Writing about the suburbs (it ties in to her new book Switchback), Melissa Olson argues that while suburbs initially appealed to homeowners because they presented a clean, peaceful, perfect facade, they horrify us (and her) for the same reason: “the first generation of suburban kids had grown up, developing a deep unease and distrust of this attempted perfection. As a result, we got books and films like The Stepford Wives, Carrie, Poltergeist, Halloween, ‘The Lottery,’ and so on. The problem with the suburbs, these works argued, is that their quest for perfection becomes a quest for conformity—and conformity breeds corruption, in all its forms.”
This is a slapdash analysis. “The Lottery” was a 1948 story, way earlier than the others, and it’s set in a traditional rural community. And I wouldn’t buy that Halloween and Carrie express anything about the suburbs because they take place in one, any more than Ghostbusters or Troll imply anything about apartment life. And then we get Stepford Wives, where Olson is really, really wrong (all rights to image remain with current holder).
It’s true the movie starts out with Katharine Ross and her family relocating from New York to the bucolic bedroom community of Stepford. But even then, her husband is plotting to replace her with an obedient, big-breasted sexbot. Not because “Rebellious, feminist Joanna Eberhardt must be replaced in order to keep Stepford pure and perfect” but because some men (as one specifically points out at the climax) would sooner have an obedient, eternally beautiful sex doll that does the chores than a real woman who ages and sometimes disagrees with them.
The suburbs have nothing to do with it. Pop culture simply took the movie (and Ira Levin’s source novel) and plugged them into an existing trope, that suburbs suck. They’re soulless. Conformist. They don’t have the vibrancy of a big city, but nor are they quaint or traditional like small towns. So they become the bogeyman and the message of Stepford becomes “live in the suburbs, have your brain and personality sucked out.” Which is probably easier to digest than contemplating that feminists might have a point about men’s attitudes.
And so everyone, including Olson “knows” Stepford Wives is about the sins of living in a suburb (note: I’ve lived in a couple and I like them just fine). The movie Perfect Little Angels, for example, is set in a gated community where planner Michael York uses brainwashing to turn rebellious teenagers into model citizens. Characters keep remarking the squeaky clean, smoothly functioning community is Just Like Stepford.
At Slacktivist, Fred Clark discusses how things everybody knows are influenced by pop culture and influence it in turn.