I had heard about the movie “The Stepford Wives” and knew it was based on a book by Ira Levin, but I didn’t know much more than that until I listened to the You’re Wrong About podcast which focused on both. The podcast looks at pop culture stories from the 80s and 90s and debunks what we think we know about them. The hosts, Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall, are brilliant and witty and I want to hang out with them.
“The Stepford Wives” episode of the podcast was a deep dive into how accurate Levin’s satirical book was and still is. The point of satire is to use exaggeration to expose the laughable failings of society, organizations, or individuals and in this case “The Stepford Wives” focuses on feminism and what society—men—did to keep women and mothers compliant and in the home.
Here’s a quick summary of the book and original movie: Joanna Eberhart is a photographer, wife, and young mother who moves to a new picture-perfect town in Connecticut with her family. She soon realizes that the other mothers seem “off” and almost robotic in their lack of desire to do anything besides housework and tending to their husbands and children. These other wives were once outspoken women, feminist activists, and professionals but now only care about the shine on their floors. After some digging around, Joanna and her friend Bobbi believe that the other wives are being poisoned or brainwashed into submission by their husbands who are a part of the local men’s club. It turns out that the wives were being murdered by their husbands and replaced by robots with big boobs, fewer opinions, and more time for housekeeping.
That’s rich. We would never kill women and mothers or turn them into robots. Enter “Mother’s Little Helper,” the pills that kept Mommy happy during the middle of the 2oth century. Women were under intense pressure to keep up in a man’s world or they were expected to stay home with the kids instead of finding life outside of the home, and they were fucking drowning. Sound familiar? As feminism hit a bit of its stride in the 1960s and 70s, psychopharmacological medications became the answer to women’s displeasure. And one of the first pills offered and marketed to women across America was Miltown, a mild tranquilizer.
Miltown was supposed to help with anxiety, tension, mental stress, and sleep. It was supposed to calm women down. One doctor was quoted in a 1956 article in Cosmopolitan saying “frigid women who abhorred marital relations reported they responded more readily to their husbands’ advances,” after taking Miltown. AYFKM?! Actually, no. Of course men were drugging their wives to get sex. Instead of actually getting to the root of what women needed — help, time, her own fucking life — drugs were given to moms who were struggling so that they could get through their day.
I am all for drugs to be used to help folks with mental health struggles because prescribed drugs can help folks live in ways they see as successful and productive. The goal is to also work with therapists to make this happen. This was not the case. Women were and are still seen as irrational and too emotional, so drugs were — and are — pushed on them to chill out, go with the flow, and be compliant.
Miltown was soon replaced by benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax, which were thought to have a wider therapeutic range with less serious side effects. Except the less serious side effects of benzos include abuse and addiction. These drugs were pushed on women in the ’60s and ’70s as a happy pill, and are still are still more likely to be given to women than men by primary care providers today. Addiction, depression, and loss of self were and are still stigmatized by the same men who became the “victims” of their wives’ unhappiness.
Feminism is great in theory, and because I am a feminist, I know the current reality of the fight for gender equity and equality. Cisgender men, specifically white men, still hold the upper hand and will often use that hand to physically and metaphorically beat off and drug the threats to that power and control. Even the “good” men will tell their wives and daughters they can be anything they want. They will encourage independence, boldness, and even some expressions outside of gender stereotypes, but most men will push back the moment their comforts are threatened and they’re expected to play an active role in equity.
Sure, their wives can work full-time and go to yoga, but they better keep the house clean, do the cooking, keep the family schedule, take the kids to the doctor, deal with the kids’ education, and be the one to get up in the middle of the night to soothe hungry, sick, or scared children. And sadly, even the “good” guys will reply that they will happily help if their wives would only tell them what to do. No, Chad, this isn’t an 8th grade group project. Take a look around and help.
Pills are still a problem for many women — in part because they are overprescribed after childbirth — but have become taboo in comparison to alcohol. Society has made it cute, acceptable, and desirable to slide Mommy her Mommy Juice. “Recovery” products promise better mornings and improved liver function for the mom who has to get up in the morning with her kids after drinking all night to deal with her kids.
We need to stop this cycle of women drowning by motherhood, because women are literally killing themselves by self-medicating. How about we get to the root of the problem instead of finding more ways to mask it? The patriarchy is to blame for much of the disparities between genders. However, women and mothers need to see the damage they are doing to themselves by hiding or finding faux comfort in today’s accepted drug of choice.
I highly recommend support, getaways, self-care, pampering, therapy, and perhaps antidepressants or anti-anxiety pills with a team of supervision. But no woman — no person — should need constant escape from life in order to get through life. Men need to stop finding ways to soften their wives into submission and women need to stop enabling each other as they accept numbness over freedom. I suggest you encourage each other to throw the men out instead.