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In Search of 'Suzy Homemaker'--a Real-Life Sequel to 'Stepford Wives'

March 16, 1987|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

Every so often, a movie comes along that, for whatever reason, introduces a new word or phrase into the American vernacular to describe a stereotype.

There's Captain Queeg (the tyrannical boss), Mrs. Robinson (the adulterous spouse), Dr. Strangelove (the mad scientist).

And there's the "Stepford Wife," a synonym for "Suzy Homemaker."

Well, people, listen up. A modern-day version is rising phoenix-like from the chaos of two-career marriages, leading social observers to predict that a real-life sequel to "The Stepford Wives" may be on the way.

"Women are being pushed back into being Stepford Wives," notes Los Angeles psychologist Rex Beaber and a former faculty member of the UCLA School of Medicine, "but that movement is being promulgated by both men and women. It's not just the men who are doing it this time."

Few would argue that in the mid-'70s many men reacted to the feminist movement by longing for a Stepford Wife who would put her husband's, children's and home's needs before her own.

Today, everyone longs for a Stepford Wife.

For anyone who has spent the past 12 years trapped on the freeway, the movie is based on a 1972 novel by Ira Levin in which the husbands of a seemingly normal Connecticut town called Stepford replace their women's lib-minded wives with domestic robots who are forever young, for-ever cleaning and for-ever pleasing. The character played by Katharine Ross discovers the dastardly scheme too late; by movie's end, she is turned into a Stepford Wife as well.

Certainly, no one connected with the 1975 film ever dreamed that it would wind up a sort of cult classic, least of all its star. "You never know," Ross says with obvious amazement. "But I'm pleased that it has made some sort of contribution." (For trivia buffs, Ross wasn't the first choice for the role; she replaced Tuesday Weld.)

Inspired by 'Future Shock'

This campy Gothic thriller attracted a lot of attention because it was both a mordant indictment of men opposed to the feminist revolution as well as a put-down of full-time homemakers. Actually, Levin's book, adapted for the screen by William Goldman, was inspired not by Betty Friedan's women's lib manifesto, "The Feminine Mystique," but by a section of Alvin Toffler's sociological work, "Future Shock," that dealt with domestic robots. Critics panned the movie as much for its content as for its style; Newsweek complained that it said "some ugly and unsupported things about what kind of women men really want."

But there had to be a kernel of truth in the film because the Stepford Wife has become The Concept That Refuses To Die. In 1980, NBC trotted out a sequel, "Revenge of the Stepford Wives." And NBC did it again Sunday with "The Stepford Children." For more than a decade now, the term has been used to describe female zombies ranging from unliberated Miss Americas to husband-worshipping First Ladies. "My wife calls Nancy Reagan a real Stepford Wife," says Thomas Lasswell, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, "although she may be running things more than we expected."

Today's longing for Stepford Wives is not based on a sudden fondness for "plastic, smiley, acquiescent, non-alive beings," as Friedan de-scribes the movie automatons. It's because there's no one at home anymore to do the chores. Indeed, the full-time mother is going the way of the dodo; statistics show that only 15% of families in the country are "Donna Reed Show" clones, in which the husband goes to work, the wife stays home, two kids are born and the couple hasn't divorced.

"The norms have gone completely different, what with 60% of married women working outside the home," notes Paul Bohannan, dean of social sciences and communication at the USC College of Letters Arts and Sciences.

"I personally don't know any stay-at-home wives at the moment," he says.

Even Marabel Morgan, the author of the 1974 best-seller "The Total Woman," who was described by feminists at the time as the ultimate Stepford Wife, has a full-time career these days as an author and lecturer. "I never did say that every woman has to stay home," she said in an interview.

No one, least of all Morgan, is predicting that men are trying to force women back into the kitchen. If anything, it's become an economic fact of life that husbands need their wives to work in order to afford that two-bedroom, split-level Colonial home and new Chrysler convertible. "Probably today the income of a prospective wife is as important as her bust size," Friedan quips.

But in today's "have it all, do it all" era of The Superwoman, it's still wives who handle most of the housework on top of their jobs. "Our culture did a horrible thing to women. It gave them a new role which added new duties," psychologist Beaber notes. "Women said, 'We can do anything a man can do.' And men said, 'Fine. You'll do everything you did as a woman, and everything you want to do as a man, too.' "

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