What does it mean to call a woman a “Stepford Wife”?

The term “Stepford Wife” has far exceeded the boundaries of the 1970s novel and film adaptation from which it comes. Ira Levin’s 1972 novel The Stepford Wives was a satirical thriller that critiqued privileged (white) lives and gender roles. In this novel and amplified in Brian Forbes’ film adaptation, The Stepford Wives (1975), we meet arrogant professional men who move to the wealthy suburb of Stepford (what would be referred to as a “gated community” today) with the wife and kiddies.

To the creative, strong-minded newcomer women through whose eyes we see this suburb, the wives of Stepford are terrifyingly inane, obsessed with housework and looking “perfect” for their husbands. They host dinner parties and encourage their husbands to enjoy themselves at golf or the local men’s club when not working; take care of all child care and even fire their maids; and use such excess to praise their balding, dumpy, and boorish husbands (including for their sexual prowess) that the reader/viewer cannot help but find them sickening…and suspicious.

We eventually learn that these self-effacing women used to be feminists with their own women’s club, not to mention personal ambitions and unique personalities. The big reveal (made even clearer in Forbes’ film than the original novel) is that the men have swapped their wives for look-alike robots who will stay forever obedient and young.

This is the source of the term “Stepford Wife,” meaning a submissive, docile, youthful, and “beautiful” wife. The Stepford Wife is a woman who subordinates her life purpose to the desires of her husband and children. She can either be a “bimbo” who has never thought of wanting more or a smart woman who dumbs herself down to keep her husband happy in public as well as in private.

Although the term is almost exclusively considered an insult, there are exceptions. Adopting conservative Christian norms, for example, is the group/website stepfordwives.org, which celebrates “deferring to our men and letting them make all the decisions that affect us and our households.” Clearly, the irony of the term Stepford Wife has eluded them.

Interestingly, the remake of The Stepford Wives (2004, directed by Frank Oz) was a comedy, taking the 1970s women’s movement references and updating them to depict a female corporate executive as its villain. This arguably presents feminism as the enemy, or at least argues that women with power are/would be as sexist as men.