It seems appropriate, given the surreal state of current political events, to examine the classic horror film and novel THE STEPFORD WIVES. When the film was released in 1975, the Feminist movement was gaining momentum and the United States was in the throes of what we now refer to as “the cultural wars.” Roe v. Wade was now the law of the land and Congress had passed the Equal Rights Amendment (it would eventually fail to be ratified by three-fourths of the states as required by the Constitution), but women still struggled to compete with their male counterparts in the professional arena due to lack of opportunity and gender discrimination. It was widely assumed that the only place where women could succeed and find happiness was in the home raising children. It was against the backdrop of the social upheaval of the 1970s that THE STEPFORD WIVES, in parts both dark satire and horror, was released in theaters.
THE STEPFORD WIVES deserves to be remembered-and celebrated-as a significant milestone in film for dramatizing the conflict, struggles and physical danger confronted by women in the United States. The story is set in the fictional suburb of Stepford, a place where seemingly loving husbands are secretly plotting the violent demise of their wives who will then be replaced by robot duplicates. As effective as the film is, the book is a superior work for presenting a more detailed and nuanced portrayal of the female characters. As a result, the departure of the film from the book diminishes the impact of the horror. The most glaring example of this is the film’s omission of an African American character featured in the book, thereby missing an opportunity to explore the intersectionality of race and gender. The character is Ruthanne Hendry, a Black woman who recently moved with her husband and children to the posh and exclusively white suburb of Stepford. In the novel, Joanna makes her acquaintance at the local library and is pleasantly surprised to learn that Ruthanne is the author of children’s books as opposed to being obsessed with cleaning agents. Ruthanne acknowledges her fear of raising her black daughters in a white suburb and asks Joanna if there was a reaction in Stepford to a black family moving into the suburb. Joanna assures her that, “It’s not a town where reactions can develop-to anything.” Ruthanne also reveals that her husband is joining the Men’s Association. The novel ends with Ruthanne asking her husband to watch their children while she works. He readily agrees. She needs to work so that the two of them can go away the following weekend. It’s understood that she will be the next Stepford wife to be murdered by her husband and the Men’s Association.
Ruthanne Henry is the forgotten character of THE STEPFORD WIVES. She is also perhaps the most tragic of all the women portrayed in the novel. Her greatest fear in moving to Stepford isn’t for herself-it’s for her young Black daughters being stigmatized for their skin color as they will grow up in an exclusively white suburb in a country struggling with the ugly reality of structural racism during the Civil Rights Era. But racism directed towards her daughters isn’t the greatest threat she’s facing in Stepford. Gender violence is what endangers her. Her professional success and upward social mobility haven’t shielded her from this danger, but play a role for bringing her to a wealthy suburb in the first place. In a perverse way, Stepford is a racially inclusive place-but only for men who can afford the mortgage and the taxes. Ruthanne believes that she and her husband are moving to Stepford on equal footing as Black people, that their skin color combined with racism puts them at a similar disadvantage. But Ira Levin makes clear that nothing could be further from the truth. In Stepford, only one of them is in danger. In this portrayal, gender trumps race, that it is a greater social dynamic, a stronger source of identity and a more serious impediment to one’s well-being. And why is this? NEW YORK TIMES columnist Charles Blow recently wrote an article entitled, “Democrats Continue to Struggle With Men of Color.” In the piece he writes, “For one thing, never underestimate the communion among men, regardless of race. Men have privileges in society, and some are drawn to policies that elevate their privileges.” This is exactly the phenomenon that Levin was effectively illustrating with Ruthanne and her husband. Indeed, the sole visual image we have of him from the novel is Ruthanne approaching him while he’s reading a book entitled Men in Groups. Being a member of an oppressed racial minority hasn’t inoculated him from the sickness of misogyny or curbed his desire to maintain his privilege over women. Ira Levin is making an incredibly powerful-and ugly-observation about the true nature of a certain type of man.
It’s disappointing, but not surprising that a major Hollywood studio in 1975 would be dismissive of the sole black character in the book and reduce her appearance to a brief image in the grocery store. By failing to explore the character of Ruthanne Hendry they are diluting the horror of the social commentary that in this distorted world all men of a certain stature are created equal and will always seek to entrap women into submission.
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