Friday, July 09, 2004

Zero Sum Games: Stepford and the Wall Street

Have you seen the new movie version of the Stepford Wives? The original book and movie were thrillers focusing on the deeper meaning of misogyny and rigid sex roles in the 1970's America, but the new movie is a satire where the plot laughs at everybody, including the heroine:

In the 1975 movie, Katharine Ross' Joanna was a very likable everywoman who wanted to resume her career in photography now that her children have started school. Seeing none of the other women in town shares her desire to pursue interests outside the home, Joanna thinks she's going crazy and eventually fears for her life.

Nicole Kidman's updated Joanna is a negative stereotype of an overly ambitious, non-maternal career woman. Her best friend Bobbie, who was quirky and fun in the original, is played by Bette Midler as hilarious but also dark and bitter. The re-make adds a new gay character who is predictably neurotic and sarcastic. All three newcomers to Stepford are taking anti-anxiety or anti-depressant pills implying there is something inherently unhappy in their career-obsessed lives.

It's no longer so unusual to portray a woman as wanting to do something interesting with her remaining years, of course, so it may be natural that the remake would change Joanna's character. But why make her into a career-obsessed harridan?

This is what we do with many sociological and political problems, and especially those that have to do with women's roles. You're either one thing or the other, either a mother or a careerist, either a good girl or a bitch, either a virgin or a whore, either a madonna or a witch and so on. Once the problem has been reframed in this rigid two-extremes way, we then continue to decide which extreme end-point each woman should be placed at.

A failed attempt, from the beginning, but there is a good reason why this false dualism is so religiously practised: it makes women's choices into zero-sum games and serves to keep women apart from each other as a social or political force. Zero-sum games are those situations where winning for one person or group by necessity means losing for the others; like deciding on how to divide a chunk of strawberry-and-cream cake between two greedy eaters. But not all social or political situations actually resemble zero-sum games. In many all parties can be winners at the same time. The way we Stepfordize women's choices makes this possibility disappear from public debate, makes the debate take the form of an either-or argument and threatens to turn it into another version of wars among women.

In the real world most people are complicated creatures and want to have both water and bread, both love and work. That's why career harridans and Stepford wives are not real and shouldn't be placed in front of us as somehow the only two choices. This is utter rubbish. But it's clever rubbish, as evidenced by the fact that we talk about this silly stuff and silly movies that contain it, rather than about how to make work and home both feasible for all individuals who need and/or desire them.