flying when he wrote just after Gordon and Rosemary’s little tiff about men and women:

Gordon and Rosemary never grew tired of this sort of thing. Each laughed with delight at the other’s absurdities. There was a merry war between them. Even as they disputed, arm in arm, they pressed their bodies delightedly together.

So they did and so do we. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

So what is the motivation (in the book) for Walter to have his wife stabbed to death in another robot’s kitchen? It’s obviously not sex. It’s not the freedom to “have” sex with the woman; nor is it the freedom “have” sex with many women; no, the novel is about “power.” The book makes fun of men.

I once saw Quentin Tarantino give an interview to somebody in Scotland while his movie Death Proof was out. The questioner said that some reports of the movie “suggested” that his film “glorified” something called “violence against women.”

Tarantino answered that these reports “suggested” the person who wrote them hadn’t seen the movie. He was being understated.

Same with The Stepford Wives.  It might be a novel about “violence” against women, or it might be a novel which makes fun of men. Satirical humour relies on the reader to “get it.” This means being able to think deeper than the surface.

The movie (probably to avoid being dated to a particular era) makes not much of the political goings on of the time, yet – because the movie-husband gets rid of the wife for her lack of “output” – still retains it’s satirical ground while being (almost) devoid of politics. It’s smartly done, the movie.

Ira Levin could have wanted to write a novel about the “rise of women” in the early 1970s and not had Hoffman’s The Sandman  to be going on with. The novel would have been quite different. Certainly he could have written a novel about this but The Stepford Wives owes everything to The Sandman.  A straight-line can be drawn from a romantic German’s writings (“Sandman” is from 1816) to Levin’s satirical horror of Women’s Liberation.

What’s worth noting is that the “women” in Levin’s book are said to be the type of woman that a chap desires; in Hoffman’s story, Nathaneal is the poor fellow who has to carry the irony. His obsession with Olimpia is not to his credit. Times change, obviously, but so to, it seems, does the taste of men.


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