The Myth of the Eternal Feminine in The Stepford Wives
The driving ideology behind Simone de Beauvoir’s essay “Women: Myth and Reality” is the myth of the Eternal Feminine. She insists that this concept, explicitly created by men, is in direct opposition to observed reality, in which women are individuals who cannot be defined by any universal blanket experience. When an individual woman embraces lived experience that does not conform to this myth she is considered by patriarchal society to be less of a woman. The 1975 film The Stepford Wives provides a perfect example of these concepts. In the film, the main character, Joanna, refuses to conform to her husband and his male friends’ ideas of femininity. In the context of the film, as Beauvoir insists, her refusal to adhere to the standards of the Eternal Feminine does not bring into question the validity of the myth but instead brings into question Joanna’s worth as a woman.
Beauvoir establishes the Eternal Feminine as a Platonic Form that is created by men as a ruling class and is directly in opposition to reality. As she points out, “in place of fact, value, significance, knowledge, empirical law, it substitutes a transcendental Idea, timeless, unchangeable, necessary” (Beauvoir, 784). The fact is that women are autonomous individuals who cannot be universally defined. According to Beauvoir, this is inconvenient to men, who would rather understand all women to be subordinate to their will. In the context of The Stepford Wives, the myth of the Eternal Feminine manifests itself in the form of the wives themselves, who are all excellent housewives with no interests other than providing for the needs of their husbands. All of them began as autonomous human beings, and all of them have given up on their personal interests and what has made them individuals in favor of conforming to the ideals laid out by the men’s association.
In a patriarchal society, the power of the myth of the Eternal Feminine trumps the reality of women’s lived experience, justifying men’s assumptions regarding women’s roles. “If,” as Beauvoir points out, “the definition provided for this concept is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong; we are not told that Femininity is a false entity, but that the woman concerned is not feminine” (Beauvoir, 785). This conflict between myth and lived reality comes up repeatedly over the course of The Stepford Wives. In the film, the women who fail to conform adequately to the myth are literally flesh-and-blood women, while the Stepford Wives are essentially robots. The myth of the Eternal Feminine is so pervasive that the men would actually literally prefer to kill their wives and replace them with robots. When Johanna realizes what is going on and describes her fears to her therapist, she insists that if her husband and the other men get their way “There’ll be somebody with my name, and she’ll cook and clean like crazy, but she won’t take pictures, and she won’t be me!” (The Stepford Wives). Joanna recognizes that the reality of her life as a woman and her personal identity are going to be subjugated to the myth, but she is unable to do anything to prevent it.
The reason Joanna and the other women are helpless to prevent the men from replacing them with Ideal wives is that the men themselves hold all the power in Stepford. When viewed through the lens of Beauvoir’s social theory this is unsurprising. She points out that “The epochs and the social classes that have been marked by the leisure to dream have been the ones to set up the images, black and white, of femininity” (Beauvoir, 791). The entire membership of the men’s association represents the leisure class. They are all rich and successful white men who seem to have chosen their partners based on appearance rather than love. Joanna’s friend Charmaine confides that her husband “married me because I look great and would make an impression on the other executives” (The Stepford Wives). He doesn’t care about her interests or her autonomy as a human being. To her husband Ed, as to the other men in Stepford, Charmaine is a status symbol. Beauvoir points out that the myth of Femininity is consistently advantageous to the ruling class, as it “justifies all privileges and even authorizes their abuse” (Beauvoir, 787). This is certainly the case in Stepford. When Joanna confronts her husband about what has happened to her friend Bobbie after she has been replaced her husband’s response is to tell her that she is crazy and ask her when she is going to start cleaning their house better. He clearly prefers the false Femininity of Diz’s robot wives to the true intimacy of marriage with another human being, and in the end, he uses this as an excuse for killing Joanna. Right before she is to be killed Joanna asks Diz why they are doing it and he responds “Why? Because we can” (The Stepford Wives). It is hard to imagine an attitude more privileged than Diz and the other men’s. When their expectations for their wives’ behavior, which have been established by society and it’s the myth of Femininity, they feel justified in replacing them with more “Feminine” robots.
The Stepford Wives provides a perfect illustration of Beauvoir’s concept of the Eternal Feminine and how it has shaped society. The men have all the power in town and they decide what is appropriate feminine behavior. When their wives fail to adhere to these standards the men feel entitled to literally kill them and replace them with house-cleaning sex-fanatic robots, quite clearly showing that the men of Stepford wholeheartedly embrace the myth of the Eternal Feminine and that the women of Stepford have no say over how the men are defining their Femininity. When women arrive in Stepford their lived realities are quite drastically different from the myth of the Feminine to which they are subjected by their husbands. As Beauvoir would likely point out, the fact that the women’s failure to adhere to their society’s expectations leads without exception to the denial of their individual value as women and as people rather than a denial of the veracity of these myths is a testament to how powerful they truly are.
De Beauvoir, Simone. “Women: Myth and Reality.” The Second Sex. 1953.
The Stepford Wives [film]. Bryan Forbes, Director. Palomar Pictures, 1975