Rhetoric & Public Affairs 6.1 (2003) 127-149
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Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology
Bonnie J. Dow
"I'm not contemplating any Maidenform bonfires, but they could certainly use something around here"
—Joanna (Katharine Ross) in The Stepford Wives (1975)
When Joanna, the central protagonist in The Stepford Wives, utters these words in a conversation with her best friend, she is discussing the formation of a feminist consciousness-raising group. Both women feel stifled by the atmosphere in Stepford, Connecticut, the New York suburb to which they recently have moved with their families. In Stepford, as anyone familiar with the film remembers, formerly strong-willed, dynamic women are mysteriously transformed into perfectly groomed, robotic beings obsessed with housekeeping and the sexual satisfaction of their husbands, a fate that Joanna and her friend are desperate to avoid. The Stepford Wives was released in 1975, at the end of what historian Alice Echols has called the peak period of radical feminist activity in the United States, 1 and the second wave of feminism is, in many ways, the subtext required for making complete sense of the film. Seen in its original historical context, TheStepford Wives is a feminist horror film. It argues that American men, given the opportunity, would erase their wives' individuality by literally killing them and replacing them with identical automatons dedicated to domestic chores and sexual service. Despite their invocation of feminism, Joanna and her friend are no match for the forces of evil, and both become Stepford wives by the end of the film. Indeed, after the film's release, Stepford wife [End Page 127] entered the American lexicon as a term referring to submissive, plastic-seeming women who were satisfied with the traditional domestic and sexual roles that second-wave feminism sought to challenge.
As a film, The Stepford Wives both contributed to and drew from popular notions of the purpose and meaning of second-wave feminist ideology and practices, and I invoke it here as a useful example of the ways that certain understandings of the second wave had solidified in public discourse by the mid-1970s. For example, Joanna's casual reference to "Maidenform bonfires" in the epigraph above is, of course, an allusion to the association of bra-burning with second-wave feminism, an association begun by media coverage of the 1968 protest by radical feminists at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City.
This essay is an exploration of the legacy of that protest in media discourse about the Miss America pageant, and my highlighting of The Stepford Wives as part of that process is perhaps the perfect place to begin, as many of the issues raised by the film are similar, if not identical, to those raised by feminist protests against the pageant. Just as feminists charged that Miss America promoted an ideal of women as plastic, doll-like, submissive sex objects who paraded in swimsuits for the pleasure of men, The Stepford Wives took that vision to its nightmarish extreme by depicting a community in which women literally died so that their husbands could possess that ideal. Eerily, news discourse about the Miss America pageant in the 1990s has referred to "Stepford-Wife contestants," and a male pageant producer's comment in 1993 that he "didn't want these women looking like 45-year-old Stepford Wives marching like robots across the stage" was noted in reports on pageant reforms that were designed to "bring [the pageant] into the 90s." 2
The legacy of second-wave feminism, and its echoes in popular culture, haunt public discourse about Miss America. In histories and memoirs of the second wave, the 1968 Miss America action is a source of both pride and regret: pride for the early visibility and membership it gained for the movement, regret for the unshakeable association of feminism with bra-burning that it fostered. This essay juxtaposes feminist discourse about the 1968 protest with mainstream public discourse about the Miss America pageant in the 30 years that followed, and I argue that these two groups of texts offer a useful case study...