We’ve all seen it before: A TV show or movie in which a man walks into the front door of his two-story, suburban home, places his briefcase in the entryway, removes his hat and coat and announces, “Honey, I’m home!.” His perfect housewife greets him in the spotless home that she has just scrubbed clean… all the while sporting her lacy cocktail dress and flawless red lipstick. She then gives him his evening drink and serves him the home cooked meal that she spent a good portion of the day preparing. This image is ubiquitous in the media; everyone has a picture of a fifties housewife in their head.
In 2004, DreamWorks Pictures released a remake of the film, “The Stepford Wives.” In this satirical version, the dominant Stepford husbands transform their wives into robots. The trailer for this film asks the viewer, “What if you could streamline your spouse?” It implies a sense of control that men have over women, and the obligatory changes that a woman must make to please her husband.
In Stepford, every woman/robot is always perfectly dressed with a smile on her face, while every man spends a large amount of time at the town’s men’s club. All of the women of Stepford are unemployed… but they do have spotless homes and incredible cooking skills! At one point in the movie, the main character an exercise class in which the women practice household chores, holding brooms instead of weights. As if vacuuming isn’t enough, these ladies achieve their fitness by sweeping and dusting all day long. The best part about this workout is the mrs. can do it all in a sundress and heals. One woman tells her “We always want to look our best for our husbands.”
Robots aside, this film got me interested in the ways that gender roles have changed. I decided to pursue a more credible source to ask about gender roles in the 50s.
I asked my Nana and lifelong housewife if life really was like the film suggested. I expected her to laugh at me, or maybe even get angry… after all I was suggesting that she had been a servant and housekeeper her entire life. I prepared myself for a negative response…
“Well of course that’s what we did,” she exclaims, ” I cooked and cleaned at home while your Grandpa went to work. That’s just the way it was.” She tells me this as she prepares his coffee, places it on a tray with his gourmet sandwich, and walks upstairs to deliver it to him in his office. I’m not invited on this trip, because Grandpa likes his peace and quiet while he’s in his office. Quite obviously, my Grandfather holds the power in his house.
When she comes downstairs I try to explain to my Nana that it is 2007… times have changed; women and men aren’t as traditional anymore. I use myself as an example. Cooking is not my forte… the most I am capable of creating in the kitchen is boxed macaroni and cheese. I just learned what a spatula is this month. Laundry might as well be rocket science… shrinking and bleaching have become normal steps in the process. When I do get around to cleaning the bathroom… I wear sweat pants and a t-shirt with paint stains on it. And after all of that, you’re lucky if I’m even awake… let alone parading around in a dress and serving men drinks.
“You’re just not married yet, Sweetheart,” She says.
Okay, got it Nana. I completely forgot that while you walk down the aile you receive cooking lessons and free laundry detergent along the way.
Discouraged, I turned to my other set of grandparents for a little reality check. They met while they were both studying at Columbia; my grandmother then went on to pursue her career in social work throughout her life. These grandparents seemed a little more modern, less stereotypical. I sat down with my Grandfather who immediately wanted to know about my college plans. As soon as the word Oregon came out of my mouth, he became livid, lecturing my Dad about letting me run off to marry a West Coast hippie. He ranted that my choice of school was unsuitable for finding the proper husband and I should reconsider.
It was now clear to me that these “Stepford Wives” still exist today. A few of them happen to share my last name.
In its elaborate satire of ’50s’ households, “The Stepford Wives” reveals many gender roles that still exist, on some level or another, in our society today. Men remain breadwinners and women… bread makers. While my Grandparents might tell you that the modern woman can just buy a breadmaking machine, I’m pushing for something a little more progressive. Believe it or not, finding a good husband is not on my university checklist and I’m not at all interested in the different types of Pine-Sal. I think that these old stereotypes are worn out- being a woman has nothing to do with housework or unemployment and being a man has nothing to do with making money.